Shakers, Lovers and Bystanders

In collaboration with Bart Groenendaal
Performance in public space, 30 min, Aarhus, 2017
Photography: Andrej Vasilenko

Co-created with and performed by: Sara-Jeanine Heidenstrom, Laura Feline Ebbesen, Ida Thomsen,
Pernille Sorensen, Jon Stage, Brian Degn, Peter Fonss Larsen, Nathalie Wahlberg.

Dramaturgical advise: Bart Gronendaal

Costumes: Morta Griškevičiūtė
Commissioned and produced by: Aarhus 2017


by Amelia Groom

The word ‘oscillate’ comes from the Latin oscillare – ‘to swing’ – apparently once referring to the masks of Dionysus which were hung up in Mediterranean vineyards as lucky charms, and would swing around dancing in the breeze. Oscillum meant ‘little face’, or more precisely ‘little mouth’ (the same os– gives us the word ‘oral’), and Dionysus – god of wine, masks, theatre, ecstasy, epiphany and partying – was figured in these amulets with a wide-open mouth, through which the animating wind would be channelled.

Maybe this is what performance is; an opening up of the body to the forces that can set it in motion – a channelling of the air around us into ecstatic articulation (remembering that ek-stasis means ‘standing beside oneself’). The oscillating body is not just a body giving expression to some personal inner distress, desire or compulsion; it’s also a thing which is impacted by external energies – like the trembling cup of water in Jurassic Park (1993), whose ripples signal the impending arrival of something much bigger.

For Shakers, Lovers and Bystanders – a commission by Lithuanian artist Eglè Budvytytè which she developed in collaboration with Dutch artist Bart Groenendaal for Aarhus 2017’s Little Rebellions programme – eight performers are arranged in pairs across the Lille Torv square in the central shopping district of Aarhus. The performers share the same space as their expectant spectators and the passers-by who are also moving about the square. Their bodies are marked apart from the rest only very subtly by their bright bomber jackets embroidered with octopus designs, and by their heightened attentiveness amongst the crowd in the moments before beginning.

Then the quivering comes on, very gradually, in two of the eight performers – with the others standing by. Crying? Laughing? Nervous? Cold? Seizure? Possessed? There’s an unsettling inscrutability about the shaking body.We recognize it, because our bodies are also susceptible to pulsations, trembles, shudders, wavers, shivers and twitches. But we can’t easily place it, because we know that bodies can quiver with anxiety and with pleasure; with fear and with fury; with excitement, disgust, amusement and terror; with illness and old age; with sobs, and with ecstasy, and with the cold.

The presence of the bystanders as part of the performance is also ambiguous; it’s not entirely clear whether they are observing, soothing, protecting, provoking, controlling, worshiping or simply witnessing the shakers. The dynamic between them also shifts, and the bystanders become the shakers, affirming that these spasmodic impulses and rhythmic iterations of energy are part of a greater force which leaves bodies contaminated with each other.

Contamination means ‘touching together’, and agitated bodies agitate what they touch. When the earth trembles down below, it sends shudders through the structures built on top of it. When a nervous speaker’s shaking hands try to grasp a glass of water, the glass of water also gets the shakes. Shaking causes and is caused by itself. It’s like a dance party: the more people come, the more it will intensify – and the more it intensifies the more people will come. The dance floor and its bodies constitute each other. Like shaking, the party feeds off and mimetically transmits itself by intensifying on the spot with its means as its own ends. The Dionysian is an uncontainable, irrepressibly contagious force; try to be in the midst of ecstatically moving bodies without being moved by them.

Canned laughter works on this premise: that the convulsive expression of amusement is a viral and self-perpetuating force. Laughter requires laughter, and should lead to laughter. In early 1962 in modern-day Tanzania, a laughter epidemic broke out which has never been conclusively explained. Fits of uncontrollable laughter began in a classroom at a girls’ boarding school, and spread through the school until the school had to be closed. When the girls were sent back to their villages, the laughter started to be transmitted there – and eventually thousands had fallen victim to attacks that lasted for hours, days, even months.

As with the ‘dancing plagues’ that are known to have broken out in European villages between the 14th and 18th centuries, various causes for the laughter epidemic have been proposed. It could have been caused by psychedelic poisoning from a food substance like ergot fungus, or by an invasion of parasitic mind-controlling insects, or by some demonic possession, or by stress-induced psychosis. It might be explained in terms of a collective release of tension right after the country declared its independence from colonial rule, or in terms of magic, or superstition, or simply a spiraling desire to join in.

But whatever its causes, the laughter epidemic is an instance of paroxysmal mania that was experienced as a collective body, where hard distinctions between physical illness and social phenomenon are untenable. Something unsettling sweeps over the individuals by moving beyond and between them, sending tremors across the social body and leaving everyone in stitches.

So what does it mean for shaking to be choreographed or performed or staged – as it is in Budvytytè’s piece – when shaking is supposed to be something that happens to bodies involuntarily? We shake when our muscles start contracting on their own, when adrenaline pumps through us as an uncontrollable excess of energy. Even if the shaking is consciously sought out or harnessed, as in ritualised trance-states, it only really gets going as something happening to the body. We generate it by allowing it to generate us.

The oscillating bodies in Shakers, Lovers and Bystanders, then, are not just carrying out a predetermined sequence or set of forms; they’re opening themselves up to an unmanageable other. With no orderly trajectory that travels along from point to point, the temporality of shaking remains non-instrumentalising; rather than moving towards something, the movement gathers up in its object as an irrational temporal density. But what’s moving about this piece is that the agitated tremours indicate the vulnerability of bodies, as well as their strength: they’re impacted by destabilising blows, and they find ways to channel and redirect them.