||| coming next: Subensemble (Bertram Dhellemmes/Moritz Nolden), Club-U, Vienna | 18 November 2017 |||

Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam)

Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) is a performance-installation by Ines Birkhan and Bertram Dhellemmes, combining a video projected narrative text, self playing instruments, smoke and a short comedy video, also projected. It is part of the performance series Dancing on Ashes, itself a component of long-term transmedia Angel Meat project. The projection has a duration of 25" but the sound installation is already activated before the performance starts and can stay in action further on.

It can be presented in a theatre or a gallery space with a white background for the video projection, preferably with seats for the audience. It originally requires a grand piano, but can use other horizontal string instruments - clavichord, big scale hammered dulcimer or cymbalum, or even an overturned upright piano. In case none of these instruments are available, a new device will be considered. Other instruments for the current version are a wind activated doubleneck guitar/sitar and a sampler.

Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) relates the story of one of the many Angel Meat characters, Yu, a young Dutch Chinese dancer who, after learning that she enters the terminal phase of a neurodegenerative disease, decides to live as intensely as possible before her forthcoming death. Having spent her childhood in the Red Light District of Amsterdam in a relative indifference toward the local sex industry, she starts a quest of self-dispossession by abandoning herself to the endless fascination offered by sex shops and sex shows, and eventually discovers the Dancing on Ashes cabaret – the core of the fictional universe of Angel Meat. The performance ends on the comedy number seen by Yu the first time she enters the cabaret.

You will find lower a video of the performance shot during its premiere in Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in March 2010, the text of the performance, the video of the comedy part and its text, a video of the self playing guitar, an essay by Bertram Dhellemmes, a technical rider, credits and photos. You will find complementary information on www.angelmeat.com.

Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam)

