Review: Darren Johnston - Zero Point - Barbican

Performance: 25 - 27 May 2017
Reviewed by Samantha Whitaker - Friday 26 May 2017

Image by Taisuke Tsurui

Reviewed 25 May 2017

I admit that I’d never seen anything by Darren Johnston before. Nor did I know very much about him. But having read that Zero Point was all about achieving a trance-like state through dance, drawing on slow, controlled disciplines such as ballet and martial arts, I was expecting something quite different to the experience I encountered at the Barbican on Thursday evening.

During his residency at The Museum of Art in Kochi, Japan, Johnston was inspired by various Eastern themes – from the temples and shrines he visited on the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage to the idea of rebirth and the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’, meaning ‘empty space’.

The title, meanwhile, relates to quantum physics: Zero Point Energy is the existence of energy even in a vacuum. However, it took a while for any energy to be apparent. Starting more than 10 minutes late, the restless audience were abruptly brought to attention by blinding strobe lighting and the thundering reverberations of Tim Hecker’s electronic score. After a while, the helicopter sounds and flickering lights became a bit nauseating, so it was a relief when the dancers appeared.

The movement vocabulary of Zero Point also has a very strong Eastern flavour. Performed by a cast of nine phenomenally talented Japanese dancers, who swap in and out in various combinations, the choreography draws on a style of Japanese dance theatre called butoh, and qigong, which is a kind of moving meditation to cultivate life energy (qi). Both of these disciplines are characterised by slow, hyper-controlled motion, which informs the pace throughout the piece. Many of the motifs stem from the butoh concept of transformation – the feeling that the dancers have been possessed by a spirit or animal, with lots of undulating, bird-like arms and a duet that resembles a mating ritual, the two dancers circling one another, negotiating the space. Often, dancers are brought to the stage in a seemingly lifeless state, only to come to life again – or be reborn.

There’s also plenty of neoclassical (modern) ballet and recognisable contemporary dance vocabulary, particularly in the arm gestures – angular, scooping, extending, diving, wrapping and unwrapping.

As much a visual artist as he is a choreographer, Johnston’s movement and innovative lighting design go hand in hand. There are ever-changing pools of light for the dancers to perform in, strips creating roads for them to follow and a 3D room within a room. The strobe lighting returns to good effect, turning a balletic duet into slow motion and, towards the end, a particularly clever use of lighting (and perhaps costume material too?) makes two dancers appear computer generated, as if they’ve transcended into a virtual world.

Zero Point was originally shown as a work in progress back in 2014, and I’d be interested to know how it’s developed over the past three years. The score, which is described as ‘meditative’ in the programme notes, continues to rumble and sear through the space, with just a few haunting melodic sections that work beautifully with the movement. But for me, the whole thing is too dark, too loud, too long and too samey in pace and content.

The dancers, however, are all exceptional. Their tight, sinewy bodies are perfectly aligned and move with exquisite grace and control through the tough, slow-moving sequences. Ballet dancer Hana Sakai is particularly captivating to watch, like a fairy trapped in a moonbeam. I would love to know what else they can do.

Before the performance, I tried the free Immersive Zero Point Virtual Reality installation in the Barbican foyer – a disorientating eight-minute sequence that responds to the themes and ideas in the piece. Unfortunately, this too left me underwhelmed. The world of VR is on its way, I think – but it’s not there yet.

Zero Point is at the Barbican until 27 May.

Samantha Whitaker is an editor and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @swhit1985

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