Rosemary Butcher’s White is inspired by specific texts: a description of travel through the Siberian Arctic, Captain Scott’s expedition in the Antarctic. But nothing specific of those stories remains in White. Characteristically, Butcher alighted on particular words – cracked, transparent, divided, surface – and used them as a source for ‘finding movement’. Characteristically too, the material that she and her four dancers come up with is unstylised, even casual: runs and falls, teetering balances, shivers, scuttles, flicks. The result is at once matter-of-factly literal – a run is a run, a slide, a slide – and highly abstract, with Butcher’s source text distilled to an almost vanishing transparency.
Like brushstrokes layering white on white, the piece is about physical texture, not emotional colour
Like brushstrokes layering white on white, the piece is about physical texture, not emotional colour. The dancers slip and catch themselves, they pause and shudder, or run and launch themselves across the floor, like scraping sleds. In solos or groups – but always isolated from one another – they drift in sputtering gusts of activity, always from right to left. Cathy Lane’s soundscore echoes the hiss of wind or the dry crackle of frost. It’s a cyclical, desolate journey that seems to have no end.
Behind the stage action runs a black and white video of the same dancers in rehearsal, mixed in real time as the performance unfolds. In this projection the dancers travel from left to right, ghostly counterparts to the live dancers in search of the opposite pole. They occasionally freeze, slow or dissolve, like images formed by swirls of electronic snow.
The sensation is of sparseness and isolation, but it’s the underlying composition that gives the piece its bleak inexorability. The waves of motion repeat and mutate almost imperceptibly until gradually the dancers drop out, leaving only one woman on the blank stage. She carries on, driven, until she keels and sinks to the ground, finally giving up her ghost as the screen fades to black.
White is a spare, demanding experience. At its best, it sweeps you into a trance as sequences of images sweep across your field of vision. But at an hour long, it’s hard to sustain – you keep snapping out of hypnosis and wondering what’s been happening, or what will happen next. It’s also, contrary to its low-key appearance, a hard work to perform: there are no tricks of technique or emoting to fall back on. As such, it would benefit from dancers of the kind and calibre of Henry Montes, Lauren Potter or Gill Clarke (all of whom have worked with Butcher), each of whom had a highly individual physical magnetism that could make the most minimal movements rivetting to watch.
it helps to see the piece as a shifting environment rather than a sequential performance
Since the 1970s Butcher has steadfastly followed her own choreographic path, delving into everyday movement and unadorned cycles of repetition and mutation. Her recent film Vanishing Point, also made in collaboration with video artist Martin Otter, is an extreme example of her uncompromising style: a single figure gradually emerges from a landscape, slowly repeating a single short phrase – for 15 minutes. It’s all about cumulative effect, about getting lost in the experience of repetition so that the smallest variations of action or perception become magnified in intensity. As with many of Butcher’s works, White included, it helps to see the piece as a shifting environment rather than a sequential performance. It’s for this very reason that Butcher has often shown her work in gallery spaces, where the contact between audience and performance is both more intimate and less defined than in the theatre; White too would benefit from a smaller venue, where its details would be closer, its sensations stronger.