Walking into the mod-orange spaceship-like Chunky Move studio is like sleepwalking into a post-reality realm. Plaster casts of the three dancers’ bodies, draped in white silk, line the stage. It’s reminiscent of the human remains in the fallen town of Pompeii. This is a powerful introduction to Victory Over the Moon, presented at Chunky Move studio, a dance work that draws audiences into a world of war, heroism, cynicism and optimism.
Ideas of extinction are characteristic of choreographer Nana Biluš Abaffy’s work, yet sprigs and leaves sprout from the fabric, perhaps intimating hope or renewal, in a landscape of eerie desolation. Birds, with their qualities of fragility and statelessness, are also a repeated image through the performance, such as when Abaffy holds a replica of a white dove to her chest that recalls the Picasso painting of a child with a dove. It’s a salient image for the war-stricken times in which we are living.
These are the most striking moments in a dance piece that clearly wants to say a lot about the futility and brutality of war. Some of this is successfully driven by these motifs in the set, costuming and dramaturgy. However, other parts of the message are lost in the extended repeated movement of running around the stage in circles. “I wanted to leave the piece open to interpretation,” Abaffy told me afterwards. There is a surprisingly short description of the piece on Chunky Move’s website, but the work itself demands more information.
I am reminded of the words of the famous choreographer Pina Bausch: “Repetition is not repetition … the same action makes you feel something completely different by the end.” Bausch was a master in the use of dramaturgy and gesture, particularly touch between dancers as a leitmotiv. The dancers’ concentric, disparate running achieved a mood of isolation and brutality but at times it lacked the sense of tenderness that is the other side of the human experience of tragedy. The repetitiveness of movement in the work – the near drudgery of it – was no doubt a deliberate device Abaffy used to depict the melancholy of war, but at points it missed the depth of human connection. Perhaps more experimentation could have developed that intensity and profundity. I hope that this is something that will occur in further performances of the work.
The soundtrack before the performance is a mélange of recordings from expeditions in space, including recordings of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the Apollo 11 landing on the moon and a recording said to be of a lost female cosmonaut. The latter is the most eerie, as cries for help softly underscore the gloaming.
Abaffy cites Halil Altındere’s film Space Refugee, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2019, as an influence on this piece. The film follows a former cosmonaut turned refugee, Muhammed Ahmed Faris, as he tells his life story and hatches an idea that’s at once cynical and optimistic – if no country wants refugees, why not send them to live in space?
Victory Over the Moon similarly reverberates with a strange union of cynicism and optimism, as Abaffy explores the themes of war and displacement. Abaffy’s paradoxical fragility and strength especially stand out in this performance. Of Serbian, Russian and Ukrainian heritage, her dancing is alive with the realities of war and loss.
“One of the aspects of war that haunts me the most,” she tells me, “is the paradigm of heroism … the idea that they would be willing to die, but then, necessarily, to kill …. Growing up with the break-up of Yugoslavia, it was ugly to see brothers and sisters turn against each other… for what? A flag, a nationality? Just so sad.”
Perhaps I related so personally to this because, as a Kurd, I come from a background that has struggled intensely with statelessness and genocide. The message is important. I only wish it were more definitively explored in the work, perhaps with clearer and extended dialogue and movement.
A sadness certainly permeates the work. Three dancers – Abaffy, Geoffrey Watson and Milo Love – run back and forth blindly around the stage, as we hear a child singing in Ukrainian. They finally collapse onto the floor chanting “mir”, which means “peace” across the different Slavic languages.
For most of the piece, the dancers bound around the stage, their footfalls amplified by sonic capture technology on the floor. This sound engineering is really striking at the climax, when the dancers lie prostrate on the floor, their heartbeats and exhausted breathing echoing around the auditorium.
The dancers drag their feet somnambulantly, heads down and hunching their shoulders, creating a picture of despair that at times, because of its lack of variety, feels laboured. The costumes, designed by Abaffy and co-dancer Watson, expose the dancers’ humanity, with muslin draped sparingly over their nude figures.
The final scene, in which Love and Abaffy wave white flags of surrender over their heads, is mesmerising, and the repetition here is used to good effect. Dressed in blue velvet, the silk flailing above their heads, they are at once emblematic of Lady Victory and Mary, the mother of Jesus. After almost 50 minutes of circuitous, heavy dance moves, this moment is vast, meditative and all-encompassing. The grid on the back wall – a projector alignment grid accidentally discovered by Abaffy during a rehearsal – arrests the eye like a target. Moments of tension, in which the dancers lurch towards each other violently in presumed combat, are stirring and break the holding pattern of circular trajectories.
My insides curdled as Abaffy screamed with the intensity of her labour, portraying the agony and indignity of war.
The capricious, open way in which Abaffy works is an interesting contrast to her tragic subject matter, elucidating some of the profanities of war and the humanity of everyone concerned, whether they are soldiers or civilians. Although I can’t help feeling it could be further developed, Victory Over the Moon is a stimulating foray into the atrocities and madness of war.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "The labour of war".
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