Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres, Festival TransAmériques, Montréal

  • Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres, FTA, Montréal, May 29-31, 2015. Photo: © Emilie Renck
  • Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres, FTA, Montréal, May 29-31, 2015. Photo: © Emilie Renck
  • Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres, FTA, Montréal, May 29-31, 2015. Photo: © Emilie Renck
  • Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres, FTA, Montréal, May 29-31, 2015. Photo: © Emilie Renck

Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom, Hyperterrestres
Festival TransAmériques, Montréal
May 29–31, 2015

My encounter with Benoît Lachambre and Fabrice Ramalingom’s Hyperterrestres was certainly tinted with the residue of a reading group I attended a few days earlier. In this meeting we discussed the short story “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler.(1) It is a bizarre and unsettling text that, though set in an unfamiliar literary universe, explores questions of exploitation and manipulation that strike an all-too-familiar chord. Butler’s writing, including this story, is generally identified as science fiction or speculative fiction, genres which have garnered a dubious reputation among many cultural consumers.

As Sarah Mirk recounts in an episode of the podcast Popaganda,(2) declarations that she has been reading science fiction are often met with “polite confusion: ‘Oh, like, stuff about aliens?’” Yet, she explains, “On its face, science fiction is about, yes, aliens, and other planets, and distant futures, and things that might not seem to relate a lot to Earth. But the best science fiction is really about what’s going on here at home. In a fictional galaxy where anything is possible, it’s easier to reflect back on how weird and screwed up our own societies can be.”

Hyperterrestres appeared to take form as sci-fi dance (an identification signalled in the work’s title), employing many of the genre’s conventions found in film and literature. Judging from the giggles passing among spectators seated in front of me, however, the audience’s general response was something akin to the bemused puzzlement Mirk describes.

The first several minutes elapse with very little light—just enough to perceive the suggestion of movement behind a screen. Indistinct shapes fold into each other. Occasionally the outline of what could be a thigh or shoulder begins to emerge, only to dissolve into fuzziness a moment later. The quite deliciously glacial pace of this opening segment brings to mind dance scholar André Lepecki’s writing on slowness. Lepecki describes a mode of dancing “that initiates a critique of representation by insisting on the still, on the slow, and on that particular form of repetition known in rhetoric as ‘paronomasia.’”(3) Through this, Lepecki argues, “dance emerges as a disembodied power ready to be occupied by any body.”(4) But what happens when instead of being occupied by a body as we know it, dance is infiltrated by some other entity? Invaded by aliens even?

The screen eventually lifts, slowly, inch by inch, forming a pendulous fabric ceiling—an element of Emmanuelle Debeusscher’s scenography both simple and evocative. The set’s movement reveals two hooded figures, the obscurity of their corporeal form only rendered more perplexing by the bizarre sounds they slowly start to produce. Indeed, sound, and especially Hahn Rowe’s musical composition and performance, were integral to rendering the unfamiliar environment through which the choreography unfurled.

The performers wheeze and sputter, beginning to move in twitches and shakes that eventually lead Ramalingom to dissociative spasms. These choreographic sequences challenge us as viewers to parse how such movement registers without referents (visible human bodies, for example) that most often form our understanding of a theatrical world. Of course, one way such dancing can register is through humour. The aforementioned laughter rippled again when Ramalingom propelled his body forward in a deep lunge and produced a screeching sound. And yes, this movement is funny. Yet the comedy arrives as a reaction to strangeness, to an abrupt departure from our expectations as spectators.

Writer, and scholar Walidah Imarisha mirrors Mirk’s sentiment in the same podcast when she describes how science fiction allows us to “remove ourselves, and our ego, and our preconceived notions of the world, and really be open and say, ok so anything can happen, what happens next?” Lachambre and Ramalingom express similar sentiments regarding the piece. “We hope that it will allow spectators to let go of all rationalization, allowing them to dream,” Ramalingom explained. And I’d like to suggest that where literary science fiction may allow us to imagine narratives and characters outside our universe’s conventions, sci-fi dance might grant us an approach to conceptualizing performing bodies outside of pre-existing definitions of what bodies actually are or how they move and interact.

Of course, along with the possibilities of science fiction come all its clichés, and Hyperterrestres could not, or did not, succeed in avoiding these. When the performers removed their hoods, for example, they sported metallic headpieces that demonstrated more of a camp approach to science fiction than an exploratory one.

Another concern: as a literary genre, science fiction suffers from its own set of shortcomings, and the dominance of male writers and readers is one prominent example. In a staged world ostensibly so imaginative, I wonder if the absence of female-identifying dancing bodies might unnecessarily reproduce “real world” patriarchal dynamics. Returning to Butler, her fiction is remarkable for always foregrounding intersectional identities, especially women of colour. In a hypothetical genre of sci-fi dance, it could be artistically and politically productive for artists to follow her lead.

My reflection so far is weighted, perhaps unfairly, toward one section of the piece. If Hyperterrestres began by exploring a notion of sci-fi dance, this mode changed abruptly when Lachambre approached the audience, saying, in French, “we need to take a break,” and subsequently launched into a non-linear monologue dealing with ideas of reality and fiction. While the Brechtian gesture of breaking the fourth wall can be, and I would argue most often is, an effective theatrical technique in dance, here it seemed to fall a little flat. Instead of creatively modulating our engagement with the piece, Lachambre’s address halted its momentum. For me it resonated as a self-reflexive moment where none was particularly needed.

In addressing the audience, Lachambre brought Hyperterrestres quickly back down to earth. And that’s fine; many may, in fact, prefer it that way. I do think, however, that we should take seriously some of the work’s more elliptical offerings. For my part, I was most excited by the choreography that I perceived as untethered, adrift somewhere in the space of possibilities, infinite and beyond.

NOTES
(1) Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories, 1996).
(2) Sarah Mirk, “Feminism and Science Fiction” on Popaganda (November 20, 2014), Bitch Media, accessed June 7, 2015, http://bitchmagazine.org/post/popaganda-episode-feminism-and-science-fiction.
(3) André Lepecki, “Choreography’s Slower Ontology: Jérôme Bel’s Critique of Representation,” in Exhausting Dance (New York: Routledge, 2006), 39.
(4) Ibid., 55.

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