Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. 2nd November 2018, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre

Now That We Know is a 45 minute solo during which Matthias Sperling dances while giving a prolonged talk about his understanding of the relation between mind and body. During this he refers to recent developments in cognitive and neuroscience.

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Because it starts in darkness, and because it is a long time before the lights are very gradually brought up, at first all we can hear is his voice. Is he moving already? It is a while before we begin to pick out a vague, whitish blur where his hands are gesturing. A couple of minutes later his whole figure is just beginning to be hazily distinguishable in the now twilit performance space. Finally we can see that he’s dressed in black, has a long straight black wig, dark glasses, and men’s flamenco shoes with square, block heels.

His monologue about what we now know about the neurophysiology of embodied existence is not delivered in a normal, everyday voice or that of someone giving a lecture. It is extremely exaggerated, deliberately over-emphatic, and modulated over an unusually wide range of almost musical tones. This has been given a reverberating echo effect through the sound system.

During the first few pitch black minutes, he speaks extremely slowly. In the dark, this echoing voice combined with the slow pulse in Joel Cahen’s sound design, has the kind of eerie power I associate with a séance or a popular mesmerism act, perhaps like one of those in Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black.

In a Q&A, however, Matthias insisted that he wasn’t adopting a persona but being himself. Slowing his voice right down at the beginning, he says, is part of a process of centering and becoming increasingly sensitive to the bio-feedback of moving and performing. Nearly all of what he says during the piece is in line with the kinds of things people can sometimes say during an image-based, ‘somatic’ movement class. There are however a few little bits of what he calls science fiction such as the repeated invocation to ‘extend your hypnotic organs’.

I’ve now seen Now That We Know a few times. As an audience member, I have found the effect of witnessing the piece quite mesmerising, and I have to admit to tuning out and then back in once or twice. As I’ve indicated, it develops very slowly, almost imperceptibly, although there are changes from one distinctive sonic pulse to another, and different ranges of movements and postures for different parts of the piece.

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[Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.]

Sometimes he kneels on the floor with his legs folded beneath in an unusual way, or he lies spreads out on his side propped up on an elbow. At other times he stands with his weight shifted seemingly right off balance with an added precariousness because of the block heels.

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[Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.]

There is always an evolving relation between the line between his two feet, the one through his hips, and the one stretching between his hands. His hands themselves move smoothly through fascinating sequences of crisp gestures. Sometimes these are like those of saints in passion on a Baroque Spanish altarpiece, sometimes like angels in joy in an Italian early renaissance fresco. They evoke gestures that seem to bear the weight of histories and cultural memories.

This highly considered and exquisitely executed verbal and movement score is what makes Now That We Know more than just a performative illustration of simplified scientific ideas presented in an “accessible” and “artistic” way. It creates a space for an altered state of consciousness that might perhaps be useful for research into cognitive and neuro-scientific exploration.

As an audience member who retains a small residue of the knowledge of science I acquired at school many years ago, Now That We Know makes me think. And of course it encourages me to do so with my whole being and not just with the soft grey matter between my ears and behind my eyes.

Trailer for Now That We Know.

[Declaration of interests: Matthias Sperling is undertaking doctoral research at De Montfort University with a bursary from the Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and I am one of his supervisors. Also I received a press ticket from Sadlers Wells Theatre.]

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