interview

Ula Sickle, Persis Bekkering and Lisa Vereertbrugghen: dancing hard to the last utopia

© Ivan Put

Lisa Vereertbrugghen’s solo performance Disquiet – sensational aesthetics of a technokin, Persis Bekkering’s novel Exces and Ula Sickle’s staged concert Echoic Choir (a close collaboration with Norwegian vocalist and composer Stine Janvin): three Brussels artists felt the time was right to bring the beat back and evoke the warm embrace of a packed dance floor. A moment between nostalgia and utopia, body and beat, voice and movement, hardcore techno and nomadic raving.

When I made my first piece, Camouflaging Kelly, in 2014 nobody was interested,” choreographer and dancer Lisa Vereertbrugghen says with a laugh, a few weeks before she will hypnotize the Beursschouwburg with her new solo Disquiet – sensational aesthetics of a technokin and some serious footwork. “Even though that first production already focused on the gabber scene, nobody really cared. Somehow that has changed.”

Nowadays audiences are hooked on scenes from the dance floor, on bodies burning holes in the night, moving from exhaustion to exhilaration, and artists seem to be increasingly drawn to those stories. In addition to Lisa Vereertbrugghen’s exploration of the disruptive nature of 160 BPM, in Brussels this year alone, Persis Bekkering also published her rave novel Exces (part of which has been translated into English under the title Last Utopia), and choreographer Ula Sickle – in close collaboration with Norwegian vocalist and composer Stine Janvin – made Echoic Choir, a concert performance “evoking the ritual of coming together on a dance floor around music in the late hours of the night.”

PERSIS BEKKERING?

Born in 1987 in the Netherlands

Her first novel, Een heldenleven, was published in 2018 and was nominated for the ANV Debutantenprijs for new authors

She writes essays, columns, interviews and reviews and hosts literary events

In her second novel, Exces (2021), she zooms in on the rave scene as a last utopia

She wrote the libretto for Echoic Choir and did the dramaturgy

ULA SICKLE?

Born in 1978 in Toronto

Studied Art History & Semiotics in Toronto, Canada and Performance Studies at Paris VIII before attending P.A.R.T.S. and pursuing her interest in film at Le Fresnoy

She is currently a PhD researcher at KU Leuven and LUCA

In her work she tries to break open the canon of contemporary dance by including other movement histories

With Echoic Choir, a close collaboration with Norwegian vocalist and composer Stine Janvin, she tries to evoke the ritual of coming together on the dance floor

LISA VEREERTBRUGGHEN?

Born in 1986 in Flemish Brabant

She studied Cultural History in Leuven and Choreography at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam

Since 2014, she has been researching hardcore techno sound and dance styles through performances, installations and publications

In Disquiet – sensational aesthetics of a technokin she explores the disruptive tendencies of 160 BPM

“There is the pandemic obviously, the complete absence of opportunities to lose yourself on the dance floor,” says Persis Bekkering, “but a lot of these projects took off pre-Covid. So there must be more to it. You could say that the early present of rave culture has become a past now, far enough behind us to look back on it. There is also a general re-evaluation of the 1990s happening, of its music and dance styles, a re-evaluation and reappreciation of working-class culture – gabber being the only original, working-class youth culture of the Netherlands. A cynical explanation might be that it is simply due to capitalism’s drive for expansion, elite fashion and high culture eagerly looking at what they haven’t subsumed yet – what Balenciaga is doing for example. But somehow all of that doesn’t feel like a satisfying explanation.”

SIGN O’ THE TIMES
So what is it that makes three Brussels artists, each in their own medium and from their own perspective, zoom in on the rave and hardcore techno scene in this day and age? Part of the answer might be found in Persis Bekkering’s novel, a sensual, thirsty, deep, thought-provoking and polyrhythmic exploration of what she calls the last utopia: “Raving as a loss of self, as an intensive melting into a greater whole, an inextricable collective. The dance floor as an expression of desire for commonality, for community. At the same time, it is more than anything the expression of that desire, because it never becomes a real community: after the party you just go home again and there is no one who misses you or demands your devotion. For me the rave can be a temporary autonomous zone – after anarchist writer and poet Hakim Bey – or a heterotopia: a moment in time that is different, where other rules apply, where for a moment another world is possible. That’s how I see it, that’s how I experienced it, and that’s how I had to miss it for a long time.”

1775 Ula Sickle
© Ivan Put
| Ula Sickle: “Raving is something nomadic and temporary, a meeting of some sort, a practice.”

Against a twisted time, a present that falters, keeps repeating itself because it lurches from one crisis to the next and thus no longer allows itself to be seized as a moment, Persis Bekkering proposes a last utopia where fluidity and desire melt into the possibility of a “we”. “At the height of the rave, a kind of ultimate meaninglessness takes place. Something without purpose, without goals or demands. Because that is the only thing you can set against the impasse of the present. That is the only excess: the act itself in which there need be no surplus value in terms of necessity or outcome. In that sense, it is interesting that rave culture emerged in the 1980s, at a moment when neoliberal policies were dismantling forms of collective living and you had this new form that was celebrating the collective and the future with all this techno optimism.”

