Theater archives

A Young German Choreographer Pursues the Pursuit of Happiness


What would you like for your birthday if you could have anything you wanted? What would really make you happy? Jon Guymon—who starts off Johannes Wieland’s mordantly witty “newyou—I think you might be in deep denial” by announcing that it’s his birthday—finally gets his wish. Red-headed women (100 says the press release) in black dresses rise from the audience and mill around the stage, taking turns hanging on Guymon and making remarks to us like “I love being in control” and “Enjoy Jon’s company.” He, both onstage and in a projected video, appears thrilled. But suddenly he’s holding up pair of shears and mechanically, without looking, severing the heads off the scattered red flowers that Isadora Wolfe and Kristin Osler rush to bring to him. Only bare stems remain to be stuck in some of the myriad water bottles that make up the decor. And when the scene is over, Guymon’s deflated. The women didn’t really love him, didn’t even say goodbye. Before long he’s saying that if he woke up every day as Jon Guymon, he’d just kill himself.

Wieland, who danced in Béjart Ballet Lausanne and the Berlin Opera Ballet, began to show work in New York five years ago, when he was procuring an MFA from New York University (where I first met him). Now he’s back in Germany as the artistic director and resident choreographer of the State Theater of Kassel, but he still finds time to collaborate with a small ensemble of dancers. As in his 2006 Personal Coma, which tackled the numbing effects of today’s taken-for-granted media bombardment, the new dance-theater piece’s images and texture have a cool, disruptive clarity. Wieland examines events that throb with covert passion and violence—cleansing, dissecting, and re-stitching them together as deftly as a surgeon wielding scalpel and needle.

Recent studies have shown that achieving happiness is many people’s number-one goal. In newyou, Wieland digs into the daily deceits we practice to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, happy. But the piece also seems to be about control, and Eva Mohn in particular relishes having it; she’s adept at taking one of the large, shiny, hand-held mikes away from a colleague. She also apparently considers it her mission to deflate others’ pleasure. Monica Gillette, Osler, and Wolfe sit numbly on small benches while Mohn reveals “facts” about them (Osler, she claims, hasn’t cried or had an orgasm in several years). She invites Wolfe to dance, then sends her away, then calls her back. The opportunity to perform makes Wolfe—a luscious, uninhibited mover—very happy. Mohn urges us to show our appreciation, but peremptorily cuts off our applause. That hand gesture of hers becomes a motif that eventually loses its original significance through repetition and comes to suggest, “Stop that, whatever it is!” or even “Don’t rain on my parade!”

There’s a selfish aspect to most gratification. Gillette calls out, “Help me, Isadora!” Wolfe hurries over and starts to massage the other woman’s calf muscles. Gillette, still groaning with pleasure, walks away, and Wolfe has to crawl after her to keep going with the task. On the other hand, when Mohn requests a massage too, Olson’s firm kneading escalates rapidly. Mohn keeps kidding herself that this is just what she needs, even as Olson yanks her violently around (maybe Olson is remembering Mohn’s casually brutal gossip about her sex life minutes earlier). At one point, Mohn teases us about our hoped-for satisfaction: “You’re still waiting for that dancing part.” In fact, everyone does get a chance to dance—Wolfe to make herself happy, the others perhaps to define themselves to themselves (Mohn, bold and knife-sharp, turns out to be as terrific a dancer as she is an actress).

The white landscape demarcated by the clusters and rows of blue-topped water bottles conveys a vision of perilous order, and the bottles topple and impede flow over the course of the piece. The peremptory commands and humble compliance, the accusations of lying, and Guymon’s fantasy make me imagine that the collage of confrontations, with its diverse scraps of musical accompaniment, might be the dream of some corporate executive, reprocessing in sleep the looks and whispers encountered at the water cooler or glimpsed behind half-opened doors.

newyou is 100 minutes long, and toward the end, it does seem to be spinning its wheels, but it’s full of provocative ideas and visions. I may have made it sound colder than it is. The immensely skilled performers give it rich life. You want things to go well for them. You want them either to wake up to reality and find satisfaction in it, or to construct a successful alternate reality so impermeable to facts that they can live happily ever after.