Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets (fragments of love), National Museum of Scotland, August 17
“Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.” – Anais Nin
With Pop Up Duets Janis Claxton has made photographic dance catnip; four lithe, athletic bodies, dripping with clean and dramatic lines, set against the backdrop of the National Museum of Scotland. Choreographically it’s a canny decision and demonstrates a genuine understanding of how audiences engage with work in public space. They will often stay with a work for four to six minutes, invest a little of themselves, take a photo and carry on with their day. But Pop Up Duets has been all over social media and the company has also been interviewed by BBC Loop to create a short video that racked up over 32,000 views — by far the biggest audience for contemporary dance at the Fringe.
With a company of exceptional dancers (Adrienne O’Leary, James Southward, Christina Liddell and Carlos J Martinez), nine duets lasting four to five minutes each are performed within the gallery spaces; the choreography and musicality are akin to rain droplets on the window of a speeding train: a swooshing arrival as they land, bodies slowly unfurling, leaving a water tail as they make their horizontal journey across the floor and then ramping up again as they gather momentum to join with other miniature streams as they run against the wind. There’s oodles of fevered contact, silky bodily meshing and recognisable tropes of physical intimacy delivering a choreographic vocabulary that is recognisable and accessible for all who encounter it.
“I did not want to be a tree, a flower or a wave. In a dancer’s body, we as audience must see ourselves, not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.” – Martha Graham.
As the duets popped up around the museum an accidental audience would gather temporarily for a duet or two but when I attended the majority of the crowd were ready for a performance and stayed for the entire 45 minutes; they naturally formed a ring, hugged the safety of the edge and framed a circular stage area for the dancers to perform in. The space was never crossed or intruded upon once a performance began, demonstrating an understanding and familiarity with performance in public places. The audience was guided from the site of one duet to another by the introduction of the next piece of music issuing from two smartly designed vintage suitcases that acted as portable speakers. As the crowds gathered again the dancers emerged from within the crowd. The main gallery in National Museum of Scotland is like a three-tier ivory budgie cage with natural light beaming down from the roof; it was levels one and two that offered a birds-eye view and it was here that those a little less familiar with performance encountered the work from a safe distance with the ability to capture the results on their smart phone.
“That hunger of the flesh, that longing for ease, that terror of incarceration, that insistence on tribal honour being obeyed: all of that exists, and it exists everywhere.” – Ben Kingsley
However, as I stayed with Pop Up Duets, my interest began to wane. Because the individual fragments exist in isolation and don’t talk to each other, there is a similarity in pacing and a lack of visible development in the wider narrative, and although the setting is majestic the context of the venue (a museum of inanimate history placed on plinths or stuck behind glass) offers little in terms of framing. Love and intimacy are rarely treated well choreographically in contemporary dance; convincing the audience that two people are longing to be together is difficult (and not all the dancers in the company manage it) but James Southward absolutely nails it — his body amplifies the feeling that exists in his hungry eyes as he falls into the orbit of all those he dances with — he’s absolutely magnetic and melts in and out of the eyes of all who watch him.
Presenting accessible contemporary dance in public has a fruitful history across the UK with the likes of Casson and Friends, Protein Dance and Tilted actively embracing the richness that comes from this level of engagement. There is a lot to love in Pop Up Duets, including Kathryn Joseph on the soundtrack, the technical facility of the dancers and blending of museum/dance audiences together, but I didn’t fall in love with all of it; we brushed cheeks, flirted together and enjoyed a little fringe holiday romance.