Dance has an interesting, voguish and never unambivalent relationship with art galleries and museums: the former tugged by the living temporalities of the human body, the latter by the exhibition of entities or the preservation of times gone by. Back in 2015 I was wowed by Boris Charmatz’s takeover of the Tate Modern in 20 Dances for the 20th Century, which turned scenes from dance history into a panting, perspiring exhibition. In summer 2017, I was more touched and tickled than transported by Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie, an altogether more sidelong take on dance history at the Barbican Art Gallery.
Why sidelong? Because Harrell’s history is mashup, not replay. In one solo, he embodies the impossible intersection between flamenco and Japanese butoh, part existential ritual, part skirt-swishing erotics. Elsewhere, he imagines an encounter between the uptown avant-gardists of New York’s Judson Theater in the 1960s with the downtown voguing queens of 1980s Harlem. Harrell also clearly loves dance history that is already reimagined, or indeed fully fantasised: slink-hipped 19th-century orientalism, Isadora Duncan’s gauzy Greekness. Harrell is also interested in the commercial or popular forms that are sidelined from the canon of dance history. A sideshow novelty act teases with blatant conceal/reveals of flesh and costume. Periodically, a catwalk parade flounces by, the dancers finessing the sway and jut of the fashion show into phrases at once flamboyant and precise.
Its racial and gender fluidities, as well as its temporal and cultural ones, make it great material for the theorists who cluster around the contemporary art world
Hoochie Koochie’s racial and gender fluidities, as well as its temporal and cultural ones, make it great material for the theorists who cluster around the contemporary art world. I liked it more practically. True, I wasn’t transported, and yearned for a more sustained sense of composition or development (gallery settings almost demand a piecemeal approach); but I did find it sly, gently subversive and genuinely disarming. Touches and tickles have their own pleasures, after all.
Wayne McGregor’s 40-minute +/– Human, with dancers from the Royal Ballet and McGregor’s own company, was commissioned as the performative part of an art installation in the Roundhouse, a venue usually used for music gigs. It has much to admire in theory; in practice, little to love. The installation, by interdisciplinary creative studio Random International, is an agglomeration of drones in the shape of white orbs, drifting above the dance floor like inscrutable alien observers. They are a vague if striking presence, but hardly addressed by the choreography: the dancers merely look up at them a few times.
The choreography, like the orbs, looks good and feels hollow.
The dancing is impressive, showcasing McGregor’s trademark style of splayed limbs and fiendishly detailed partner work. McGregor’s trademark skimpy underwear is here too. The dancers are daubed with either a + or a – sign, a symbolic polarity that may perhaps have been used to generate choreographic material, but which carries no communicative charge. The best moments are when McGregor slows the verbose dancing down to focus on duets and solos, or when he sustains a motif – a propeller spin, a wave form – long enough for it to register as significant. For the rest, the choreography, like the orbs, looks good and feels hollow.
We emerged like survivors: alive but not unscathed, in unnameable and possibly traumatic ways. That, by the way, is a recommendation.
At nearly four hours, Iceland Dance Company’s Sacrifice at the Royal Festival Hall is a very long haul, as company directors Erna Ómarsdóttir and Valdimar Jóhannson keep pointing out during their deadpan prologue patter. Those of us who lasted the course emerged like survivors: alive but not unscathed, in unnameable and possibly traumatic ways. That, by the way, is a recommendation.
The evening is split into three parts, with intervals during which you can watch a shadowy short film of bodies in stark landscapes, go into a cubicle and scream (there were queues for this), or attend a “Hate Yoga” session to access your inner rage. The first piece, Ómarsdóttir and Jóhannson’s Shrine, opens with a scene in a plastic dome emblazoned with a Dunkin Donuts logo, in which an outlandish singer in a kimono is surrounded by odds and sods: elfin figures, a weightlifter, a bicyclist. From there, it only gets weirder. There are blood-curdling shrieks, ropes of yeti hair, communal self-flagellation and a disquisition on death, with pink balloons fartily representing decomposition. It is quite something, though who knows exactly what.
No Tomorrow by Ragnar Kjartansson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir and Bryce Dessner, is a half-hour female guitar ensemble, with the dancers strumming chords while moving about the stage as if they were chords themselves – meditative, composed and surprisingly transfixing. Matthew Barney’s closing 75-minute film, Union of the North, references many motifs of the opening Shrine. In a vast, sterile shopping mall, the Dunkin Donuts server becomes a shaman for a wedding rite. Women are daubed with blood and mud, footballs eviscerated, bodies shaved and soaped, trolleys ridden. There is much primal screaming. It’s a total mind-scramble. The only way I could process the experience was to think of Iceland itself: volcanic rock and boiling geysers beneath the veneer of civilisation. Sacrifice taps that sense of the absurdity of our existence, our subjection to primal forces more powerful than we can imagine. •