One of the highlights of the 2006 Place Prize competition was Self Assembly, a duet choreographed by Jonathan Lunn, with text by his close friend the director and film-maker Anthony Minghella. As has happened several times with short Place Prize works, it became the seed of a larger project. The result was Reading Room, which toured in May and June this this year. Tragically, Minghella died unexpectedly in March – and the awareness of his absence lent an elegiac quality to the performances.
Language is central to Reading Room – but so is communication, which is a larger matter, and delivered as much by action and inaction (or indeed silence) as by words. The format of the piece is a series of episodes, each with a different relation between word and action. The readings – from texts by Billy Collins, Samuel Beckett, Raymond Carver – are delivered on different evenings by actors Juliet Stevenson (in the performance I saw), Miranda Richardson, Alan Rickman or Dexter Fletcher. There is, nominally, a beginning, a middle and an end to the piece – but only because we’re told so, in texts called Beginning, Middle and End. In fact, Reading Room is more a collage than a sequence, yet when we hear texts about starting and finishing, we instinctively search for a story arc – though we don’t find it.
That’s apt for a piece which is about what we read into what we see and hear. Peter Mumford’s highly effective design zones the stage with moveable screens and corridors of light, so that each scene appears to unfold in a different “room”. The choreography – for five consummate professional dancers and, for one unexpected scene, a group of ten students – is often preceded or accompanied by a spoken text, which likewise frames or channels the action.
In a scene set to Beckett’s ‘Stirrings Still’, dancer Chris Evans fidgets hesitantly within a screened room, escaping to scamper nervously about the stage before returning resignedly. Meanwhile, Stevenson’s spoken text injects a jittery shot of liberation to his action: physically, Evans leaves his cage, but textually he is no longer “in his right mind”. It’s one of the closest connections between word and movement, not only because we can read a meaning into the dance but because Beckett’s writing becomes dancerly: it’s spliced into phrases, repeated and varied in pitch and pace.
And yet, for the most part the choreography feels a little redundant – we try to read Evans’s actions through the text, even though the text, being difficult to follow, militates against this. There’s a similar problem in a scene to Carver’s desolate description of a couple falling apart, but it’s circumvented by having the words first set the scene – like a kind of textual establishing shot – and then shut up as the dancers (Lilou Robert and Chris Rook) play out the drama. That distance between word and action serves the choreography better than in the Beckett section.
Lunn has a keen intelligence, and all the way through Reading Room you sense that he’s testing out those interfaces of communication, not just between dancers but between media – word, action, image and sound. He seems most assured, though, when he choreographs like a composer, paying attention to phrasing and accents, to variations and modulations, canons and counterpoints. It’s evident in a deftly constructed scene (without words) for 10 students, as well as in the ensemble scene for his compnay where the dancers keep tumbling out of line into flurries that end in friezes, like chords that are first broken, then scattered.
There’s emotional distance between word and movement again in the final scene – a rerun of Self Assembly, haunted by a recording of Minghella’s voice – and again that separation works to Lunn’s advantage. Here, the text is matter-of-fact, an invented set of instructions for assembling flat-pack furniture. The emotive but understated choreography, for Evans and Carly Best, cycles around the continual mismatch of a couple as they attempt to fit in and around each other, adjusting and readjusting to each other’s shifting surfaces. It reminds us that communication in dance is only partially about reading meanings; more importantly and more rewardingly, it’s about being moved.