On my way to trapeze class this evening, my mind buzzing with thoughts of circus, I walked passed a poster for the musical of "Mrs Henderson Presents" and registered the tagline: "For the show to go on, the clothes must come off...". Ha! I thought, that could have been written for Aneckxander, and smiled.
I nearly missed Aneckxander at Jacksons Lane, the work of performer Alexander Vantournhout and dramaturg Bauke Lievens, part of the London International Mime Festival. The promo shot, as you can see, was the back view of a bald, naked man in boxing gloves and weighted platform shoes mid-way through an acrobatic turn. It looked brutal, uncomfortable, and abstract. There was a clear crossover with contemporary dance, and, unschooled in that language, I thought I would be in danger of switching off. Why did I go then? Because it was recommended by someone I rate, and because anyone who lays claim to a circus spirit must, by rights, step outside their comfort zone. I shudder now to think what I would have otherwise missed - simply the most beautiful, raw, touching, sensitive reflection on the body, well, specifically Alexander’s body, in all it’s glorious limitations, vulnerabilities and possibilities.
Alexander Vantournhout has a neck. A rather long neck, as he was once told, and from this he has drawn out a narrative that explores, through every muscle and fibre of his being, the ambivalence that any artist experiences towards exposure. Actually, it couldn't have been better timed for a blogger struggling with being increasingly on display, each post revealing a little more of my quirks, eccentricities and desires, a tall poppy blushing red. We take our seats, the performance begins and something isn't right. It's Vantournhout - he's wearing clothes! Do I experience a moment of relief? It's gone in a flash, as are the clothes, whipped off in a cheeky sleight of hand that wouldn't have been out of place in Mrs Henderson's Windmill, and now we are confronted with Vantournhout’s extraordinary body. It has an alien quality, you can imagine it uncurling from a foetal position, curious, exploratory, innocent, unselfconscious, ripe for the study. I, in turn, am fascinated, observing every twitch and ripple of this latter day Virtruvian Man (apparently Vantournhout also does cyr wheel), a face by turn radiant with joy or tinged with a tragic air of an angel whose wings have been clipped. Watching the strange forms into which Vantournhout can contort, is not dissimilar to the experience of reading Katherine Dunn's weird and wonderful Geek Love, a novel that challenges our notions of freakish and normal.
There is a simple melody - I found the music quite haunting - that Vantournhout records on a keyboard, and then interprets through his body while it replays. Patterns repeat and Vantournhout plays with our expectations, as we anticipate painful body slams or searing drops into splits. He then alters and fine tunes the arrangement. It is exquisitely done, and there was a mathematical precision to the lines and shapes he made that reminded me of elements of Gandini’s self-reflexive Meta (click here). There were laugh-out-loud funny moments, grotesque at points, like when Vantournhout pulls out an impossibly long (fake) tongue further and further, and, in tandem, toys with his willy in a game of fort-da reciprocity. But there were points of almost unbearable poignancy too. For me, maybe because of the experience of clowning I’m accumulating, the most bittersweet moment was when Vantournhout donned a clown’s ruff. I felt a stab of pain for this naked Pierrot, drawn to his tender, elastic fragility, that both strips away and underpins his superhuman strength. There is no end to the performance, no crash bang wallop finale. Vantourhout carries on, pottering around on stage, as the audience drifts out. I would have liked to stay in gentle companionship, but the tug of family life was pulling me home. What was he without our gaze? I wondered. Did he simple cease to be? Stunning.