A few months before she flies to Java
To die on the land of her ancestors
(Well not exactly her ancestors but this is another story)
A land she never visited before
Or doesn’t know much about actually
Yu is in Amsterdam
She just had the confirmation that her Jonson syndrome
Has reached the lethal point she feared all her short life
Since her parents’ restaurant on Zeedijk closed
She hardly goes back to the Red Light District
And not at all since the dance studio on Koestraat closed as well
That was a couple years ago, and things changed a lot since
The new city council, under the pressure of EU
Started the gentrification process of the area
Now at least a third of the famous windows
Are rented to fashion designers
Who probably think they are so cool and daring
To share the district with prostitutes and drug dealers
Like on American TV series
Now the only guys dressed like pimps in the place
Are hyped young trendsetters and art students
Between their flea market phase and the minimalist one
Yu also used to wear layers of 1€ clothes from Waterlooplein
She wore hideous woollen skirts over Adidas pants cut knee-high
Over ragged jeans stuck in big flashy leg warmers
And AFC Ajax scarf and ski cap she was particularly fond of
Today for the very first time she wears heels and a miniskirt
(It’s springtime in A’dam)
Because on the list of what she has to do before dying
There are a few things related to sex
First Yu passes by Oudekerkplein
To see this renowned anonymous ground sculpture
Of a hand grabbing a tit
Today she takes the time to really look at it
And slowly she feels the bronze hand
Holding her own bronze breast
First she expects to sense nothing
Like usually
Dreadfulness and excitement cancelling each other
But today in this sluttish outfit
Yu catches something different
Something violent
Rising through her shielded perception
As she stands over the sculpture
A fat black woman in a white lace basque
Looks at her from her window, smiling
Strangely she reminds her of these Matongué mamas
Who board Euroline coaches at the Brussels bus stop
Then she remembers this trip a few years ago
When she first met this girl with the tattoo on her face
Who called her Buddhaface
Like Yu was the special one
By then the stone Buddha had already started growing in her
And had already taken control of her heart
And brain
And body
And face
Now, before the weight of the mineral Buddha
Drags her to the tomb
She must start her own quest
And experience… well, everything
Or at least something else
But there’s nothing she can share anymore
Neither with friend or lover
She was never deprived of either
She was always eager to bathe herself in warm feelings
But now she’s beyond that
Beyond the illusion of love and friendship
Now it’s time for the body to be crude and raw and free
Yu walks by the sex-shop windows along the Voorburgwal
As a teenager she used to come around with her gang
Pointing at giant dildos, crotchless panties and riding crops
Bursting into laughter and squeaky screams
Hissed away by half-irritated half-amused hookers
Alone she’d usually just look straight and walk slightly faster
Today she stops and looks for good
She looks to see and see beyond
The whole city revolves around merchandised sex
And later in school when amongst a group of foreign students
It’s understood that you talk casually and slightly blasé
About sex toys, porn, prostitution, group sex and stuff
But kids have a way here to develop selective blindness
About grown-up matters, and later on it’s simpler to go on like this
So today she really looks
For the first time
She tries to imagine manufactured objects loving her
How their technological indifference would be stimulating
She tries to imagine herself attired in fishnet and rubber
Warmth underlaid by cold and soft by hard
Being exposed in this ineptly inverted intimacy
Would somehow feel right again in our upside-down reality
Yu checks around if people noticed her staring at a window
But here it’s all very normal, and it looks mostly
Like a cheap souvenir shop window
For loudmouth Russian businessmen who couldn’t come home
Without a penis-shaped crystal bong and a few salacious stories
And aroused French couples on extended weekend trips
Yu wants to get inside one of these shops
But not a cheap one with plastic day-glow gadgets and pink lace
So she walks around to find a more attractive place
Until she remembers
That the only shops that are not targeted at philistines
Sell fetish clothes and bondage accessories
Then she knows where to go
Yu contemplates a wall-display covered with leather masks
Surgical steel butt-plugs, handcuffs, anal hooks, ball-gags, whips
Corsets, slave collars, hoods, chain harnesses, chastity belts,
Cock rings and cages, nipple clamps, leg-spreaders, straps, ropes
Strap-on dildos, spanking skirts, love balls and designer sex toys
Slightly high with the heady smell of rubber
A part of her feels overwhelmed
But mostly she feels distant and a little bit sad
As if all this belongs to a past that never occurred
She can’t be burdened with objects
She can’t be hidden or disguised
She’s standing there for a long while in front of this love weaponry
As if entranced
The shop hostess leaves her alone
A pretty, sexy and seemingly crazy Asian girl
Staring at the complete paraphernalia
Meant to turn her into the ultimate sex slave
This is good for business
Yu knows now what she was looking for in the Red Light District
She wants to be looked at
With nothing between her and the viewer
No clothes, no dance, no love, no feelings
She wants to be freed from saṃsāra
She doesn’t want to think too much because she will be scared
She has to do it right now
She remembers this club on Warmoesstraat
A kind of underground place mixing sex shows and cabaret
One or two girls from school have been dancing there
For the thrills, quick money and street credibility
It is open 24/7, but you have to know how to find it
They pretend to be illegal, that’s the best advertisement
This strong stench of beer yeast and sweat
People have to get used to since smoking is forbidden
Rises from the descending staircase
In the hall there are big photos of live sex acts from the 80s
And black and white posters announcing the current show
“Dancing on Ashes” aka “the Lumpenkabarett”
The room is very dark but the stage is brightly lit
A half-naked girl in kabuki make-up just stepped in the spotlights
Yu sits at the table closest to the entrance door
And waits for the end of the sketch to try to get noticed by the crew.


