By: Iiris Viirpalu
– Imagine five monkeys in a cage. In the middle of the cage is a ladder. Above the ladder is a bunch of bananas.
– Bananas. How many?
– Five. Every time a monkey climbs up to take a banana, other monkeys are given an electric shock.
– Why? Do they get hurt?
– Yes. Of course. It is an experiment. As soon as the monkeys understand what is going on, they begin to beat each monkey that tries to climb the ladder. And so the monkeys learn not to climb anymore.
– So the monkeys don’t climb anymore?
– Now we take one monkey out of the cage and substitute him with a new monkey.
– What is his name?
– Bill. As soon as Bill starts to climb for the bananas, he is brutally beaten by the others. He is beaten until he doesn’t try to climb anymore.
– How is he beaten?
– With fists and teeth. We substitute another monkey. And we shall call the new monkey Ralph. It is interesting that Bill joyfully joins in beating Ralph. We substitute a third monkey. Bill, Ralph and the rest of the gang beat him up. Fourth monkey. Fifth monkey. Every time the pattern repeats. Every new monkey is beaten up by the other four monkeys, who have never been given an electric shock.
– Because it is a tradition?
– It is a beautiful tradition.
The passage from a scene of the performance “The Wolf Project” by Kenneth Flak and Külli Roosna describes memory traces that haunt the body, traces of pain through which certain patterns of behavior are learned that distance one from one’s own will and make one obey orders. Pain and humiliation are both physical experiences. Acts of enforcing power, which are forced upon both individuals and communities, on whole nations, may linger in our cognitive, somatic memory for quite a while The performance shows, how to envision the tragedy of deportation, a collective historical–cultural experience, through contemporary dance and motions charged with deeper meaning. How to present power, violence and manipulation through dance? What kind of devilish dance goes on in interrogation rooms and detention facilities, what kind of choreography is used by the duo enforcing the regime of violence and playing the role of victims?
Ines Possemeyer writes in an article that researches body’s memory that “in the discourse of psychology and neurology the term “embodiment” describes how bodily experiences shape persons mind, feelings and perception of oneself.” The same term is used in performance arts and dance. There it is used to describe the embodiment of feelings and experiences and its bodily expression – presenting emotions through one’s body in such a way, that it is felt by the audience. Demonstration of power has its own body code: certain postures, gestures that are used suggest subordination or will to dominate. Violence brings about a physical experience that is recorded in the muscle memory and may in some circumstances unconsciously be brought out from the deepest parts of the cognitive memory.
In case of subordination and violence, the first pin-pointer is a clear distinction in roles: dominative-manipulative person constantly expresses his position with his body language, in a manner that suppresses the other, the victim. Imagine a scene in the interrogation room. The one presumably being interrogated is sitting, while the interrogator walks around, at times reaching over the table – the victim is already physically in a lower, powerless position. The victim sits in a crunched and defensive position, shoulders concealing the body, head down, eyes on the floor. No one’s action is passive, as it is psychological-emotional as well as a physical experience. Through demonstration of violence or power, the manipulator charges his body with tension from his aggression, while the victim is tense inside, gets nervous, is flinching. While the movements of the manipulator are characteristically large, stressing power through sudden movements, confusing and scary movements, then the movements of the one that is being abused through violence or power, are characteristically small, in a stiffened position. By mirroring that into dance, one can notice the expression of violence and domination in the movements and patterns of choreography.
The performance “The Wolf Project” translated the horror of deportation the Estonians had to endure into the language of dance by using choreography which illustrates power and violence. In the first scene Kenneth Flak played the role of an interrogator or torturer. Flak’s movements were plastic, eye-catchingly accurate, focused mainly on hands and fingers through singular movements, as if he was playing an imaginary piano in the air. From here a parallel can be drawn with his controlling role, as he was influencing Külli Roosna, who was sitting, a bag over her head, as if he was playing with some sort of instrument. With his sneaky, occasionally martial arts like movements, Flak seemed as a disturbing, yet ever present and forceful entity. In the movements were present hints of capoeira: fast leg movements, lifting weight from leg to leg, slightly curved upper body, sharp turns followed by kick-like movements. Through all this, Roosna sat in one place, visibly tense because of the surrounding movement, at times flinching and moving her arms as if her hands were bound to the chair. Flak manipulated with Roosna, controlled her with finger snaps, voices and sounds that reminded whip lashes, to which Roosna reacted – all of which suggested it was an interrogation or a torture situation. The notions of power and subordination were clearly evident.
