Ula
Sickle

Ula Sickle (CA/PL) is a choreographer and performer based in Brussels, Belgium. From a background in contemporary dance, she works across disciplines and in collaboration with artists from other domains such as the visual arts, contemporary music or architecture. While her work takes many forms, from video to installation to live performance, she focuses on a choreographic approach to movement and a work on perception and reception, specific to the live arts.

Ula’s interest in looking for an alternative to the cannon of contemporary dance, has led her to seek out performers who embody other movement histories. The solos Solid Gold (2010) & Jolie (2011) as well as the group performance Kinshasa Electric (2014) are all collaborations with performers from Democratic Republic of Congo. Extreme Tension (2012) is a powerful solo for a self-taught dancer in her 60’s, and Prelude (2014) is a solo for a female vocalist. Frequently centered around strong performers, she searches for forms of choreographic writing, where the cultural coding and political power of ‘popular’ dancing can be revealed or where the musicality and materiality of the body itself can take center stage.

Ula studied Art History & Semiotics at the University of Toronto and Performance Studies at Paris VIII, before attending P.A.R.T.S. Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels. From 2008-2010 she pursued her interest in the visual arts and film, studying at Le Fresnoy, a post-graduate media program in the North of France, where she also met sound artist Yann Leguay, a frequent collaborator. The video works Looping the Loop (2009) and Atomic 5.1 (2010), as well as the filmic dance pieces, Light Solos (2010-13) all stem from her time at Le Fresnoy.

Extended Play (2016) her most recent project, is a collaboration with visual artist and DJ Daniela Bershan (Baba Electronica), who also created the sound and performed live in Kinshasa Electric (2014).  EP premiered this past spring in the Kunstenfestivaldesarts and Les Rencontres chorégraphiques internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis in Paris.

Ula has been presented in many international theaters and venues such as Kaaitheater, KVS and Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels BE), ImPulsTanz and TanzQuartier (Vienna AT), Zodiak & Moving in November festival (Helsinki FI), Reykjavik Dance festival (Iceland IS), Tangente (Montreal CA), Nowy Teatr (Warsaw PL), B:OM festival (Seoul KR),  Zürcher Theater Spektakel (Zurich CH), les Rencontres chorégraphiques internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis (Paris FR), among others.

Ula is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Flemish Community.

 
>> Artistic Profile by Charlotte de Somviele for the Flanders Arts Institut
Special dossier: Contemporary Dance from Flanders





“Ula Sickle: Assembling materialities, creating performative bodies”

– Rudi Laermans

 

1.

The human body, which many still routinely regard as the principal locus of dance and choreography, is not one but many things. Consider it to be a material multiplicity or, rather, the embodiment of a virtual potentiality of countless material states that it only partially enacts or realizes over time through a continually redefined process of becoming. Some of these materializations come and go with ageing: Marie De Corte’s well-trained older body in Ula Sickle’s Extreme Tension evidently moves or gestures differently than a young dancer (and it will take many words to articulate this multifaceted otherness beyond worn-out clichés such as ‘less agile’ or ‘more vulnerable’). However, a twofold performativity is at stake. There are the movements and poses enacted by De Corte, which are intrinsically linked to her physical capacities; and there is the performative body that emerges out of the continuously metamorphosing intra-action between De Corte’s moving body, lighting, the audience’s collective attention and particularly the sound score by Sickle’s frequent collaborator Yann Leguay. His musical score entertains various micro-relations with De Corte’s gestures and poses, ranging from intimately close to aloof-like neutrality, but mostly in a way that clearly supersedes the mere act of framing. The evolving soundscape indeed co-performs the performative body: it is an agent in its own right, with a singular materiality and a peculiar agency.


