Protein: xoxo, Pavilion Dance, March 22
XOXO is the written equivalent of kisses and hugs but there isn’t much time for the relationship to develop: Luca Silvestrini and his three dancers from Protein have just three weeks to create a work with specially picked students from The Quay School in Poole and Hamworthy. It is part of Protein’s Real Life Real Dance participatory program, supported by The Monument Trust, Pavilion Dance South West, wave arts education agency and The Quay School. The students, Jamie, Rhys, Jordan, Holly and Sarah are the second group this year, after a partnership between Protein and artsdepot in London in January.
Silvestrini has derived xoxo from LOL (Lots of Love), his company’s very successful work about love and communications in the online social media age. He adapts parts of it to the students, but keeps the thread of LOL going with his own dancers, Valentina Golfieri, Jon Beney and Parsifal James Hurst (PJ).
I arrive for the second week of rehearsals. The first week apparently went really well but week two begins slightly differently. The Quay School supports young people who are at risk of exclusion from mainstream schools. Some disruptive behavior manifests in the studio, so that at any one time there is a charge of both creativity and negativity among the students; when the latter cancels out the former, the two accompanying teachers take time out to encourage the students back in to the studio. This takes its toll, as one person’s outburst affects everyone else, and in the meantime choreography has to be learned. The atmosphere can be fragile on both sides, but the goal of performance remains, which is why the project is so important. Silvestrini and his dancers manage to keep the project on track with pep talks, encouragement, and vast amounts of patience and respect.
The second day I attend, the atmosphere has improved dramatically; the studio is full of energy and drive, although one of the students wasn’t able to come in on that day due to illness. One of the Protein dancers takes his place and new sections are learned. As well as choreography, the students are asked to talk about their online experiences, to offer their brand of chatter to be recorded and used in the performance. By the end of the day a lot has been accomplished and all seems well.
I return the following week to see the show, but am sad to learn that one of the students who had shown so much promise couldn’t be involved with the performance at the last minute. She cannot be replaced at short notice so Silvestrini adapts the piece again. I can’t imagine too many choreographers who can deal with this kind of instability and uncertainty, but he does, brilliantly, as do his dancers and the remaining students.
The theatre is full of family, friends and school staff. There is lots of chatter and laughter. PJ wanders on to the stage from the audience with a tangle of red and yellow computer cables over his shoulder. There is a loud short-circuit, a flash of light and all goes black. Out of the darkness each student appears on a screen at the back of the stage; they are each at a keyboard looking into the camera so it looks as if we are watching them from the screen. Rhys, Sarah, Jamie and Jordan gather in a group at the front of the stage as we hear Valentina’s voice reading their online messages, chats and status updates. They then watch PJ and Valentina’s keyboard duet from LOL. It is movement that communicates immediately, and with the score of computer and keyboard sounds (it’s clearly not a Mac), it’s witty and accessible. Online dating goes livid with Valentina having a fit in computer time when Jon intervenes between the two. Gradually the students shed their nerves and take their places with the company members in movement and text. There is a sofa at the back where Jamie takes a rest. A couple of teachers appear on the screen with anecdotes from a day in the life at school. Rhys and Sarah dance a duet, PJ runs fast around the stage with Valentina and Jon to form two teams with the students on either side of the stage. Jumping over each other (with PJ’s extraordinary elevation he could jump easily over two people at a time), the performers circle Jamie in the centre, while Jordan takes a moment to smile at his Mum. PJ brings more cables into the centre on which Jordan rests. His mother, who we see talking on screen, says she’s still on his friends list while Jordan mimes gaming on stage. Xoxo is all about communicating in the internet age, but is also about social values: the students agree they don’t want a friend that judges a book by its cover.
Very soon it is all over. Cheers and applause from a proud and appreciative audience. Jamie whistles his relief. PJ and Jon bring the sofa to the front of the stage on which the students relax as if they own it. Valentina brings flowers for each, and Luca a present. Sarah and Rhys look so confident: trust and confidence are the rewards of this project. Jordan has learned teamwork and more capabilities. Jamie puts what he has learned into one word: skillage.
At the backstage reception afterwards the sense of pride, achievement and relief is palpable. Sarah and Rhys want to continue dance classes. But more than that: in an age of online chatter, non-verbal dance has found a way to bring out the characters and personalities of these students. It has not always been easy, but Silvestrini and his dancers have showed what is possible with patience, persistence and the right kind of moves. xoxo