May 06, 2024Features

Merging wrestling and dance: an inside look at the Arts House x Basement Theatre Culture Lab residency

Image credit: Jessie Videography

This year, Basement Theatre participated in a creative development international exchange residency with CultureLAB brought together by Arts House (Melbourne/Naarm). It’s Basement’s first time being a part of this exchange and we feel so fortunate to be able to provide such a major opportunity for independent artists.

"Residencies like this are super important not just because they cultivate the growth of artistic pursuit, but also because they strengthen ties and promote togetherness across space and place. Unfortunately, Aotearoa’s arts and culture infrastructure doesn’t have a strong residency component to it, especially when it comes to promoting international exchange. During my time at Basement one of my focuses has been to locate and foster aligned relationships so that we can help to grow an international residency culture. We are super stoked to have worked with the wonderful Artshouse in Naarm to make this happen." - Cat Ruka, Basement Theatre Executive Director

In March, Basement Theatre hosted Naarm, dancer, choreographer, and teacher Rebecca (Bec) Jensen. For the residency in Tāmaki, Bec began developing Embryonic Punch - a new cross-disciplinary project that works in the nexus between the Contemporary Dance and Professional Wrestling scenes in Aotearoa.

"Bec’s application was inspiring to Basement staff because it was both strong in its conceptual exploration as well as being deeply grounded in community. When we hosted Bec and her collaborators for drinks and nibbles at Basey partway through their process, I got to witness these amazing friendships that had blossomed between the dancers and the wrestlers. Hearing them laugh together, swap stories about life and geek out on the physicality of their practices brought me great joy, and I knew we’d made an awesome choice in supporting Bec." - Cat

Bec Jensen

Amber Liberté, Basement Theatre's Programmes Navigator, got the skinny on the residency with Bec and got the details on combining the world of dance and wrestling...

I’m at the infamous Grey Lynn Tavern of all places - where their merlot gets poured to the brim, and the regulars kindly offer kai from the next-door chippy. 

Over a Speights and a Boundary Road APA, Bec Jensen, Basement’s incredible Culture Lab resident artist talks dance, wrestling and the work she’s developing that will merge the two. Originally from West Tāmaki, now living and working in Naarm, Bec recounts the Culture Lab residency she experienced over the last month: a month of connection, kayfabe, and upskilling embodiment.

What got you interested in wrestling and how do you see it relating to dance?

I am interested in the physicality and vocabulary of wrestling. The moves are specific and technical (not to mention beautiful!) but at the same time they are so violent and uncomfortable to watch. I wanted to explore cross-sections between contact improvisation, other forms of partnering and wrestling - looking closely at the level of care, consent and collaboration required to make something look truly reckless and aggressive. 

I have become pretty interested in the idea of “kayfabe” - it kind of means “keeping it fake” - a term used to describe the process of sticking to the theatrical narrative whenever you’re in the eye of the audience. As a wrestler, it's a contract. For example: you wouldn't show up to match with your opponent in your car because you have to act as if you have beef with them… Or, if you had an injury you wouldn't just walk out at the end, you’d have to go limping out - even if your injury isn’t real or as extreme as you make it out to be. I love this idea of following Kayfabe through, to the point of absurdity, the pretending, the real, “is it fake?” It’s obviously not fake; no-one says dancing’s fake.

I guess another thing I’m really interested in is the gimmicky, pastiche choreography of wrestling matches. It’s a pantomime, it gets absurd, there's so many tricks - like a magic show - there are entries, exits, narratives, characters and a long form structure that is accumulated chronologically in each match. 

I am trying to find all the ways dance can meet this form beyond the physicality of partnering.

Image credit: Jessie Videography

What is the world of wrestling like? Are there any similarities with the dance world?? 

The first thing I was drawn to was wanting to know more about the subculture of pro wrestling in West Auckland. It draws a particular crowd, it happens mostly in community halls. People gather around it either to wrestle or as fans, there is a hunger for it and it's happening in these spaces that are for everyone and anyone. Like the dance scene wrestling makes space for itself, it’s entertaining it’s expressive, it’s technical, you have to be so present to execute it. 

People wrestle for different reasons: whether it’s watching WWE from being a young kid, playing video games, wanting to make a political statement through character, expressing yourself physically/performatively or a cocktail of all of these things. It's cathartic, performative, technical, and violent. From what I’ve gathered, it's not possible to earn a living from pro wrestling in Aotearoa (a lot like the arts ha ha ha) so wrestlers work a variety of other jobs, bringing a cross section of people and skill sets together. 

