A lesson in body: Colette Salder’s ‘Learning from the Future’

I’m in London for the weekend, seeing some friends. I used to live here and coming back is like stepping into an old self, though this time with a clearer head, more energy for the city. Having said that I start my trip on Oxford Street. I haven’t tread foot on the central line for years, so afraid I am of this place. Crowds heave, my boyfriend’s hand slips from mine, my face is inside an armpit for three whole minutes. The carriage window promises some respite, so I push my way over, smiling around with a lipless grimace, and side eye to boyfriend for taking me here. The days that follow are equally heavy duty: trains, clubbing, walking, spending. I long for my old leafy haunts in the East, of inward-looking cafes and six seed salads.

To fall then, into the final leg of Colette Sadler’s Learning from the Future, performed at the Southbank Centre. It’s not by chance that I’m here. Leah Marojevic, the lead and only dancer to perform, had been touring the piece for a year and a half and invited her friends to see her final performance. Stepping into the Purcell Room is as if taking off an iron-clad shirt. It’s dark, quiet, peaceful: Leah is stood naked on stage, a large screen next to her says ‘I was a body.’ Leah is an excellent dancer. Twice picked out by The Guardian, first they said, “Leah Marojevic, in particular, emerging as an awesome talent,” and later, “An extended solo by Leah Marojević offers a rush of sheer delight. Halting and stuttering, falling and turning, blissfully serene in her nakedness, Marojević transmits a fallible and unmediated joy.” Collaborating with choreographer Theo Clinkard, working with the Pina Bausch company, performing at the Serpentine Gallery, and winning multiple scholarships and awards; we know that Leah is an excellent dancer and anticipation settles on the room like thick snow.

Sophiensaele, Berlin. Photograph: Arne Schmitt

Leah isn’t naked for long. The light catching her collarbone, elbow and breast, her head slowly turning. Then she is a robot, or at least, a non-human being. Head shaved and bleached, high cheekbones, truly amazonian at over six foot. That’s all I know: “I’m a sexy robot darl,” I remember Leah saying. But this isn’t really that, this is something else. The giant screen changes with the music; sometimes a great white light box, sometimes showing a computerised arm whose fingers bend forwards and backwards, sometimes flashing with urgency. Pixelated images of flesh might appear, or even that of an animated body, large sections of it are missing: the body is incomplete. The music is noisy and heavy. A beat pulsates, sometimes aided with a droning sound, sometimes with a voice. Then a sharp quiet will suddenly drown. I was caught mid-sip, holding my drink in my cheeks so afraid to swallow in the silence.

I have seen Leah dance before, always incredibly moved as both spectator and friend, but this time she takes us somewhere else. Every inch of her body is under intense control. Fingers shake as the robot gains sentience, her necks turns, body ripples. Sometimes she is low down, arching her back: a robot plays with its sexuality, it’s more than just a pose. Sometimes she is tall, arms swinging into wings as the being grows in strength, it seems almost joyful. An hour slips away from the captivated audience. The idea is that this futuristic ‘BODY A’ possesses no awareness and cannot distinguish between inner-intention and external impulses, but as a spectator you can’t help but attach your human emotions to the powerful body experiencing so much in front of you. Is she suffering? Is she happy? Is she lonely? As Leah switches from one demanding position to another I think that it would be worse if the robot felt nothing.

CCA Glasgow – video still

Colette Sadler is a choreographer from Glasgow who shares her time between her hometown and Berlin and has shown her performance work at Performatik festival Kaai theatre Brussels, ImpulsTanz Vienna, Centraal Museum Utrecht, and Les Lattitudes Contemporanis France, to name a few. Taking Learning from the Future to Aberdeen, Inverness and Nottingham as well as her familiar Berlin, Glasgow and London, she is interested in how an ever accelerating flow of information and encoded data could dictate the way bodies move and function. As dancers, Colette and Leah have spent more time thinking about society’s impact on the role and function of their body, and of a body, than most ever will, and here we are invited to watch their discussion play out as art. Leah’s body is used a as a tool, ‘a container,’ to pass information as Colette questions the self-agency of a body in the modern world. The audience is made to feel unsettled by the unnatural nature of Leah’s movements and the absence of expression from her otherwise beautiful figure.

The relief then as the light goes dark, the audience claps, and Leah bursts into life. A huge smile across her face: she is humbled and overwhelmed as are we. Leah is a mighty force both as ‘BODY A’ and as a woman, though I prefer her as my friend grinning down at me. Learning from the Future is a tremendous feat, both for Colette who sews her troubling seeds in the minds of those watching, and for Leah whose seamless, controlled solo is as compelling as it is haunting; emotional and captivating. Drinks, fags, and we are bundled back onto London’s streets, back onto the train which is quieter now, back home. Leah’s rigid back against the flashing block is a lasting image, as is her rippling stomach, and her shaking robot hands. If we are asked to think about the primitive power of the body, then Leah is the greatest teacher.

Sophiensaele, Berlin. Photograph: Arne Schmitt