Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Vincent Dance Theatre, Underworld, Brighton Corn Exchange, May 12

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Charlotte Vincent’s set is beautiful, the kind that draws you in so you don’t realise you’re sitting in a theatre; you’re in the set. In fact you are sitting in the apse of a cathedral looking down the nave with its endless rows of chairs to a refectory table at the far end around which the performers are gathered. It’s all beautifully lit (by Jason Taylor) to give weight and depth and there’s a mist hanging over the nave as if we are on a battlefield. Underworld seems to borrow from both these landscapes in its depiction of humanity trying to rise above the level of the sordid earth to heaven. Well, maybe. Vincent has always a perspective or two up her sleeve that she drops into the action until you’re not quite sure what you have just seen.

Underworld ‘draws on the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice and explores the art of not looking back.’ For the life of me I don’t see this though there is a mythological aspect to the work, not least in its duration of two and a quarter hours (there is a longer version) without a break. The audience is invited to ‘come and go as they please’ but the action never lets up so there is no need for a break unless you really need to have a pee. Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss anything. It’s a perpetual motion event in which the performers never leave the stage; they come down the nave or retreat to their table that is lit like a Caravaggio painting to keep the smaller details ever visible. One senses the energy back there; whoever happens to be at the table forms a small chorus seated in repose or in attention to their friends’ performance. They cajole, applaud, encourage or disparage with equal vehemence and once refreshed — at one point a chef noisily serves up a chalky concoction they tip over their heads — they return to the battlefield to fight or pray. There is a lot of praying at different moments in Underworld and in the kneeling and abasement you can almost feel the coldness of the flagstones. The gestures are similar but what they recite seems to follow a laissez-faire religious policy covering Christianity and Buddhism (perhaps more). Gavin Bryars’ score captures all these elements: mystery, violence and redemption, coloured with sound design by Mic Pool over which Patrycia Kujawska adds from time to time her own soulful voice on violin. Underworld shows Vincent seamlessly marrying scenography, music and action to produce a monumental mythic vision; it’s a remarkable achievement.

Underworld is primarily physical; the events and actions, sometimes distressing sometimes morbid mixed with a strong sense of sardonic humour, elicit a physical response from the audience and it argues its case in body language that defies translation. The location does not change, nor the overall dichotomy of light and dark, heaven and hell. It has a musical structure akin to a theme and variations rather than a dramatic one; it is not linear but circular.

All eight performers deserve mention: Robert Clark, Greig Cooke, Antonia Grove, Patrycja Kujawska, Silvia Mercuriali, Janusz Orlik, Phil Sanger and Josh Wille. Mercuriali, Sanger and Wille were part of Phoenix Dance Theatre when Underworld was first commissioned in 2012 as a collaboration between Vincent Dance Theatre and Phoenix; the trio has returned for this restaging. It is the unity among all eight performers and the intensity of their punishing, bruising performance that keeps our attention; they are all warriors of the stage who have fought many a battle together under the banner of Vincent’s leadership.

At BDE in 2010 I saw Vincent’s If We Go On. It was an uncompromising (and I mean uncompromising) dissection of the performance process, reducing the theatrical presentation to a point of no return: a case of theatrical existentialism. Vincent had the courage to take her proposition as far as she could take it, coming up against the nature of performance (and some hostility in the audience) in the process. If We Go On couldn’t go on, and in Underworld there are traces of that questioning of theatrical convention. How far can you go to set alight a funeral pyre of chairs on stage? How close can Clark come to setting himself alight? How naked can Kujawska be to step into a bath on stage and have a shower (courtesy of Clark with a watering can)? None of these events go to their full conclusion but the attempt is made. This is not a matter, respectively, of health and safety, of the sanctity of life or of modesty but a statement of how artificial theatre can be. There is also a Brechtian scene where Kujawska performs in a makeshift proscenium of chairs and sacking to an audience of Sanger who claps as she makes successive entrances. So while the energy and exhaustion of the cast hurtling into each other and hurdling over the chairs is palpable and real, these mock events hold us back from reality and remind us we are in the theatre. And yet at the end of the action the performers eschew the conventional bows and simply retire to their table while Orlik adusts the chairs in their rows, leaving the audience unsure of its relationship to the cast and to what has just happened. It is Vincent’s playful, destabilizing intelligence at work, pulling the theatrical rug from under our feet yet again.

