Review: Imbalance - Joli Vyann - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 16 - 19 Jan
Reviewed by Samantha Whitaker - Friday 20 January 2017


Performance reviewed: 19th January 2017

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are now four in most relationships – two people, and two smartphones. And it’s this truth that’s brought to light so strikingly in Imbalance, a duet performed by former stunt man and circus artist Jan Patzke and ex-gymnast and dancer Olivia Quayle, who together form Joli Vyann.

With tight choreography created in collaboration with Jonathan Lunn, who counts the film Love Actually among his dance, theatre, opera and film credits, Joli Vyann employ their unique blend of athletic contemporary dance with acrobalance and other circus skills to explore our obsessive dependence on technology.

The narrative is partly autobiographical: a real-life couple, Patzke and Quayle began their relationship long distance via Facebook and Skype, but later, while trying to ‘do it all’, Quayle burnt out and suffered from adrenal fatigue. So, in Imbalance, they question the equilibrium between our real and virtual worlds through the context of a dysfunctional relationship. Dysfunctional because of the devices.

Sitting at a table, their laptops cast a haunting glow on their faces as they flit from screen to screen, swapping positions, shoulders hunched, furiously typing, phones locked to ears. They break away, but immediately they’re drawn back to the digital world, repeating mechanical sequences faster and faster in time to Dougie Evans’ 21st-century soundtrack of notifications and alerts that demand our attention, from the swoosh of an iMessage to ‘Unexpected item in bagging area’.

But then the dynamic shifts. The devices are tidied away and the table is pushed back, while the score melts into a lyrical composition as the couple caress and wind around each other in a silky smooth duet infused with powerful lifts and hand-to-hand balances. Despite their warm, infatuated smiles and the gentle chemistry between them, the trust and physical effort it takes both performers to achieve some of these positions is palpable – and all the more impressive for it.

Unfortunately, this ‘quality time’ together doesn’t last, and before long the phones come out again – ostensibly to take selfies, but swiftly they are consumed by the glowing screens. The mechanical sequences return and the tension builds. Patzke juggles two smartphones and a coffee cup, then puts the cup to his ear. They’re tired, ‘digitally fatigued’, and the next duet is much more languid and weighted than before. Their smiles have gone and they struggle to connect – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Phones out again, they continue to duet while chatting separately – Quayle in English and Patzke in German. It’s not even as bizarre as it sounds. As Quayle struggles to maintain the conversation while she tangles and balances on Patzke, you see how we multitask like this every day, giving neither person nor activity the attention it deserves.

Finally, Quayle decides enough is enough. She confiscates the phones and they begin to argue. Two soloists dancing independently together, failing to get each other’s full attention. It makes you wonder: what the hell has happened to us? Eventually they reconnect, but it feels desperate and sad. Quayle literally walks over Patzke, ending up in an impressive one-footed balance on his head. But there’s no joy in their contact.

A brief foray into cyberbullying and trolling follows. We hear news headlines and the voices of victims, mostly children, then a series of hashtags that become increasingly sinister – Hashtag duh. Hashtag hey ugly. Hashtag FOAD. Patzke performs a solo, lit only by his smartphone’s flash. According to the duo, this section was the hardest to choreograph, and it shows. They felt strongly that the subject was too important to be left out – but in the midst of this particular narrative it feels off-piste. I think they would have done better to give it its own full-length piece at a later date.

To end, the cycle begins again – the manic, repetitive sequence followed by a joyful and loving duet. They walk off hand in hand so we end on a high, which is something. But the overall impression is unsettling: is this really what we’ve become?

A hit at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, Imbalance formed part of London International Mime Festival 2017.

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

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