The nineteenth-century Wilton’s Music Hall, tucked away in the backstreets between Tower Bridge, Aldgate and Shadwell, is not known as a dance venue. But when Mark Bruce Company performed Dracula there last year and Made in Heaven the year before, the match looked – well, made in heaven. The building, steeped in history and seeping mystery, acted almost as an extra member of the cast for Bruce’s broody, psycho-goth creations. The success of those productions led Wilton’s to consider incorporating more dance into its eclectic live performance programme, and this year’s Strike! festival is the first result.
In the event, Strike! turned out to be a bold but shaky step, without the natural synergy between performance and place that the Bruce partnerships brought. The programme itself is the end point of a development process whereby Wilton’s selected a shortlist of six proposals, offered some financial and practical support (including mentoring from members of the New Movement Collective) and showed two works on each of three evenings, for which the tickets were all free. The advantage of home-growing the works is that they fit Wilton’s unusual stage – on split levels, with the audience on three sides, both close up in the stalls and close above on the balcony. The unavoidable disadvantage, of course, is that there’s no telling in advance how the programme will pan out or what exactly will be in it. It also runs the risk of becoming a work-in-progress or performance-lab sharing rather than a platform for quality choreography to attract the different dance audience that Wilton’s might pull in.
For me, two pieces just didn’t work, though in totally different ways. Elise Nuding’s solo Shift, Spin, Warp, Twine feels like a study in solipsism. Thematically, it’s all about strands: the thick cables of rope bedecking the stage, which she coils around and through; the imaginary threads that she unspools from her torso and weaves into the air; the sudden slipknots of action that galvanise her body; the strings of words evoking seafaring labour. That sounds richer and denser than the piece actually is, for Nuding herself appears so absorbed in her ideas that she neglects her material and her audience – an attitude encapsulated when she gives some rope to three spectators and then later simply takes it back, leaving them as uninvolved as ever.
Dane Hurst’s Finding Freedom brought some spectators to their feet but left others (like me) with a sinking feeling. The piece is a kind of tug of war set between an upstage bench and a downstage chair. Hurst is the tortured protagonist who first battles dark stranger Owen Ridley-DeMonick (bench scene), then tussles with mystery woman Amy Thale (chair scene), before crawling towards a dying light. The dancers are all highly accomplished, but perhaps that’s part of the problem: the piece is strong on dancing but weak on choreography. It’s founded on big ideas – imprisonment, fear, fighting – but realised through generic if highly dynamic dancerly phrases that offer little purchase or purpose, their effect sapped in any case by a gloopy soundtrack.
There is more potential in Ieva Kuniskis’s He Lived Next Door, a short, melancholic piece that tracks various understated transformations in soloist Darius Stankevicius as he traverses the stage. He sheds the skin of his formal suit to expose gauche long-johns and thermal vest; he moves from crawling to standing; and pianist Dougie Evans gradually knits broken chords and rhythms into a lilting waltz, which itself gives way to operatic duet while Stankevicius’s arms twine around his body like the aria’s sparring voices. A thoughtful vignette, but more like the start of something than a piece in itself.
the performers’ carapace of control gives way to fleshy convulsions and insect twitches, as if each of them is consumed by some pupating, palpitating inner alien
There’s potential too in Jack Webb’s Inside Opulence. Jessica Armstrong and Katie Whycherly begin as snap-fingered, darkly sequinned showgirls backed by a curtain of glistening tassles, behind which Webb appears in a big-shouldered blouson, intoning breathily into his microphone. Bit by bit, the performers’ carapace of control gives way to fleshy convulsions and insect twitches, as if each of them is gradually consumed by some pupating, palpitating inner alien. There’s no denying the visceral punch of some of the sequences – the women’s inverted spider walks and mantis tics in particular – but the material is way overextended and the pacing patchy. Where Kuniskis’s piece could do with filling out, Webb’s would benefit from reining in.
That leaves two works that pretty much hit the spot. Pell Ensemble’s K, byRebecca Evans in collaboration with Lorenza Lo, is a low-key but moving piece about communication technology and human connection. It begins with Lo folding sheets of yellow paper into paper planes that a couple (Emily Thompson-Smith and Kostas Papamatthaiakis) later lob randomly into the audience; messages sent more in hope than in expectation of finding a receiver. Text messages – Hello? Are you here? Come over! – scroll intermittently across the backcloth, and Thompson-Smith and Papamatthaiakis shine little text projectors onto the set, like searchlights in the shape of letters. The deft choreography sees them semaphoring and circling each other, making connections without ever achieving confluence. It’s an effective and affecting work, stretched a little thin perhaps, but well composed and performed.
Instead of a quartet the piece feels like a duet between – and within – divided selves.
Please Wait Whilst We Try to Connect You, by choreographer Jo Meredith and dramaturge Sean Bruno, is also about connection and communication, but adds a layer of complexity by having its characters doubled. The men (Jack Jones and Luke Clarke) are dressed identically in pale colours, the women (Grace Hann and Katherine Kingston) identically in dark, so that instead of a quartet the piece feels like a duet between – and within – divided selves. The music too – cover versions of The Rite of Spring (by jazz trio The Bad Plus) and of Radiohead songs by pianist Bruce Mehldau – suggests doubled identities. The whole set-up forms a richly suggestive matrix for a neatly composed play of feints and flankings between its performers. Suggestive ideas, crafted choreography, poised performances – nice.
So for me, the festival’s strike rate came out as: two hits, two misses, two off target but in range. That’s not a bad ratio at all, especially for a new festival. Still, it does feel a bit happenstance, and if Wilton’s want to continue programming dance (and it looks like they really do) I’d encourage them to take a greater editorial/curatorial hand. And to build on their own unique resource: the building itself. For whatever the venture, people who come to Wilton’s tend to fall in love with the venue. It’s quite a character.
The live stream of Wilton’s Strike! festival, plus interviews with choreographers and producers, is available free online at http://artstreamingtv.com