Two of the most enchanting of this year’s Dance Umbrella performances were ‘autobiographical’ shows by Umbrella veterans. I put the word in quotes because although the first piece, a solo by Philippe Decouflé, was indeed a sidelong look at his own past, it was less about the man within as the showman without. And the second piece, by David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, was in fact a production of a play written in 1958 – and yet it fitted the couple like a glove, so much so that it almost seemed written specially for them.
In Solo: The Doubt Within Me (The Place, 28-30 October), Philippe Decouflé has various kinds of camera strategically placed around the stage – and boy, can he play to them. It opens with image of just his hands on a screen, twisting and knotting like squids cavorting in a mating dance. Then his feet, rather miraculously, manage the same kind of squishy frolics. He emerges from behind the screen and cups and compresses the air with flourishes from his super-mobile hands, like an illusionist producing invisible balls from an invisible handkerchief. Later he sits at a table and has his hands perform a showy pas de deux – again, magnified onto a screen – complete with split jetés and battements. There are snippets of past works – including a live reprisal of his offbeat short video Le Petit Bal – and Decouflé endearingly scampers and lolls about the stage like a puppet pulling his own strings.
Decouflé, using his lights-and-camera trickery, turns a solo into an ensemble piece for himself
But the central feature of this work is the way Decouflé, using his lights-and-camera trickery, turns a solo into an ensemble piece for himself. A simple solo number becomes, by strategic positioning and lighting, a duet with Decouflé’s own shadow, then a trio as another shadow trails him, and then a quartet. They merge into a multi-armed amoebic blob, then split off again into separate figures. Another scene projects and multiplies his moving silhouette onto the backcloth so that it becomes a lurid, acid-coloured kaleidoscope of abstract, organic shapes. And another, using a step-and-repeat technique to create an infinitely repeating pattern like a hall of mirrors, turns the stage into a long city street that vanishes in the infinite distance, each little street corner inhabited by a little moving Decouflé, in diminishing sizes.
More enchanting still is his homage to Busby Berkeley. Decouflé’s myriad images spread out behind him like a deck of cards fanned by a master magician, with his own live figure as the joker in the pack, sending out Mexican waves of motion, or Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming patterns. The action is live, but the effect – especially as the projected frames tilt and spin – is utterly filmic, just like a classic Berkeley top-shot.
Solo may be about himself – as dancer, clown, mime, trickster and technician – but Decouflé himself is curiously self-effacing even as he multiplies and magnifies his image all over the stage. Though Decouflé doesn’t share his heart with us or bare his soul, in this delightful work we are truly enchantés to make his acquaintance.
It might seem odd to see a play production in a dance festival, but Pickup Performance Company’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s classic absurdist drama The Chairs (Barbican, 2-5 November) features David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, veterans of the New York avant-garde dance scene since the 1960s, and regular visitors to Dance Umbrella. But more than that, in this production the 1958 play suits the couple so well it almost seems to be about them. Gordon wryly describes his interest in the folding chair as a ‘career-long preoccupation’ – and certainly he and Setterfield were making ‘chair dances’ before they became a cliché of experimental choreography. It’s also because the play portrays the home life of an aged couple – a theme that Gordon and Setterfield, long-time partners both on stage and off, have explored several times in their previous works.
It opens with a stagehand picking up the sheets of paper that litter the floor, as if cleaning up the debris after a show. Then, against a grainy film of themselves in the chair dances of their youth, Gordon and Setterfield enter, creaky and a little cranky, to settle into their own living-room chairs. They recycle well-worn domestic rituals of mild antagonism and affection. She wishes he had more ‘get up and go’, but still thinks he’s got a touch of genius. He retells the story of how they once went to Paris. They call each other ‘pussycat’ and ‘cookie’. The talk is less important for its substance than for its repetition, binding the couple together like old tree roots grown twisty and knotted over the years. But then their routine takes a different turn as they receive imaginary guests, each of whom is given a chair. There’s a young girl and a hoary old colonel. Gordon grows wistful at the arrival of a past lover; Setterfield flirts gleefully with the husband, shamelessly showing her moth-eaten stockings. Gradually the visitors grow so numerous that they need rows of chairs; and the stage itself becomes a theatre auditorium crowded with imagined guests and ghosts.
Throughout the play two figures (Guillermo Resto and Karen Graham) have been flitting about the wings, slipping sheets of paper to Gordon like pages from the script, or subconscious autocues. Now they up the pace, running back and forth while holding up placards which coincide with Gordon’s speech, until finally they take centre stage as the ‘spokespeople’ for whom Gordon has been waiting – angels of death come to witness the couple’s final departure, through separate doors, from their world of habit, fantasy and recollections. Characteristically, Gordon and Setterfield understate the emotional drama of the moment. But in this chair dance of their old age – no dancing, but chairfuls of shared and private memories – it is just such overlappings of the playtext with their own long lives together in the theatre that cut quietest and deepest.
a bittersweet miniature that grips then squeezes your heart, as effortlessly as the passage of time and as inexorably as the approach of death
Michael Gordon’s score is uncharacteristically reticent, a contrast to the ebulliently brash music that he’s composed for Ashley Page, Shobana Jeyasingh and Wayne McGregor (amongst others). Here, his subdued rhythms and elegiac cello meanderings lend an unforced melancholy to the play, a perfect complement to Gordon and Setterfield’s own off-the-wall musings and idle ramblings. Lit lovingly by Jennifer Tipton, this low-key but captivating production of The Chairs is a bittersweet miniature that gently grips and then squeezes your heart, as effortlessly as the passage of time and as inexorably as the approach of death.