This is definitely a thing

urbaines2016_ernestyna_orlowska_david_wohlschlag-17
A still from “Fruits” by Ernestyna Orlowska, Les Urbaines 2016. Photo: David Wohlschag

Les Urbaines turned 20 this year, it is a remarkable platform to see exciting live works and new international productions on the threshold of theatre, dance, art and music. I arrived in Lausanne with a beautiful train journey through the mountains from Milano, which was not enough to wake me up from the realisation of how expensive everything is in this steep lakeside Swiss town.

There is an action packed weekend in front of me: the opening of the show Meaning Can Only Grow out of Intimacy (limbs, water, nostalgia) curated by Elise Lammer and several live acts to watch from the rich programme offered by les Urbaines for free. The agenda is condensed in a booklet with a optical b&w cover and revolves around several venues mainly in the city centre, for three nights’ worth of concerts, dj sets, art interventions and live shows which go from the evening to the early hours of the morning. The programme is on repeat but the performances are so well attended, there is a sense of expectation among the people queuing and waiting to get into the theatre halls, their accents reveal different provenances and languages.

I started my viewing marathon with ‘GRAND MAL’ a collaboration between French duo Anne Lise Le Gac & Élie Ortis; the act starts off as a static presentation from a messy desk of futile videos from the internet, in the second half it transitions from verbal to bodily, with the employment of Italian disco and of an intriguing dance choreography. Towards the end of the performance, some concrete sculptures used as props are then smashed to reveal homemade energy bars, which are made available to the audience as a souvenir. 

Swiss performer Pamina de Coulon sailed through an hour of sped up French monologue which ranged from galaxies and scientific notions, to relationships and being a feminist. Not only did she write and recite it, she was performing yoga poses throughout her stream of consciousness. The evening continued with Sorrow Swag, a dance piece enveloped in fog and blue light conceived by American choreographer Lygia Lewis. The sole protagonist is a white guy wearing just basketball shorts, he performs sporty movements that build up to a climax. In more than one occasion, I must admit, I felt disconnected to the piece and unfocused.

The following night I had two Eureka! moments, the first thanks to a tall and skinny Polish goddess, Ernestyna Orlowska, who constructed a nutty and aesthetically piercing show FRUITS. Together with two other performers, a man and a woman, they all were role playing and pushing to the limit the mechanics of altered voices and movements. Furthermore they engaged the audience with awkward interactions and the possibility of seemingly changing the course of the show with the public’s remote control choices.

Finally from Portland, OR, Keyon Gaskin who, with its not a thing, shattered all the comfortable theatrics of passive spectatorship consumed in semi-darkness watching the action on a stage. Disguised with black clothes and a mask, he started offering the public waiting to go in, a black drink of which he was carrying a bottle. Inside, the theatre-studio was free of any scenography and the lights were all on, breaking any suspension of disbelief. Keyon, appeared from the control room at the back, when viewers were already sat and waiting for something to happen. This time his face, and the blackness of his skin were revealed. Once he made his way to the stage, he turned off all the lights and plugged in only a bright spot, creating a cone of light blinding me and the others in the audience, thus turning the tables on the evening’s power dynamics. He prefaced his work by saying we could leave at any point and that he was not there to make anyone any favours. Then he asked us to walk on stage and tested our discomfort through unwarranted and random interactions with his running and screaming body, as if in a mosh pit. At one point he started tip tapping, having extracted a pair of suitable black shoes and mat from his black backpack. Moreover he started stripping from the waist down, while continuing to tip tap. Some witnesses started giggling like 6 year olds, the embarrassment palpable; finally he retreated to the stalls and asked us to tun off the light and not to clap. Some people clapped anyways, probably unsure on how to respond, wondering if this was the end or simply not having understood what he had just said.

On the way out, after having thanked Keyon when I collected my coat on the seat, I overheard another spectator uttering “so fucked up”. To me this was a most powerful and thoughtful piece, it still casts a shadow on the world we inhabit daily.

Caterina Riva 2016

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