Review: Julie Cunningham & Company – Double Bill – Barbican
Performance reviewed: 11 March
In September last year the award-winning dancer Julie Cunningham began in earnest on a new stage in her career when she was named Rambert’s first choreography fellow. Any dancer turned choreographer takes time to evolve and find their own voice – and Cunningham, who trained at Rambert before dancing for Merce Cunningham for a decade, then for Michael Clark, has been shaped by some very strong choreographic styles. This Barbican co-commission was her first big-stage dance-making foray, and her influences (particularly Clark) were clear to see in a double-bill that felt rather hesitant, and a lot like work in progress.
Returning and To Be Me are linked by a theme that clearly holds a passionate resonance for Cunningham – breaking through established notions of gender to embrace a fluid sense of identity. For Returning, Cunningham and her company – the striking Harry Alexander (another Clark dancer), Alexander Williams and Hannah Burfield – wear tight tops imprinted with a bustier design that are pulled down to look like dresses; they move to music by Bjork, Anohni (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) and MEN with a pristine neoclassicism, like smoothly gliding parts in a machine: breaking down a movement across the floor; linking together then spinning apart; finding a reset position in facing each other calmly in a circle. (There’s also an awful lot of thrusting arm semaphoring – at times they seem to be bringing in an airliner.)
The central section of the piece is Anohni’s Future Feminism speech, from the Cut the World album, in which the transgender singer muses on eco-feminism and feminine systems of governance, breaking apart the misogyny in organised religion and whether transgender people are witches. And it’s here that you feel Cunningham is at her most tentative – the dancers’ slow, meditative movements seem almost cowed by such a strong voice, and Cunningham’s artistic input seems shyly peripheral.
The same problem plagues To Be Me, which uses a soundtrack of poetry readings by the spoken-word artist Kate Tempest, specifically her series of works from Hold Your Own inspired by the story of Tiresias, the figure from Greek mythology who was turned by the gods into a woman and then into a blind prophet. Dressed in red and black (costumes are designed by Cunningham and Clark collaborator Stevie Stewart), the dancers set up a strong push-pull dynamic to Tempest’s hip-hop cadences. Cunningham and Williams, of similar build and with shaved heads, mirror each other’s movements, building to a fascinating double duet, Cunningham with Alexander and Williams with Burfield, where the fluid possibilities of eschewing classical gender roles are simply and affectingly explored.
But here we go again: Tempest’s thundering charisma and forceful spirit muscle to the fore – and the dancers are often left sketching muted literal illustrations of her pungent poetic images. Cunningham is a beautiful dancer – there are moments when a sparely executed, barefoot arabesque, or a synchronised passage across the stage can feel transporting. But although this double-bill is solemnly heartfelt, it’s not Cunningham’s voice and vision that lingers.
Choreography: by Julie Cunningham
Lighting Design: by Richard Godin
Sound Design: by Helen Atkinson
Dancers: Harry Alexander, Hannah Burfield, Julie Cunningham and Alex Williams
Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily