Ancient souls. New myths.
If new myths about our present globalised world are written in the future, there is a considerable chance that they will be set in densely populated cities and no longer in dark forests or inhospitable deserts with solitary heroes and superhuman tasks. The challenges of our times have become more ordinary and down to earth. At the start of this third millennium, the human condition has become increasingly dependent on the ‘urban condition’. The vast majority of mankind now lives in cities. In the city, human civilisation is both shaped and put to the test, to use once again the familiar words of Lewis Mumford, the American sociologist of the city. Our future as humans is thus at stake in parallel with the city.
Our multicultural and highly diverse cities have become the world’s contact zones, in which cultures and people that have until now been separated have been forced by geography, history, race, ethnicity etc. to live together in the same space, always in the context of power and uneven relations. The inhabitants of a city no longer share the same stories, the same history, the same traditions, the same language, the same religion. In fact it’s rather the contrary: how can the traumatic experiences of a refugee from the war in Syria, the painful story of exclusion of an economic migrant from North Africa and the life of someone born and bred in Belgium be compared to each other? What they share is the same space. The city. And the longing for a future. In this sense, the city is more of a laboratory than ever. An experiment in living together, with the differences. An experiment that may also fail.
It is not the first time that Wim Vandekeybus explains himself through the dynamic of a group, with what ties the group together and what divides it, with what a group reconciles itself with and what sacrifices have to be made as a result. He has previously done this in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour (2017), Menske (2007) and Puur (2006), productions that portrayed the fears and desires, the unconscious and the internal violence of a community.
For TrapTown, Vandekeybus invited the author Pieter De Buysser to write a script. De Buysser wrote a fable with a mythical dimension in which the tensions of contemporary society are palpable without being named. This fable is interwoven with an intense interplay of words, movement, images and sounds, which gives the whole piece the whimsicality, fascination and elusiveness of a dream. In The Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino makes a striking comparison between cities and dreams: “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Perhaps this is also one of the meanings of TrapTown. A city where, as in a dream, you can walk into a trap.
Vandekeybus’ choreography – the physical manifestation of the tensions between individuals and groups – is the backbone of the performance and the link between the film images and the live performance.
For the music, Vandekeybus is collaborating with Trixie Whitley and Phoenician Drive. In this context, Trixie Whitley’s music represents a more spiritual dimension, while the music of Phoenician Drive stands at the multicultural crossroads of Middle-Eastern, North-African and Balkan traditions. The two main themes of the production meet in the music: the desire for emancipation and freedom and the confrontation of cultures.
The city is the horizon of human existence. In TrapTown, this metaphor has to be taken literally. There is nothing beyond the city. As the title already suggests, this horizon has here become a prison. The city is a gigantic labyrinth with no exit. A rebus that cannot be resolved. Outside the labyrinth there is nothing. The people who live in the city are condemned to live with each other. There is no alternative way of living together. There is no alternative to the city. The only opening is upwards, to the sky, the heavens, to the freedom of the birds. Vandekeybus filmed in the labyrinth that the architect duo Gijs Van Vaerenbergh created for the tenth anniversary of C-mine in Genk and which is still in place. He also asked this duo for the stage design. They built a backdrop with various platforms at different heights, which makes it possible to play ingeniously with the film images projected onto it, as well as an interaction between the characters in the film and the live dancers.
Vandekeybus plays with contrasts: vertical/ horizontal, high/low, large/small, live/digital and so on. He builds up the vocabulary and syntax of the performance using these tensions. Characters leap out of the cloth onto the stage and back. Live characters speak with characters in the film. Although the story is about ‘boundaries’, in its narration the boundaries between the media are constantly crossed in a fluid, rhythmical movement.
We are living in a transitional period. At certain moments, the uncertainty and fear that go with it assume an apocalyptic tone. This feeling arises when the world and the stories we tell about our own world no longer correspond. What we call globalisation, and its many effects, have profoundly changed the world. But we do not yet have the right stories for these changes, let alone assimilate them.
Living means living with stories. Without stories we do not exist. Neither as individuals nor as a group. In the past, stories provided cohesion and meaning. They linked the past to the future and gave direction to the present. They kept a community together. They told of its origins and development. They gave each individual a place and every event a meaning. In the confusion of a transitional period, we can only tell stories of conflicts and decline. The new becomes tangible only in the smashing of the old.
For TrapTown, Wim Vandekeybus and Pieter De Buysser wrote a mythical story about this transitional period. The city of Askeville is inhabited by two ‘tribes’: the Odinese and the Mythricians. These names are reminiscent of ancient Greek and Norse myths, but they might equally be names from a science-fiction novel by Ursula Le Guin. The two tribes share a long history of four thousand years, a history of conflict over milk and honey whereby the Odinese gained dominion and oppressed the Mythricians, making slaves of them.
Vandekeybus and De Buysser did not opt for a contemporary city and a present-day story of social, ethnic and religious tensions. They have chosen the detachment of myth and fable. Once upon a time... long ago... and far away... or one day... at some time... somewhere in the future... This distancing leaves room for the imagination and for several interpretations. How did the conflict start? What exactly was it all about? At what point did the difference turn into inequality and oppression? And could it not just as well have been the other way round? Because in the meantime the two tribes have intermingled and it may no longer be possible to talk about purity.
The power of the myth is its simplicity. A simplicity that takes the form of depth. The countless current political, economic and social conflicts lie at a timeless depth, anchored in age-old patterns.
Askeville is governed by Lars Oncré, the mayor. He is Odinese. He knows the history of the city and is aware that a historical injustice has taken place with regard to the Mythricians. His son Marduk, whose mother is Mythrician, openly takes the side of the oppressed. He is prepared to give up his own identity for the emancipation of the Mythricians. His father is a pragmatist, but also a nihilist (‘No living creature has any unambiguous right. / Only death and silence are right, and only death and silence have rights’), while the son is a universalist and an idealist (‘No justice, no peace. ... Civil disobedience is my moral duty’). The son takes a stand against the father. The new world against the old. It is a classic conflict. An archaic pattern. But the fault lines and painful issues of our contemporary society also become audible and visible in the conversations between fathernand son. How can we (Europeans, westerners) deal with a history of oppression, exclusion and colonisation? How guilty are we of the deeds of our ancestors? How far should we go in the criticism of our ‘white identity’? How can we show genuine solidarity with the oppressed?
Marduk wants to declare his solidarity with the Mythricians, but they treat him as an outsider. The Odinese see him as a traitor. His death is inevitable. A death which in the end he understands as making way for others in the eternal cycle of coming and going: ‘Well, here, I’ll make space, so the wheel can keep going.’
Both the father and the son have a dimension that takes them outside themselves. Marduk is in love with Themis, played by Trixie Whitley. But is she actually a character? Isn’t she a voice inside him? A voice that exhorts him to make choices? At extreme moments, the father in his turn transforms into an eagle. Animals and animality are never far off in Vandekeybus’ work. As a limit to man and the choices he can make. In his work, nature has always been the limit in the face of which culture breaks down.
Vandekeybus has created a world that already bears within it its own downfall. Not in the possibility of the total mutual destruction of the two tribes, but in the form of inexplicable holes that suddenly appear in the surface, which suck into the ground everything in the vicinity. These are the vanishing points of reality. That is the ultimate fate of Askeville. The city vanishes. There are forces and catastrophes that lie beyond any human scale.
Written by Erwin Jans