Sebastian Matthias: XOXO


Together with a team of dancers and musicians, Berlin-based choreographer Sebastian Matthias produced a piece about intimacy for an audience aged 14 years and older—as part of the explore dance – Netzwerk Tanz für junges Publikum project realized by Tanzpakt Stadt-Land-Bund. It is a sensual journey into an intense bodily experience that goes beyond prefabricated images.

Written by Annette Stiekele | 18th December 2019


A number of strange objects lie on a table illuminated by fluorescent light. A record player equipped with a spring. A trophy filled with an ice cream cone. A hair dryer spilling dark hair. All objects have one thing in common: they evoke associations that somehow revolve around sex. The path leads into a room where the audience is seated on two sides of the stage. The four performers stand right in front of their audience: “Hi, I’m Enis,” says dancer Enis Turan friendly, facing them. Then he becomes more direct, listing things that he finds difficult to talk about when it comes to the subject of sex. “What happens when our parents come?” he says, and all four performers assume poses they have observed on social media platforms. Lips formed to a kiss, a breast thrust forward, a body lolling about on the floor. “What we want to show you is different,” says dancer Maciek Sado and shatters all expectations.





XOXO (also Hugs and Kisses in digital language) is what the Berlin-based choreographer Sebastian Matthias calls his newest production, which he developed for explore dance – Netzwerk Tanz für junges Publikum, a project that was enabled by Tanzpakt Stadt-Land-Bund. It will premiere at Kampnagel in Hamburg and is the product of a joint effort by dancers Rachell Bo Clark, Enis Turan, and Maciek Sado as well as musician Hang Linton. All four will together appear on stage as co-choreographers who have contributed a lot of personal material. The piece caters to an audience of 14 year olds—yet it is certainly at least as interesting for adults to watch. It’s about sex, as the audience already learns in an introductory message before the performance. Which, it is also said, is definitely not an easy topic. Not even for artists. If someone feels uncomfortable during the performance, this person should feel free to leave the performance space anytime.





Adolescents are the ones who primarily face the enormous insecurities accompanying their awaking sexuality. Intimacy is often afflicted with the smell of ignorance, shame, and the threat of embarrassment. How do I approach someone, especially the desired object of love in a way that will allow for successful intimate interaction? For young people, this question often blows up the topic of sex to an oversized, often scary issue. The fact that especially young people who are new to the love game are faced with a flood of images on social media presenting supposedly universal poses taken up by perfect bodies does not make it easier. This powerful flood of images stands in contrast to a clueless silence dominated by taboos. Some of the kids between 9 and 11 years, who choreographer Sebastian Matthias talked to, told him that they did not know what ‘touching’ meant. It was this conversation that became the initial starting point for the piece. “Dance is a medium that can help to negotiate these things,” says Matthias.





The dances move tentatively, at times Rachell Bo Clark carefully extends her hand into a gesture that Enis Turan responds to so that both dancers’ bodies tenderly flow into one another. Everything appears soft and in organic movement. No turn seems forced or artificial. The movements are precisely calibrated and yet they are carried out with decisive freedom. At the same time, an intense sensuality can be felt in the performance space because of the piece’s proximity to real life. The magic of all that intimacy can be comes together in the interaction of the dancers’ physicality, in the music, the language, and the objects. On the opposite side of the stage, the musician—who here also performs as a dancer—Hang Linton uses words and movements to explore, together with Maciek Sado, the extent to which touch can be ok, and at what point one of them would ask the other to stop. The atmosphere feels safe, not only because the dances interact in a very respectful way, also in terms of each other’s intimacy, but also because the audience is here offered a safe space that it can retreat to: the audience listens to the electronic music and the text spoken by the performers over headphones that they can take off at any time. At the same time, this also allows the audience also the opportunity to become fully immersed in the scene.






For the dress rehearsal, a class of eight-graders from the Albrecht Thaer high-school in Hamburg comes to watch the piece. The girls in the audience are focused and watch closely what happens on stage. Some of the boys are just as attentive, others laugh and seem embarrassed. Tom Weiss who teaches English and Spanish welcomes any form of response. He comments that today, even very young kids are faced with sexualized images. “I am curious to see how the students react when they experience a completely different approach, a soft encounter between adults.” How the experience of the performance will shape them will only become apparent once they are older: “we open up ways for more civilized encounters. They see something new. And they learn that we can free sexuality from its taboos by talking about it.”

What Sebastian Matthias wants to achieve is a way of talking about sex by using the body, music, and language. His piece offers its young audience the opportunity to embark on an expedition, to explore the secondary feelings that accompany the topic of intimacy. “I am interested in the memories of one’s first sensation of having butterflies in the stomach, of feeling dizzy, of asking questions about limits, consent, and insecurities. It’s not about the sexual act per se. It’s much rather about exploring proximity and touch at eye level with the audience,” says Matthias. XOXO does not follow a linear narrative, and yet it is easily accessible because of its additional layer of language. The dance performance is primarily an intense physical experience, both for the dancers and the audience.





In one scene, Enis Turan asks someone in the audience a few questions. During the dress rehearsal, he addressed the class’s teacher Tom Weiss. “This piece really gets under your skin, but in such a way that you willingly let someone touch your shoulder,” he later describes the moment. It is here made clear that proximity can be something beautiful, something that is rewarding and can become a strong vital force. At the same time, intimacy can fail even before it even unfolds. In a different scene, Maciek Sado reads the letter of a woman out loud: in the letter, she describes that she was violently forced by a much older man although she had never said “yes.” She also writes that “he never asked.” This other extreme, the lack of negotiating an intimate encounter between two people, is addressed in the piece in a way that young people can immediately comprehend. Their teacher Tom Weiss finds that in face of such a multi-layered presentation about intimacy, he can trust that his students will find a good way to express their own. A piece like this is not only good for them, but also necessary when you would like them to not simply retreat to pornography that may at the most satisfy them momentarily. What he detects in this dance performance are “tough topics in a soft shell.” This, he says, provides his students with the chance to experience the real world.

On stage they witness how the bodies of Rachell Bo Clark and Hang Linton slowly begin to touch. They fumble, tender and respectful. Finally, and with a loud bang, a batch of table tennis balls is shot across the stage. It is not least this humorous use of images that makes this production special. The previously mentioned escape route was, by the way, not made use of on this day.