“‘Societal game’ is too superficial,” Berlin-based choreographer Felix Ruckert told Arnd Wesemann in a Ballett International interview. “I would call it sex with the audience.” In Ruckert’s Deluxe Joy Pilot, as in his earlier Ring, he extends the stage “by making the bodies of the audience a part of the playing surface.”
Spectators for Deluxe Joy Pilot can sit on inflatable blue armchairs or stools and simply observe; flock on one of several high platform beds, from which they may be chosen for a more participatory role; or select one of five smaller beds and maximum involvement. The piece is a rule game. Ruckert’s 10 handsome, sensitive, finely tuned dancers have set choreography and structures in which to improvise, cued by changes in lighting and Christian Meyer’s live music. Performances I saw in two different locales differed only subtly. In Jacob’s Pillow’s large, high-ceilinged barn, we might have been at a spa; at DTW, the white “walls” and overhead panels enclose spectators and performers on the theater’s stage in a more clinical space. Pillow audiences vary in age and knowledge of dance; at DTW, almost all are young, and many are dancers.
The company members start by gently stretching those on beds, bending and straightening their limbs, rolling them over. As the evening progresses—with others occasionally replacing the first volunteers—the dancers increase the level of intimacy, crawling between the legs and under the arms of their partners, manipulating them more elaborately, mounting them, bouncing on top of them.
Those moving in the center of the space also test and manipulate bodies—their own or one another’s. They take risks. Gabriel Staelen experiments with how crazily he can hurl himself about—always off-balance. Soloing, Catherine Jodoin, Marika Rizzi, and Caroline Picard explore more precisely states of being askew. A kiss between two men, Matthieu Burner and Dominique Pollet, becomes a struggle to blow into each other’s mouths. Hanna Hedman and Laura Frigato tussle for a long time. At DTW, Burner hoists Jodoin into tangled positions, she clamping onto him. Sometimes the rules are apparent: Pollet, Burner, and Jose Anton Reza Bernal interlock in sculptural formations, but Bernal keeps shoving the design apart; the other two fall and freeze, he falls; they begin again.
The volunteers may also participate in the center, gently led through a simple accumulating sequence. At one point, Burner and Staelen don woolen caps and confront a guest like amorous buffoons—one always blocking the other’s desire to touch him or her.
Deluxe Joy Pilot arouses a complex of sensations in both spectators and performers. The experience can be deliriously, innocently sensual—or sexual. People’s hands worm between others’ legs or slowly trace their spines; heads nuzzle into armpits. Western society’s taboos against touching are set aside. A man who arrived in a jacket and tie finds himself part of a quintet piled like puppies.
The bed people accept passivity as a given. Some look sleepily acquiescent and lie where they’re left, not even watching the dancing; some laugh or smile sheepishly, like the straight male being made over on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. On the few occasions when a dancer instigates an active response (“If you don’t want me to tickle you, you’re going to have to fight me”), her partner is often slow to respond. Delta RA’I and Bernal, standing on the edge of neighboring beds, lean back, forcing their partners to counterbalance them. The piece is designed to fade away into conversations. Two participants I talked with had opposing experiences. One liked the whole thing very much; she found it comforting and denied feeling any stress when a Ruckert dancer told her he worried that at one point he might have made her apprehensive. The other felt uncomfortable being manipulated—not so much her body but her head. She didn’t like being treated like an object, hemmed in by the implicitly passive role—even though, of course, all the “performers,” in the end, are objects of our gaze.