Legend has it that in 1895, when the Lumière brothers showed their “cinematograph” of an oncoming train, the audience ducked for cover. At the Purcell Room in London’s South Bank in spring 2003 (28 February – 2 March), the new motion-picture technology of Vivisector, by Austrians Klaus Obermaier and Chris Haring, similarly made us gasp and rub our eyes. Four men moving slowly on a darkened stage gradually dematerialise until they’re made entirely of snowy TV fuzz, and then they disappear. Captain Scott may be able to beam up a crew in Star Trek, but this was live on stage. How did they do that?
A tentative duet turns into an electrically-charged mind-meld, hot ingots of red light leaping across the synapses between their bodies
Somehow the video projections have been made to stay within the outlines of the dancers’ bodies, casting no shadow on the backcloth. The technique is used again later, a projected image of each dancer superimposed on the real one. It’s hard to distinguish one from the other, and the dancers seem to warp and smear before your very eyes. Elsewhere, clever lighting effects fragment their bodies into disjointed parts and compound creatures, the performers undermining any sense of the natural body with impossibly angled limbs and contorted ambulations. A tentative duet turns into an electrically-charged mind-meld when the dancers finally make contact, hot ingots of red light leaping across the synapses between their bodies. Vivisector is more than mere trickery, evoking an unsettling robotic ambience of android interaction. Though its choreography is limited – often necessarily restricted by the technology used – its futuristic merging of physical and virtual realities is both fascinating and enthralling.
Opposite in intent was Helsinki City Theatre Dance Company’s Intelligence of the Heart at The Place (11-12 March), by Nigel Charnock – best known as a founding member of DV8 Physical Theatre, and for his convolutedly confessional cabaret-style solo shows. Charnock recently took over as director of the Helsinki company, and Intelligence follows in the style of his solo turns. It is a sprawling welter of episodes with massive lurches of tone and pace that leaves you feeling swept away, or bludgeoned, or both; but you can’t be unaffected. It opens with an image of spiritual purity, incense coiling about a lone woman in meditation. Enter an ambisexual man, his painted face pallidly poised atop a lurid vermilion frock coat, frothy with frills. He oozes unctuously until she responds – willingly – to his corrupting insinuations. Then he bites her in the neck.
They’re not really evil, just very naughty
All hell breaks loose as the full company of ten invade the stage for a baroque vampire ball. They’re not really evil, just very naughty – all provocative pouts and polymorphous perversity, and gleefully blasphemous, in a multi-faith way. “What is the meaning of life?” they end up asking – and the forthcoming answer is an upbeat bop to 12-bar blues. Religion and spirituality are clearly not Charnock’s focus, but rather a backdrop to throw his real interest into relief: the messy machinations of human desire, conflict and fallibility.
The dancers return in jeans and T-shirts to act out a series of table-top dialogues on the varied, knotty interpersonal mismatches that go by the name of love. Spliced between these are sequences of song (Amazing Grace, I Will Survive) and dance (shim-sham shimmies, broken-up ballet). The company sing like angels, but their dancing is low-down and dirty. They’re good with words too, spluttering monosyllables breaking through gasps, chokes and grunts (I, you, er, huh? mmm… oh!). The piece is encapsulated in Jimi Hendrix’s amplified, distorted version of Stars and Stripes: loud, brash, irreverent, indulgent, overbearing. Discord is the order of the piece, each action inviting a counter-action, each passionate statement an archly ironic comeback. Towards the end, before stripping naked to walk silhouetted against blinding lights, the dancers lightly finger their necks, as if dimly remembering that primal, life-giving wound of desire – the curse, or blessing, of the vampire’s infectious kiss. Marvellous.
one episode after another, sparsely peppered with symbols that float aimlessly in the general tide of motion.
With its multiple identities and babble of conflicting styles and voices, Charnock’s piece could have been subtitled ‘The Tower of Babel’. Bland by comparison was a work with this very name, but with none of the guts. The first Robin Howard Foundation commission, also shown at The Place (4-5 April), was given to Slovakians Olga Cobos and Peter Mika, formerly with Rui Horta’s Frankfurt-based S.O.A.P. dance theatre, but it was a disappointment after the last piece of theirs I’d seen, the quietly intriguing One Hit Wonder for Bratislava Dance Theatre, shown at the Resolution festival in 2001. In Tower of Babel they are joined by three other dancers in what aimed to be a “metaphor for the struggle of the human ego”. But the stage action, like the music, is inconsequential: one episode after another, sparsely peppered with symbols (balloons, party hats, a Superman shirt, writing on the floor) that float aimlessly in the general tide of motion. There are, to be sure, some deft partnerings and inventive moves. Lithe and petite Cobos and steely, compact Mika, in particular, are consummate dancers and they complement each other very well; but Tower of Babel is a display of fine dancers and dynamic movement in search of a guiding choreographic hand.