“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Lumpenkabarett, thank you for paying us a visit – thank you for paying anyway! After all, that’s what you do: you’ve been working like morons all day long to pay your boss’s sex tour in Bangkok next month, and to pay your taxes so Lumpenproletarien and artists can survive on public subsidies.
Anyway, this is one of the few happy times you’ll have this year, so, let’s have fun…
This is the Lumpenkabarett, here we have sharp Kunst, good music and hot ladies, such as I. And I tell you, people, it’s good to be a lady. I say, I feel sorry for the men here but really it’s so good to be a woman. Only a woman can look beautiful and dignified in heels and stockings, on all four, gagged and chained in the basement with a ponytail butt-plug stuck in the ass. I can tell you, I was there 10 minutes ago!
Much joy in being a woman, indeed, and again, I feel sorry for men! The problem with guys is that they only have one dick, this is far from enough! We know it, they know it, that’s where all the trouble starts. So the smart ones comfort each other, and we girls are left with the dumb ones! Oh, what a misery.
Dumb for dumb, that is why many ladies choose to have a special friend that comes without any annoying side effects. So do I, so let me introduce you, not with but to my best friend here… I always carry him around, not in my pocket though, he doesn’t fit in my pocket, of course – otherwise he wouldn’t be my best friend! You know, size matters… So hey, this is G., say hello to G! He is always on the spot, dear little darling! He’s so cute, he’s like a liquorice popsicle.
G. is a little bit fat and needs to exercise, so we train together everyday, but not too much because I want him to stay a little bit fat… Well yes, men take pride in having a long cock, but of course ladies, we know, it is the width that matters. It has to be a bit difficult to be enjoyable, doesn’t it? Ladies, tell this to your partners, it’s time the truth comes into daylight! Anyway, I do try not to use it too much because I want to stay tight like a politician’s grip on power.
What? What do you say, G.? I talk too much? But little darling, that’s what I’m here for! No, the live sex show is later, sorry… What, you think you know how to make me shut up? But you’re too big to fit in my mouth, naughty boy, aren’t you? But if you think (mumble)… well that’s all right with me. Oh lala, anyway, let’s go on now.
I can see you all marvel at this beauty, who would not? Yes I will share it; I already have a date tonight actually. Yes, with you lady, you with the white blouse! You can come backstage after the show, like we agreed, G. will happily service you while you lick my pussy; I just had it waxed and it’s smooth like George Bush’s brainwave. I’ve always been very anti-bush… And if you’re not vigilant, it can come back without you noticing! What, your husband wants to come too? No problem, I just wanted to try a new trick with gaffer-tape that I learned yesterday from Herr Bürgermeister… Well, OK, where was I?
And now, ladies and gentlemen! It is high time to introduce my other best friend. For G. would be a lonely little boy and I would be of course a frustrated little girl without our dear friend Hans-Heinrich - better threesome than lonesome. Hello Hans-Heinrich, say hello to our lovely audience. Don’t be upset with the spotlights, I know that you’re more used to darker places, but this is the Lumpenkabarett, everything must go into the light!
As you can see Hans-Heinrich is a sophisticated fellow, a beautiful synthesis of technology, anatomy and fantasy and – sorry G., I need my two hands so I must stick you there for a while… - he can serve a variety of purposes that are all highly enjoyable. He’s an honorable whip and a fantastic butt-plug for pony play. He’s also slightly oversized for an honorable lady such as I, but everything is in the process, very slow and lubricated. But it’s getting too intimate, isn’t it?
You know, you often hear that in love, I mean in sex… actually, no, in love, the foreplay is very important. Well, this is not true, the foreplay is actually everything! And for people like me, the foreplay is happening all the time. Night and day, everything I do, whatever I wear, it’s always a part of the foreplay. That’s also why I’m here in front of you in the Lumpenkabarett, ladies and gentlemen, when I’m on stage I’m making love to you… That doesn’t mean that you make love to me, but hey, one has to choose her side!
But it’s getting late, people, it’s time to get a good resting night because you start working at dawn tomorrow. So a light dinner, a little honeyfuck and hop into bed! And me? I must now satisfy my little friends, for we have a rule, they can never go back to their scabbards without being used… So, duty calls, bye-bye!”

About Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) and Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus) 
by Bertram Dhellemmes

'Les machines désirantes au contraire ne cessent de se détraquer en marchant, 
ne marchent que détraquées.'
 (Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, L'anti-Œdipe)

  "Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam)" and "Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus)" operate as a diptych within the series of the six Dancing on Ashes performances proposed in Stuttgart and Berlin between December 2009 and June 2011 (each performance is connected with all the other performances), and they contribute to a narrative and conceptual whole in conjunction with many other works using different media – videos, posters, installations, websites, a novel –, all gathered in the transmedia project Angel Meat).

Both performances started from a duchampian meditation on art and desire from the perspective of fetishism. They depict female characters facing objectified desire and the objects of desire – sometimes themselves – brought to the extreme, until they’ve become vital and metaphysical issues for the protagonists. These characters are not embodied on stage by actors and the depicted situations are not performed, but told through a sequenced narrative text projected in the performance space. The performances are based on two forms of historical modern ritualized erotic entertainment: cabaret and rock concert, highly stylized and reduced to their most immediate and sensitive expression. This rooting into entertainment collides with the contemplative narrative device – that is actually the active medium of this series of performances, proposing an investigation of the cathartic experience of collective reading, questioning stage performance as much as literature in its extended field.

Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) is actually a performance-installation in which there are no live performers at all, but music machines (self-playing piano and guitar, sampler...) generating a random and hypnotic music, the projected text and the video of an Amsterdam-style erotic stand-up comedy number (performed by Ines Birkhan). The text tells the story of Yu, a young dancer who, after learning that she enters the terminal phase of a neurodegenerative disease, decides to live as intensely as possible before her forthcoming death. Having spent her childhood in the Red Light District of Amsterdam in a relative indifference toward the local sex industry, she starts a quest of self-dispossession by abandoning herself to the endless fascination offered by sex shops and sex shows1, and eventually discovers the Dancing on Ashes cabaret – the core of the fictional universe of Angel Meat.

Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus) is a in situ performance conceived for the glass room of WKV in Stuttgart, taking mainly the form of a rock concert played behind a glass wall on which the text is projected. It tells the ambiguous encounter between two of the main characters of Angel Meat: Skullface, a Berlin jeweller with a complex background revealed by a morbid facial tattoo, and Alicja, a collector and manipulative erotomaniac with twisted designs. The band assembled for the occasion (with the special participation of drummer Marco Barotti) plays a noisy, violent and de-constructed jazz-rock. The music being stifled by the glass wall, it was possible to conciliate the contemplation needed to dive into reading and the vibrant and cathartic energy specific to amplified live music2.

The stories of Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) and Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus) take place in a world dominated by fetishism. A society that requires an absolute credulity and the constant acceptance of a fictional interface to keep functioning. Every day, television, advertising, news, politics and religions ask us to believe in a myriad of fictions, often improbable, if not contradictory. Human desires always have been perverted and reattached on artificial objects – it is a constant of human societies, if not a prerequisite –, but our techno-scientist society systemized the process with technological and intellectual logistics beyond anything that has ever existed. Art and eroticism are probably the only areas in which fetishism is assumed, claimed, cogitated and therefore can be mastered and applied to the benefit of humanity. Only there, the latent conflict between man and man-made productions can recede, the threats exerted on man by anything meant to increase his own power are subjugated by surrendering joy.

These performances fed without doubt on Georges Bataille’s notion of Eroticism, but more than half a century after it had been a central issue of the surrealist intellectual and artistic vortex, the relation of our society to sexuality has profoundly changed3. They also playfully rely on another central object of the investigations of the early 20th century avant-gardes which are still today's art basis: mechanical eroticism. But everything has been reversed, there is no need anymore to use the euphemisms of the Bachelor Machine, the Chocolate Grinder or the Carving Machine to evoke the ecstatic union of man and machine fantasized at the dawn of modernism, and the fascinating dildo of the ancient poetess or the faraway geisha has become the commonplace birthday gift sold at the drugstore. No more ecstasy or panic, but new questions about how and where intimacy and art meet – in desire.

