A Dance review

Sweat Baby Sweat - Jan Martens (2011)

“Perfection is borink” is Jan Martens’ slogan that can be read first at the opening of his webpage.[1] As a matter of fact Jan Martens plays with words carefully. Sweat Baby Sweat is the title of his third piece. In addition to its cross structure, this title plays with evoking contrasting images. Further, the motto “As long as you are here I am too” appears in capital letters on the back wall of the stage as the piece begins. It illustrates the opening image with the two dancers, one male one female, standing still and staring in each other’s eyes. It encapsulates it all. “Long”. “As long as”. “As long as you are… I am”. This phrase explains that the piece can be read as dealing with love, or with supporting one another, or with competing. And these are indeed possible interpretations of this duet. Though, more important than the provided explanation is the fact that this phrase is actually meant to explain.

The piece begins with one long slow phrase of porté. The male dancer resorts to upper-lower in order to offer his stable grounded body as a support for her to evolve. Changing the way they hook arms and legs, they proceed slowly on the floor and travel on a straight line from cour to jardin. We can observe how much power and stamina they both need to stand these long lasting poses and intricate balances. In this extreme bound flow every action is precisely controlled and any unnecessary idiosyncratic movement is erased. It is as if this duet was dissected and looked at through a magnifier. We are looking at the essence of the movements they produce. Yet the image that is conveyed is not expressionless. Indeed this couple is staring intensely at each other, absorbed in each other’s eyes. Fascinated… After the end of this first stage, they take the same phrase back from the start with the addition of a passionate kiss. During this repetition, the image of perfect romance is altered by the male dancer who tries to escape from the invasive kiss and grasp of his female partner. He gently tries to take her feet off him and walks uneasily backwards. It all happens at a very slow pace which maintains the softness in their relationship. We feel that he would never hurt her. And it ends quietly as they are standing just apart. Sweating.

A mellow music with a guitar and a soft female voice accompanies the dancers when they imperceptibly start rocking their chests at a soft rhythm in unison, as if emphasizing their heartbeats. With this easy synchronized undulation they then go to the floor and melt into a phrase in contact of one another. The undulation there evokes the unison of two bodies making love. It is after all about love, and love making. With a vanilla flavor. Afterwards they shy away to the back, crawling on all fours and disappear as the lights dim to let only the screen bright. We can read on it the lyrics of the song that go by, with the same indicator running through words as in a karaoke. The music goes on, still as mellow. The lyrics that appear on the screen start to differ from the ones we can hear and are passing humorous statements on the song and on its vanilla love topic, for instance: “It’s not because you make me come that you’re God”. Then the written lyrics get back on tracks with the spoken and there the piece ends. Where we all expected it to.

Each successive image carries a clear meaning: at first fascination, second passion, third invasion, fourth rest and fifth harmonized love. It is all quite obvious. It conveys a precise content that the audience can immediately read. It deals with the clichés roles of the man giving support and stability for the woman to express her more passionate feelings. It travels on one clear line and direction. Time is easy as well: transitions happen with a systematic fade-in/fade-out, each idea takes the time it needs to develop and end at the expected moment. The build-up is slow and simple: one repetition, with one addition, one change at a time. In fact, the piece resorts to very soft choreographic tools. It is a soft choreography through which Jan Martens is taking us by the hand. You just have to read what is written on the karaoke line at the right moment. Everything is explained. There is nothing too extreme; everything is well managed and time is kept under control. Maybe is he drawing from a romantic memory of a neat summer love? One might as well stop at this point and ponder that Jan Martens intended to make a nice and lovely piece. And prove that he did brilliantly.

Well, I don’t think that we should leave it at that. I think his speech is too exaggerated to be meant simply as a lovely piece. For instance he systematically reinforces his proposition towards one unique direction of literal understanding. The music, the build-up, the story and its interpretation altogether melt down into a mushy romantic perfect love. Who buys that?
For that reason I believe that Jan Martens (deliberately?) puts an ironic twist to his whole statement. Since the relationship depicted is the perfect cliché in its essence, maybe what is to be seen is the depiction of a fantasy of such relationship. It can be perceived as a longing or as mockery of it. For my part I would call it a mockery (a gentle one!) because the artifice is also made visible: what is the intent of adding a follow-up cursor on the karaoke lyrics? It is literally to guide our reading and to make sure we are all at the same page. It is exactly explaining. This excessive articulation of his statement makes me think of manuals with such a title as “Perfect love for dummies”. And on top of this mockery, one can read that you can always sweat, baby, and sweat hard to get there.

At the age of 31, Jan Martens is still a very young choreographer. For his third piece Sweat Baby Sweat he delivers an ambiguous speech where he is toying with the audience’s interpretation. Displaying images of what seems like a lovely romance, he deliberately induces a too formatted straightforward reading of it. By doing so, he is actually raising suspicions on the interpretation itself. He is perhaps mocking it. He is perhaps twisting what the audience will think after watching his piece. His irony is operating at a much more subtle level than that of the content of the piece; he exerts control over what an audience receives from that given content. An unknown territory... For that reason, Sweat Baby Sweat is definitely a strong and peculiar piece, from a strong young choreographic voice; and of course, no matter how cheesy it was made to look like.

Footnotes

[1] It has now been replaced by "Perfection is boring". But here is a screenshot of its previous mention:

Perfection is borink, on Jan Martens previous website

Sources

Martens, Jan. Sweat Baby Sweat. http://www.janmartens.com/sweat-baby-sweat-2011.html