Review: Hubert Essakow - Terra - Print Room at the Coronet

Performance: 23 February - 12 March 2016
Reviewed by Sarah Kent - Monday 29 February 2016

Monique Jonas and Luke Crook in Hubert Essakow's 'Terra'. Photo: Chantal Guevara

The publicity material shows the dancers rolling about on loose soil, a promising image for a piece about the earth and our relationship with it. Unfortunately, not a speck of dirt sullies Sofie Lachaert and Luc D’Hanis’s pristine white set. Upturned furniture – white painted chairs, a table, standard lamp, grandfather clock and a wardrobe that gets used as an exit – are piled up, higgledy piggledy, in front of a wall of white rock. We seem to be in a cave or grotto. A low rumbling, like the sound of an earthquake, shudders through the auditorium; disaster is on the agenda.

The piece begins in mythic mode, with a topless dancer portraying our earth mother rolling sensuously around the floor. But with her slender body, Estela Merlos looks nothing like a fertility goddess; think of the ample breasts and large hips that emphasise the fecundity of that Paleolithic goddess, the Venus of Willendorf. Dressed in stylish bell-bottom trousers, Merlos looks more like a fashion model than an earth mother; she would look good shimmying down any catwalk. The piece opens, then, on a false note and, as it continues, confusion multiplies.

A male voice reads the opening stanza of Terra, a poem written specially by Ben Okri as a eulogy to the origins, beauty and longevity of our planet. It emerged, he writes, “From nothing. A rock fallen from space. / Suspended by a spider’s web / Of gravity…. But earth has no time, / Being born with time’s birth / At the burst of primordial creation. / Earth as a god / Was there in the lost flash / Of beginnings. / She will roll on through the spheres/ Indestructible even / To men’s wild endgames.” According to his portrayal, humanity is an insignificant blip in the cosmos and the earth is immune to our “wild endgames”.

On the other hand, Hubert Essakow’s dance piece focuses on the trials and tribulations of humankind as we evolve from cave dwellers to home owners. In addressing issues such as the meaning of home and the importance of belonging and the hardships and alienation of exile, his choreography is at odds with the poem that accompanies it. Questions such as “What era are we in?” are therefore impossible to answer.

Other questions spring to mind but seem to have no answers, since many of the decisions appear random. One by one, four dancers enter carrying suitcases as though they are refugees in search of a safe haven. The suitcases are sawn in half; why, though, are they not re-united with their matching halves? The floor is miked up so that every scrape, shuffle and stomp is ominously magnified and one woman’s breathing is amplified to the point where each movement sounds laboured. Why is the idea dropped so soon, though? Dressed in the same white clothes as the others, the earth mother joins the group (sans suitcase), but her relationship to them is never made clear.

Moving beautifully in pairs, groups or solo the dancers explore various aspects of human interaction – from wary encounters with strangers to partnerships, collaboration and tribal ritual. Essakow’s carefully-crafted choreography is unexceptional, though; it includes nothing new or memorable. The mood is workmanlike, as though in focusing on performing diligently, the dancers have forgotten how to enjoy themselves and to inhabit the moment.

In the programme notes Essakow’s assistant, Emma Lister refers to sections of the work as “animals”, “8 bells”, “shift-shifty” and “flying squirrel”. They sound delightful and I wish I’d seen them; instead I watched dancers exceuting pliés, jetés, lifts, pirouettes, drops and glissandes. How many species and how many migrants, move like a Rambert trained dancer, though? For an ambitious project like this in which dancers are trying to portray animals and to evoke the evolution of human society and its potential collapse, you have to take risks and step outside the confines of familiar moves.

Then the po-faced adults are joined by Jessica Chalmers, who can’t be much over seven years old, yet dances an assured solo and illuminates the stage with her vibrant presence and delightful smile. From now on, the group represents The Family of Man; they trudge up a pathway beside the rock face and reach a platform where they huddle together as though crammed into a small boat. No emotions are portrayed, but the dangers and hardships of the journey are alluded to with much swaying and gesticulating. We have entered the realm of cliché, and we get stuck there until the end of the piece.

I can’t help imagining what Pina Bausch would have done with this complex subject. I suspect she would have been able to encompass the cosmic dimension of Okri’s poem while exploring the human story in all its detail. And her mature dancers would have fleshed out and enriched this wonderful topic with their wisdom, humour and wealth of experience. Watching Essakow’s young performers, I was reminded of those school productions in which the kids struggle to do justice to issues they don’t fully grasp or understand.

Continues until 12 March

Best known as an art critic, Sarah Kent began writing about dance for The Arts Desk in 2012, only stopping recently when she was invited to serve on the dance panel of the Olivier Awards. A keen dancer herself, she brings a fresh perspective to the role of commentator.

Photos: Chantal Guevara

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