Sweatin’ It Out on the Dance Floor

Dancers Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel perform 'Sweat Baby Sweat' Thursday and Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center.

click to enlarge Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel in "Sweat Baby Sweat" - Photo: Klaartje Lambtrechts
Photo: Klaartje Lambtrechts
Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel in "Sweat Baby Sweat"
Sweat Baby Sweat has been touring with its Flemish choreographer and creator, Jan Martens, and the same two (only two!) dancers for nearly six years — they’ve just celebrated their 100th performance. 

So it’s safe to assume the three of them have become well acquainted with each other, and that’s especially evident watching dancers Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel climb about each other’s bodies and then lean back with incredible precision to use one as an anchor, a steady counter, for the other’s momentary dynamism. Both move with painstaking slowness, and yet the tension caused by seeing the bodies in constant flux makes their relationship onstage totally engrossing. 

On Thursday and Friday, Ligtvoet and Michel will perform Sweat Baby Sweat at the Contemporary Arts Center — Martens had to return to Belgium after an appearance in Canada. The CAC describes the performance on its website this way: “Desire and resistance, love and loss, emotional strain and codependence are all at play in this highly charged, close-up view of two deeply intertwined lives. Dance, music, song fragments and video material combine to tell the story of a romance shaped by the rhythm of letting go and grabbing hold again.”

The type of yogic movement used by the dancers wasn’t an automatic choice for Martens upon the conception of this work. He had never performed in this style himself, and he didn’t audition dancers to specifically be comfortable with the high level of athleticism that would be required of them. 

“It was really due to them (the dancers) that this became the language that we chose to use to create Sweat Baby Sweat,” he says. “It was the only right language when you have two people who are almost sucking each other’s energy away. It’s a very muscular piece. The slow yoga lifting was a good metaphor and language for the hard work that love can be.”

The hard work of love is a central theme to the production. And it’s one Martens himself has learned, both through watching his show so many times and also through his personal experience. The performers have grown older, lending a new dynamic, and although the choreography (all Martens’ work) hasn’t changed, Martens says the trust established between the three of them has innately created new meaning to the dance itself. 

“Most of my work is kind of autobiographical at the starting point,” Martens says. “Then I go for a more universal feel. At the time I created Sweat Baby Sweat, I was in a relationship in which I felt a bit stuck. I think I continued that relationship feeling a bit afriad of what of what would happen if I wsn’t it (it) anymore. So (Sweat) became a piece to talk about how relationships can be hard work.

“I think there’s an opportunity to think through the past with either compassion and love or with regret,” he says. “Take a trip down memory lane.” 

It was an obvious choice that the dancers’ costumes would be minimal. Ligtvoet and Michel wear underwear in subdued colors, almost blending into the stage and background. During the 65-minute piece, the two dancers perform about half the time without music. But there are also two recorded instrumental compositions by Jaap van Keulen. And a version of Cat Power’s 18-minute “Willie Deadwilder” is played — and performed to — while lyrics to various Pop songs are projected on a screen. These include Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Joni Mitchell’s version of the classic “Fever.”

“They’re all associated with love,” says Martens of the lyrics he chose to be projected. “I think, with Pop songs, everybody has memories about their first dance, or the music to which they fell in love the first time. So, oftentimes, the words resonate with our audience and the audience perceives it uniquely to them.”

The work’s title also comes from a lyric in the 1999 song “The Bad Touch” by Bloodhound Gang. “It’s a Pop song,” Martens says, “but sweat is really about hard work and also the physical in a relationship. And the word ‘baby’ is sweet; it’s what you’d call your partner.” 

SWEAT BABY SWEAT will be performed at the Contemporary Arts Center Thursday and Friday. More info/tickets: contemporaryartscenter.org.

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