Two years is a long time these days. I can no longer make sense of most of what I wrote nearly two years ago upon seeing Jan Martens’ Sweat Baby Sweat for the first time, but luckily (and unusually, for contemporary dance) I had the chance to see it again at The Place in London, courtesy of the Dance Umbrella festival.
This dance for a man and a woman (performed by Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel) can appear as if it can’t decide whether it wants to be a slice of cool contemporary abstraction or a timeless romantic tale; one gets the feeling that this ambiguity is intended. Slow, excruciatingly strenuous lifts and holds gradually begin to mould themselves onto a topology of desire and resistance, only for Martens to introduce a new formal device, such as repetition or tempo changes, that brings things back towards a notion of pure doing. At each and every moment the piece threatens to collapse into either a banal acting out of love, or a banal arrangement of physical movements. It never does, though this tension persists long after the initial fear of failure (will he drop her?) has passed.
I suppose one could attribute this trembling between two points to the age-old struggle between form and content, or concept and percept (or forest and trees), though to do so seems like too easy an answer. What is interesting, however, is the way in which the piece’s content is mediated by its form, and vice versa, and how this illuminates the same mediations at work in another artform associated with romance — namely the love song (and the connections between the dance and love songs becomes much clearer towards the end). What Sweat Baby Sweat is about, then, could perhaps best be summed up in a question: what makes a genuine love song true? The answer seems to be that it’s partly to do with what a love song says, and partly with how it says it. Martens’ stroke of genius here is to recognise this and translate it into a dance that does not privilege one aspect over the other; Ligtvoet and Michel, through their ability to charge every gesture with both passivity and desire, turn this idea into a performance that is as convincing as it is moving — just like the best love songs.