Spaces of intensity

Jefta van Dinther’s synaesthetic performances

In a time in which people in local climes do handicrafts, embroider, knit, practise upcycling and colour in mandalas in picture books to relax, the performers in Jefta van Dinther’s performances struggle seemingly senselessly with enormous balls of fabric, electric cables and ropes. They haul and strain, fold and coil interminably. Dinther’s 2011 solo performance, which for the first time perfectly combined the elements that still mark his choreography today, is called Grind: it is a synaesthetic symbiosis of moving human bodies and light, electronic sound and stage setting. The audience becomes the witness to self-oppression, toil, a Sisyphus labour on the stage, in which from the first moment they are sucked in as if to an undertow. This participation is evoked by the constant, uninterrupted sensory overload in the positive sense that appears right at the start. The audience can only gradually visually separate the performer—Jefta van Dinther—and the events on stage out of the darkness; the hard techno sound heightens the impression of a shimmering image. Already in this introductory scene, in which van Dinther struggles with an indefinable dark mass, a kind of big tangle of textiles, the various atmospheric materials of light, sound, object and movement flow together. The synaesthetic state increases with the continuing length of the performance: van Dinther bounces standing off the rear wall while he is occupied with a tangle of cables, it looks as though he is competing with his shadow and the sound is produced by this competition. At the end of the performance van Dinther stands in the middle of the stage and swings a light bulb on a cable over his head through the room like a lasso, the whizzing sound of the flying object supports the almost meditative character of this scene, in which it seems that the person has regained control of the object. Jefta van Dinther and his long-standing collaborators Minna Tiikkainen (lighting design) and David Kiers (sound design) do not like to make it pleasant for the audience; they do not create a feel-good atmosphere. The spaces they have created are not for softly strung nerves. Nevertheless, as affective atmospheres they can also develop cathartic forces.

From Dada, through the 1960s happenings to contemporary choreography there have always been performances that center on objects and the playing with atmospheres. In Nom donné par l’auteur (1994), with his choreography of everyday things, Jérôme Bel rung in the new era of the conceptual approach; in evaporated landscapes (2009), her composition of foam, light and fog, Mette Ingvartsen as the next generation of choreographers ultimately completely dispensed with physically manifest performers on the stage. Jefta van Dinther’s first approach to choreography with objects was the joint project with Frédéric Gies and DD Dorvillier called The Blanket Dance (2011). Like his later performances, here everyday objects could be experienced from completely unaccustomed sides through their almost loving approach by the performers; a haptic perceptual impression arises in the auditorium through simple observation. In the more than ten years of his career Jefta van Dinther has developed into a master of synaesthetic performance. His choreographies merge immaterial elements, things and human bodies into an affective atmosphere. The cultural-political geographer Ben Anderson describes atmospheres as »collective affects that are simultaneously indeterminate and determinate.« In their indeterminacy atmospheres transcend individual experiences and feelings. »Affective atmospheres are a class of experience that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity, across human and non-human materialities, and in-between subject/object distinctions.« By the use of light, objects and sound in precise harmony with the moving bodies, Jefta van Dinther sets choreographic frameworks that facilitate affective atmospheres. The perception of the entities present as individuals is thereby suspended, animated and inanimate bodies are penetrated by light and sound, the boundaries between the physical states blur. Through the enormous stimulus of the individual sense-perceptions these are synaesthetically merged into a state of intensive space-time. This space of intensity, as Anderson writes, »overflows a represented world organized into subjects and objects or subjects and other subjects.« Jefta van Dinther thereby to some extent abolishes the boundaries between the audience, which in most of his performances is placed classically in front or on several sides, and the material and immaterial performers on the stage.

Before Jefta van Dinther reached his first high – point in matters of synaesthetic performance with Grind, he had created a strongly performer-focused work whose movement language, however, is already similar to the larger later works. In the male trio Kneeding (2010) there are no props or special lighting effects, but certainly a very specific sound design (David Kiers) that gradually penetrates the performance space from outside and finally peaks in a kind of continuous electronic organ tone. Jefta van Dinther, Frédéric Gies and Thiago Granato move elastically, at first each for themselves as if steered from inside, kneaded (kneeding as a wordplay between kneading and needing), wrestling with an external image of the normative representation of masculinity, which is per se constantly unachievable, and their own will, which drives them internally. The trio repeatedly approaches one another, but the contact over wide distances fails by a hair’s breadth. The facial expressions float from one to the next on the performers’ faces, the transitions from tension to moments of happiness are fluid, occasionally they seem to want to enter into a verbal dialogue with one another and with their surroundings, but no sound comes from their mouths, the communication remains purely visual. In his concentration on bodies, Kneeding is the strongest »unspectacular« work by Jefta van Dinther, in the sense that its effect largely arises without the aid of spectacular tools such as light, sound and props.

