Aura Dance Theatre’s double bill of Birute Letukaite’s Am I The One Who I Am? and Deborah Light’s The Curio Cabinet, Chapter, Cardiff, October 15
How refreshing to see a new company that hails from off the beaten cultural track. Such is Aura Dance Theatre from Kaunas in Lithuania that presented a double bill at Chapter in Cardiff with a recent work by their director Birute Letukaite (Am I The One Who I Am?) and new choreography by Deborah Light (The Curio Cabinet).
The title of Letukaite’s piece is a little convoluted, which may be a translation problem or an indication of the complexity in dealing with the theme of identity. Certainly there is a lot going from the very beginning of the performance as we enter the theatre. On the way down to my seat, I pass a line of four women in costume and makeup draped against the wall and sit in the front row next to a tall young man in makeup wearing a skirt and jacket, and wonder if I will be part of the performance. He gestures to the seat as if to say it’s ok and I trust him. On stage a woman lies in the steely blue light looking as if she is having contractions. Another woman sits facing the back apparently naked in an office chair next to a textile clock (I thought of the painting by Dali I had just seen — The Persistence of Memory — that features his melting watches). Four moulded-textile anatomical forms (by Almyra Bartkeviciute-Weigel) hang lifeless on a rail at the back as if waiting for a body to fill them. Imprinted on each is an office chair in lurid, silky blue.
The woman with contractions (Gotaute Kalmataviciute) sits up and marks the space around her with precise, repetitive, bird-like gestures of the head and arms with breathtaking sensuality. The young man next to me (Andrius Stakele) gets up to join her and is immediately sniffed by the bird-like head and hands before he introduces himself in a solo of large gestures that blur the lines around him with a bull’s force to Kalmataviciute’s avian curiosity. In the posture and gestures of a second man (Marius Pinigis), there is a suggestion of Nijinsky’s introverted prankster Tyl Eulenspiegel, gestures of illness or instability delivered with uninhibited force. Letukaite has nurtured the identity of these three characters convincingly, enhancing their natural stage presence and ability to make beautiful shapes. Delve under the surface of identity and you come quickly to the sexuality and eroticism of gender and these are explored as well in the repeated interlocking and piling of bodies, but there is an equality of sexual expression between men and women, even if Kalmataviciute’s mastery of space makes her identity dominant.
The other seven dancers are used less forcefully, more to illustrate a point than to express their inner selves. In a secondary theme of identity in the workplace, a woman concentrates on repeating a series of mechanical gestures and there is a comic reference to our reliance on mobile technology to promote and enhance our identities. These clichés are underlined and explored further in an accompanying film, though the medium’s ability to draw our attention tends to eclipse the action on the stage. We are left with a woman dancing to a repetitive beat who nevertheless reveals a tenacious spirit of individuality and the quiet woman in the office chair who has been wheeled around by a trio of acolytes is finally revealed to be pregnant: the regeneration of life, a new identity in a complex world.
Identity of course goes far deeper than the shadow of an occupation, of the clothes we wear or of any other external cause. Perhaps the three main characters come across so well because their identity is allowed to develop from the inside in its genuinely anarchic, sometimes anti-social way. As soon as identity is processed, it loses its richness. The success of Am I The One Who I Am? is divided along this fault line.
Identity also infuses Deborah Light’s The Curio Cabinet, though in terms not so much of individual expression as of the gender issue. Light, one of whose ‘guilty pleasures’ (her term) is reading historical novels, drew her inspiration for The Curio Cabinet from the story of Mary Anning, whose name is little known outside the world of palaeontology to which she devoted her life in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her significant contribution to the science of fossils — then called curios — was acknowledged in her time though not officially recognised by the male-dominated scientific circles in which she would have moved had her gender not been a barrier. In The Curio Cabinet there is not a curio in sight, no delicate pick in Anning’s hand, for this is no historical tale. The one indication of Anning’s fieldwork is the ruggedness of her outfit: a bodice, corduroy pants, woollen socks and hiking boots.
Light takes us straight onto the un-level playing field, marked out by a white taped square within which Anning’s two male counterparts (Andrius Stakele and Marius Pinigis) search, strut and squabble. They are conceived as a homoerotic Tweedledum and Tweedledee and costumed with unsparing satire by Neil Davies in old school black shoes and socks with suspenders, woollen underwear, boned corsets and an exaggeratedly high Etonian collar. Anning (Solveiga Vasiliauskaite) with her flaming red hair moves for the most part outside the white taped square, keeping her nose to the ground, but her feminine alter ego (the beautiful Gotaute Kalmataviciute) dressed in a black lace body suit finds a way in that sends the two males into a tailspin. Light is uncompromising in championing Anning as a model for the female cause, but she never lets her sharp wit upset the tone of the story: at one point she repeats a motif where her characters chip away at the rock; Anning and the men make the percussive sound with their feet but the über-female uses her hand, sensing precisely where the hidden curios lie in this game of opening up opportunities.
The imagery is both striking and beautiful, with an erotic charge that drives the action. Anning is left on the sidelines after the heat of battle, as she was in her professional life, but Light has chipped away at the fossil of male chauvinism to reveal her rightful identity. Perhaps Anning herself has the last word: like the curios she so painstakingly released from the rock, the identity of the choreographer is inherent in the choreography. Keep chipping.
This performance is the result of the first stage of a collaboration between Deborah Light and Aura Dance Theatre supported by Chapter and Wales Arts International. A full version of the work will be developed and performed by Aura Dance Theatre in Kaunas in November.