Skilful quartet reinvents misogynist world of the 20th century anti-hero – ‘Baal’ Impermanence

Words by Sophie Catherine Chinner.

From the company that produced SEXBOX, Da-Da-Darling and the 50-minute arthouse film The Ballet of the Nations, Bristol based dance company Impermanence tackle an innovative, new adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play BAAL.

The play, written in 1918, was the first full length work by the German Modernist playwright and now proudly makes its UK dance première on the main stage of the Bristol Old Vic.

Fundamentally, the abstract work monitors the notoriously flawed central protagonist — Baal. Despite an indistinct storyline, Impermanence flourished in the thematic focus which tracks Baal’s ill-fated journey through solipsism, violence and manipulation to his pre-destined destruction.

The performers unleash themselves in bestial forms. In one scene the women role play matadors as the men act out a bull fighting duet, challenging the stereotypical expectation of sexes in the dominant and submissive roles.

The same red scarves used to provoke the animalistic performers here are later used to symbolise the blood and subsequent death of Ekart, a friend murdered by Baal. In a grotesque display, the company embody a kind of over-the-top Japanese Theatre technique, by revealing the silk material from the victim’s own costume and smothering it around his face and skull. The characters also womanise and create discomforting images across the stage suggestive of rape and lascivious seduction.

Collectively, these recurring tropes infer greedy consumerism, lust, betrayal and committing hostile aggression is the harmatia, the downfall, by which modern society as well as the fictional world of Baal suffers from.

BAAL was driven by an original score composed by Robert Bentall, which featured at the forefront of the action. Bentall’s live and pre-recorded performance on the peculiar, ancient Nyckelharpa instrument, was a refreshing musical accompaniment that had a curiously awe-inspiring effect. Its wholesome notes reverberated through the auditorium in unusual waves of sound which mimicked the provocative behaviour of the dancers on stage. This unexpectedly lead to an uncanny fusion with David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘The Drowned Girl’ (perhaps intentionally from an EP titled ‘In Bertolt Brecht’s Baal’).

The performance grew even more unrestrained and wild with the performers also engaging in spoken word and song. They vocalised the eponymous figure, Baal, as well as some of the other 31 characters that are originally written into the play. Multi-rolling these parts, indicated in the constant costume changes, was an intelligent solution when creating a work with only a cast of four.

There is formality in the performer’s poetic dialect which seems to mock the heightened verse of Shakespearean language. The speech, perhaps excerpts from the original script, is often threatening and chilling. The dancer’s voices, though sometimes inaudible due to an excess of surrounding sounds, boomed through a microphone prop on stage and also electronically erupted as part of the musical backing track. Merged with dialogue from an omnipotent narrator, who attempts to guide us through the indistinct plot, in reality, obscures our perspective further.

Dancing out some of this narration, the dual-channel films projected directly onto white screens, designed by Duncan Wood, also attempts to explain the events on stage. The multi-media clips including: circus elephants being forced into obedience, chorus line dancers and trippy, stuttering videos filmed within a forest, reiterates the excessive nature of an ego-driven world. This eccentric mix of sound and film, although somewhat overwhelming in dynamics, succeeds in representing the chaotic life of Baal.

After three years of crafting and creating, the company, comprised of the skilful quartet; Roseanna Anderson, Josh Ben-Tovim, Alessandro Marzotto Levy and Sonya Cullingford, combine their performance and choreographic talents to re-invent the messy, misogynistic world of the 20th century anti-hero.

A challenging choice of play with a complex narrative, the début of Impermanence’sBAAL, will not be their last. The company will continue the tour to small and mid-scale scale venues across the UK as well as taking the production to Indonesia. Beautifully danced, immensely physical and thought-provoking, BAAL is a riveting, emotive piece of Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Image – Maurizio Martorana.

Pop over to Sophie’s dance blog.