Schönheitsabend, Northern Ballet

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Schönheitsabend roughly translates as “a beautiful evening”. A subtitle might be “make of that what you will”.

Beauty is just one of the ideas that is challenged and subverted and thoroughly pummelled by choreographer-performers Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek over the course of this show. The pair’s performances have a certain infamy in continental Europe, and it’s easy to see why. The warning note tacked to the door at Northern Ballet is already a catalogue of provocation, promising audiences nudity and scenes of a sexually explicit nature.

And the framing of the piece itself continues this arch dialogue with impropriety and expectation. At the start, Live Art Bistro’s Adam Young steps on stage, clipboard gripped between his hands. He is, he tells us, responsible for the venue this evening, a statement met with a flurry of nervous laughs. Just before walking in, a fellow audience member has joked that he expects the evening to end in some sort of orgy (cue more nervous laughter). This is exactly the kind of anticipation that Holzinger and Riebeek playfully stoke, wrapping their performance in both brash sensationalism and institutional concern. “You are about to see something outrageous,” they implicitly say.

The clipboard-clutching Young introduces each of Schönheitsabend’s three parts, carefully establishing expectations and acknowledging conventions. We are asked, for instance, to respect the artists, and told that what we are about to witness in one segment is an unrepeatable live experiment. The language is distinctly that of live art, the tone firmly tongue-in-cheek. In riffing on art-world discourses of seriousness, Holzinger and Riebeek never take themselves too seriously.

Each of the three parts, labelled as dances of vice, horror and ecstasy, leaps off from avant-garde dance tradition and injects this with some of the recognisable tropes of performance art. In part one, the 1910 ballet Shéhérazade gets added pole-dancing and strap-ons. In part two, hubristic myths of artistic inspiration meet an aesthetic of failure and embarrassment. And in part three, Holzinger and Riebeek fully embrace absurdity and fantasy, completing the performance’s gleeful descent into dreamlike incomprehensibility (complete with antlers, strobe lights and bondage).

The experience as a whole is disorientating and hallucinatory, a collection of images as vivid and strange and disturbing as half-remembered snatches of dreams. Looking back on it from the vantage point of a few days later, it feels like a dream itself. Did I really see that? Surely that didn’t happen on stage?

Reflecting on it now, I wonder how much Holzinger and Riebeek are toying with our fetishizing preconceptions of “European theatre”. I remember my first trip to Berlin, and the friend who nervously asked me if the theatre I was dragging him to was going to be all nudity and animal heads (I’d told him about Three Kingdoms). Schönheitsabend might as well be a caricature of everything that particular friend dreaded – with even more sex and silliness and spectacle.

Expectations, of whatever kind, are definitely important here. I’m no ballet expert, but the first part of the show is definitely the closest to what most people probably think of when they hear the word ‘dance’. Without knowing Shéhérazade, I could guess that Holzinger and Riebeek were to some extent imitating it. I was waiting, then, for these balletic moves to fall away and for something more contemporary and more bonkers to take its place. Knowing this, Holzinger and Riebeek stretch out that tense expectancy, constantly teasing us. This says something, at the same time, about what we expect from art of whatever kind.

The role of expectation is even more prominent in the second part of the evening, which unravels anticipation into an entire act. Primed by Young’s slightly ominous introduction, and by the outrageousness of what we’ve already witnessed, the breath of the audience is collectively held while Riebeek takes up his position on a chair centre stage. What is he going to do? The answer is, well, not a lot. Instead, we’re once again teased, while Holzinger and Riebeek also play around hilariously with their prickly dynamic as a pair – a sharp contrast to the choreographed eroticism of the previous scenes. By the unrestrainedly bizarre third part, then, the frame has shifted.

A further frame for the piece is the festival in which it appears. Transform this year is a teaser or, as it has styled itself, a trailblazer. The work it is showing is intended to offer a flavour of what the festival will be once it has fully expanded into a city-wide, international event next year. And as statements of intent go, Schönheitsabend is pretty fucking audacious.

The impact of that statement, however, is another question. If anyone had asked me, as I stumbled out of Northern Ballet, whether I liked what I had just seen, I’m not sure I could have answered them. As it turned out, everyone else was in their own personal daze, whether of disgust or awe or a bit of both. The show still leaves me in a bit of a daze when I try to think about it now. Giving a simple thumbs up or thumbs down seems both impossible and somehow inappropriate.

A beautiful evening? Perhaps not in any conventional way, but then that’s emphatically not the point.