 


Probe: Running on Empty II

Posted: February 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Probe: Running on Empty II

Probe Project, Running on Empty, Soho Theatre, February 5

 

Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

The good news is that Running on Empty is now running on full. In its second major iteration it has become what it first set out to be, a study in a relationship running on emotional and physical empty (with the gauge trending towards dreams and the hereafter). The narrative elements that sidelined this focus in its first outing have given way to a more abstract core that is expressed uniquely through dance. Both Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke have honed their partnership to its raw essentials and it is riveting to watch, especially in the intimate space at Soho Theatre. They push their performances to the limits both in their respective solos and in their duets, and the reward is a partnership that is as alive as it is ruthlessly honest. Grove’s voice finds its form in the opening song, setting the poignant tone of the work, and after all her exertions at the very end her voice emerges from the depths of her breathless being as if rising again from the dead. Fabrice Serafino has pared down the set and improved the balance of colours in the costumes, while Beky Stoddart has sculpted the lighting beautifully around the two performers. Scott Smith is still a kind of doleful, one-man chorus but has a reduced role as counselor to Grove and can devote himself to what he does best: playing the musical score on guitar, clarinet, thumb harp and a range of electronic instruments. When all the elements of a production fall into their rightful place there is a sense of truth that pervades the work, and that sense of truth reinforces the directional line around which the performers can give their all. Twelve performances to go.

 


Probe Project: Running on Empty

Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Probe Project, Running on Empty, The Place, November 5

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

 

The printed program doesn’t give much away about the nature of the piece, but it’s immediately apparent that Running on Empty has a full tank of collaborators: apart from the three performers (Antonia Grove, Scott Smith and Greig Cooke) there is a director (Jo McInnes), writer (Brad Birch), choreographer (Charlie Morrissey), songwriter (Lee Ross), composer (Smith), set and costume designer (Fabrice Serafino) and lighting designer (Beky Stoddart) — an array of creative inputs that begs the question of who exactly has a handle on the direction. The marketing material features an enigmatic image of Cooke and Grove running together across a landscape as if escaping from a party: intense, focused, out of breath. That snapshot is replaced on stage by another indeterminate place but without a specific flight path. The set suggests a no man’s land where paths meet, an intriguing dreamland with a detrital heap of old furniture on one side with a tree of lights behind and a low wall delineating the unknown beyond. The set and lighting together create a sense of expectation as Smith takes his place behind a keyboard amongst the furniture as if sitting at a bar. He plays some doleful minor chords on the guitar as a prelude to a song remembering a relationship that Grove sings in a voice that is out on a husky limb, aching and velvety especially in its higher register: “Are we too close or too far apart?” with a bluesy harmonica accompaniment from Smith.

Cooke can just be made out lounging on the wall at the back, listening to Grove’s words: “I’d dive into the abyss if I thought I’d save your life”, she continues, glancing at Smith. Cooke stands, his hands and face caught in the narrow pane of light, and responds in dance, swishing and swirling in an intense solo in which he manifests his force and self-doubt in equal measure. Grove looks over at him for the first time. Smith, who plays both confidant and analyst to Grove, asks her: “What do you remember?” She shines a light underneath her chin, then at something unknown beyond her. Death? “What colour are its eyes?” asks Cooke. Grove is bathed in a subtle, fragile light, her arms raised and slightly behind her as if she had just been shot, and launches into a solo that is based on that arching back, wild and abandoned. With tenderness in his eyes Cooke comes to her rescue. “What are you doing?” “Bang, bang, arms, fuck,” is what I hear. The diction is rather muffled, perhaps a function of the portable mikes. “I’m building a boat,” she adds, kneeling, “to get you out of here. Just trying to build you a boat.” Evidently the running idea has been subsumed by metaphors of the sea, of boats and rafts.

