REVIEW.  'Elisabeth gets her way' by Jan Martens: What a woman, what music ****

In ‘Elisabeth gets her way’ choreographer Jan Martens will work with the oeuvre of the Polish harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka. A masterly discovery.

The lioness with the red mane, that was the nickname of Elisabeth Chojnacka. The Polish harpsichordist (1939-2017) was an outsider in classical music, and not only because she sometimes wore stiletto heels during concerts or played so fast that she seemed to have twenty fingers. With her flamboyant style, she converted the general public to harpsichord music, which is not an easy genre after all. In his intense tribute to Chojnacka, Jan Martens does exactly the same.

In seven mini solos, Martens dances each time to a different piece from Chojnacka’s oeuvre. This includes both 16th-century repertoire and experimental compositions. In the semi-darkness, with only a golden slip on, Martens makes an attempt to keep up with Chojnacka’s lightning-fast rhythm. It is a battle of attrition, especially because he performs the dance standing still and can therefore only move his arms hyperkinetically. Honestly, what Chojnacka squeezes out of her harpsichord here makes you fall head over heels. Sometimes she strums so fast that you almost seem to hear Arabic techno at 130 beats per minute. At other times, Chojnacka strikes her instrument so violently that it resembles industrial rock. Impressive.

Elisabeth gets her way is a personal tribute and an intimate documentary in one. Through film and audio fragments by music connoisseurs and Chojnacka herself, you get a fascinating portrait of an adventurous woman who has changed the course of her discipline. For example, the keyboard of her harpsichord was not nearly enough, the strings, pedals and wood had to be used as well. She lived for the stage until she got a brain disorder and forgot the notes.

Martens opted for a direct translation between dance and music, with rhythm, emotion and intensity as a shared factor. It makes this solo very accessible – a credit in itself with such special music – but sometimes it risks becoming a picture with the talk and you are left feeling a bit hungrier choreographically.

At the same time, Martens shows his queer signature here more than ever, clearly showing himself the heir of choreographer Marc Vanrunxt. With the sacred arm gestures, the final scene on Ligeti’s Continuum almost seems like an ode to his Antwerp teacher. Together with the many historical references in Cédric Charlier’s costume design, Martens keeps the dance and music history alive.

‘Elisabeth gets her way’

Jan Martens/Grip

Still on display in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels

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