Thursday, December 07, 2017

REVIEW: National Dance Company Wales: Roots (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

NDC Wales decided to mix things up a bit for its Autumn tour and present a curated evening of four short and snappy dance pieces instead of the traditional three longer pieces. Contemporary dance can be a very hard sell to new audiences, so it's commendable that NDC Wales is trying to broaden its appeal by offering bite-size dances which might appeal to newbies. It's a bit like a box of Quality Street - if you don't like one piece, there'll be another one along soon to tempt your tastes. The trouble with assorted chocolates though, is that for every caramel soft centre, there's a dreaded toffee penny.

Artistic director Caroline Finn wanted Roots to present different styles of dance, to show how contrasting contemporary dance can be, so that established audiences got a little of what they fancied, and newcomers got a crash course in what the art form's all about. This is a welcome idea, as is the choice to have Finn introducing each piece, and then hosting a short Q&A afterwards, because inevitably with contemporary dance, people have questions afterwards, even if it's to say: "What was that all about?"

First up was Finn's own Beside Himself, a meditation on the tussle between ego and alter ego within the same body. We all have an ego (some bigger than others) and we all have an alter ego (some have more than others), and it's the constant battle between how we think of ourselves and how we want to be which informs Finn's eccentric piece. Two young men dressed in geeky underwear and specs dance with and against each other, interacting and resisting, portraying the fight between two "presences" in the mind. Although Beside Himself has been performed by different dancers to the two seen at Theatr Clwyd, this coupling seemed to work really well, in some part due to the physical difference between the couple. Whereas Evan Schwarz is lithe and lean, his partner Cyril Durand-Gasselin is robust and muscular, embodying the physical disparity between the sometimes more fragile ego, and the more assertive alter ego.

The choreography takes a typically Finn-esque twist when Durand-Gasselin becomes slave to Schwarz, who controls his alter ego by plugging his finger into his mouth and leading him around. But look again... has the alter ego actually bitten the ego, and is now controlling it? The finger-biting is reversed later on, but you're never quite sure who is leading who, whether the ego is beating the alter ego or vice versa. This is how it should be, open to the audience to interpret for itself, and there probably is no right answer.

It's also interesting to note that Beside Himself was originally called Beside Myself and presented as a duet for two female dancers by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2011. The gender has been swapped for Roots, and must bring a fresher dynamic to it, with the sometimes aggressive, sometimes tender interactions of the male dancers addressing the love/hate turmoil that we all have within ourselves.

Next up was Matteo Marfoglia's Omertà, named after the code of silence about criminal activity by the Mafia, and the refusal to give evidence to the police. The refreshing difference with this piece is that it comes from the female perspective, involving the role women play in this code of honour. Marfoglia's piece addresses the oppression Omertà forces on the women connected to the Italian criminal underworld, the mothers, wives and children of the men we usually associate with the Mafia.

Omertà involves four female dancers dressed in traditional black, their faces shrouded by lace veils, who react and respond to a soundscape initially consisting of a simple ticking rhythm. The ticking gets gradually faster as the women create forms in response to various aural bursts such as a gasp or a ssssshhhhh. As this happens, each women is spot-lit momentarily. This method of coupling pools of light which come and go, with physical responses to vocalised sound, was a prevalent feature of Aleksander Ekman's Tuplet (presented by NDC Wales several times over the last two years, and which Marfoglia performed in last year), and I couldn't help thinking of that when I saw it here (for Matteo's take on this, see his comment at the bottom of this review).

Omertà's soundtrack later changes to a fabulous piece by the Italian female vocal quartet Faraualla, all tribal drums and polyphonous harmonies, which is where the dance really begins to speak of its Italian roots, showing the women swirling and surging with vitality and mild aggression, in stark contrast to the more reserved, oppressed, silenced movement of earlier. After washing themselves in pales full of water at the rear of the stage, their faces are revealed temporarily, their identities laid bare. There are real women under the shroud of secrecy, women who sometimes dare to stick their head above the parapets - or at least want to.

There's no doubt Faraualla's music helps characterise Margoflia's choreography, but the majority of what Omertà tries to say about female oppression, the code of honour and the treatment of women associated with the Mafia comes through an emotive response to the soundtrack, and the material presentation - Rike Zoellner's gorgeous costume design and Leighton Thomas-Burnett's lighting. I didn't feel like I learnt an awful lot about Omertà from the choreography alone, only the presentation as a whole. This, if anything, is a sign of a strong creative vision on Marfoglia's part.

The third dance - Lee Johnston's They Seek to Find the Happiness They Seem - I had seen once before, during NDC Wales's 2015 Spring tour. However, that was at Llandudno's cavernous Venue Cymru (capacity: 1,500), where I think Johnston's beautifully intimate piece was lost, whereas this was in Theatr Clwyd's Emlyn Williams studio theatre (capacity: 250). Seeing the dance more up close and personal in this much more confidential space worked in its favour enormously.

They Seek... tells the story of dislocation and separation within a relationship, showing a couple's partnership falling apart - they know what's happening, but aren't sure why, and are unable to stop it. Danced beautifully by Ed Myhill and Angela Boix Duran, the choreography is tender and heartfelt, delicate and emotive. The couple moves in unison, doing everything together in tandem, but after a while you begin to notice that while they may be moving as one, they are doing it without real connection. They are literally going through the motions. Over the course of the 13-minute piece they gradually become more and more dislocated and separate, their choreography diverging until each is independent of the other, although still sometimes enacting the same moves. They have grown apart.