The sound of breakers colours the clashing duet that follows, both Groves and Cooke forcing their limits (running towards empty) yet never touching; blowing each other away, shouting and screaming over the sound of sea. Smith pulls out a wooden pallet that serves as a raft on to which Groves and Cooke clamber. They look at each other. Is it over? Cooke leans out over the edge of the raft, hanging from Grove; she pulls him in; he takes her head as they fit into each other’s forms, but are they strangling or comforting? The Stevie Smith poem comes to mind,

‘…I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’

The danger games persist. Who will fall off first? They kneel on the front of the raft and step with their hands and knees into the water. Smith reels in the raft, casting them away on the beach. Cooke and Grove embrace roughly then he chases her round the island, catching her, lifting and releasing her in a fury of entanglement and abandon. The sound of a storm whips up the action until it finally abates in an attempt at reconciliation: “Please forgive me” and “Where are we going?” but it’s impossible for Cooke to brake and he ends up — as I noted detachedly in my notebook — ripping her head off. It happens quickly, and its violence is unexpected. Grove crawls away; Smith brings her a glass of water and returns with the raft, dropping it with a bang as if offering a means of exit. “It’s not your fault,” he says, adding something about chance. She is in no mood for philosophical argument, so Smith goes back to his microphone and begins a song about an otter and a trout. It begins in surreal fashion with a pinwheel blast on his mechanical whistle, and prompts a series of surreal crustacean images: Cooke conjures up a lobster on its back as he crawls upside down towards Grove who scuttles in sympathy, or perhaps in fear. He crawls on to the raft, blowing out his cheeks like a conch shell, eyes popping, sounding like an angry elephant. Their duet develops into a tour de force of fragments of dialogue and screeching  fitting into behavioural tics: snorting, itching, scratching, spitting, leaping, At the end, Smith as analyst or agony uncle, brings Grove a beer: “You’re having problems.” She denies it. “Maybe that’s your first problem.” She counters: “Do you understand what it is to be me?” He mimics her itching, tentacle-like fingers that he then extrudes into the shape of a gun, the trigger caught in the light. Cooke is back on the sea wall. There’s text about illness and disease, the problems and insecurities of old age — all highly relevant but I’m not sure how it fits in here. “Will I recover, is it too late?” asks Grove. Smith smiles. It’s clearly too late for rhetorical questions. He rubs his hands and pushes away the microphone with his hip.

Grove and Cooke in smiling mood embrace and explore each other. After they have been through so much, the question arises of where this is going. The mood is playful, producing a natural, infectious laugh from Grove before she appears to confront her present. “Do you drink?” asks Cooke, followed by a question about dreams. “This is where my dreams are set,” she responds. Her final words to Cooke are, “Can you do me a favour? Stay away from the cliffs.” It is the first time the cliffs are mentioned, the landscape described beyond the rear wall, and in this place above the sea she starts to dance, scooping, twisting and turning to Smith’s guitar accompaniment that is somewhere between flamenco and hillbilly banjo. She throws herself into her moves, repeating phrases with a mix of courage, abandon and hopelessness and finishes by running around the stage, running out of steam. She prompts Smith into a last song (which repeats the melody of the opening song), dragging the microphone to centre stage, pouring all her emotional exhaustion into the lyrics: “So slowly now you bow into eternity… How long can you keep running?” with that gutsy, velvety voice running full on empty.

At the close, we are left elevated by the visual and aural imagery but there’s a disconcerting sense of gaps in the narrative cohesion. We learn later that Cooke has fallen off the cliffs to his death, but this loss fails to register. Does it matter? Death offstage seems a uniquely theatrical concept that dance can’t do by itself, which leads me to think that the narrative and the dance in Running on Empty are like oil and water; they are not blending. Grove suggests in the program that the work moves ‘from the dark and surreal world of dreams to the intricate and sometimes absurd nature of our daily human interactions.’ This is something that dance can do really well, and Grove is particularly adept at drawing the drama out of dance. Perhaps Running on Empty simply suffers from too many creative inputs; dreams inevitably have a consistency because all their fragmented elements can be traced back to the individual psyche. Running on Empty needs to forge a unity of its own creative psyche before its dream will ring true.