The performative body is a complex composite and shifting aesthetic fabrication, a heterogeneous ensemble of various percepts and affects that – notwithstanding its artificial nature – is ‘more real than real’. Producing such a hyper-real performative body differing from the involved performing body is the hallmark of Sickle’s performance works. This exploratory quest is vastly inspired by her interest in the multi-layered materiality of the live produced image and, concomitantly, in the physicality of the imaginary relationship linking spectatorship and stage-events. Simple but effective means may do the work. Thus in Lights Solos, a set of stroboscopic lamps accompanied by the sound of the amplified light remediates Sickle’s moving body into a succession of vividly juxtaposed images. Theirs is a slightly uncanny optical materiality that has a ghost-like quality but is at the same time all too real and genuinely affective in its fragmenting of the dancing body (and this even if one is acquainted with the stroboscope-effect from discotheques). Producing quasi-hallucinatory bodies that are nevertheless quasi-haptic, this time by means of the so-called Pepper’s ghost-technique, is also the prime feature of the live installation work, Viewmaster that Sickle co-created with Heike Langsdorf and Laurent Liefooghe. In other performances, Leguay’s sound work is again the principal co-agent of a human solo dancer. In Solid Gold, this co-performing relationship also involves a direct collaborative relationship between sound engineer and dancer. Leguay amplifies and loops dancer Dinozord’s stepping and breathing, which results over time in a guiding musical score created by both. Yet the live produced soundtrack also acts as an agential force in its own right – read: with a proper materiality and distinctive agency that is irreducible to the human actions of Dinozord and Leguay.


With varying articulations in the different works, Ula Sickle practices choreography as the art of assembling heterogeneous materialities and their defining characteristics into a continually changing force field. Human bodies and non-human entities, particularly sound and lighting, are consistently treated as co-performers. Precisely the entanglement of their actions through various intra-actions produces an autonomous and non-substantial, ever changing performative body whose hyper-real ‘visuality’ more then once deconstructs the regular partition of the visible and the invisible. Yet this aesthetic construct not only ephemerally, and also somewhat elusively, emerges out of the encounter ‘now, here’ between, for instance, a singular bodily gesture, a difficult to circumscribe electronic sound and a momentary light pattern. The audience is also part of the fabricated force field, even a necessary co-performer. In order to exist, the performative body needs the spectator’s attentive watching and listening because its mode of being is of the order of the aesthetic, of percepts and affects only existing in and through the at once sensory and imaginary relationship linking the audience with what happens on stage. Fine-tuning the relation between stage and audience is therefore crucial to the composition of a consistent performative body that holds over time and is simultaneously a becoming that may have narrative qualities (for instance when the sound score intensifies or on the contrary slows down). Not that the performative body ever changes into a quasi-personae: it is rather a multi-faceted landscape in which the human performer’s bodily materiality is acted upon by other materialities. This is indeed the defining trait of Sickle’s performance work from an at once choreographic and medial point of view: human physical movement, including its doubling effects through lighting or illusionary techniques, remains at the centre. The traditional hierarchical relationship within most dance genres between the human body and the non-human elements relegated to the role of scenographic elements, is flattened out. However, within the thus created level playing field corporeal movements still act as the main attractors of attention. Sickle’s multi-medial choreographies vacillate on the threshold where dance is in the betwixt-and-between state of becoming post-human.

 

2.

Among Ula Sickle’s performances, Solid Gold, Jolie and Kinshasa Electric stand out because the young performers are Congolese – they all grew up in Kinshasa - and affirm through their movement vocabulary their sociocultural background, which is anything but univocal. The three performances evoke a truly postcolonial dancing body that points to a fragmented, even fractured potential, one in which traces of traditional African dance intermingle with diverse sorts of western dance styles, ranging from Hip Hop to MTV-entertainment dance to techno. This hybrid body can shift within a second from this to that genre in a virtuosic mode, yet without ever finding stable ground: it is a postmodern container, a loose ensemble of heterogeneous, free-floating references that are primarily linked in an imaginary way to the historical or social realities they indirectly evoke. The performances, when shown here in Europe, are mainly for white audiences within an institutional context co-defined by the marker ‘contemporary’, bringing to the fore the question of the status of the black performing body and the popular dance histories to which they refer.


            Through a keen play with the difference between the performative and the performing body, Solid Gold and Jolie go with but also against the cliché codes surrounding the black performer. In Solid Gold, Dinozord embodies the cliché-movements, particularly also the facial gestures, which come with the reference to this or that ‘black’ dance style. The performer answers the white gaze: he looks back according to mediatized codes – he smiles when hinting at Broadway dance and he grimaces when alluding, through fast-paced and energetic, aggressive jabs, chest pops or arm swings, to the American street dance genre known as krumping. Yet over time, Dinozord’s increasing and all too visible and audible fatigue begins to exhaust the co-constructed performative body – as if the black performer unwillingly self-deconstructs the enacted ‘blackness’ by affirming it all too willingly in front of the spectator’s gaze. The performance’s ending underlines this dénouement and simultaneously invites the audience to have a different, more plural look at the performer’s identity. Dinozord takes a sip of water, removes all the microphones and performs a condensed, soundless synthesis of his solo. His heavy sweating and breathing adds to the credibility of the suggestion that the spectator may experience a moment of truth in which the dancing body at last reveals itself. Yet one only sees and hears a different ‘liveness’ that first and foremost magnifies the unstable, elusive nature of both a presumed blackness and a performer’s stage presence.


