The dystopian commune that set the stage for each of Danish choreographer Mårten Spångberg’s recent large-scale performances took over the interior of MoMA PS1’s VW Dome last weekend for the La Substance, but in English. The newly commissioned work was his most convoluted and beautiful mess yet, building on his EPIC (2012) and its “redux,” The Nature (2013).
Eight dancers distributed themselves haphazardly on the sheets of silvery insulation material that lined most of the stage as the audience found their places. In slapdash makeup, the dancers sleepily reshuffled their outfits of layered activewear as they performed a set of actions, some mundane, some surreal, like infusing vats of water with liquid flavoring until they turned a brackish green, taking a bat to the scenery, checking their phones and petting one another. A giant quilt of gold and silver foil bearing the logos of luxury fashion brands served as a backdrop. At stage left, performers painted a colorful abstract mural on a wall over the course of the performance; at right, a canopy of pot-leaf cutouts hung from bamboo stalks over a group of dancers drinking cases of Monster Energy and Budweiser.
The scenario, familiar from Spångberg’s earlier works, had a new hothouse ambience—the intermingling scents of spilled energy drinks, beer and gently perspiring Northern Europeans accrued over the course of the four-and-a-half hour performance, which Spångberg conducted by DJing from a laptop parked in front of the mural.
For two decades Spångberg has attended to the felt experience of performance: the work and the playfulness it demands of practitioners and audiences, the effects it promises and those it produces, and, especially in long-duration works like this, the kinds of attention it invites and rebuffs. The rhythm of the evening was apparently orchestrated according to the whims of our DJ, who created a soundtrack marked by continuous change. The sounds ranged from an intermittently ringing bell to bedroom covers of R&B and various strains of electronic dance pop, only to give way to near-silence and start again.
The dancers broadly followed his lead, and as the soundtrack sped up they gradually detached from whatever tasks they had set themselves. As they started to dance, it slowly became clear that they were pairing off and then, almost seamlessly, finding new partners, who somehow consented to a switch and shifted their attentions from one partner to the newcomer (or didn’t). Their movements were neither particularly courtly nor threatening, but the serial reconfiguration of connections created an atmosphere of both semi-monogamous promiscuity and conflict.
The dramas of belonging were amplified by a soundtrack that climaxed with a duo of aggressively one-size-fits-all pop anthems, loudly sung along to by a singer sitting in the front row. We heard Madonna’s “Music” and Katy Perry’s “Firework,” the first an avowal of the club’s ability to “mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel,” the second an anxious promise of spectacular uniqueness. The dancers seemed neither to enjoy nor to resist the exhortations of the soundtrack, but adhered just close enough to the accelerating rhythm to appear to be doing their job, all the while making an increasingly intricate jumble of individuations and relations. When the “irritation,” as Spångberg calls it in his artist statement for La Substance, had passed, they returned to their previous diversions.