 


Vincent Dance Theatre: Motherland

Posted: October 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Vincent Dance Theatre, Motherland, The Point, October 11

Andrea Catania and Benita Oakley

Life is a messy business, starting, as Charlotte Vincent does in Motherland, with menstruation. Aurora Lubos, elegantly dressed in black evening wear and high heels walks on to the bare, white stage with a bottle of red wine. She unscrews the top and slops it against the pristine backdrop at seat level: a dripping red splash. She puts down the bottle, hitches up her tight skirt and slides her back down the wall until she is sitting over the red stain. She remains there for a moment looking at us, challenging us to accept what she is representing. Soon after, an exhausted Andrea Catania walks in and collapses on the floor, like a bag from which the wind has been suddenly removed. Patrycja Kujawska walks across the back playing an elegy on her violin for the two women. It is a sequence that repeats throughout Motherland, Vincent’s examination of ‘the complex internal and external relationships that women have with their bodies, with their sense of self and with men.’ The latter are represented a few seconds later by a carefree Greig Cooke who walks on with his bottle of wine, smiles at us as he unscrews the top and takes a swig before continuing on his way.

I heard a little of Vincent’s pre-performance presentation in the theatre lobby by four young women reading and declaiming their hopes and determinations for their future growth. One of them mentioned a desire to be equal to men, to be respected in society for who she is. It reminded me of a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe: women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition. In other words, if men and their example are simultaneously a benchmark of success and a target of criticism, being equal to men carries within it a paradox. In Motherland, however, Vincent has no truck with this paradox, destroying it in one blow by altering the creation myth: once Eve is with child, Adam is transformed into the serpent. In a form that is somewhere between a modern-day morality play and a cabaret, Motherland, written by Vincent and her co-writer Liz Aggiss, with the collaboration of dramaturg, Ruth Ben-Tovin, sees the sexual revolution from an unashamedly female point of view, and for men it is a wakeup call.

Vincent states in the program that Motherland is driven by sex, birth and death, though death takes up very little space compared to sex and birth. A principal leitmotif in the work is the association of female fertility with that of the land.  The two are embodied by Lubos with a bellyful of earth hitched high up in her skirt that she empties on to the floor at intervals throughout the work: more mess. This earth becomes the land that Andrea Catania is toiling to nurture, like countless women around the world. At one point the entire cast joins in a ritual fertility dance to the accompaniment of Scott Smith on guitar singing Ready for Green. As Smith sings of ‘sowing the seeds of joy’ Cooke is screwing Catania on the ground. Making love might be stretching the imagination too far: the fertility cycle is in progress, but Catania is soon abandoned by Cooke, crawling off unnoticed to a corner of the stage next to a blackboard on which Cooke had written MOTHER in big letters. Vincent is not sparing on the irony.

Another, more urban illustration of the fertility cycle shows Lubos and Janusz Orlik arriving for a picnic, with a hamper and the Sunday paper. They relax on the grass, but instead of reading, Orlik takes prodigious amounts of cotton wool from the hamper and stuffs it under Lubos’s dress to a high-decibel distress signal played by Alexandru Catona on a gong. Lubos screams in pain. Kujawska appears holding up a speaker through which we hear applause. Orlik stuffs more cotton wool into Lubos’s expanding dress. She screams again and there is more applause, after which everybody takes a bow. Orlik’s newspaper is now stained with blood. Lubos pushes away both Orlik and Catona (more canned applause) and she takes a solo bow. She kisses Orlik and runs off. The applause continues.

Although men are an integral part of the fertility cycle, their social role comes in for particular censure in Motherland. Consider the depiction of carefree Cooke when he pulls down his zip and knowingly extracts his…banana. He peels it and eats it with gusto: no need to look up Freud’s interpretation. Retribution comes to Robert Clark when he opens his wooden box and pees into it; he carelessly closes the lid on his dick and screams in agony. Pulling out a blackened banana from his flies he begins to eat it, but loses his appetite.

