Lisbeth Gruwez was last in Singapore in 2013, presenting her solo piece ‘It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend’. I recall the piece taking me on a deep, visceral journey, an emotional rollercoaster playing with the tension between the words, their effect, her body and her expressions. Her solo choreography worked with the cadences of popular 1980s American televangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s sermons, going deep into the impact of his sound and the manipulative effects of such oratory. The text is possibly not wrong — in some ways, our world seems to be getting worse and worse. For the televangelist, he was disgraced in the 1990s, so at least for himself he was prophetic.
This year, Esplanade presents Gruwez’s first piece made for a group, ‘AH | HA’. Not a direct response to the apocalyptic language of Swaggart, of course, but my mind could draw a direct line between the language of fear and rabble-rousing rage, and the way laughter can bubble up, explode, and shift a situation.
What motivated you to focus on laughter for this work?
As part of my research on the ecstatic body, I wanted to focus on the laughing body and on what laughter means in different social contexts. At least: that was the premise. Once the piece was finished, it turned out that laughter had become our choreographic language and that the content was more of a grim dissection of how group dynamics function. As a child I was often bullied and made fun of – I guess I was looking to distil a certain universal poetry from that experience.
What are some of the images and provocations you worked with in making this work?
First of all, we daily practised laughter yoga, training ourselves in laughter movements without making any sound. We zoomed in on the function laughter has in society. From a simple smile to belly laughter: a laugh can be shy, fake, mean, sarcastic, pure joyful, ecstatic… There are so many colours and different effects and dynamics. We started to look at laughter as a virus that spreads out and affects a group: it can unite as well as divide and even exclude.
We also tried to translate human laughter to animal characteristics. You can discover an animal in every one of the laughing bodies. I turn out to be a rat – although I do not like it! – but we also have an ostrich, a swan, a dog and a monkey in our midst. Another inspiration was the paintings of Matthias Grünewald. Because of these, we decided to mute all sounds of laughter coming from the performers.
What are some challenges you had to overcome in making and staging this work? Is there something you discovered through making this work, that you didn’t know before? Could you share more about it?
It has been a big challenge for me as it was the first time I’ve made a piece with more people, including myself on the stage. I remember this one moment during the creation when I felt as lonely as when I was bullied at school. It made me realise we all want to be part of something: to be part of a group and to be loved. This awareness had a huge impact on the working process, as every individual emotion somehow has an impact on the emotions of the group.
If there was a director’s cut to the show, what would you show (if any)?
I would choose the so-called meatball scene in which we all move as one pulsating pieta: a moment of loving consciousness and acceptance.
I suppose we could keep a lookout for this scene when we go to experience the journey this work of dance carries us through. Perhaps there is something of the desire to heal, to be able to flip a “ha” into an “ah”, to find an “ah-ha” moment where meanings click and solutions seem to be found.
Lisbeth Gruwez is performing at da:ns festival 19 & 20 of October, at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.