Matthias Sperling: Now That We Know – Sadler’s Wells, London

Creator: Matthias Sperling

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

If you have spent much time with academics, you’ll know that the format of lectures and presentations is much the same. Regardless of discipline, venue and topic, there is usually some kind of PowerPoint presentation with too much text on each slide and the odd bit of clipart if the lecturer wants a bit of personality. Matthias Sperling brushes such conventions aside, delivering his talk in dance form.

The term “performance-lecture” may sound strangely alien but it accurately describes the 50-minutes  in which Sperling combines his interest in how the science of movement and choreography are affected by the mind. First performed in 2016, Sperling has revived this discussion piece for two nights at Sadler’s Wells, arguing that perception is the key to reacting to the world, compelling and expanding the body’s range of movements in a continual loop of information that we use to adapt behaviour.

As with so many dance shows it begins entirely in the dark with Sperling’s eerie disembodied voice relayed through a microphone, laying the groundwork with information about the separation of theory and practice, and how “the body gives rise to the mind.” But the prolonged darkness usefully reinforces Sperling’s point that imagination works automatically to seek out forms of sensory information, forcing us to notice the strange and slow elongation of the words to create atmosphere and the tiniest detection of movement on the blacked-out stage.

Gradually over 10-15 minutes, Jackie Shemesh’s lighting rises almost imperceptibly until shapes start to take form in the gloom, eventually they more clearly morph into Sperling who uses the remaining time to illustrate his argument and explanation of the facts with varied formations, creating stretched shapes with his arms or bending into creeping movements close to the floor. It never feels random, however, each physical act chosen with deliberate care to create a particular tone.

Sperling repeatedly refers to the hypnotic, and while it is not really clear what he means, there is something quite entrancing about his performance. When combined with the slowed speech to emphasise particular phrases, the long hair and beard gives his stage presence an unusual charisma, as though we are under the spell of a 70s cult leader or some kind of new age preacher. So even when your attention wanders Sperling’s approach draws you back in.

There are lots of interesting facts and a convincing argument about connection that seems to scientifically link to the idea of a journey separating thought and deed in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men – “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow” – which might be an interesting cultural reference point for the discussion. Now That We Know uses the full space well, combining stationary poses with faster sections of swirls and twists, but even in such a brief performance the tone never varies as Sperling delivers repetitive speeches and movements that can become frustrating.

It’s never really clear why Sperling has chosen to present the research in this way and, while the audience is probably relieved to see no hint of PowerPoint, what you take away is the sense of disconcertion rather than a new-found believe in the science of neurochoreography. And as with a lot of scientific lectures, the topic is interesting but, hearing it in isolation, the audience is left with a feeling of ‘so what’, how should this change future approaches to dance, choreography and movement? How can the theory work in practice?

Runs Until: 2 November 2018 | Image: Pari Naderi.

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