Review: Hubert Essakow - 1898 - The Print Room at the Coronet

Performance: 24 - 28 February 2015
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Friday 27 February 2015

BEHOLDER OF BEAUTY" BY MBULELO NDABENI (dancers Piedad Albarracin Seiquer and Mbulelo Ndabeni)
Photo: Hugo Glendinning

I’d wager that I’m not the only one who’s glad that independent producer and The Print Room’s founding artistic director Anda Winters is investing in dance. This innately friendly theatre’s new home in a former Victorian playhouse and cinema is loaded with promise, with plans afoot for it to be restored to glory in stages. And with choreographer Hubert Essakow on board as an associate artist, dance will remain a part of the bigger picture.

Having said all that, whatta weird and strangely unsatisfying night 1898 was in terms of its aesthetic and, for me, human impact. The notion seems to have been to commission four new dance-based pieces, each lasting no longer than a quarter-hour, for presentation in a shared space. The neat umbrella title refers to the year the Coronet opened, and thus there was in each work references to times past.

The space used for the performance is a little beauty, especially given designer Hannah Hall’s set – like an open corner of a huge, curvy and semi-enveloping white box with an overhang that’s been placed inside a small auditorium painted black. The small cast of each piece drifts on and off in turn, as if in a kind of compartmentalised, dream-like parade of behaviour, customs and would-be drama expressed via movement. But individually intriguing as some elements are, and despite the loose thematic hook, the evening doesn’t hang together.

First up, and setting the tone, is Essakow’s Adieu. Among his chief inspirations were the ghosts of those who once graced the Coronet’s stage, including legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Naomi Sorkin arrives as a grandly theatrical lady in a fancy hat and long coat, but beneath she’s swathed in transparent orange over an off-white unitard. She then proceeds to stride and drift about, more like an Isadora-style figure who’s lost her energetic impulse than ‘the Divine Sarah.’ The striking Cree Barnett Williams and David Ledger, both in streamlined any-era period garb, are like supporting spirits endowed with long lines and a sense of lush physical refinement. But the piece itself, set to Debussy and Satie, is nebulously high-flown.

Next comes Absi/enth (my spelling, adapted from the programme’s ambiguous graphics), a duet made by Kirill Burlov for himself and Rob McNeil about the effect of that controversial spirit on one man’s brain. Burlov, who is ex-Rambert, enters frantically and falls like a beleaguered music hall comedian whose psyche has taken a dangerous turn due (presumably due to the devil of drink, although we never actually see him down any tipple). McNeil, a Punchdunk regular and a notable actor-dancer, is Burlov’s shadow or ‘other’ or, indeed, the febrile embodiment of absinthe itself. Their interactions may be a touch too strenuous to fully convey the subtler potential in Burlov’s concept, but this work might do well to be expanded.

In Scene To Be Seen Tamarin Stott, moonlighting from English National Ballet, dallies with the customs and conventions (and costume) of theatre-going. She and Nathan Young are a well-dressed couple having a night out that appears to undergo some rocky shifts. Stott’s genuinely interesting, high-strung stage presence is unmatched by the handsome, capable but somewhat unyielding Young. He may be underplaying, but at bottom there just isn’t enough texture between the pair of them to fully sustain the work on a deeper level. Or perhaps that’s the point, given the space separating them at the close? Ryan Cockerham’s soundtrack is busy with snatches of music and spoken announcements, like channel surfing former times; ear-catching, but it made me want to see movement that wasn’t quite so overwrought. Less might’ve been more, especially in terms of the surface manners I suspect Stott was attempting to probe beneath with this duet.

In Mbulelo Ndabeni’s Beholder of Beauty he casts himself as an ambiguous, white-faced geisha (a reference to the first opera performed at the Coronet) who undulates and stamps until sturdy Piepad Albarracin Seiquer enters the scene. They share some fast, often floor-based encounters with a possible sexual/romantic edge. Ndabeni then exits, leaving the latecomer to embark on a hard-working solo to Shirley J Thompson’s exultant orchestral music. Ndabeni returns, they dance and…I was left not knowing what to make of the whole thing (especially when in the programme note there’s mention of Hugh Grant’s character in the film Notting Hill, a bit of which was apparently shot in the Coronet). This finale was indicative of a dance-based show driven by good intentions but muddied by the lack of dramaturgical clarity. As a result, what was on view in 1898 was either overcooked or the opposite but never as palatable as it might’ve been. A production footnote: with more time or, possibly, resources, more might’ve been done to truly utilise the atmospheric possibilities of that white backdrop as a projection screen.

Continues at the Coronet until Saturday 28 February

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites. Find him on Twitter @donaldhutera

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