Mamushka – an ode

A stark countryside in black and white. Somewhere in Europe perhaps. A small wooden hut, against a background of dry grey woods, trees with bare branches, dead leaves scattered across the ground. In the middle of a field stands a peasant woman. The grass tall enough to brush the back of her knees. She is alone. Her apron tied around her dress. Her scarf knotted at her chin, circling her face.

This is the opening scene of Mamushka, a dance film by Roni Haver, of the Dutch company Club Guy and Roni. Mamushka is the Old Russian word for mother, and in this context, a description of the film’s subject. To Roni, originally from Israel, who lost her parents recently, the film was a way to bring to physicality her memories, and, ask the questions she found so daunting during her mourning. What is reality? What is nature? How does it work?

 The sense of mysticism that persists throughout the film may be arising in Roni’s contemplation over questions such as these. The piece is deeply moving, and manages to convey the ethereal quality of traditional mythical tales

Roni’s choreography is intriguing. The movements performed by the two dancers take on an animalistic quality, as though they were new to their own bodies. They are exploratory, constantly in the act of finding unpredictable ways of conveying a sense of detachment from the world. With twisted joints, cocked head, and crooked isolations, the abstract quality of the dancers’ bodies and movements really captivates. 

The two dancers, Tatiana Matveewa and Terencio Douw suggest a strong rapport. During their duets, the very organic connection between their bodies never fades. Even though it becomes visible in how their head and arms meet, it persists like an immaterial and yet embodied nuance even when the two bodies separate. Such a connectivity allows the movements to flow from one dancer to the other. It allows the two to pull one another back as they move off balance. There is a certain amount of external control evident in their movements – the two dancers hardly ever look at each other directly, their gaze almost always fixed in the distance. This changes in the second half of the film, when Tatiana is half buried. Terencio’s body moves as a whole. He pauses between movements, rather than isolating every single shift. Here, he appears to control Tatiana. She moves her head, arms, and feet, in response to Terencio’s hand, and the direction of his body. Overall, it is a kind of unnaturalness that gets portrayed in the choreography. 

There is a richer context to the piece than just an idyllic countryside and the surrounding woods, as I had you believe until now. There is another space, one that comes to form the duality of the piece. This space is an indoor one. Inside a shed perhaps. There are walls made of stone, mud on the ground, some puddles, a few dead branches stuck here and there. Here the dancers are not fully dressed. Their state of the ‘undress’ is a metaphor, as if for the insides of the choreographer’s mind, a safe space made of darkness where she can hide in moments of danger and sorrow. A place where she can admit to her fears and questions. The outdoor set can be seen as the outer facade, that which is presented to the world at large. It is the outside which is more delusionary.

At the end of the first part, the male dancer disappears, leaving the woman to search for him in the woods. Here we see Tatiana’s expressions in full force, as they capture the frantic confused energy of her search. At times composed, at times nearly mad as she stumbles through the trees. Here she dances alone, using the dead boughs as her refuge. She steps through them, into them, around them; she crouches amidst them; she uses them as she leans out of their embrace. This solo is very poignant. It seems to refer to that period after the death of someone close when the world around you makes no sense, and you retract behind thorny insults. The male dancer, who sometimes appears out of focus touches her cheek, as she finds a handbag that seems to spark memories. The object provokes a flood of rapidly changing emotions in her body, and results in her digging the muddy ground frantically. Tatiana applies a red lipstick, which she has just now found in the bag and then begins to bury herself. This sets the second part of the piece where the duo dances inside, with her body half buried and going deeper, and him dancing around her, very noticeably ‘over’ her. 

One tends to see the two dancers as a family. The male dancer is probably the one who died, who has turned into a spirit, and only exists as if like a memory now. The female dancer is the one mourning, the one who is remembering. She is supposed to be Roni’s mirror. 

While most of the film is monochromatic, the contrasts created by the sets, the costumes and the dancers’ skins add intriguing layers and depths. The colours, or lack of them show a certain distancing of emotions. Or perhaps what one is seeing is the precise difference between memories and reality. With the appearance of the red lipstick, the colours begin to seep further into the performance. First the reds and greens, and then the browns and yellows. The dancer has completely buried herself into the soil by now. As if into a state of hibernation. And later, when she emerges from it, a garden begins to grow around her, with flowers red, purple, white, yellow.  Like life that has grown out of grief. At this point we also see the wooden hut burning. A kind of burning that may help her accept her loss. As the piece proceeds towards its end, the colours go away once more, leaving us with black and white; as if with the thought that life is beautiful even with loss. 

PC: Mamushka by Roni Harver

During the post screening discussion, one of the members of the troupe shared something worth mentioning here. The company has an initiative called the NiteDelivery, wherein they deliver recordings of dance performances, along with a little something haptic that can be related to the performance. For Mamushka, the team packaged compost (or as the artistic coordinator Wym de Vries put it, “something that was something and would become something else soon”) in boxes, and asked their audience to send them two photographs of the contents – one as they watched the dance for the first time, and the second after a few months. They wanted to see how time could change things, much as it did in the film, and how something that was something would become something else.

The music, by Mexican composer Pepe Garcia, compliments the dance amazingly. A haunting melody, vocalised, with instruments that are played at the beginning and form a sense of constant refrain for the listener.  In moments we also hear the sounds of trains rushing past, of bells tinkling, leaves crushing. The hints of muted whisperings, birds chirping, bodies panting. The silences make the soundscape even denser. One can almost hear the sorrow embedded in the piece. At the end, the crackling of fire in the air is clearly heard. But what is interesting to note here is how that sound could even make one imagine a gushing and flowing of water. A fire that is also water. A musician (Pepe Garcia) comes out, and plays the ukulele while standing among the flowers. A lament in Spanish, the sort played after funerals, sad yet peppy, that can bring people to dance. This perfectly complements the two dancers as they stand silhouetted in front of the burning house, sometimes dancing slowly, sometimes merely watching. 

The entire piece can be interpreted as a reliving of memories, until the moment of the fire, which emulates the funeral. An end to one part of life. Closure. Now is the time to move on. Perhaps that is the significance of the hesitant smile that crosses Tatiana’s face. As she imagines a new world that awaits her.

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