If you sit quietly within nature – in a field, say, or a forest, or by the sea – and simply wait, nature will slowly reveal itself in ways that you would not otherwise notice, or give a second thought to. In the light glinting on bent grass or the flight path of a bird. In the rustling of leaves shaken by the wind, the spread of surf over sand, perhaps even in the alert eyes of an animal, watching you as you watch it.
That is also the experience – if you allow it to be – of sitting before Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea performed by the Cullberg company from Sweden, a piece that reveals itself slowly and undramatically over the course of a quiet hour. Before it begins, it has already begun: the dancers are wandering about the stage as we enter the auditorium – just as nature is always already there, without needing our presence to witness it. And what are the first things to notice, as the lights dim and the audience settles? That the stage is marked by a square white field, like a viewfinder window, but the dancers pay no heed to its boundaries. That the costumes are not quite regular, but nevertheless form three distinct species: mesh vests with grey shorts, blue-black shirts and shorts, coral-patterned tops with long leggings. That the performers look alert and inquisitive, but they’re not looking at us. That a hush lies upon the scene.
What happens? At first it looks a bit random, and definitely ragged. Over there, someone wobbles a loose leg and swivels stiff arms. Here, someone is ambling aimlessly. A cluster forms in one corner. Downstage, two men lie on their stomachs, unmoving, like sleeping seals.
Patience. After a while, you begin to see patterns that form and dissolve, as organic as order and entropy. The dancers assemble into a rough V, and as if impelled by some inner tropism, swivel on the spot until they’re all leaning in one direction; think of leaves tilting their faces towards the sun, or birds aligning themselves before they migrate. There are eddies of activity, as if the space were crossed with currents. At one point, you notice that most of the movement has gone angular and pointed, so that the scene feel like urchins and starfish tugged by a tide. Then there is a surge of sideways scuttling, like shore crabs; a ripple of cicada chirrups. Somewhere along the way, you realise that Laurie Anderson’s sound score has already crept in, enlivening the air with its varied but unobtrusive textures: bubbling blips, dissonant rumbles, a quickening rhythm, notes sustained like sighs.
Stay longer and you go further, able now to discern individual variety among these broader patterns without becoming disoriented by profusion. Two dancers clasp in a suddenly isolating embrace. There are wide-mouthed gapes, like silent alarms. You notice different dancers simultaneously, each with a distinct ambulatory mode and weight of presence. What had looked like randomness becomes a picture of shifting elements, both large and small. And in one extraordinary yet characteristically undemonstrative scene, a man advances through the flux, each step a graceful embodiment of ballet adagio – with elegant open and crossed stances, its co-ordination of curved arm with stretched leg – until he arrives at front centre stage, and takes a slow-motion bow. It’s an uncanny moment, like seeing a strange and wonderful creature come forth from the forest only to realise, as it looks you in the eye, that it is another human being.
The work’s end is as indeterminate as its beginning: the stage empties gradually and grows silent, leaving the mind still alive with impressions, wondering what it has witnessed.
Hay, reflecting on a career that began with the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, once said that a recurrent question of hers has been: how do you get a group of people dancing without telling them what to do? Figure a Sea, is surely one answer: a piece that seems to emerge from its own questions through its bodies, without aiming for any outcome yet leaving its imprint nonetheless. As I stepped back into the streets on a noisy London night, the Houses of Parliament looming in the sky, it felt like an oasis for the soul in these noxious times.