Review: What The Body Does Not Remember

Barbara Newman applauds a revived work by revered Belgian choreographer-filmmaker Wim Vandekeybus.

Before Hofesh Schecter and his company of male dancers adopted urban aggression as their stylistic signature, before the physical slang of break dancing exploded into theatrical performances, and before Pina Bausch gave dance theatre new stature and popularity throughout the world, the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus twisted all those forms into his first creation, What The Body Does Not Remember. Made in 1987 for his company, Ultima Vez (Spanish for ‘Last Time’), this work spectacularly launched a lasting career, not with its initial performances but by winning a prestigious award in New York the same year.

Revived now, almost three decades later, it has lost none of its theatrical power, and from the first thunderous drumbeat—produced, it turns out, by human hands striking an amplified tabletop—it manipulates your imagination as deftly as a magician.

In a dark space and ordinary informal clothes, five men and four women flip their focus and our attention through a web of personal interaction, mysteriously defining emotional states with their physical daring and ferocious energy. Brutal calesthenics yield to dangerous relays in which breezeblocks arcing overhead link the racers. Slowing to a walk, the dancers construct a teasing game of pickpocket, stealing each other’s jackets with nonchalant fluidity as they stroll by.

Credit: Danny Willems

Credit: Danny Willems

Gentle caresses become insistant and evolve into threats, as if affection cannot be trusted. But then, a man holding a woman on his lap delicately seduces her, removing her sweater without rising, which brought a warm laugh of recognition. The group gathers into companiable poses, formal as family portraits, then breaks apart so the dancers can taunt one seated man by mimicking his positions, and the mood swings from playful to hostile and back again.

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Newer contemporary pieces may be better known, but few now pack such a memorable punch. As fashion leans toward more flashy dances, crammed with pyrotechnics and devoid of human resonance, it’s exciting to see choreography that is both evocative and provocative.

Ultima Vez tours What The Body Does Not Remember to Coventry, Nottingham, Doncaster, Manchester, Newcastle and Blackpool until 20 March. See for details