BEIRUT: An enormously tall, broad-shouldered man in a nondescript suit walks out of the wings. His shaggy hair swings around his ears and his shoes rap noisily on the floor. He stops at the edge of the stage and stares over the sea of faces looking up at him from the darkened auditorium.
Just as the audience, tired of awaiting further developments, begins to shift restlessly in their seats, a diminutive women, also clad in a suit, walks out to stand behind him. Side-by-side, the two resemble David and Goliath, or perhaps Laurel and Hardy. A titter of laughter runs through the crowd.
Thursday’s performance at Theatre Monnot, the fourth of the 10 that make up this year’s BIPOD, the Beirut International Platform of Dance, was riddled with similar quietly comic moments.
Joined on stage by two more suited figures, the enormous man slowly began to remove his clothes. Soon all four figures were clad only in underwear and cotton vest tops. Four neatly folded piles of formalwear and four pairs of smart black shoes stood sentry at the front of the stage, where they remained for the next 45 minutes.
“If/Then for Strings,” choreographed by Richard Siegal, founder and artistic director of German interdisciplinary research and production platform The Bakery, was billed as an exploration of the intersection between music and dance. Exploring “embodied gesture,” Siegal worked with musicians, allowing the exigencies of the music to drive their movements and their gestures in turn to generate elements of the composition.
The 45-minute long performance, which premiered in Munich in January, features not professional dancers but the four members of the Asasello String Quartet, made up of Rostislav Kozhevnikov and Barbara Kuster on violin, Justyna Sliwa on viola and Wolfgang Zamastil on cello. The quartet’s talents as classical musicians shone through in this radically experimental performance.
Once divested of their traditional concert attire, the four performers – moving with the efficient but not particularly graceful gait of the average person, rather than the practiced glide of professional dancers – walked to the four stools at the center of the stage and picked up their instruments.
The opening segment of the performance featured a classically inspired composition with repeated bursts of staccato chords, during which Kozhevnikov bounced up and down energetically on his stool, occasionally standing to face off with Sliwa, like two goats about to lock horns, or possibly violin pegs.
As the performance progressed, the musicians’ physical movements became wilder and the aural portion of the performance correspondingly more dissonant and percussive. The opening movement, punctuated by the performers standing on their chairs and performing occasional sporadic high kicks in time to the music, was followed by a discordant, contemporary piece, during which the musicians waved their bows in the air as though swatting invisible flies, producing percussive swishing noises and letting loose clouds of rosin.
Zamastil, constrained somewhat by the limitations of his instrument, nevertheless provided most of the evening’s comic relief. He spun his cello on its spike between bow strokes, tapped the viola player on the shoulder and bare thigh impatiently with his bow as she played with her back to him, and placed his bow on the strings of Kuster’s violin as it swung, metronome-like, from her hand, producing a series of sawing notes.
When he turned his cello upside down, removed the spike and began blowing into the metal hole at the base of the instrument, producing a hollow moaning sound, a ripple ran through the audience. Kozhevnikov soon followed suit, blowing into the f-hole of his violin. Not to be outdone, Zamastic stood, raised his cello to head height and bellowed furiously into it, producing a cacophony that was soon drowned out by a wave of laughter.
As the performance progressed, the movement of the dancers gradually began to take precedence, appearing to drive the composition, rather than being generated by it.
After a melodic, melancholy number, during which the stage lights dimmed, leaving the four musicians to play together in the dark, their silhouettes swaying sinuously like witches casting spells around the pot, the composition returned to an approximation of the opening number.
The music was lent a further inharmonious edge by the musicians’ movements, as they took turns to swap their instruments to the wrong shoulder, bowing with their left hands.
A funny, intelligent and original show, “If/Then for Strings” also proved accessible to all ages. An elderly gentleman attending the performance solo sat beside a young boy accompanied by his parents. Neither seemed particularly entranced with the performance’s subdued opening minutes, but half an hour in both were leaning forward in their seats with matching smiles on their faces.
BIPOD continues at Masrah al-Madina and Metro al-Madina until April 27. For more information, please visit www.maqamat.org