Institute, The Place

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There’s an aura of dustiness at the opening of Institute. The edges of the stage, shrouded in a crepuscular gloom, are crowded with filing cabinets. Towering, oppressive, rusty brown. This space, designed by Rhys Jarman and Amit Lahav, is somewhere between a workplace, an archive and a Kafkaesque labyrinth of endless documentation. It looks at once humdrum and dystopian. 

Gecko’s show, though, is anything but dusty. It might be crammed into this dingy, almost deathly setting, but its movement hums with life. Bodies leap, spin and fall through the space, limbs propelled with joy one moment and despair the next. The storytelling might be puzzling and opaque, but Institute‘s glimpses of the human condition – its ecstasy, its agony – are crystal clear.

It’s hard to say what precisely Institute is “about”. The title, perhaps, is a good place to start. The word “institute” suggests an organisation, a state body or company, somewhere strait-jacketed by rules and leaden with bureaucracy. But “institute” is also a verb: to introduce, to establish, to begin.

At first, we appear to be in a workplace – an unspecified institute of commerce. Its employees are two men: Martin (Lahav) and Daniel (Chris Evans). They make cheery colleagues, dancing around their desks while they carry out meaningless tasks and answer incessant telephone queries from their absent bosses. Yet there’s also a sinister undertow. At odd intervals, bright lights flash and sirens intervene. These men seem to be under surveillance, their office acquiring a tinge of the Orwellian. And those cabinets, which store far more than just files, seem to hold a perpetual, ominous allure for the men who organise them…

The longer the piece goes on, the more I begin to wonder whether we’re in another kind of institute: a hospital, perhaps a bizarre and unconventional psychiatric ward. The two protagonists, who at first simply seem to be grinding through the 9-to-5, are each troubled in their own way. Daniel, a (wannabe? one-time?) architect, is both driven and crippled by ambition. Proud, expectant voices echo from the filing cabinets, while he contorts his resistant body into desk-bound poses of industry. Martin, meanwhile, is driven wild by thwarted love, seemingly doomed to relive the same humiliating restaurant scene over and over and over.

It’s never entirely clear, though, what these haunting scenes represent. Are we seeing dreams, memories, or stunted desires? There are hints of group therapy, as Martin and Daniel link hands with their bosses-turned-carers (Ryen Perkins‐Gangnes and
François Testory) and move in a circle. But the two men who seem to be in charge here – speaking different languages, to amplify the confusion – have traumas of their own. One is increasingly ill and frail, stubbornly pushing away his pills in denial. The other is repeatedly dragged back to a startling nightmare – or perhaps a memory – in which a figure falls away into nothingness.

The sum of these different scenes is fragmented and sometimes bewildering, but never less than compelling. Both design and choreography offer endless surprises. Whole rooms – the desks of the workplace, a restaurant table and chairs for two – spring, fully formed, from the cabinets that line the stage. Jaunty sequences of movement quickly give way to the strange or unsettling. In the most striking of these tonal jolts, Lahav suddenly appears with long contraptions attached to his arms and legs, manipulated by the other performers like a gruesome human puppet. The recurring nightmare in which an unknown man falls suddenly backwards and out of sight, meanwhile, has something of real horror in it.

The invitation explicitly offered by Gecko in its marketing material is to “consider what it means to care”. This suggests one way to join the dots between the company’s disparate but captivating series of images. Sometimes care is physical support – arms to catch and hold up. Sometimes it is a struggle, a case of being cruel to be kind, as Martin and Daniel are forced to confront their demons. Sometimes it is love, which appears in the show under multiple guises. Sometimes it is simply being together, being there.

There’s also a question of what it means to care in a distinctly uncaring corporate environment, where individual human beings are little more than cogs and lives are filed away like inert documents. And then, later in the piece, Gecko raises the spectre of medical care – more relevant than ever in the light of NHS reform and privatisation. Institute is, unquestionably, more visceral than cerebral, but the thoughts and questions it prompts are vital nonetheless.

 

Resolution Review

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This year I was lucky enough to be one of the professional critics taking part in the Resolution Review programme alongside Resolution, The Place’s annual showcase of new choreography. See below my reviews, originally published here.

12 January

Subhash Viman Dance Company Shan
Wayward Thread Finding Words
MAZPOD Rhythmic Stories Mad Meg

Under a single light bulb, Subhash Viman writhes restlessly on the floor. Limbs trembling, contorted, he is like a man learning to inhabit his own body. It’s a sense of searching that knits together the otherwise disparate triple-bill on the third night of Resolution 2016. Drawing on the ancient Chinese poem San Zi Jhing, Shan contrasts these jerking, shuddering movements with the fluidity and control of learnt gestures, suggesting the forces that society exerts on the body. Though the progression of the piece fails to match its startling opening, it’s a showcase for an astonishing talent in the form of Viman.

