Matthias Sperling’s work Now That We Know, which revisited Sadler’s Wells at the beginning of November, is an extraordinary and very unusual work. It challenges our perceptions of dance, the dancer and perhaps most importantly the relationship between our own minds and bodies. How do we think physically, and how does our existence as a physical entity influence everything from our psychology to our politics?
Sperling attempts to examine, if not answer, these questions by establishing us in a futuristic space, where The Institute of NeuroChoreography has investigated the gordian knots of selfhood and the body and unearthed certain maxims or truths relating to these topics. The transition from Lilian Baylis Studio, 2018, to The Institute at an undefined future point is exceptionally well-done. There is a period of extreme pitch blackness, which a sing-song voice cuts through to begin to take us on our journey. It was incredibly unnerving, and unsettling both in a psychological and a spatial sense as we the audience lose our sense of where we are, even who we are, and the limits of our own bodies seem to melt in this blackness and become undefined. Gradually a ghost like figure begins to appear onstage, lit by such exquisite degrees that at first it seems like a dancing aura, something projected from our own minds, our eyes playing a trick on us. It isn’t possible to look directly at it, somehow, and so it exists on the periphery of our vision for quite some time, nudging us into a primal, heightened state of watching as though we are animals in some vast dark space, hunting or being hunted. It is the perfect preparation of an audience for what is to follow, acting as an awakening shift from the everyday into a space both intellectual and primitive: the laboratory of The Institute, a timeless, space-less, philosophical event.
As the lights come up and Sperling’s dance/lecture/monologue proceeds, the piece continually uncovers and examines philosophical queries which are intellectually stimulating and worthwhile: particularly pertinent feel the sections on political choreography, and the ways in which humans are predictive, predicting the world so that we may adapt sufficiently. The language is danced as much as the body, and it feels strong and right that this dancer speaks, combining language and movement and somehow attempting to make them one and the same instrument in a total unification of the body-mind. Sperling’s graceful twisting movements have something of the serpent in them, as he coils and uncoils his long legs on the floor: an unsettling image, recalling perhaps the serpent in the garden that leads us to knowledge but away from grace or innocence, depending on your view.
As such the piece is symbolically rich and loaded with significance, yet the audience became increasingly restless over the 45 minutes, with some audibly and visually relieved when it came to a close. Particularly oppressive and uncomfortable is the soundtrack: formed of stretched tones from Sperling’s speech, it creates a feeling of being inside a vast aircraft hangar, or a particularly loud air-conditioning unit. There are moments when the pitch sinks so deep and the volume is so loud it is almost physically nauseating, which again is certainly interesting from a psycho-physical perspective but which does not make for a comfortable viewing experience. At times it distracts from the content of the piece, it is so physically overwhelming a sound. The piece also feels a touch long, with the tense coil of attention created in the arresting darkness of the beginning unwinding slowly once the lights come up. This is a fascinating piece, best approached in the spirit of an academic lecture than in a piece of entertainment, although it could be improved by cutting and refining the content to maintain that sharp focus created in the beginning.