‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ or an exploration of sheer exhaustion: ‘One Step Before the Fall’ performs ideas about boxing, physical strength and weakness and tests out the limits of our will power. Set in the confines of a boxing ring, the Spitfire Company presents a painful but masterful performance of exhaustion.
The choreographer and original performer, Markéta Vacovská, plays with multiple themes, from the moving story of Muhammed Ali, to the physicality of exercise, to the pressure of fights. However, within these themes she includes a study of all human experiences that require pushing oneself to the limits of both physical and mental exhaustion. The solo dancer, Veronika Kotílková, enters wearing jeans and a shirt and she stands centre stage for a while, staring at her audience, catching our eye, and occasionally smiling at us in a way that disturbs our sense of security. She slowly and deliberately peels off her shirt and takes out her earrings, removing any symbols that make her anything other than an athlete, a fighter and a powerful human being ready to push her mind and body to its limits. The voice recording of Muhammed Ali that opens the piece introduces an uncomfortable and emotive note to the performance as we reminded that the strength of the body is transient and that diseases like Parkinson’s can take away so much of who we thought we were. The audience is constantly reminded of the devastating and frustrating effects of the disease; Vacovská has embedded movements that embody the pain of losing control over one’s own body; trembling, shaking and repeated jerks develop throughout to effectively explore the disease.
However, these moments of frustration and lose of control go further than presenting the story of one man’s life. This impressive solo dancer succeeds in reminding us all of moments in our lives when we have felt utterly exhausted, out of our depth and close to collapse. Kotílková spins to a state of ecstatic frenzy and then has to dig deep to keep the motivation alive; alone on that harsh stage, the only person keeping her going is herself. We have all had those moments and while I was reminded of the pain of the last six miles of a marathon, others in the audience will be gritting their teeth at the memory of the last hill in a cycle, the last hour of a long written exam, the final push to get to the end of a long journey. It is an intensely personal performance, the physical and emotional energy drawing us all into the experiences of the dancer on stage.
The performance is split into the twelve rounds of a boxing match, each three minutes signalled harshly with the ringing of the bell. At times these allow for a sigh of relief where the fighter can stop, breath and reflect. However, other rings force her forwards, preventing her from rest and escalating her movements to the extremities. Highlights include a calm yet hypnotising sequence in which she glides on her toes and then hands, floating between positions with utter control. From the moment Kotílková moves her body, we are in awe of her powerful physique and the extraordinary way her muscles can perform emotion. The ripple of the shoulders, the arch of the back, the flexing of the biceps: her body tells a story a determination, suffering and pain.
The music, performed live by Lenka Dusilová, is integral to the emotional intensity of the performance. Dusilová builds layer upon layer of sounds, her command of counterpoint exciting and moving the audience. Constantly rising and falling, vocals, guitar, percussion and electronics combine to share in the power of the physical performance. Musician and dancer work together completely, the breath of the movement reflecting the cadences of the sound seamlessly.
‘One Step Before the Fall’ impressed and moved me. However, as a lover of intense physical exercise, I felt that the piece could have done more to develop the extremes of the body’s limits. There were wonderful moments when the movement built up and up into a powerful display of strength and speed. However, I was frustrated by the long moments of stillness and recovery which seemed to me a little self-indulgent. Yet, I suppose these were integral to the message of the piece and if I felt uncomfortable, well, that was probably the point. I was forced to concentrate and focus, just as the fighter can never let down his guard in the ring.