The wrestlers I’m working with are really physically skilled and open minded. They are great at remembering sequences of physical material! Notably, they feel really safe to work with. Dance has such a safety first mentality, I find myself almost too hesitant to throw my body into certain movements. It’s inspiring to see people use their bodies fearlessly and choreographically - coming from a range of different entry points. Wrestling can be VERY dangerous, I am drawn to that edge and the rawness of it. You’re watching these people put their bodies on the line, because of the velocity of the moves mixed up with adrenaline and the 50/50 responsibility you have when partnering things can be precarious!

Photo: Jessie Videography

And how about the form? Are there any crossovers in practice between dance and wrestling?

We have spent some time sharing practice from both sides. I think that all of us feel very physically comfortable with contact and sharing weight and these kinds of things which is very nice. 

Both forms work with improvisation - wrestling is quite codified and can be called on the fly or pre-choreographed, there is a way in and out of certain moves. The way I work with dance is generally trying to always find new ways in and out of everything. We have been working with creating scores to bring elements from both forms together. For example, working with the idea of “calling the match” (verbally letting your opponent or the ref know what move is happening next) with a broader and more abstract and broken down vocabulary than wrestling or isolating and drawing out moments and developing them into physical modalities or small dances like hair pulling or dodging. We have created a few of these modalities, and invited the wrestlers to dance with us. 

Everything “makes sense” in the wrestling world. It’s literal and has a story which is “sold” to the audience. It’s made clear, things are repeated and in that sense, it’s cool because the form feels so locked into itself, referencing previous matches, planting seeds for future matches. Movements often have a function, to take someone down, taunt them etc etc. I am used to working in a more abstract/nonlinear space where things are less readable from an audience perspective. In wrestling and dance you are constantly triangulating between the fans/audience, your opponent/partner. We just do this really differently and we use different language.

Photo: Jessie Videography

What will the work be called! Have you got any working titles?

Currently it’s Embryonic Punch - I kind of like that it’s punching something new into fruition or existence. I stole it from a Roland Barthes essay The World Of Wrestling - but I’m not 100% sold on it yet…

Who are you working on this with? 

I’m working with dancers Josie Archer, Kosta Bogoievski, Raven Afoa Purcell, and Olivia McGregor and wrestlers James Shaw (which is his wrestling name too), Sam Somerfield (Spartan), Michel Mulipola (Ligre - who’s bi-line is: “half Lion, half Tiger, 100% Samoan”) [he’s also a comic book artist and professional gamer]. There’s also another wrestler I’ve worked with a little bit and hope to work with more - Franke Quinn. Over the past week we also were joined by Jessie McCall for a few days playing with the idea of developing a mockumentary to accompany the work looking at the slipperiness of fiction and reality.

What are some elements of wrestling and the world of it that have been reference or inspiration points when developing the work?

Initially I was interested in how much care is put into something to make it look so violent. So I was looking at contact improvisation and it’s ethos. In contact improv - you’re constantly making decisions, nothing is set, nothing is pre-determined, the idea is that you can always change the pathway and everybody is ready to respond. Whoever can fly, whoever can base regardless of size, it’s more the principles of spiralling and all of the limbs working together. And I like that. It feels so contrasting to a wrestling vocabulary - even though they have a few principles in common. So I guess I’m looking for crossovers with dance and dance history.

I’ve also kind of been looking at the role of the ref - who’s this symbol of justice and fairness but also the match is rigged. It’s predetermined. So the ref is kind of this superfluous character which is simply only necessary for storytelling and making the signal if something happens that is an actual emergency. I've since learned the ref can also be a messenger between opponents when choosing which moves will be next.

I was looking at Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset which is a piece which is a historical choreographic work which (from what i understand) was created by using set material, improvising with it, then re-setting it so the choreography holds a sense of spontaneity and feels improvised, but is very known, which is kind of like wrestling. So I’m kind of interested in the dance of the ref being this repeating, revolving, non-functional dance (or functional in a different way to taking someone down or being taken down, it sits outside the binary of winner and loser). So it’s maybe just aesthetic or it’s just flourish or it’s just this thing that continues and continues and isn’t ever really resolved. 

