Review: Currency 3: Tabea Martin / Alma Soderberg -The Place

Performance: 27 November 2012
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Wednesday 28 November 2012

Alma Soderberg 'Travail' Photo: Sanne Peper

The Place billed its short, sociably-managed season Currency as ‘an international exchange of danced ideas.’ Over the course of three evenings the public was invited to an informal, pre-show sharing of whatever had transpired in the studio between one of the venue’s associate artists (Work Place, as they’ve dubbed this scheme) and their counterparts from continental Europe, plus a meal in the downstairs café and in the main house, a culminating double-bill of finished pieces by ‘foreign’ guests. Nice idea, this, including the notion of the audience working ‘with the artists to co-create meaning.’ Especially, that is, if you’re interested in the sort of oblique, potentially convivial collaboration this implies or, additionally, if you harbour as much of a fondness for process as product.

I only managed to attend the final night but found it pretty tasty, all-told. Upstairs in the Founders’ Studio was the fruit of a brief encounter between the heavily pregnant Frauke Requardt and skinny, hairy Alessandro Sciarroni (whose solo Joseph, involving at least in part the use of the social network site Chat Roulette, had already been seen in earlier Currency evenings). As they framed their mutual task, the pair met as strangers and had two days to get to know each other. But how to do that? By bypassing politeness and niceties, or so it seems, and acknowledging obvious gender difference. Along with minimal movement, stylised and angular, there came moments of almost slapstick violence (at one point each repeatedly flat-palming the other’s shoulder) and others entailing exposure and possible embarrassment (both parties removing their tops, and a bit later stumbling about in a dance-like manner with trousers down round the ankles). Their painless, sober-faced little lark of an exchange barely lasted a quarter-hour.

Mealtime in the cafe – a buffet of falafel and hummus, flatbread, salad and fruit – was buzzing. Goodwill generated by full stomachs must’ve carried over upstairs afterwards, judging by the warm, generous audience response both pieces subsequently received.

First up was the rather tautologically-titled Duet for Two Dancers by Swiss-born Tabea Martin who, as we entered the auditorium, stood to one side of the stage with cast members Stefan Baier and Ryan Djojokarso plus a baby (gender undefined, for the record) wrapped close to her chest. This friendly, witty and crisply, freshly performed piece used dance as a vehicle to examine loosely and lightly the expectations those in the profession and, by extension, anyone might either place upon themselves or have placed upon them.

After introducing themselves to us, the dancers described each set of moves prior to executing them. These ranged from moves unexpected (Djojokarso splatting himself against the back wall) or spectacular (Baier holding overhead at the waist the spreadeagled Djojokarso, who was propped up on his shoulders), impossible (during which the two tied themselves in comically awkward, wrestling-like knots) or mock-erotic (Djojokarso’s shamelessly exaggerated floor-based gyrations and gestures). Martin took advantage of the disparity in the men’s shapes and sizes – Baier taller and rangier, Djojokarso more compact, but both equally fleet and springy – for humorous ends. I wouldn’t say her work here was much more than skin-deep, but it was smart and enjoyable and, indeed, good enough to make me overlook the head-scratchingly odd ending (in which a towel – as in ‘throwing in the –‘? – dropped unexpectedly upon a downstage mike stand). Martin has something valid top say about how easy it can be to become locked-in, labelled and, thus, diminished. The most telling line was Baier’s comment: ‘Since I became a dancer I’m no longer sure if there are beautiful movements.’

The night, and the season, was brought to a close by Alma Soderberg. This magnetic Swedish sound-and-movement artist is almost scarily self-possessed. Her solo Travail was like some weird but arresting beat-boxing stunt designed to make us call…well, what exactly into question? Our perceptions, particularly aural, or individual views of the world, perhaps. Or maybe hers.

Soderberg has remarkable presence, and no dearth of vocal talent, but there’s a part of me that wonders if she’s not at least a half-charlatan. Rather than accomplish trickery with mirrors she does it with smoke (there was a lot of dry ice billowing about overhead) and effective lighting, as well as a large coil of copper (alluded to but untouched) planted more or less centrestage and, on the table beside it, a little black box she twiddled to layer sounds (most pre-recorded, I suspect) and rhythms. But all these were toys she used to play with us.

Soderberg’s chief asset is herself, meaning her body and especially the set of pipes it contains. Lasting about 45 mins (nearly double the length of Martin’s duet), Travail commenced with Soderberg standing shaking two bean-filled rattles at varying speeds, heights and directions. My thought: she’s asking us to listen more acutely. She then shifted upstage and, using her upper limbs for physical emphasis, played round with p-words ( ‘people’, ‘party’..) and phrases to a slightly maddening extent via simultaneous buzzing lips, breath and voice. The result was a kind of personal yet impersonal Scandic hip hop variant on ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.’ Afterwards Soderberg worked her way across the stage, activating the bells round her ankles (yet another embellishing toy) while clapping. (She has, unsurprisingly, studied flamenco). Then came the lashings of dry ice, and the soundbox twiddling, and an extended rap as Soderberg stepped round the periphery of the stage. ‘I’m interested in sounds as they are heard,’ she said, more than once. And more than once I heard her refer to ‘body parts and bus stops…factories and flower pots.’ There were also reference to democracy, and opportunity (or was it opportunism?).

But beyond all the details I wonder just what was happening here. Some sort of audacious, smoothly controlled meltdown? What connections did Soderberg want us to make between sight, sound and meaning? And who failed in, to use The Place’s own marketing copy, the co-creation of meaning…or was there no failure? I’m frankly still a bit baffled by Soderberg, and not a little stunned. By the end of Travail the room was darkening to a heavy, steady beat – opportunity knocking, or something more ominous? Ya got me. But then so, I think, did she.
Tabea Martin video

Donald Hutera writes about dance, theatre and performance for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites in the UK and abroad.

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