Review: Candoco Unlimited Commissions -Southbank Centre

Performance: 6 September 2012
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Tuesday 11 September 2012

Candoco Dance Company in Marc Brew's 'Parallel Lines'

The London 2012 Paralympic Games have been an unparalleled success, encouraging people around the UK and beyond to celebrate the achievements of disabled athletes in disciples from track and field to swimming and wheelchair basketball. Candoco Dance Company can justly claim to have been doing the same in the arena of dance and physical theatre for two decades; the company celebrated its 20th anniversary last autumn. This double bill of new commissions, as part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival, brings together twelve disabled and able-bodied performers from around the world in a programme that recasts the limitations of the disabled body on the stage every bit as much as London’s parathletes have done in the stadium.

Marc Brew’s ensemble work Parallel Lines begins with an intriguing stage set: a series of glowing white ropes criss-cross the stage, like a half-finished spider’s web or a network of dangling cables. Beneath the cables dancers roll, twist, fall and slide; Brew’s sensitive material does a sterling job of challenging the performers with its technical precision while accommodating a wide range of bodies. Overhead, the ropes themselves gather and twist into new configurations; Sam Collins’ set acts like a giant game of cat’s cradle while the performers play beneath.

Portions of the score will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Royal Ballet recently; Michael Galasso’s neoclassical strings combine with movements lifted from Infra, composed by Max Richter. Brew’s extended classical lines and the lively orchestral score together nod towards the work of Richard Alston, especially in a playful, skittish duet for Annie Hanauer and Kostas Papamatthaiakis in which the pair chase and catch one another again and again between the low-hanging ropes of the set.

The advertised “lines across the globe, connecting Olympic host cities” weren’t particularly apparent in either the music or the movement material, but Parallel Lines is nevertheless an elegant, pleasingly kinetic work that otherwise does what it says on the tin.

Claire Cunningham’s 12 is much more of a mixed bag. Playing on the dual idea of a crutch as something that supports us both physically and psychologically, the piece makes liberal use of forearm crutches as props that are seen to transform into other objects. The crutches sometimes aid the performers, allowing a beautiful leaping and swinging duet for two girls who happen to have two legs between them; or a leaning sextet for three standing performers rocking atop three dancers on the floor, joined at the neck by a double-ended crutch. Dancers puppet one another using the crutches, guiding the arms and legs of a man and a woman into a gentle supported embrace.

Elsewhere, the significance of the crutches becomes darker. In a sequence where the seated company assembles and disassembles the crutches with military precision to a soundtrack of shouted commands, they become gun-like weapons. In another, where dancers lead each other around the stage, they become leashes; women force men, bound at the neck by the arm support and led by the stick, into humiliating positions. A crutch can be a support, but it can also easily become a thing of violence and subjugation.

It’s a pity that Cunningham’s piece strays far from this interesting thesis by adding moments of unrelated weirdness: a parade of dancers in fabulous costumes doing little else but lounge on the stage; a woman alternately laughing, crying and blowing raspberries; Victoria Malin singing a pop musical-theatre number about liking sex while playing air-guitar on a crutch. Such scenes add little but frustrating padding to the overall presentation, and weaken the work’s central premise. The parts that explore the theme of crutch as support (or limitation) for all of us are diverting and universally relevant; the parts where dancers indulge in self-consciously postmodern costumed lounging, less so.

The Paralympic Games have certainly made a wide variety of bodies visible and opened debate on the possibilities for disabled athletes. Candoco – in common with the Unlimited Festival as a whole – has done equally important work in bringing that visibility and debate to the cultural stage. Let’s hope that space in the public consciousness remains open between now and the 2016 Rio Games.

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