“Raving was going to parties, listening to music and dancing, but it was also a chance to get out of the house, really escape normality and lead a parallel life,” choreographer and performer Ula Sickle adds. “I started raving in Toronto in the mid-1990s and for me, it opened up another space. A zone of freedom and emancipation. A very creative, exciting, open space where you had a lot of self-made parties and projects, musicians and DJs coming from the US. For a while I really lived that parallel life, though I think I was always there as some kind of an outsider, always observing from a distance, being drawn to the lighting, to what the bodies were doing in the space, being really interested in the aesthetics of it all, even making costumes myself and taking a lot of photographs. Even though I strayed from rave music and rave culture at a certain point in time, I have felt its influence throughout my career, in some form or another it has been present in almost everything that I have done. My work always seems to reference that scene and that time. It’s in the sense of space, in the lighting, and for Echoic Choir, it’s even in the visual conceptualization. The press photos actually come from a photo reel I found from 1995, of photos that I took at a party and had never developed. (Laughs) Somehow these funny connections in time coincided with the Covid situation which made that whole subculture illegal and even dangerous. Somehow that made me want to revisit it. Like this nostalgic idea of a lost future.”

I CAN’T GO ON. I’LL GO ON
A reminiscence of what could have been a future... Time becomes intertwined between dancing bodies in a bizarre and fascinating way. “I think there is a lot to say about how time congeals in past, present and future in this movement and in the music,” says Persis Bekkering. “What hardcore techno proposes is this sort of suspension, it’s a very different dramatic arc than is offered by pop music in that it is high intensity but then flat or sustained, like a sort of frozen moment.”

1775 Lisa Vereertbrugghen
© Ivan Put
| Lisa Vereertbrugghen: “I spend a year on each dance style. Until it is really in my body and I don’t feel like I’m doing steps.”

But the time travels go beyond that, suggests Persis Bekkering in “Shouts of desire in the night”, her essay on Ula Sickle and Stine Janvin’s Echoic Choir – for which she also wrote the libretto and did the dramaturgy. Based on a score in which not beats but voices evoke techno, Echoic Choir makes use of the hocket, a choir technique originating in the 11th century in which a melody is dispersed over different voices. All utter, or rather stutter one note – the term “hocket” being derived from the French hoquet, meaning “shock”, “sudden interruption”, “hitch” or “hiccup”. A form of collectivity beautifully echoed in Echoic Choir’s bodies spread out across the space and the audience, moving towards synchronicity from a distance.

“And I suddenly heard a homophony with hakken, the stuttering rave dance style. It’s just a theory, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there were some truth to it?” Persis Bekkering laughs. “I don’t want to reduce raving to ancient rituals of going into trance, but there is a kinship. There are lines to be drawn between raving and more medieval cultures, festivals, peasant fairs or any type of folkloric dancing – all phenomena of collective joy and transgression that were later exchanged by capitalist modernity for an idealization of the individual and work ethic. So there is a more ancient lineage. Just look at what Lisa does in Disquiet: it’s like a speeded-up version of folkloric dancing.”

“I can see the kinship,” Lisa Vereertbrugghen agrees. “I even hinted at that legacy in the original title for the piece. There is a complex relationship to time at play. At a certain moment in the performance I utter the phrase: ‘We dance hard, because there is no future here.’ And I do feel there is some truth to that. The fact that the music and the dancing are so intense, makes it something very much in the present, or rather: almost lifted out of time, in some sort of eternal present. At the same time, this longing for intense feeling in the here and now is experienced to music that, through samples, is always referring to the past. So, on the one hand you have this beautiful connection between utopia and clubbing, and on the other hand there is no escaping the notion that there is a no future kind of dystopian aspect to it, because that’s why we are here. You want to feel intense feelings, because you don’t feel them outside of this moment. That is also present in the urge to go to violent sounds and dark lyrics, in the desire to destroy your body to slip into another one, to feel differently.”

In Disquiet Lisa Vereertbrugghen dances until exhaustion. It is a performance that in all its physicality, between chains and speakers, light and sound, mesmerizes the audience. An unchained symphony of body and beat that speaks to the internal logic of the bodies barely being able to sit still. “Those little islands of dancing are not choreographed, you know,” says Lisa Vereertbrugghen. “I just know I have to dance until I can’t anymore.” In that sense, Disquiet, as a solo, is more about dancing than clubbing, more about intensity and rupture than community. Although there are links to that overarching theme. “I need this very intense music, this dance, to get out of my head, to get back into my body. It is escaping from the mental, the cerebral of life and its worries, but paradoxically it is also returning, coming home to that body. This was also the trajectory to the performance: I spend about a year on each dance, from shuffling and gabber to drum’n’bass. A year dancing it, and only dancing it. Until it is really in my body and I don’t feel like I’m doing steps.”