The game of objectified desire requires that human and in-human exchange roles again and again until the distinction becomes irrelevant. In (Amsterdam), the self-playing instruments don’t need human musicians, they are activated by strings and electric fans (like Roussel’s elemental music machines), they are puppets – like the talking dildos manipulated by the Comedian for her farcical number, but also like Yu trying to get rid of her ego and become a mere image to escape the feeling of a stone statue growing inside her. In (Fascinus), the musicians wearing the cliché costumes and make-up of two-dimensional rock idols perform behind a glass wall, like the erotic objects in a window (or the prostitutes of Amsterdam) that Skullface exhibits in an art fare, and all the characters display strong artificial interfaces – a facial tattoo for Skullface, heavy jewels and stereotype behaviour for Alicja… Objects and images actually play with the people more than the contrary, but it is not a power game, it’s a practice of selfless indifference leading to abstraction and serenity through sated desire.

An early concern while elaborating these performances was to generate emotion for the audience through clearly artificial devices – literature, music, technology – better than with theatrical empathy. The performers have no identifiable features but wear iconic make-up and costumes, they only address the audience through stereotyped behaviour – either stand-up comedy or rock concert – but they manipulate objects that have immediate emotional impact, sometimes mixed – like arousal, embarrassment or amusement with the sex toys handled by the Comedian, or excitement or rejection with the music (a combination of phasing complex rhythms, atypical time signatures, distorted sounds, screams and chaotic soundscapes, that one could describe as ‘math-noise’). But all this is supposed to happen only in the peripheral vision or as auditory stimulation – the most direct emotional levels of perception – because the central device is the narrative text, that has its own powerful way of conveying emotions, not only psycho-physiologically, but as the central cultural element of Judaeo-Christian civilisation.

In the stories told in the two performances – fragments of a bigger narrative but meant to stand on their own –, like in real life, the protagonists are confronted to an endless series of objects, statues, tools, weapons, toys, jewels, images that they can use as adjuvants in their quest of the self. Actually, one could define human by his ability to conceive, create and produce the in-human – and more than an ability it may well be a necessity, as these concepts, images or objects are permanently determining reality and interfacing with it, up to oneself and one’s fellow humans. The object able to fulfil many levels of human needs – symbolic, phantasmic, metaphysic, aesthetic, erotic – as described by Alicja in (Fascinus) is just a step further than the ordinary paraphernalia of daily life, though it can easily reveal the latent animism of a materialist civilisation. But there again, acknowledged and purposeful fetishism is probably much less alienating than its widespread suppressed alternative.

Bertram Dhellemmes, Berlin, June 2011

1. Amsterdam is unique in that more than any other city, it has the capacity to exhaust the scopic drive of its visitors, both by the richness of its public art, museums, architecture and urbanism, its music, theater and dance scene, and the ubiquitous exhibition of the sex industry – with its windows showings either erotic objects or prostitutes – the casual theatricality of its inhabitants and the exposure to alternative lifestyles – all this being mirrored in its canals, doubled and inverted. This is a great source of inspiration and constant reflection on art, exhibition, perception and desire.
2. Some members of the audience actually danced to the music, spontaneously and unexpectedly reaching the novel experience of dancing while reading!
3. There is much to tell about how many surrealist claims about unrepressed sexuality and acceptance of the 'dark side' of the human psyche have been achieved in mainstream culture better than in arts – with pornographic or gore movies, or different practices of psychedelic or musical trance – but instantly trivialized without bringing the expected liberating effect!

Technical  rider

Theater space or gallery with blank white background wall and seats
HD video beamer with 20 meters cable to computer
Sound system
Grand piano (or other horizontal stringed instrument)

Other instruments, sound devices and smoke machine are provided.
The piece requires several hours of installation.


Conception, direction, text: Ines BirkhanBertram Dhellemmes
Acting: Ines Birkhan
Scenography, music, video: Bertram Dhellemmes
Premiered in Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, March 2010




Bertram Dhellemmes