They Seek..., as performed in 2015
There's a beautiful moment right at the end of the piece where the dancers stop and, for the first and only time, look directly at each other. The moment passes in a heartbeat, and they look away again, but for that brief moment, they were facing the truth, and each other, in regret. It's heartbreakingly sad, and thanks to a gorgeous soundtrack made up of several works by Max Richter, the piece as a whole speaks volumes to anyone who's ever been in a relationship. They Seek... acts as a warning to those in relationships who want to keep them, and as forewarning to those seeking that special someone. Don't take things for granted, don't let the flame flicker and die, because before you know it, and without knowing how, that which is most precious to you can be lost.

I'm so glad I saw They Seek... in a smaller, more intimate space, because the true value and emotion of it is utterly swamped on a larger stage.

Finally, there was Caroline Finn's Animatorium, in which a puppet-master manipulates and controls four dancers as though they are his, well... puppets! The dancers begin spinning slowly in those ubiquitous pools of light, like puppets hanging limply from their strings, until Ed Myhill's puppet-master begins to impose his will on them.

It's a blatant allegory for what happens when someone tries to control people. Myhill is a control freak, the power-mad office manager, the ambitious go-getter, the emotional bully, the sadist and the chauvinist. The choreography employed to show the puppeteer controlling his minions is fluid and flowing, with Myhill spinning the dancers by their heads, manipulating them like baker's dough.

What's interesting - and inevitable - is that over the course of the 15-minute piece, the tables begin to turn. The controller becomes the controlled, as those being manipulated fight back. It begins when one dancer becomes particularly clingy, and Myhill is unable to release himself from their grasping choreography. Cyril Durand-Gasselin is wonderful as he virtually attaches himself to Myhill at every turn, creating inescapable forms, gluing himself to his leg, his arm, his chest. Is the puppet addicted to the abuse?

Myhill makes for a glassy-eyed psychopathic manipulator, stalking the stage, sometimes hunched and creepy in a Child Catcher way. A little more character to accompany the movement wouldn't go amiss, but the blank-faced, slightly fractured expression Myhill employs is enough to communicate that this is not a nice man to know!

Eventually, the puppets become the manipulators, pulling on Myhill's clothes until the sleeves stretch outwards like tree branches. The puppet-master is pulled this way and that, unable to keep up or placate his former charges, until he too becomes one with the crowd, blending to their rhythm and movements, and finally becoming the oppressed. At the end, when they all return to their spotlights, only Myhill spins gently in the dimming light, while the others hang free. It's a very straightforward moral that everybody can read and relate to, and was probably the most enthusiastically received piece of the four.

I'd go so far as to say that the second half - the latter two dances - were better received than the first. Roots aimed to present a wide range of contemporary dance styles, showcasing how different the art form can be, and Beside Himself and Omertà were probably more challenging to fresh audiences than They Seek... and Animatorium. Of course, people respond best to the things they recognise and relate to, but the fact newcomers will have been exposed to the eccentricity and thematic density of the earlier pieces can only be good.

However, the overriding theme of Roots is unconvincingly flimsy - each piece is about people and relationships, we're told. It just doesn't seem enough of a binding theme. All dance - in fact, most art - is about people and relationships, and if it's not about people, it's about things, so to have a showcase with the theme of "people" seems a little loose and lazy. But this hardly seems to matter, because it's the dances that count. Maybe a theme isn't necessarily needed? If it is, it should be a stronger and more informative one.

The idea of presenting short and snappy dances, and more importantly, trying to contextualise the material and take feedback from the audience, is to be highly commended and encouraged. Contemporary dance can be scary and strange to the uninitiated, and we need more presentations like Roots, which attempts to popularise the art form as well as simplify it. Contemporary dance fans will always go and see contemporary dance shows, so it's everybody else that need to be focused on. The future lies in the new...

  • Note: After reading my review of Omertà, choreographer Matteo Marfoglia contacted me with this clarification: "Thank you for the lovely and accomplished review of Roots at Theatr Clwyd. I just wanted to clarify something. Omertà was originally choreographed, designed and produced for Alternative Routes in June 2014, and Tuplet only became part of the company repertoire in September 2014. So when I produced Omertà I didn't know how Tuplet looked, and I was a bit shocked when we started to learn it later that year, to be honest."

The stats
Beside Himself
Choreographer: Caroline Finn
Music: DVA, Robag Whrume, Fanfare Ciorcarlia
Performers: Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Evan Schwarz
Choreographer: Matteo Marfoglia
Music: Domina de Miseria by Faraualla
Performers: Angela Boix Duran, Camille Giraudeau, Elena Thomas, Marine Tournet
They Seek to Find the Happiness They Seem
Choreographer: Lee Johnston
Music: Several works by Max Richter
Performers: Ed Myhill, Angela Boix Duran
Choreographer: Caroline Finn
Music: Prologue and Wa Nueid by Mashrou', Leila Czardas by Vittorio Monti, Yumeji's theme by Alberto Navas
Performers: Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Camille Giraudeau, Ed Myhill, Evan Schwarz, Elena Thomas
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, on December 5th-6th, 2017. Performance reviewed: December 5th, 2017.

National Dance Company Wales (retrieved Dec 7 2017)
Matteo Marfoglia's website (retrieved Dec 7 2017)
Caroline Finn's website (retrieved Dec 7 2017)
Mafia's Law of Omertà (retrieved Dec 7 2017)

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