The evening’s second offering, to borrow its title, is Finding Words – or, rather, struggling to track them down. The programme note promises an exploration of ‘the urgency of language’, but there’s little that is urgent about Wayward Thread’s muddled piece. In a disjointed series of sequences, break tussles with contemporary dance, as the red-swathed company of seven creates shapes and images that struggle to speak to one another. There are occasional, tantalising hints of the epic, but the work as a whole never quite discovers what it’s looking for.

Closing the night in riotous style, Mad Meg is a search for its eponymous protagonist. Fragmenting and subverting the fairytale genre, this marriage of dance, narration and live folk music reclaims the story of a woman serially ignored. Defiant, joyous and often brilliantly grotesque in its use of movement, MAZPOD’s feminist fable is also bags of fun. It helps that performers and choreographers Marianne Tuckman and Phoebe Ophelia Douthwaite have a fizzing onstage chemistry, reminiscent of sparky physical theatre duo RashDash. The structure needs some work and the storytelling lacks clarity at times, but with energy and wit like MAZPOD’s such flaws are easy to forgive.

26 January

aKa Dance Theatre Company Next Door
Poekert & Bysheim oh, and one more thing…
BAMBULAproject Building the Route Between Me and You

As the lights come up on Next Door, a sofa sits centre stage. It’s an item of furniture that suggests staid living room dramas, but aKa Dance Theatre Company transforms it into a third player in this compelling study of one couple’s relationship. It pirouettes, tips on its side, embraces or ejects the two lovers who clamber over it. Throughout, Jennifer Grant’s playful and often surprising choreography tiptoes the fine line between flirtation and frustration. Curling their bodies around one another, Joe Garbett and Sally Smithson are teasing one moment, stony serious the next. Without words or even music, they suggest all the ways in which love can both make you soar and tug you painfully back down to earth.

In the second duet of the evening, Poekert & Bysheim’s oh, and one more thing…, the two dancers are held apart by rigid external structures. Stark shafts of light carve up the stage, restricting Sarah Poekert and Lisa Colette Bysheim to their own small portions of space. Beginning with micro-movements that gradually expand outwards, the two performers push at these boundaries, seeking fleeting moments of connection. The central idea, though, is more interesting than its stiffly repetitive execution.

Connection and disconnection are also key themes in Building the Route Between Me and You. BAMBULAproject are interested in how we piece together fragmented societies, a process represented visually on stage by a series of interlocking tiles. Sliding these tiles around the space and slotting them into different formations, the four dancers explore both isolation and togetherness. In one absorbing sequence, two of the performers create winding paths for their fellow dancers, slowly bridging the distance between them. While the dramaturgy of the piece as a whole would benefit from more clarity, at its best it speaks powerfully to how individuals connect and collide in the modern world.

12 February

Christopher Owen The Creative Act
Dillon Dance That’s Not How He Wants It
The Rebirth Network Behind Me

“The creative act,” as Marcel Duchamp famously asserted, “is not performed by the artist alone.” Art – and performance particularly – needs audiences to come to life. Opening the evening in baffling style, Christopher Owen’s new piece has taken Duchamp’s mantra to heart. Choreographing music, sound, video and text, as well as the movements of his own body, Owen creates an assault on the senses. The burden of meaning lies entirely with the audience. This, strange, puzzling piece acts as an association machine, its fleeting flashes of video and text daring us to make mental connections between disparate images and ideas.

Disparate is a word that jumps to mind again watching That’s Not How He Wants It. Individual sequences in Dillon Dance’s offering are all beauty and control. The female performers assume poses of fixed elegance, locked in place like ballerinas in jewellery boxes. In other scenes, they break free, their movements implying both strength and frustration. The title is suggestive of women’s roles in society and the extent to which these are still determined by men, but this theme is hinted at rather than fully realised, while the scenes themselves feel only loosely connected.

The clarity that’s wanting elsewhere is finally found in the night’s concluding piece, The Rebirth Network’s Behind me. This fusion of hip-hop, dance theatre and spoken word vividly evokes an inner world of competing voices and personal demons. There’s a rare dynamism and chemistry to this ensemble, who work brilliantly together to command the stage. Bodies convulsing to distorted beats, the performers create a haunting and compelling vision of hidden turmoil, all building to an urgent final message. Unlike the Rubik’s Cube that various company members grasp in their hands, dance is not there to be solved, but The Rebirth Network welcome audiences into the puzzle rather than locking them, bewildered, outside it.