Like Kneeding, THIS IS CONCRETE (2012), a duet by Jefta van Dinther and Thiago Granato, challenges similar normative masculinity structures. It even goes a step further and puts intimacy between two men onto the stage in a way that is seldom so unambiguously (concretely) seen in contemporary choreography. Unlike Kneeding, the stage set—in interplay with light (Jan Fedinger) and sound (David Kiers)—is the third, integral performer. Right at the start a ball of light spreads across the stage before the two dancers sensuously, almost caressingly approach a loudspeaker. In the second third of the performance the two dancers again come closer under clear sexual portents and, bathed in green light, move ceaselessly in a mixture of dancing, undressing and wrestling. Here the eroticism of a dim Berlin techno club is transferred to the stage, it crackles between the two dancers in the same way as between light, sound and objects (the loudspeakers). THIS IS CONCRETE makes it clear that it is an interplay of interpersonal communication, material and non-material atmosphere that puts us into a specific mood that evokes emotions. Sex comes not just from human bodies but also from light, from sound, from things. Thus it is only logical that on stage at the end it is not human bodies that experience a climax but white balloons float up to the ceiling in the dark.

After the already-mentioned solo, duet and trio, which despite their sometimes spectacular synaesthesias were marked by a great intimacy, in As It Empties Out (2014), together with the performers Linda Adami, Thiago Granato, Naiara Mendioroz Azkarate, Eeva Muilu and Roger Sala Reyner, and again with Minna Tiikkainen (lighting) and David Kiers (sound), Jefta van Dinther created a big performance, a synaesthetic total composition with an uncanny underlying tone. Right at the beginning a mysterious, mad-eyed figure appears, who with a hypnotic voice chants a kind of mantra and draws the other performers onto the stage with it. These move as if they cannot understand what is happening to them, as though they are guided by an invisible force or are fighting against it. After a while the performers are confronted with a long tube that crosses the stage like a horizon and thereby prescribes the space for movement. This part leads into a chapter that is already familiar as a motif from Grind: with complete devotion the performers carry out the Sisyphus labour, hauling on long ropes hanging from the ceiling, throwing their bodies into it with full force, without it ever becoming clear what is actually to be moved here and to what end. As in Grind, the absence of the initiating source, the origin and reason for the drudgery remains hidden from the audience. In the next scene, the highpoint of the synaesthesia, the performance culminates in a kind of purgatory. Bathed in red light, the performers swing and twist around their own axis as if possessed, but at the same time rooted firmly to one spot. The combination of colour, the shimmering image through the rapid movement and the electronic sound, like the flight of a whole swarm of bees, produces such a powerful sensory perception that as an audience one would either like to release oneself or just surrender oneself to the total excess of the various sensory stimuli and experiences it as a catharsis. When one’s own mirror neurons fire and sitting still in one’s seat one moves together with the performers, then something arises that Anderson describes as »atmospheres as reducible to bodies affecting other bodies and yet exceeding the bodies they emerge from.«

In his two most current choreographies van Dinther works with the Swedish Cullberg Ballet. In Plateau Effect (2013) van Dinther transfers motifs and synaesthetic elements from the above-described performances, in which he always stands on stage himself, to the format of a large dance company. The dancers get into dialogue with a stage curtain, which metamorphoses into a fabric monster that has to be tamed with strenuous labour. Using ropes and weights the fabric is turned into sails that are hoisted as on a battleship. After the curtain finishes as a large roll of fabric, the dancers free themselves in highly energetic movements in an act of liberation from the arduous work on the object.

Through the production of synaesthetic conditions, in various performative settings from the solo to the dance company, Jefta van Dinther succeeds in creating affective atmospheres that lead to the removal of boundaries between individuals as well as subjects and objects. And to quote Anderson again: »As such, to attend to affective atmospheres is to learn to be affected by the ambiguities of affect/emotion, by that which is determinate and indeterminate, present and absent, singular and vague.« In the present day, in which we are daily confronted with more unquestioned and unwanted external, visual, acoustic, digitally produced stimuli than any generation before us, it can seem very liberating deliberately to let oneself in for sensory inundation. Jefta van Dinther opens choreography up to the audience— it can lean back and embark on an energy-charged journey in which the aesthetic experience rises to a synaesthetic experience. Anyone who leaves a performance by Jefta van Dinther has understood the meaning of synaesthesia.

-Astrid Peterle, SCORES, Tanzquartier