Dancer Lisbeth Gruwez takes laughter apart


The Flemish dancer and choreographer has created a group piece that deconstructs laughter and provokes both unease and recognition among her audience

What’s so funny?

AH/HA is a performance about laughter, but it’s no laughing matter to perform. “It’s not really funny,” says dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez about appearing in the piece. “Although it’s about laughter, at the same time it’s kind of grim. And it needs a lot of concentration to perform.”

The piece deconstructs laughter, exploring the variety of physical states it provokes in the human body. But it’s also about the effect laughter has on groups of people, and about group dynamics more generally.

In an empty space, perhaps in the middle of the night, five bodies meet apparently by chance. As they start to interact, the laughter that escapes from them brings them to a state of shared ecstasy.

For the audience this is meant to provoke both unease and the laughter of recognition: the opposition of pain and pleasure in the title resolved into an “ah ha!” of understanding and sympathy.

Bodies out of control

Gruwez trained in classical ballet in Antwerp, but then changed direction, studying contemporary dance at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s PARTS studio in Brussels. She started her professional career with Ultima Vez, the company of Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, before building a long-lasting creative partnership with Jan Fabre.

In 2006 she set up her own company, Voetvolk, with musical collaborator Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, another Fabre alumnus. Their work since then has focused on Gruwez as a solo performer, in particular exploring the human body in trance or ecstatic states. “Out-of-control bodies that I would like to control, even though that sounds impossible,” Gruwez explains. 

Egos disappear, the masks drop, and you have a very basic way of communicating

- Lisbeth Gruwez

Her 2012 solo performance It’s Going to Get Worse and Worse and Worse, My Friend investigated the gestures of impassioned orators, with Gruwez dancing to a deconstructed speech by evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart. It ends on a note of euphoria, which AH/HA picks up and takes in another direction.

But AH/HA also represents a departure for Gruwez in being a group work. Initially she was reluctant to consider this approach, but Van Cauwenberghe insisted that laughter was inherently a communal emotion. “And it turned out to be the right decision, because it is a group thing. It’s a virus. And that’s how we treat it in the piece. It’s a virus that spreads.”

The performers Gruwez recruited to develop and perform the piece two years ago have all remained on board, helping it grow each time it’s performed. She thinks that so much shared laughter creates a natural bond between people. “Egos disappear, the masks drop, and you have a very basic way of communicating.”

They prepare for each performance with a session of laughter yoga and other games to turn forced laughter into genuine hilarity. Then there is a period of shaking, a movement that underpins the piece, and a series of tai chi exercises. “Because we have a whole part that is very very slow, like laughter movements in slow motion,” Gruwez explains.

Emotional athletes

Having the performers revisit the sources of AH/HA in this way means that each performance is different. “I stress the point that first there has to be a thought, and then the emotion comes. So I try to train them as athletes of their emotions,” she says.

Repeating the shaking exercises, for example, renews the emotions and so produces on stage a subtly different set of movements each time. “And this keeps the whole thing very fresh. Sometimes we are excellent, and sometimes we ruin it, but I like to take the risk rather than have a fixed choreography.”

It’s Going to Get Worse and AH/HA are part of the same line of thought about ecstasy and trance, but the third piece currently in Voetvolk’s repertoire is completely different. Lisbeth Gruwez Dances Bob Dylan involves Van Cauwenberghe playing a series of Dylan records from the 1960s and 1970s, while Gruwez dances. 

Sometimes we are excellent, and sometimes we ruin it, but I like to take the risk

- Lisbeth Gruwez

“It shows the way Maarten and I really work together,” she explains. “Before we go into the studio, we drink some beers and listen to records. He has an amazing collection, and he asks me what atmosphere I’m looking for.”

Where It’s Going to Get Worse sought movements that embodied particular words, the Dylan piece is about more elusive rhythms. “For me it’s the way he sings, and the way he puts word into phrases that’s very inspiring to dance to,” Gruwez says. “Sometimes the movements go together with the words, but it’s not that strict. It’s more metaphorical.”

The result is rather minimal, leaving Gruwez quite exposed as a dancer, and it’s taken some time to decide how best to present the piece. But after four performances this year, each in a different setting, it’s ready for a first run in December.

Then there’s the next step in her investigation of trance and ecstasy, which will deal with fear and panic. “I was wondering why I smoke so much, and that has to do with breathing and regulating a kind of anxiousness. Right now I’m only doing breathing exercises, and I will see what comes out of it.”

In the longer term she has plans to choreograph a piece for the first time without performing in it herself. “I have a dream of making a piece for 12 dancers, and I need to be able to see the patterns in order to make it. That would be my first step outside. So, these are exciting times.”

AH/HA is at KVS in Brussels on 7-9 October, before touring in Maasmechelen, Leuven and Koksijde. Lisbeth Gruwez Dances Bob Dylan is at the Concertgebouw in Bruges on December 9, then at KVS from December 17.

Photo by Luc Depreitere

More performance this month

Spectacular Lightshows of Which U Don’t See the Effect

After five years working in Germany, noted Flemish stage actor Benny Claessens returned to Belgium last year, joining the company at NTGent. As well as gracing productions of Accatone and The Cherry Orchard, Claessens has revived this performance devised in Germany with his partner, the Estonian actor Risto Kübar. Spectacular Lightshows recounts a night of intimacy and its aftermath, in an anonymous room somewhere in Europe. 30 September-11 March, NTGent, Minnemeers 8

Stop in Java

De Singel presents a rich programme of contemporary dance and performance from Indonesia, demonstrating how a rapidly developing society can transform strong cultural traditions. It begins with Cry Jailolo, created by Eko Supriyanto with a group of young men from a fishing village in the Maluku Islands, and Absorbing and Squeezing and I’m Almost Plastic, two pieces devised by Fitri Setyaningsih to be performed in De Singel’s Ballard Garden. 3-24 October, De Singel, Desguinlei 25, Antwerp

Hacia la Alegría

An architect gets up in the middle of the night, leaves his apartment and runs. As he passes through the city he reflects on social segregation, the place of art in the public sphere, and his personal success. Performed in Spanish, with Dutch and French subtitles, Hacia la Alegría is an innovatively staged monologue, written and directed by Olivier Py, director of the Avignon Festival. Part of the pan-European Cities on Stage project. 6-10 October, National Theatre, Emile Jacqmainlaan 111