Remember prog rock? Concept albums. Epic songs. Sweeping themes. Live gigs as multimedia psychedelia. Ideas that aim deep, effects that aim high. Thirty years on, the music and the technology have changed – but the cosmic vision and dark-side-of-the-moon spirit are alive and well, and living in Tom Dale’s Refugees of the Septic Heart.
It’s the sound and light show that comes first. The driving electronic score, by Sam Shackleton and spoken-word artist Vengeance Tenfold, meshes layers of sound and rhythm into a kind of trippy sonic space-time. Barret Hodgson’s digital animation turns the stage into a revolving galaxy of stars and comets, at the centre of which – superimposed on the large disc at the centre of Kate Unwin’s sparse set of white blocks – is a glowing orb that could be the sun, the earth, even a microbe or atom. But we get the picture: this is the universe.
Man, meet universe. Universe, meet man.
A dark figure, backed by light rays and cross-hatched by video flicker, steps onto the stage. Man, meet universe. Universe, meet man. This encounter is the work’s underlying Big Theme, which Dale stages as a suite – or album, if you like – of loosely linked set pieces. First there is a dawn-of-time scene as the five dancers form an animalistic tribe, their wolfish lopes and lizard slides backed by a robotic incantation with lines (“a monkey with a tool”) that sound like some post-Space Odyssey Book of Genesis. Fast forward to a high-finance future, projections transforming the set from desert rocks to glassy skyscrapers, the whole set shimmering with numbers like the digit board of a stock exchange. The dancers, now suited, square up to each other, their ordered formations gradually disintegrating into stand-offs, slides and headlong scrambles, to the sound of dogs barking over a rattling beat.
That’s just the first two scenes. Later, a man sits before a bank of screens. A voiceover lists markers of epochs – the assassination of Kennedy, 9/11, the Hindu “dark age” of kaliyuga. A couple point accusing fingers around them – at each other – at us. The set becomes elemental, abstract, clearing to simple blocks of yellow, blue, pink; then fills with ominous inky clouds as the performers bop along to a nihilist mantra, a new-age tribe in an empty chill-out zone. And still, the beat goes on.
This is dense, often overwhelming material, with music, design and choreography all making simultaneous demands on our attention. It could all have been way too much to cope with, but Dale sometimes repeats whole chunks of choreography, which stops us worrying about missing something in the full-on flow of action. And in any case, he doesn’t always place his dancers to the fore – sometimes they’re simply absorbed into the sensory environment of sound and light, stoking it with physicality without stamping it with their presence. And though the choreography often hits the same register – fissile groupings, catlike twists, headlong tumbles, a hurtling energy – the dancers [Michael Kelland, Ariadna Girones Mata, Maria Olga Palliani, John Ross, Hugh Stainer and Joshua Smith] are terrific, and the style delivers a real kinetic kick.
And the end? Dale doesn’t hold back. The galaxy returns, strafing the stage with stars, and the globe at its centre detonates over and over again, blooms of explosion synched with sonic booms on the soundtrack. The dancers pitch and hurl as if, having materialised from the universe at the beginning, they are blasted back into it at the end. It’s a mesmerising, apocalyptic vision, pumped with the inhuman, unearthly beauty of destruction – more thrilling than horrifying, like the big-bang finale of a film, or the crashing power-chords that close a gig.
It’s a mesmerising, apocalyptic vision, pumped with the inhuman, unearthly beauty of destruction
Hats off to Tom Dale. The piece doesn’t work on all levels – it can be relentless, sometimes samey, and that scene with the new-age bopping totally threw me – but it does actually work. That is amazing: I would have thought that any choreographer working on such an epic scale – it’s the encounter of man with the universe, damn it! – would be doomed to appear woefully inadequate, recklessly vainglorious; probably both. But Refugees of the Septic Heart catches its audience and keeps us, and I think it’s telling that it reminded me less of dance than of film and music: my mind ricocheted between A Space Odyssey, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now to Dark Side of the Moon and Bohemian Rhapsody. Some thirty years on, Dale succeeds by channelling the cosmic, grandiloquent spirit of prog rock. Refugees of the Septic Heart is not a dance performance, it’s a choreographic concept album.