By Julia Rasmussen.
September 26th, Refshaleøen Copenhagen.
I bike the seven kilometers it takes from my house to the newly constructed tent placed near the newly gentrified, previously industrial area gone street food market/outlet area/art and culture center. As I pedal with the wind slowing my pace down, I arrive to the tent that looks smaller from the outside than I envisioned. We are five minutes late so I rush in as the scent of hay and sweat hit me in a comforting way. I walk towards my seat, a hay barrel placed in a square at the center of the tent, and prepare myself for a performance I know very little about, other than that it is titled ‘Europa’, and my close friend is one of the performers.
We, the audience are seated so we are in a square facing each other, with our backs to the rest of the tent. A voice over comes on, that describes the creation of the earth, while three bodies, indistinguishable in their way of dress take turns fighting and embracing each other creating parallels between violence and love in their movements. A sense that they are destroying each other, while simultaneously needing each other. The physicality of the performance transcends the movements of the performers and can also be felt in the energy in the air, the dust from the loose hay the floor is covered in, and in the moans of exertion -the only sound voiced by the performers- is heard in between the sounds of skin touching upon skin. From the performance, I read the creation of Europa as being a tumultuous one, with different cultures, and different wants, a greediness that was best resolved with cooperation. Selfish desires turned solidary for practicality. We don’t want to need each other, but we cannot survive alone.
The prologue ends as suddenly as it began, and the audience is then told to face the outside of the square formation we have been sitting in, and to face the circular and much larger space of the tent. There is no voice over this time, and the only auditory guide is the noises made by the performers themselves, which vary from opera, to sobbing, to yelling. The performers are constantly in motion, running around the audience. The feelings in the tent are larger than life, the experience is dramatic, and immerses the audience, secondarily feeling the exhaustion of the performers, as the piece progresses. They all shoot arrows at a target, they all cough until they die to then be resurrected. Some are buried alive, and some are blind. The story of Europe unfolds and nothing is made explicit, but there are allusions to eastern Europe, to war, and to disease, to grief and to suffering. There is a bleakness to the piece that would be deflating if it were not for the momentum created by the performers bodies being in continuous motion.
I will say that initially I had a hard time submerging myself into the piece. The lack of concrete guidance, of familiar symbolism or even language, meant that I was constantly looking for clues in the movement of the performers. But, as they became progressively exhausted, so did I of trying to contextualize their exhaustion, and I let go and allowed myself to live rather than rationalize the experience. It was at this moment that I began to understand that the piece is just as much about feeling as it is about seeing. The piece tapped into the primal in me, into the instinctual and made the piece about what I have in common with the world, and not what separates me from it. The performers were stripped of an identity and so was I, all of us breathing, and them moving, together.
The piece is a story about the beginning. But it also feels like a story about now. About the polarization we are experiencing today. How we fear the unknown, and retract into ourselves, in moments where we could reach out. About letting go of the differences we see between ourselves and others, and instead tapping into what we have in common. Realizing that we all need each other, and could cooperate when we choose to fight. The piece feels political in its refusal to be political. It makes you think about the universality of suffering. And of the polarization this has brought about instead of cooperation.
‘Europa’ reminds us of the collective, through a bodily experience and the creator and director of the piece, Kasper Ravnshøj, is known for using movement, to well, move people. He is known for pushing the boundaries of the human body, and infamous for pushing his performers to their limit. This piece is no exception, and it is undeniably an impressive performance, purely from a physical perspective. But it is also an impressive piece in its immersiveness, in managing to bring together performer and observer. Once the piece ended, I left the tent feeling exhausted, and mentally prepared myself for the long bike ride home, feeling like I too, had accomplished something.