concept and stage direction
A man paces round the room. Slow, even steps. He does this for quite some time, never altering his speed, until, suddenly and briefly, he starts skipping. At the same time a well-dressed Austrian woman sits on a chair and begins to describe an apartment block and the families that live inside it. As she does so she slowly peels off her clothes, her tone of voice never altering, and continues her story, naked.
Staged as part of Burst at the BAC, a festival of theatre, music and art, Doris Uhlichs simple yet affecting dance piece features a cast of non professional performers, all aged between 58 and 86.
The piece begins as a collage of small movements, of people walking, sitting, stretching and leaning. Some of the performers move with ease and flexibility, while others are inevitably more limited. At one point an elderly man, hunched over and shuffling, slowly lowers and raises his head, removing and replacing his milk-bottle thick glasses, and the effort that these small gestures requires is palpable. The repetition of these everyday motions allows the audience to contemplate the aging body and its increasing fragility, its physical restrictions.
Were this piece simply a case of Uhlich drawing attention to the effects of aging, its appeal would be limited. But its subtler than that: there is a real sense of playfulness on display. The performers movements become more involved as the piece progresses. A man in a jacket strolls across the room with exaggerated suavity. A woman performs a series of ballet poses. Another man sprints from one side of the room to the other with a sudden burst of energy. There is humour in seeing older people move in a manner more associated with children and the piece acknowledges that. Even the little man with the thick glasses, who initially appeared so hunched and unsteady, turns out to have something of a spring in his step.
Und forces its audience to look at aging faces, bodies, skin to really look. Too often we turn away from the realities of aging; we fear it and that fear can often lead to mockery and frustration (particularly in this country it seems.) It also begs the question of how we define old age. Some of the performers here one would class as middle-aged, others are, without question, old. But where does this line lie and where does it come from? Uhlichs piece is a reminder that aging is a fluid process. That it is an inevitable part of life but also, to some extent, a construct. After all, we are, each one of us, aging with every day that passes.
Performed without music, the piece becomes more layered as it goes on. The performers cross the stage with greater frequency and there are moments when all this criss-crossing the differing gaits, the repeated loops of movement becomes reminiscent of Peter Handkes The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other. The cast, who Uhlich met in the parks and trams of Vienna and persuaded to work with her, perform with enthusiasm and precision. The piece is personal to them and their own way of moving.
There is abundant elegance and beauty here particularly in the way the seated woman smoothly removes all her clothes and then reclines on the floor, her flow of words unbroken. In Und Uhlich has created a work that is warm and thoughtful, one that carries with it a true sense of celebration.