16 February

Muti Musafiri  ReFractions on Attachments
Richard Osborne  rEd
Alula Cyr  Hyena

There’s a lot going on in Muti Musafiri’s ReFractions on Attachments. Perhaps too much. Four dancers enter, eating oranges and reciting juice-distorted lines of poetry, before segueing into a series of movement sequences. One performer emerges, limb by limb, from between the legs of another. Bodies move fluidly in and out of frozen poses, limbs seemingly manipulated by external forces. The dancers race – flailing as though dragged – towards the audience, stopping at the last second. Such moments are individually stunning, and the talent and control of the quartet of performers is indisputable, but the connections between these scenes remain stubbornly opaque.

In contrast with Musafiri’s soup of ideas, Richard Osborne’s rEd is all simplicity. Billed as a duet about identity, it’s just that. Performers Brita Grov and Pola Krawczuk repeatedly come together and tear apart, fiercely tussling for a sense of individuality. Red and white hazard tape ties them together like an umbilical cord, pulled taut in striking images of struggle. “This is me,” Grov insists, mantra-like, trying to break free. The piece’s simplicity, though, is its weakness as well as its strength. Ambition has been sacrificed for the sake of clarity, never allowing this investigation of identity to go more than skin deep.

The individual and the group are also two of the central concerns of Hyena, Alula Cyr’s blend of circus and contemporary dance. The three female performers, like the animal of the title, move in a pack. As they execute a series of gasp-inducing acrobatics, the women also playfully explore group dynamics, as different individuals pair off or compete for one another’s attention and approval. This aspect of the piece, while intriguing, is not yet fully developed, and the skilful trio are at their best when rotating in wheels or turning unlikely somersaults. Ultimately, spectacle wins out over storytelling.

A Room for All Our Tomorrows, The Place

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Originally written for Exeunt.

How often do we really listen to the sounds humans make? Not words. Sounds. Groans, moans, sighs, gasps, screams, howls, screeches, murmurs. All the miniature, half-acknowledged ways in which we communicate without stretching our lips around language. All the daily slips of our vocal chords, bodies betraying what our minds try to conceal.

Igor and Moreno make us listen. For at least half of A Room for All Our Tomorrows, the auditorium is flooded with their wordless cries. They burst into the performance space whirling and screaming, voices shredding the air. And they keep going. And going. The shouts are relentless, subjecting us to the kind of sound we never really hear over any sustained period of time – and certainly not in the theatre. It’s astonishing and beautiful and unbearable all at once.

But the cries are far from uniform. One moment they suggest agony or despair, the next surprise or the sharp shock of pain. Igor and Moreno’s impressive repertoire of noises spans grief, excitement, heartbreak, longing, relief … Together and then apart, their yells tussle and enter into dialogue and briefly harmonise. They say everything while saying nothing.

All through the screaming, Igor and Moreno put their bodies through the exaggerated motions of everyday actions: turning, reaching, stumbling, and – most strikingly – drinking scalding cups of espresso, fresh from the coffee-maker plonked centre-stage atop a wide wooden table. It’s as though this daily ritual has been stretched out of shape, suggesting both the strain and the absurdity of these things we construct as the flimsy scaffolding of our lives. Eventually, as coffee spills across the pristine white floor, the construction collapses; something new emerges.

There’s something about effort in Igor and Moreno’s work. In Idiot-Syncrasy, the two men basically just jump up and down for an hour, calf muscles straining and sweat blooming in patterns on their T-shirts. A Room for All Our Tomorrowsputs the same strain on their voices, as they heave up these unrelenting, guttural cries. The movement, too, riffs on struggle and repetition, the same motions enacted again and again. The exertion is palpable, there in the perspiration beading on Igor and Moreno’s faces and in the occasional audible gulps of air between screams. This is fucking hard work.

So why do it? For me, the effort hints at the attempt, however small or seemingly silly, to change something. Igor and Moreno vaguely but appealingly describe A Room for All Our Tomorrows as “a performance and a place to imagine how things might be other than the way they are”. The show is as abstract and open to interpretation as the statement; it’s performance you feel through, not think through. But there’s something in those repeated cries, those repeated gestures of trying, reaching, falling. The same thing again and again and again, until suddenly, somehow, it’s transformed into something different. Things might be other than the way they are.