We’ve also been doing some reality TV acting because it feels like a form very close to wrestling. Loosely the Kardashians, but also Reels that are referencing the Kardashians. Which speaks to the idea of looking at a form from a distance or receiving it after it’s been through a few versions: which is the world we live in. Someone’s doing a version of the version of the version. Maybe there is also a link here between the highly televised American WWE type wrestling and a sort of re-enactment with a local twist happening over here in Aotearoa. In contrast to many kind of red-neck masculine stereotypes there is the local tag team - the young Nats who parody the National party with a Christopher Luxon look alike, Ligre comes from the “mean streets of Mangere”, and last weekend in Invercargill James Shaw was possessed by Sir Edmund Hillary and fought the “Southern Alps” (a wrestling duo).

I’m quite interested in suspending disbelief or suspending a moment and stretching it out a bit, we have been playing with this through stretching the space between truth and a lie alongside working with gesture. There’s a line in The World of Wrestling by Barthes that describes professional wrestling, he says something like “The gestures are excessive, exploited to the limit of their meaning.” it’s become a through-line in everything we’ve been doing.

Photo: Jessie Videography
What’s something you didn’t expect to learn while doing this process?

I didn’t realise how much it hurts to do wrestling. Before I started this project I over confidently thought “oh yeah, maybe I could become a pro wrestler?” [laughing] but it’s actually super specific and quite brutal on the body. They do these ‘bumps’ where they slam their body on the ground, there is often blood in matches - high impact stuff.

The bumps are really hard core. (This is a variety of examples of what bumps are). They do that all the time - most moves end that way. 

If you could describe your process in five words, what would they be?

The sound of the TAB coins shooting out in the machine are in the ambience as Bec thinks and laughs about how difficult the task of summarising such a rich process into 5 words is.

Bec, as any fellow dancer understands, engages in actions to think.

Connections. Casting-a-wide-net to find connections between ideas, bringing disparate things together

…This is really hard….

Embodiment. Finding a way to embody an idea. Asking why would you dance about this? How would this be a dance? What can the body say that other forms can't? Looking for a physicality that speaks to the idea I’m looking at - often through learning a physicality you learn ideologies, philosophies encoded in its system

Curiosity. Trying new things including things I am quite bad at but would like to learn more about, upskilling

Humour. Letting dumb jokes lead you places, absurdity.

Relationships. Getting to know the people I am working with and trying to find ways to invite their personalities and skill sets to be a part of the work in a meaningful way.

Photo: Jessie Videography
Culture Lab is a residency exchange between Arts House in Naarm and Basement Theatre in Tāmaki Makaurau. What drew you back to coming to NZ for the Culture Lab residency?

It’s quite simple, I want to be around my family a bit more and I’m also interested in broadening the context my work sits in. I’ve never really made work here, and I grew up here. I guess I wanted to know more about how being “home” would inform my process. It’s already been so interesting working quite specifically out West - like going out to Westgate and driving through all these places I know from my childhood. Maybe that sounds absolutely stupid to someone who still lives in the town they grew up in, but it’s nice to kind of work through those layers of sentimentality and acknowledge I do have some kind of deeply ingrained understanding of this world I’m dabbling into. My brother loved wrestling. Maybe there’s a slight biographical slant to this work or something? Perhaps in this way that I’ve never had in my work before. I don’t think anyone could see that from the outside yet, but there's something going on at a deep level that I can't articulate yet.

Was your brother into wrestling the whole time you were growing up?

Yes, it was the late 90’s early 2000’s, so many kids were into it. Me and my brother watched it and played it on PlayStation together, but he has a friend who’s in the Aotearoa pro wrestling scene, who also grew up around me, who’s also a family friend. That’s how I connected with these guys I’m working with now. 

Photo: Jessie Videography

Why do you think international exchanges like Culture Lab are beneficial for makers?

It builds relationships. You really do bond in the studio, working with people, and you’re all vulnerable and sharing your process. You can't put a dollar sign on exchange, you pay the artist fee but it’s so much more than what's just happening in the studio. Maybe you’re making a work but you’re also building a language, familiarity, and so many things that will go beyond the work in ways you don't know. 

With Culture Lab I was really excited writing the application, I was like “I really want this!” And this project is a bit of a beast, I have my work cut out for me, it’s outside of my comfort zone, which is also good. You’ve gotta be pretty communicative when you’re working across disciplines and really explain a lot, you can't rely on assumptions.

It's also so great to be away from commitments in your home town to allow you to be present and engage in social activities together outside of rehearsals. I’m kind of sad that I'm going back home to Naarm because I would love to go to more training or see more matches engaging in the in-between moments. I feel like we are only just getting started!