Layers of Skin, Retina Dance Company, Theatre Royal Nottingham, September 8
It is one of those cases where you shouldn’t read the program notes before seeing the performance. I did, and I spent some time looking on stage in vain for what I thought I was going to see. The painter, René Magritte, once said, “If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised.” I was at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal to see Retina Dance Company’s Layers of Skin, choreographed by artistic director, Filip Van Huffel. In his notes for the work, Van Huffel suggests skin is not only what we see but what covers what we don’t see: our feelings, our characteristics. Magritte again: “Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”
Putting aside the ideas of skin, the intensity of conflict is closer to what I actually see in Layers of Skin. The explosive quality of the dancing is in a sense the development of conflict in choreographic form. Created on Retina’s core of six dancers and three apprentices, Layers of Skin also has a supporting cast of eighteen local dancers of differing ages and abilities who have been rehearsing intensively with the company for the last four days. It doesn’t sound like a formula for success, but it works. One could not have asked for a more complete performance in terms of its energy and drive. The six dancers are the heart of the matter, a fearless sextet that courses through the performance with unrelenting attack and endurance. The apprentices allay the tensions with beautiful, lyrical movement, and the local artists provide the balm. When they all come together, as in the final scene, the conflicts are seemingly resolved.
There is also a transformation from initial research to final choreographic form through the score by the Belgian band, Aranis (www.aranis.be), consisting of two violins, a double bass, accordion, piano, flute, and guitar, which has an earthy, gypsy grounding that swings, syncopates, jumps and celebrates. The joy is in the music. The thrill is in the dancing.
The stage is set as an arena with three sides along which are ranged rows of chairs. In between their bouts of participation, the apprentices and local artists sit here (and sometimes the core sextet, though they have little respite), which provides a physical and spiritual continuity throughout the work, as if what is going on in the arena is of concern to everyone. The setting has the starkness of a Shaker Meeting House and the excitement of the circus. When the seven musicians play live on stage (for this performance the music was recorded, but played back with remarkable fidelity) they take up the rear wall, like a row of dancers. This would be the ideal staging, but since the band is based in Belgium (like Van Huffel himself), the cost of bringing it over is a serious financial consideration.
The performance begins in silence and the light reveals a pile of bodies, lots of layers of skin in imperceptible, slithering contact, though modest black underwear covers those areas of skin still uncommonly revealed in our theatres. Kristina Alleyne mounts the pile and backbends over the top, sliding down to the floor to begin a new one, like a replicating cell. The other contingent of dancers enters one by one and surrounds the now upright and dressing group, like a crowd of onlookers witnessing a commotion in the street. By the time the core sextet begins its first dance, the onlookers have taken their seats to watch this performance within a performance. And what a performance it is. Van Huffel’s movement vocabulary demands a total immersion in its volatile gesture, its flying, flipping and horizontal spinning, its daring partnering and its seemingly effortless recovery from high voltage falls to the floor. Contact between the dancers can appear quite violent were it not for the absence of any kind of struggle for dominance; the relationships are dispassionately physical rather than emotional, though the appearance can be ambiguous. Van Huffel is careful to counter the sextet’s surfeit of energy with a nicely balanced arrangement of solos, duets and trios and with passages of calm and balm involving the apprentices and local dancers. Kristina Alleyne, Erin Harty and Pauline De Laet are the three core women, and Steven Martin, David Michel and Matthew Slater the men. Of the three promising apprentices (Andrea Lund, Josefien Noske and Elín Ragnarsdóttir), Noske suddenly catches my eye during the performance as she takes control of her movement and gives it sinuous life. Van Huffel has an evident talent in attracting good dancers into his orbit and bringing out the best in them.
If skin is a form of boundary, these dancers are dancing outside their skin with a raw and transformative energy that effortlessly crosses the theatre’s fourth wall. In the final moments the entire cast walks slowly downstage performing a kind of mass reverence in balletic form with a decidedly expressionist flavour, but a reverence nevertheless. It is a powerful, cathartic moment.
And if you are still wondering what it is all about, I leave Magritte with the final word: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, “What does that mean?” It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”