Doing Things with Bodies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Bodies on stage constantly surprise me. The ways in which they tumble, contort and embrace; their capacity to startle and to move – in all senses of the word. The way they both betray and are betrayed. The small movements that become saturated with meaning. Watching contemporary dance – an art form I don’t see nearly enough of – I’m just as likely to be struck by the odd twist of a hand or flick of a head than by the overall execution of the choreography, about which I’m almost entirely ignorant. I find myself drawn instead to gesture and interaction; to the way that bodies meet, part and respond to one another in the space.

So how does a writer with a love for but embarrassing ignorance of dance respond to a programme of performance that is flirting with dance vocabularies in a venue usually dedicated to contemporary dance?

Forest Fringe’s fleeting residency at The Place is an intriguing meeting of performance practices, an inter-disciplinary experiment in curation and audience engagement. Over two nights, the organisations have co-curated a range of performances and installations that dance delicately around genre distinctions, standing at the intersection(s) between theatre, live art, contemporary dance, performance and participation. It’s both dance and not-dance.

In watching, I can only react to the bodies. I’m reminded, aptly, of the words of Forest Fringe’s Andy Field: “Theatre is a space in which we can ask questions that only our bodies can answer.” Theatre does thingswith bodies just as much as it does things with words. And the same goes for the performances I see at The Place: they do things with bodies.

In Gillie Kleiman’s DANCE CLASS: a performance, our bodies as audience members form the material of the piece. After being ushered into the room in darkness, we close our eyes and are invited to inhabit our own bodies more fully – specifically, our hands: their connection with the floor, their movement, the bones and muscles that form them. It feels part meditation, part piss-take, Kleiman delivering everything with her tongue more or less firmly in her cheek. Despite the lightly mocking flavour, though, it’s oddly relaxing. I find my fingers tingling as they press down into the ground or flex in the air.

Before long, though, our bodies are found to be wanting. Leading her strange, ever-shifting dance class, Kleiman is brisk and occasionally bullying, leaving no doubt as to who is in control here. She teaches; we try, we fail. Reflexes are too slow, muscles reluctant to mimic the moves demonstrated by Kleiman. Whose bodies are really important in this space? the piece begins to ask between laughs. Whose show is this? Lightly, playfully, tongue still planted in cheek, Kleiman prods at interaction and its often obscured power dynamics. Our bodies might be the raw material, but who in the end is sculpting them?

If 27 is also (intermittently) playful, that’s where its similarities with DANCE CLASS: a performance end. The relationship with dance in Peter McMaster’s tender, bruising show is less explicit, but nonetheless it is overwhelmingly about bodies – bodies that live and love and die. This is all wrapped up in a structure that resembles nothing so much as ritual, from its slowly burning incense sticks to its ceremonial scatterings of ash. The two bodies on stage in front of us – McMaster’s and fellow performer Nick Anderson’s – are here, visibly and thrillingly alive, in order to think together about death.

The title refers to the “27 club”, that morbidly romanticised group of musicians – including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – who all died at the same age McMaster is now coming to terms with. Death, then, is a constant and in some ways alluring presence in 27, but so too is life in all its joy and heartbreak and messiness. In contrast to all the unthinkingly mythologising responses to those “live-fast-die-young” icons, 27 is complex and personal and humane, acknowledging the appeal of the myth while fusing it to material that is at once autobiographical and outward looking.

It’s the second time I’ve seen the show and the same moments knock the breath out of me all over again. They all have to do, I realise, not with design or words or even fully articulable ideas, but with just these two performing bodies. There’s a sequence in which McMaster struggles again and again to escape from Anderson’s half-embracing, half-smothering grasp, straining out of his arms over and over, all underscored by the devastating soundtrack of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby”. Both men are naked by now – a nakedness that feels as gentle and generous as it is exposing – and their bare skin is lightly coated in the ash that clouds the air. Death hangs on them, yet they are so so alive.

Later, in one of the most powerfully simple gestures I’ve seen on a stage, the two men fall repeatedly into one another, stepping gradually further and further apart as they do so. Shoulder smacks into chest; arms grip arms. You can almost see the bruises blossoming in real time. There’s such trust in it, a trust and cooperation tinged at the same time with pain and a kind of heavy, unspoken grief. Each time their bodies slam into one another, it’s all I can do not to gasp with the bruising beauty of it. Bodies, at once sturdy and fragile, embracing, catching, supporting one another.

To talk about embodiment is often to be misleading. We aren’t brains in jars, we’re blood and muscle and sinew, and so everything is embodied – from sitting and reading a book to me typing these words, the smooth surface of the keys sliding under my fingertips. Still, there’s something about live performance that almost imperceptibly changes how we see and understand both the bodies on stage and, perhaps, our own, whether in our seats or up on our feet. And time and again, as at Forest Fringe, I find myself surprised.

Photo: Jemima Yong.