Learning is leaving
Martin del amo learns from thomas lehmen’s lernt
RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 29
BLENDING DANCE WITH SPOKEN TEXT, LEHMEN LERNT IS A WITTY MEDITATION
ON LIFE AS A NEVER-ENDING LEARNING PROCESS. CLAD IN A BLUE WORKMAN’S
OVERALL, THOMAS LEHMEN PERFORMS ON AN ENTIRELY WHITE STAGE. HE SPEAKS
GERMAN; ENGLISH SURTITLES ARE PROJECTED AGAINST THE BACK. THE WORK’S
PREMISE IS DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE. LEHMEN RECITES A LONG LIST OF THINGS HE
HAS LEARNED IN LIFE, EACH STARTING WITH “I LEARNED TO...” MANY OF THE
STATEMENTS ARE FOLLOWED BY PHYSICAL DEMONSTRATIONS.
The German choreographer and performer is widely regarded as one of Europe’s most innovative and forward-thinking dance artists of recent years. Regularly presenting work at dance festivals worldwide, Lehmen recently paid his first visit to Australia. He was brought out to teach workshops for STRUT Dance in Perth and Critical Path in Sydney. In Sydney, Lehmen also presented his solo Lehmen Lernt (Lehmen Learns), for one night only, as part of the Goethe Institut’s GerMANY FACES australia arts festival.
Lehmen’s learning list is eclectic, detailing a wide range of activities. At first it seems as if it’s chronological, starting with the skills Lehmen acquired as a newborn—screaming, breathing, drinking, looking. Then he learns to crawl, walk, play, speak. And later to read, write, count, calculate, ask questions. It is not until Lehmen tells us that he learned to construct machines and build houses, bridges, schools and theatres that we realise that he is not necessarily only talking about himself. Lehmen Lernt explores the art of learning as a universal phenomenon but the artist keeps listing his alleged learning experiences in the first person—navigating a rocket to the moon, giving birth, organising wars, taming wild animals.
Lehmen’s physical interpretations of his statements are often amusing, especially when he moves away from the purely illustrative. “I learned to make art” is followed by Lehmen standing on a spot with his back to the audience, lifting his arms to the sides and screaming “art.” For “I learned self hypnosis” Lehmen assumes the roles both of hypnotist and hypnotised, engaging in a hilarious dialogue. “I learnt to avoid my problems” has him navigate the empty stage as if dodging invisible obstacles.
Towards the end, Lehmen puts on a red nose and tells the audience, in the persona of a clown, what his original intention for the work was—to bring together on stage a group of people, each one with a different set of skills. They would then share their knowledge, profit from each other and in this way try and make the world a better place. There is no doubt that this idea is as fabulous as it is silly. But then, Lehmen had already told us: “I learned to be naïve, dumb, full of pathos and, again and again, empty and stupid.”
Thomas Lehmen tackles his subject matter with humour and intelligence in equal measure. Every aspect of the performance seems thoroughly thought through. This applies to the concise writing and its crisp delivery as well as to the predominantly gestural movement vocabulary that is executed with impeccable precision. There is also a tremendous conceptual rigour evident in the work. The extent of the artist’s research is revealed later in the piece when a film is screened showing him with various teachers. He learns, among other things, to bake a cake, sweep the streets, fly a small plane, whistle to musical accompaniment, fish, beatbox and speak Japanese.
Through the film, we learn how strongly Lehmen’s research has fed the creation of the piece. For example, the blue overall was the one he wore when he developed his clown persona, under the attentive instructions of a clowning teacher. We also discover that many of the moves Lehmen uses on stage are inspired by his training in dance and martial arts. It is striking to see how committed Lehmen is to his numerous lessons and how seriously he takes the act of learning. He is clearly an astute observer, driven by great curiosity.
Lehmen Lernt treads a fine line between being truly profound and utterly banal. But then maybe the difference between the two is not as great as often perceived. Thomas Lehmen certainly seems to believe that learning is not only about acquiring skills but also a way of trying to make sense of the absurdities and complexities of life. It is this belief that, ultimately, makes Lehmen Lernt a deeply humanist work and a highly entertaining and intellectually satisfying one.
Lehmen Lernt; concept, choreography, dance, text by Thomas Lehmen, Performance Space, Goethe Institut, gerMANY FACES australia, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Oct 6
RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 29