Roosna’s movements seemed more mechanical, even robust. A lot of repetition was used, especially in the interrogation scene, where her use of body was robot-like: Roosna did as was told, mirroring the subordination relation with her body. Roosna’s choreography was built from patterns of gestures including arms and legs, occasionally, especially if ignited by some sound or movement made by Flak, her movements seemed like nervous trembling. The movements were rather burdensome, searching for support from the chair, in later scenes charged with inner tension. After telling the story of deportation from the Tcherepanov station, Roosna’s movements revealed deep anguish through grabbing her own body, obstructing her own movements. Roosna grabbed her legs with her arms, laced her arms over her own waist, thus making her movements sketchy, fragmental. The choreography was performed with high quality and was plastic, not once was the notion of power lost from sight – the dancers manipulated with each other’s arms and legs, moving them, placing them, holding hands, constantly shifting weight through motion.
Many therapists and psychologists say that traumatic experiences have an impact on the body and these experiences keep reminding themselves through unconscious movements or reactions even after years have passed. Historian David Carr writes in his article about historical phenomenology, how perceiving and recalling historical events is foremost an experimental practice, in which the emphasis is on the subjective experience gained from the individuals personal view. Phenomenology deals with the topics related to perception of space and therefore researches also bodily experiences. This is evident also from the works of Merleau-Ponty, in which attention is paid, among other things, on the individual’s perception of body parts. Carr writes that experience entails not only observance, but also involvement and mutual influence. Thus, the past becomes a part of us through physical existence and physical interactions, through the language of bodies. Moreover, Carr believes that the mainstream tradition that preserves the narrative of history through language may not be accurate enough, as “narratives are very different from the reality, they try to recreate”. Reality is presented to us through direct experiences, physically, and we react to it by adjusting our bodies to the surroundings and other subjects.
Regrettably each era has witnessed evil things done in the name of “greater good” and these ideas were physically challenged in the “wolf project”. Choreographically the performance painted out clear and understandable relations of power. Repressive – subordinate body language with intense gestures and obvious position of power indicated who was dominating, in contrast to tense and stiff movement patterns forced upon the subordinate. Dance performances which deal with the issues of power, roles and subordination relationships characteristically include in the choreography a lot of direct contact between the dancers. In case both men and women are present in the performance, question of gender issues may also rise. Such performances are often intense and high paced: bodies get pulled and are pushed, movements are fast, gestures sharp, performers are grabbed, pushed down – the whole arsenal of physical manipulation methods is present. In some performances, when one sees a lot of movements representing violence, one may question if the dancers feel any pain at all – given how much they get pushed around and fall. In some performances the notion of violence is visible only through the relation of different kind of choreography and performance styles.
The performance raised a painful question for the audience: because of man’s never ending hunger for perfection and power, is a man a wolf to another man? It is possible to express collectively suffered traumas through movements, through dance. To express through dance the faith and stories of a nation, as “social reality consists of coinciding pasts of social groups and communities”, as is written by Carr.
The impact of the collective traumas societies experience have on the memory of human body and cognitive perception deserves further in-depth research. Binding body-realization with the discourse of history may prove beneficial for historical phenomenology and give impulse for creating new performances in different cultures based on similar experiences. Also it may be connected with the topics of power and gender issues, in which cases the physical impact of ethnical, racial, social and gender-related repression may be analyzed. Our body feels, remembers and is able to dance the past.
 Passage from the performances spreadsheet
 I. Possemeyer, “Keha mälu”, magazine GEO, no 08/13, p 26
 D. Carr “Kogemus kui ajalugu”, Tuna 1/2013, p 96
 D. Carr “Kogemus kui ajalugu”, Tuna 1/2013, p 101