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Dancing with Kafka

Der Bau – Isabelle Schad | Laurent Goldring from Théâtre Auditorium Poitiers —

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The exceptional is what one comes to expect from the programing at REDCAT. Some original presentations during a recent fortnight have included TeatroCinema’s ingeniously staged Historia de Amor and an evening of often bleak, always beautiful films by the late director Chantal Akerman. April 17th proved again the daring temperament with a performance by Berlin based choreographer Isabelle Schad and French artist Laurent Goldring.

Isabelle Schad has re-imagined an unfinished novella by Franz Kafka, entitled Der Bau (The Burrow). When the lights came up, the only things visible on stage were four or five bunched-up pieces of fabric and Ms. Schad, standing upright, facing the audience, completely naked. A close look at the source material for Der Bau and a probe into its doomed author’s history will provide a much needed background for such a spare sensibility.

Franz Kafka, born in Prague in 1883, was the eldest of six children in a German-speaking, middle-class Jewish family. Both brothers died in infancy, his loving, but uneducated mother never understood her son’s writing and his businessman father was an angry, overbearing tyrant. An excellent student who loved art and literature, Franz graduated with a law degree. Like two other notable Twentieth Century artists—composer Charles Ives and poet Wallace Stevens—Kafka was employed at insurance agencies in his working life. He had a girlfriend, wrote stories at night and was well-liked by co-workers but he was plagued by self-doubt, paranoia, migraines, insomnia, depression and anxiety. In 1917, he contracted tuberculosis–it would eventually kill him–and began to take more time off from work.

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Suffering from increasingly dark moods, Kafka wrote feverishly during the ensuing eight years. Random sentences—”I am free and that is why I am lost” and “The meaning of life is that it stops”–illustrate his sad despair. He moved to Berlin and sold a few short stories including his most famous one, The Metamorphosis. Dora Dymart, the love of his life, took care of Franz as he slowly wasted away. Kafka finished novels like The Trial and The Castle but they would not be published until after his death in 1924.

Ignoring his final wishes, Dora and their friend Max Brod refused to burn Kafka’s unfinished manuscripts but a decade would elapse before those saw the light of day. During WW II, Kafka’s stories and novels became popular in Germany and his influence could be seen in modern fiction. By the late 1950s, however, Kafka’s paranoid fantasies became frighteningly real when communist rule descended on eastern Europe.

Faceless accusers, unwarranted arrests, secret trials, dominance by “the state” and the crushing of individual rights—these manic predictions by a sickly, Jewish writer had become daily occurrences around the world and are still front-page news , sixty years later. A word was coined to describe the alienated sense of dis-orienting fear that can disrupt modern life: Kafkaesque. Its definition is “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality”. This is what inspires and is summoned by Ms. Schad.

After dance studies in Stuttgart from 1981 to 1990, Schad developed unique theories about the human body and our relation to it. She works in association with Wiesen 55 e.V., and also teaches advanced dance training at several universities, her work appearing at dance companies and festivals around the world. Since 2006, she has worked with Laurent Goldring on very focused choreography and her skill and strength as a soloist are clearly visible in Der Bau.

Kafka’s unfinished story is about the building of a hidden safe space, protected by layers of deep levels, accessible only through tunnels and intricate mazes. The first sentence is “I have made the burrow habitable, and I think it has shaped up well.” (It isn’t clear if the speaker is an animal or a human but characteristics of both are evident.) A recent German movie, currently making the rounds of film festivals and also called Der Bau, uses the literal idea of a man moving into a bunker of his own devising in a massive, crumbling structure–perhaps a remnant of a totalitarian world.


Der Bau – Isabelle Schad | Laurent Goldring from Théâtre Auditorium Poitiers

Isabelle Schad’s approach, on the contrary, is entirely abstract ; we witness a human/animal, devoid of clothing or identity, whose use of the cloth fabric is merely for protection, warmth and further hiding. The sound design by Peter Bohm is immensely important to the first half of the performance (which, in total, is less than an hour long). As she repeats various standing and bending motions–sometimes holding her body low by her ankles, stretching the muscles in her back (which the audience is seeing almost upside down), raising and lowering herself again and again–the soundscape had echoes of an industrial factory, dusty winds, the white noise of mindless work. The idea struck me that the organism we saw on stage was about to break free from its repetitive yoke in order escape. Schad makes clever use of the fabric pieces—fluttering them, wearing them, folding them.

A phrase from Baudelaire, “un moi avide du non-moi” really fits Schad’s actions in Der Bau’s second half: “a self avid for non-self”. During a brief pause in darkness, two assistants neatly laid out the half-dozen fabric pieces on the floor, each overlapping the piece next to it. When the lights came up, Schad was lying on her stomach, head facing the audience. The soundscape was much more subdued in this section, barely audible. Slowly and with great care, Schad began to knead the fabric with her strong hands, gradually pulling every inch of cloth into her arms, then around her back and over her head. She sank to the floor and literally disappeared into the fabric and began to roll around like a giant sow bug, completely hidden from view, safe in her self-made burrow.

The evening was interesting, odd and fascinating. Schad’s performance is a very intense workout (as her stomach muscles made evident), almost a meditation or ritual. And she definitely evinced the cloudy, pessimistic view that Franz Kafka created in his tale. A perfect epitaph for Der Bau might be this mordant bon mot from Kafka: “Just think how many thoughts a blanket smothers while one lies alone in bed, and how many unhappy dreams it keeps warm.”

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