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  • Khaled ElSamman

Transcendent and liberating - review of The Body as Reference for (R)Evolution

Written by Khaled ElSamman

The brilliant United Cowboys gave an extraordinary performance in a demanding four-hour show with striking ease.

The Dutch live art dance company United Cowboys was established a little over 30 years ago and it is based in Eindhoven with a vision to explore and experiment with

multidisciplinary shows that push the conventional limits of dance, performance, music, video and installation art.

Their latest show, The Body as Reference for (R)Evolution, was an apt representation of their vision. Watching the dancers engage in a transformative week-long creative process that culminated in a non-stop four-hour show has left me, and the audience, in awe. The show’s directors, Maarten van der Put and Pauline Roelants, successfully weaved the diverse creative approaches of the dancers into an exquisite performative fabric without sacrificing each dancer’s artistic distinctiveness.

The rehearsals started just one week before the show. During that time, the United Cowboys cast, consisting of four recurring participants and five Swedish-based performers, with the help of Maarten and Pauline, were able to collectively align their conceptual creativity. That resulted in a performance that was harmonious and adaptable at the same time.

Photo credit: Eliano Nasr

One of the ways that United Cowboys manifested their multi-disciplinary approach to art is in borrowing the concept of a biotope from ecology to the Body as Reference for (R)Evolution. The theatre as a biotope is not an unusual idea, but how it was incorporated in the show both conceptually and materially certainly is.

The stage was configured as a rectangular space in the middle reminiscing of a temple’s hypostyle, and where one would expect an alter there was a silver screen that displayed scenes of political nationalism themes that melancholically contrasted with the organic nature of the biotope.

The biotope space content and setup have turned it into a sandbox where the dancers explored their own artistic and physical limits while interpreting the musical soundscape created live by Pauline.

“It is so liberating! I had to come back”

The relatively long duration of the long-form performance improv, together with its physically-demanding nature made me perceive it as a form of endurance art that tests the limits of both the bodily and the creative stamina of the dancers. During the show, the dancers were emotionally identifying with their performance and kept in character even when they were not being observed by the audience, which is a hallmark of Method Acting that was developed by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg in the 1940s.

Video report on The Body as Reference for (R)Evolution in Gothenburg by Brian Campion

The audience has received the show with engagement and astonishment. A few of them even came back after leaving. “It is so liberating! I had to come back,” a woman in her 60s told me while rushing in through Kronhuset’s doors. The non-verbal nature of the show has made it accessible to a wider and diverse audience. Not only non-Swedish speakers could enjoy the performance, but there were also members of the deaf and hard of hearing community among the audience with

whom I communicated through the notes app on our phones. The deaf community is usually left behind when it comes to participating in cultural activities, and performances like The Body as a Reference for (R)Evolution can help the cultural scene to be more inclusive.

The performance took place on 5 March 2022 as part of the Gothenburg Fringe Festival spring showcase. The showcase came shortly after the pandemic restrictions have been lifted nationwide as part of the festival’s commitment to supporting local artists and the cultural scene in Gothenburg.

The show is performed by Eli Tova Ekenberg, Anna Nilsson, Jim De Block, Conor Doherty, Gabriella Rooth (who goes by the stage name Harley Queen), Jef Stevens, Vida Voyage (aka Vida Vojić), Violeta Vilanova, Florencia Martina and directed by Maarten van der Put and Pauline Roelants of United Cowboys.

The performance has received funding and support from Preform Europe, the City of Gothenburg, KulturUngdom, the Embassy of the Netherlands in Sweden and Gothenburg Fringe.

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