German Joys Review: Cactus Bar

Last night I saw the premiere of ‘Cactus Bar‘ (G) at tanzhaus NRW, the local contemporary-dance venue. The choreographer is Stephanie Thiersch, the DJ Miss Bailey, music by Joseph Suchy, danced by members of Thiersch’s troupe MOUVOIR (G).

Stephanie_thiersch__mouvoir_d‘Cactus Bar’ starts with a darkened stage. On the left, a gigantic orange pumpkin with green cactus spines that doubles as a DJ booth. On the right, an oversized squash-shaped high-back chair, also decked out with spines, and upholstered on the inside with peacock feathers. Out of the darkness emerges a figure in a cowboy hat, playing screeching chords on a guitar. A promising beginning. But this turns out to be only the musical overture to an evening-filling floor show. Your emcee is Jens Münchow, last seen on the big screen as "Rakete", the foulmouthed local punk who delights in mocking the commune of anti-nuclear hippies that moves into his North German village in the movie Am Tag als Bobby Ewing Starb (G) (The Day Bobby Ewing Died). Rakete was clearly the high point of that movie, which otherwise profiled a rather dull group of whiny, spineless, self-involved do-gooders.

Here, he plays the emcee for our evening of entertainment at the ‘Cactus Bar,’ located in the middle of nowhere. Dressed in a cheap, shiny blue suit, he appears in the spotlight to introduce each act, often speaking in English for the benefit of our "international guests and artists." He begins by reciting Theseus’ soliloquy "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains…" from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The words take control of a young man, casually dressed, who shares the stage with the MC, and begins contorting himself into positions of ever-greater complexity as the MC discourses on the "lunatic, the lover, and the poet" while circling the young man, issuing instructions and sometimes modeling moves for him.

Other acts follow: Miss Bailey from London lip-syncing something swinging while being escorted around the stage a la "Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend"; a lone figure twisting himself literally into knots to Roy Orbison’s weepy cowboy lament Crying ; a man and a woman circling each other like wary animals, then bumping into and falling over each other in what looks like an attempt at copulation that fails for sheer clumsiness; an ingenious episode in which the MC does the voice-over to a banal conversation between four partygoers while the dancers wordlessly enact the parts onstage; and a tall, willowy young woman being hoisted aloft on the shoulders of two men and paraded around like a gleaming white flesh-cutlass — before her dress is attached to helium balloons and drifts up to the rafters. Between these strange, sometimes frenzied episodes are seemingly post-coital interludes, set in blue or green light to eerie industrial soundscapes, in which the characters act out suggestive slow-motion erotic encounters in various groupings of gender and race.

Multimedia contemporary-dance projects often lapse into épater-les-bourgeois posing and self-indulgent arbitrariness, and you may be getting that idea from the rough description I’ve given. Not ‘Cactus Bar.’ First, it doesn’t take itself too bloody seriously. Its subversiveness, if you can call it that, is playful and often funny. I found it oddly touching at many points, when the dancers seem to try to salvage some shreds of connection and tenderness among the chaos and lunacy of the universe they’ve woken up in. ‘Cactus Bar’ wants to say something to us, but, like us all, sort of gets all confused sometimes. It all has its own logic and an appealingly varied pace. As Thiersch herself says, it’s a "maddening mix-up of reality." Or, back to the bard, "Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool reason ever comprehends."  I’m no dance critic, so I can’t judge the troupe’s technique. I can say, that they executed their sometimes spine-cracking, sometimes endearingly clumsy moves with conviction.

‘Cactus Bar’ is coming to Bonn and Cologne in the coming months, so don’t miss it!

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