Review: C-12 Dance Theatre - Shhh! - Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn Garden City

Performance: 3 May 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 7 May 2013

C-12 Dance Theatre 'Shh!'

This full-length production is the most ambitious yet from C-12 Dance Theatre, and thus a big step forward for Director/choreographer Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster and Executive Producer Adam Towndrow. The latter hails from the commuter town Welwyn Garden City, which may be a prime reason the piece premiered there. Apparently it also marks the first time that the Hawthorn Theatre has invested in contemporary dance – laudable, that. As is, in its own way, the show itself although I also recognise it’s probably more important for C-12 to have made it than for me to have seen it (except, that is, as someone interested in tracking this young company’s progress).

What do I mean by this last statement? That I can commend the effort C-12 has put into Shhh!, along with aspects of its execution, even as I question and express reservations about the content. In short it’s a likeable, light-hearted entertainment that I wanted to like more.

Deakin-Foster’s dual inspiration seems to have been libraries as hubs of social intercourse and books as vehicles of information, imagination and, indeed, love. The setting is an inner-city library that, by all indications, is run-down and due to close. The location is economically conveyed via projected graphics (by Arnim Friess, who doubles as lighting designer) and, more particularly, a rather ingenious use of three shelving units. Wheeled on all sides and hollowed out, these are versatile and rarely cumbersome objects; one even has a double-door, and another a window, built into it.

What happens around, on and sometimes inside them is two acts’ worth of wordless (save for a bit of ‘talking book’ voice-over) and highly kinetic interactions between five loosely defined characters. Sturdy, even-tempered James Williams is the librarian who hankers after (and, shades of rom-com ‘meet cute’ cliché, initially keeps bumping into) Raquel Gaviria’s pleasant if slightly prim patron. The library’s other ‘regulars’ are played by Brendan Hansford, Miranda Mac Letten and Alicia Pattyson. All are deft movers who handle Deakin-Foster’s smoothly energised blend of styles (including elements of free running atop the aforementioned shelving units) with ease.

This is very much an ensemble piece, and credit to Deakin-Foster for allowing the spotlight to fall so evenly on each cast member. Her skill in staging the show is plain, abetted by a nicely varied and frequently percolating commissioned score from the film and television composer Jamie Salisbury. Musically, Shhh! grows on you.

What I’m less convinced about is what’s driving C-12’s dramatic engine. Shhh! hangs together pretty well as a piece of dance, reminding me at times of a junior version of Motionhouse. But, as when watching the work of that Leamington Spa-based touring company, I sometimes wondered what all its motion was for. I guess I’m talking about the underlying meanings of choreography, as in ‘Why does a dancer do this or that move now and not another? What’s his or her deeper motivation?’ At times I felt about Shhh! the way people who don’t ‘get’ musicals (a genre I happen to love) do when they wonder why characters suddenly burst into song.

There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of play with books in this show. Early on there is use of a paperback (wisely, none of the props are hardcovers) swiftly circling the head, as if its content is being absorbed. Later, however, there’s simply too much flinging about and scrabbling after books to what eventually seems like little discernible purpose. Perhaps it’s because reading is by and large such a stationary, often solitary activity that Deakin-Foster was compelled to find ways to keep things literally moving. Although I’ve already given a thumbs-up to her staging, it is at times overly busy with too much shifting around of the mobile set; it’s almost as if the show needs to off-load excess energy. Either that or it runs out of ideas or, less charitably, maybe it hasn’t got that many in the first place.

Among a few other uncertainties about or imbalances within Shhh! is the brief use of projected flames in Act One; it was unclear to me what was meant to be burning (libraries symbolically going up in smoke due to government cuts?). I was also a tad bothered about why Mac Letten, whose onstage personality is that of a stroppy, self-absorbed rebel, doesn’t just bugger off rather than hang out in a place (the library) that in so many ways seems to bore or irritate her. She’s an attractive dancer with a strong presence; I just don’t quite understand what made her character tick. And a tiny cavil: why does Pattyson laugh aloud at one point when at no other time does she or anyone else emit any sounds whatsoever?

Setting large and picky reservations aside, what Shhh! does do is set up an agreeable atmosphere for dreaming (and for this insight I must thank one of the venue’s front-of-house staff with whom I briefly chatted post-show) that could be said to be spurred by a love of books. That would seem to be a key source of the budding relationship between Williams and Gaviria that, at the climax, turns into a full-blown celebration. Their bond is meant, I think, to be predicated on the romance of reading.

On that score I wish Shhh! had somehow expanded upon ways of theatricalising the knowledge and potential emotion books contain. This is alluded to in a segment triggered by Pattyson cracking open a book downstage; meanwhile, behind her, the others try to conjure a book world accompanied on the soundtrack by snippets of, say, Romeo and Juliet (pretty dully delivered) or physicalised in a bit of a simulated sea-faring adventure (but why that and not something else?). Here the library setting is a springboard, however imperfectly realised, for something larger than encounters between thinly-drawn if neatly embodied characterisation.

One thing I admire about C-12 is how accessible it is; the company’s work is never head-scratchingly abstract or artily obscure. It’s possible that by its very existence Shhh! is underlining, albeit indirectly, the value of libraries in an era when too many are being closed down. Interestingly, perhaps, it offers little or no recognition of the rise of digital devices and the concomitant ‘death’ of books as an object (to have and to hold, for those of us who love books as much as we love reading). I’m not suggesting the show needs to address these issues, only pointing them out as part of wider cultural trends and concerns.
Shhh! is, after all, essentially a sweet, polished (and only occasionally tiresome) learning curve for young, dance-based theatre-makers who still harbour much promise. It will be touring the UK this autumn, including dates in London organised in tandem with The Albany, Deptford.

More on C-12 Dance Theatre

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites

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