Review: Fallen Angels Dance Theatre - Upon Awakening - Clore Studio Theatre, ROH

Performance: 27 November 2015
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Tuesday 1 December 2015

Fallen Angels Dance Theatre 'Upon Awakening' Joseph Reay-Reid & Kristen McGarrity. Photo: Robert Piwko

Fallen Angels Dance Theatre came to the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio for a second visit to present their new work Upon Awakening. Founded by ex-ballet dancer Paul Bayes Kitcher (Scottish Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet) the company is committed to working with people with drug addictions and uses dance theatre as a means to help them through their recovery. As an ex- addict himself, Bayes Kitcher has a personal insight into of the torturous highs and lows of the journey to recovery as well as the sensitivity to understand what he can create from the stories of other addicts and rehabilitate them through the artistic process. He believes that the daily disciplined regimes of dance training are similar to the mental and physical routines of the addict or alcoholic in rehab. It is such rigorous structure that gives purpose to one’s day.

For Upon Awakening he draws on the experiences of Damian Stewart and Philip Ashby. They are joined by dancers Kristen McGarrity, Julia Griffin and Joseph Reay-Reid who shape the piece with a poetic and mixed dance language; balletic jetés and delicate lifts fuse with contemporary dance’s supple athleticism and grounded floor work. Damien Stewart is the silent narrator. The danced narrative that unfolds is his story and that of others involved in the making of Upon Awakening.

Stewart’s heavily tattooed and pierced body is a quiet, passive yet commanding presence as he’s manipulated, carried, supported, or deserted by the others. He observes the dancers as they conjure up various episodes from his past, his addiction and recovery: there’s Griffin who as his mother, is a malevolent controlling force, coercing him to move in ways that she initiates; then McGarrity, a girl-friend character who loves him passionately then ruthlessly leaves him and Reay-Reid as his younger self, lost and impulsive. Stewart walks bewildered and numbed between each scene.

An intriguingly sinister character performed by Ashby, is made up to look like a grotesque joker. With hunched posture and exaggerated fake smile, he huddles around Stewart, rarely leaving his side like a clingy pet. Tempting, tricking and protecting him like a personification of drug addiction messing with his head. At one point he hobbles down stage to the audience and performs crude, gymnastic antics repetitively like a performing ape. It’s an unsettling image.

The symbolic prop of a ladder is held vertically to suggest one’s potential ascent to recovery and health. At the beginning, Stewart struggles so far up the ladder but can’t reach the top, while the closing image is his arrival there, bathed in light. More religious symbolism occurs when he is carried on the ladder then bears it horizontally like a crucifix.

It’s convincing therapeutic theatre but what seems to be missing from the work is any sense of joy or pleasure to contrast with the pain and suffering of addiction. The tone throughout is sombre and reflective but surely one of the most addictive things about drugs are the moments of enrapture or ecstasy? Although some of the movement is clichéd, such as the arching back bends with heads thrown back or the upper body rumpling over in agony, the overall effect of the work is one that is full of insight and powerfully moving.

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider

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