1775 Persis Bekkering
© Ivan Put
| Persis Bekkering: “Raving requires devotion.”

“In rave culture, you’ll always have the dialectics of losing control and being hyper in control,” adds Persis Bekkering. “Because it is about duration, about what the body can endure – you want to stay as long as possible. I often meet people who come extremely prepared, who bring lens fluids, vitamins and liquid meals, just so they don’t have to stop dancing if they want to eat. During the week, it’s really a culture of conditioning and disciplining the body. It requires devotion. To me the interesting thing about raving is not getting fucked up, it’s looking for this intersection where control and the loss of it find each other. That’s where it becomes magical.”

TIME TO WASTE
This magical paradox suggests an environment that allows for self-loss. “Even though it doesn’t feel like it, with a bouncer at the door allowing you in or keeping you out, I see raving as a very open subculture,” Persis Bekkering continues. “Yes, it’s not a cliquey thing,” Ula Sickle agrees. “It has also been an outsider form in a lot of ways, bringing people that don’t feel connected elsewhere together in someone’s field, in an abandoned warehouse or on a ski hill in the summer. That aspect was very exciting to me when I came unto the scene, it was about discovering new spaces, but also realizing that raving is something nomadic and temporary, a meeting of some sort, a practice. Something you step into and you go for the night, and when the music stops you look forward to the next night. That’s where the origin lies for me, in this kind of atmosphere of a medieval fair or festival. A place where we just go to get out of social structures, leaving behind worries about what brand we’re wearing or even if we should wear anything at all. The trouble started, I think, when all the regulations came down, and we could not be in those spaces because they were not safe enough. That was a good thing, but it resulted in this whole scene being forced into much more commercial spaces like exhibition halls where they sell cars from Monday to Friday. Those venues eventually got bigger and bigger.”

Which is a sore point. “You want to celebrate inclusivity and openness, but at the same time there should also be a selection process, because otherwise this community doesn’t exist,” Persis Bekkering adds. “The club I was dancing at last week, was not a space I wanted to be in. Because I didn’t feel a sense of community there. I only realized that when at the end I was able to dance with my eyes closed – which is what I love to do. Only when I feel the community around me, I can be alone, I can let go and I don’t have to connect with others because I feel them. ‘Bodies without touching,’ as a piece of the text of Echoic Choir reads. And that’s what it does: you don’t see each other because of the distance, so you can only trust each other to become part of this bigger texture.”

“In this world we are socialized and structured around this idea of a norm and people who live according to that norm having access to more things than people who live outside of it. Identifying as queer myself, I know that I’m non-normative, I’m outside the norm. So to me it is important to be able to be in a queer space, in this community. I like a party when there is a core group of people who are really devoted to it, who understand what it means, who understand the meaning of the night, of non-normative space, of queerness, what it means to have a space where you can be yourselves and behave differently. But it’s difficult if you want to celebrate diversity and inclusivity. So though I would love to live in that space where you can rid yourself of identities, I just can’t project myself into a world where this logic of the norm is not there.”

1775 Persis Bekkering, Ula Sickle and Lisa Vereertbrugghen
© Ivan Put
| Dancing the last utopia (from left to right): Persis Bekkering, Ula Sickle and Lisa Vereertbrugghen.

In that sense, raving is utopian, or as Lisa Vereertbrugghen calls dancing to hardcore in “Some Notes on Hardcore Techno”: “a miniature practice in being-without-image.” “The speed that plays on your nervous system, that which escapes your conscious action, makes your body respond directly to the music without the time and thus the possibility of consciously creating movements or images. You are not dancing a feeling but the direct effect of a frequency on your spinal cord. The fact that there is so much rupture in the music, breaks and drops, doesn’t give you time to build an image, keeps you out of some flow. You’re in that fucking moment.”

“Spending and wasting time on something that is not productive,” Ula Sickle adds, “except for maybe rehearsing the collective or rehearsing yourself as part of a larger whole. So close to bodies that you don’t think about. It’s our sweat, your sweat.” “Body soup,” the three laugh. “But you need to feel trust to reach that utopia,” Ula Sickle continues. “I really like that at the Berlin nightclub Berghain, they have locker rooms where you can leave whatever shitty clothes you have on, and your phone – there’s no documentation allowed –, and go dance in your underwear. There is beauty in that ritual of leaving everything behind.”

PERSIS BEKKERING
Leesclub Exces
(NL): 10/11, 19.30, Muntpunt, www.deburen.eu
Book Last Utopia (EN+NL): Published by Jan van Eyck Academie, €15, www.janvaneyck.nl
Info: persisbekkering.wordpress.com

LISA VEREERTBRUGGHEN
Disquiet – sensational aesthetics of a technokin
10 & 11/12, 20.30, Beursschouwburg, www.beursschouwburg.be
Info: www.lisavereertbrugghen.com

ULA SICKLE
Info:
www.ulasickle.com

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