Both Solid Gold and Jolie are definitely marked by gender difference. Whereas Dinozord’s movements connote maleness, Jolie Ngemi’s dancing – which is accompanied by transformed voice samples – regularly spills over in an overtly feminine register, particularly in the moments she deliberately positions her agilely moving body as desirable and in the mode of ‘to-be-looked-at’. Starting from contemporary Congolese pop songs, she moves into a sort of techno-future space. By slowing down and speeding up the sound of her own voice she directs her own dancing: she embodies both the dancer and the MC or Master of Ceremony – the word ‘choreographer’ may also apply here – at mass parties (in Congolese music culture, the MC is known as the Atalaku). Once again the difference separating the created performative body from its performing counterpart magnifies over time: the tension between the electronically mediated voice work and the moving body changes into a critical friction. Different materialities are at work and act upon each other in such a way that Ngemi’s corporeality actually seems fissured and dissipated – at once a physical fold and fluid.


Whereas Solid Gold and Jolie are dance performances in the more classical sense, Kinshasa Electric, performed by Joel Tenda, Popol Amisi and Jeannot Kumbonyeki (joined by Israeli-German artist Daniela Bershan, a.k.a. DJ Baba Electronica), has a more hybrid nature. The stage hints at a public space – a square, a street corner – in which the performers hang out, move together or try to outdo each using the form of a dance battle, a common trope in Hip Hop. It is in fact a virtual or imaginary space that looks alternately thin and thick because situations of apparent collective inactivity metamorphose into moments of energetic dancing. The overall definition of the stage situation comes with a somewhat theatricalized performativity: the dancers pose (or they pose that they don’t pose), try to impress each other or indulge in the art of self-presentation. Mass media codes and social media conventions frame their actions. The performers – who are TV stars of sorts back home – make selfies, mimic types, exchange clothes and subsequently act as fashion models… The staging of the mundane hyper-reality of contemporary consumer society regularly passes over into solo and group dances on, once again, a strikingly divergent mix of popular music genres and dance styles, yet the performers also use for instance camera clicks or telephone ringtones as a rhythmic base. Overall Kinshasa Electric indeed invokes a different constellation of materialities acting upon the performing bodies, one that does not only consist of an artificial, electronically meditated sound and lighting but is much closer to the everyday consumer body. Day after day the performative bodies constructed by media professionals, as well as sophisticated amateurs, haunt all of us, though especially youngsters do as if they may overcome the difference between the imperfect reality of their own corporeality and the hyper-real, smooth and worked over physicality of celebrities or anonymous mannequins.


Solid Gold and Jolie rest on an accumulative compositional logic obliging the dancing body to make again an extra effort, to morph into yet another dance style, to experience the brink of sheer exhaustion; Kinshasa Electric rather tends towards a fragmentary, cut up & mixed choreographic approach in which movements are stuttered or consciously enacted before an audience (eventually including towards the other performers) and combined with breaks, slips and flight lines. All three performances instantiate a difficult to localize kind of choreography, one that is resolutely contemporary from the point of view of the ‘formal’ means or compositional logic used, yet is also vastly deconstructed by an unstable body enacting various, even mutually contradictory references to ‘the popular’, in the widest sense. The reverse also holds: the invoked ethnic, entertainment or street styles are not just framed but also thoroughly rearticulated, to a certain extent even hollowed out by the framing choreographic structure. And yet there does not exist a real friction between bodily text and choreographic context. Both fuse into a strange paradox: neither (western) contemporary dance, nor its (partly western, partly non-western) negation; and yet also definitely contemporary dance and its Other. Perhaps the aesthetic hybridity of Jolie, Solid Gold and Kinshasa Electric actually resonates with a globalized contemporaneity  on the rise.


Published in PARTS, 20 Years - 50 Portraits