Elsewhere, men are depicted as sleazy purveyors of sexual innuendo in the Manhood Music sequence, and generally as congenital misogynists who take advantage of women for their own pleasure and gratification. While it is the women in Motherland who punch their emotional weight, only the men dance. Cooke dances as if he is the master of his destiny, a charismatic charm offensive with his elaborate reverence and sleight of hand, but he is unaware that he moves in a series of hesitations; nothing is fully realised, and in his eyes is a look of perplexity. This contradiction is expressed after he plants Catania in the earth when he says excitedly to her: ‘I’m in control. I’m here for you right now’ after which he immediately abandons her. Only Clark is allowed any signs of compassion towards women. His duet with Lubos has a tenderness that is perhaps the one concession that men can behave with respect towards women. Not even this, however, can save the three men later from crawling like serpents through the earth on their way to hell.*

Robert Clark and Greig Cooke

Men playing women get more sympathetic treatment, as Orlik performs a drag routine that has Janowska applauding again. (When she attempts the same routine a little later, she ironically raises no laughter and no applause). Two men who play a rather privileged if tainted role in Motherland are Catona and Smith, the two-man band of troubadours, clowns and accomplished instrumentalists that adds both a lyrical and poignant element to the tableaux, making Vincent’s uncompromising stance more palatable. What lends this polemic of the sexes an air of authority, however, is the introduction of two key characters: 12-year-old Leah Yeger, through whose eyes the world of men and women is filtered and absorbed, and 75-year-old Benita Oakley, whose accumulated experience provides a sense of perspective and dignity.

Yeger is the one who arrives at critical moments in Motherland to question her colleagues, and thus forces them (and us) to examine what they are doing and why. It is her simplicity and lack of antagonism to either sex that brings people together. She tames Clark, who protects her and it is she who signals a truce to the (hilarious) slow-motion battle of the sexes (in which Catona excels as a victim of the invincible Kujawska), and rallies everyone together for a rousingly beautiful rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s children’s song, Why Oh Why.

Oakley’s contribution is based on her own experience. She begins her story lying on her side on the earth, with her head propped on a brown velvet pillow. Smith gives her a microphone and then accompanies her story on guitar with Catona on harmonica. She talks of her first pregnancy in 1956 and the difficulties she faced being unmarried. Lubos is making baby gurglings into the microphone on the other side of the stage. As the baby girl is born prematurely, she is taken away from her mother until she becomes stronger; Oakley cannot stay with her. She sleeps in the open but visits her baby regularly to give milk, until she can take back her baby with her. Oakley is dignified and calm, and every word has the unadorned simplicity of truth. After she finishes her story, she crawls back with slow deliberation to stuff the cushion back in its box, and carries it off like a memory.  The second part of her story occurs a little later. She outlines her mouth with imaginary lipstick, pulls out her long silver hair, remembering how beautiful she was (without realizing how beautiful she is), feeling her figure and stomach. She relates the births of her next two children, in 1957 and exactly twenty years later. Both daughters are in the audience.

The function of a morality play is not to preach as much as to encourage or actively promote reflection on our present condition. There is much to be done, and many pitfalls still to negotiate, like the relation between wanting to be attractive and becoming an object of attraction and confounding a product with its advertising values. As Yeger says at one point, ‘It’s not about the look; I’m a person.’ The presence of Yeger prompts a reflection on the future and Oakley’s story shows that what she has experienced has been happening for longer than we care to remember.

The piece ends as it begins, with its charismatic cast of characters parading on to the stage, with the men looking a little the worse for wear. Have we learned anything from what we have seen? The ultimate success of Motherland depends on it.

Motherland is currently on tour. See www.motherland.org.uk for details.

* I have amended this paragraph after seeing Motherland again in London in November. Its emotional coherence made the balance between men and women clearer.