Review: La Veronal - Siena - Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Performance: 30 October 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 3 November 2014

La Veronal 'Siena'. Photo: Jesus Robisco, courtesy Southbank Centre

In a centrepiece section of Siena, Spanish company La Veronal’s contribution to Dance Umbrella, at Southbank for one night only last week, a woman enters a gallery seeking shelter from the rain and finds herself before a painting – a gigantic image of Titian’s Venus of Urbino that dominates the back wall of the stage for most of the evening – but she also discovers herself in a kind of feedback loop of aesthetic experience. Her journey into and around the gallery is narrated in voiceover. An embarrassing stumble over a bench; she takes a photograph; her mobile rings; a man is watching her as she observes the painting; she seems to see herself represented in the face in the picture and it frightens her; a dog barks in the distance. In pausing delay we see or hear these minor events, unfolding as they are described; they are interpreted, reinterpreted, repeated, elaborated and reconfigured in space and time by the dancers, around a set made to look like a museum gallery, with benches, the painting itself and of course the ubiquitous attendant, watching us as we look at the art.

Throughout the piece the art gallery is populated by dancers in fencing clothing and masks, but rather than duelling each other with foils they metaphorically engage, parry and advance meanings in rapid fire sequences of shimmering movement. These figures seem to embody the secret life of artworks, as they collide corps-à-corps (body to body) with each other and with us, through history, and in the innumerable private and public encounters we have with images and artefacts. Director and choreographer Marcos Morau and the company have fashioned a dance language that is at once organic and mechanical, a kind of rapid-fire charades, cataloguing recognisable forms from Matisse’s The Dance to El Greco saints, and countless crucifixions, annunciations and depositions. The dancers’ faces contort in excruciation and ecstasy, as iconic documents of artistic rendering possess them from within, cycling violently through their bodies like currents of water or electricity. The result resembles something like voguing or the stuttering, twitchy quality of early 20th century cinema reels, these being of course art historical references in and of themselves.

By their own admission (in a text on their website) La Veronal is engaged in the practice of ‘Ekphrasis’ , in which one art form attempts to capture the essence of another, the most obvious example being the description of a visual work in words. Siena parodies this example in a voiceover imitation of a museum audio guide, in which a painting is described along with biographical details about the painter, and of the model; they were lovers, the latter died mysteriously; knowledge that, were we looking at the work in question, would work upon us, adding internal depth and perspective to the image we saw before us.

Morau and notably his dramaturgical collaborators Pablo Gisbert of El Conde de Torrefiel and Roberto Fratini, explode the concept of ekphrasis, however, not only illustrating it through depictions of figurative paintings in the bodies of dancers, but using it as a metaphor for our experiences of meaning-making as we write the script as it were, of our own aesthetic confrontations with artworks, the world around us, and the inextricable interactions between these two dimensions. The mobile going off in a quiet gallery, the dog barking, the stumble over a bench and the recognition of herself in the face of the model in the painting; all of these become the essence of what one museum-goer knows or creates as her particular experience of a particular work of art.

We later see the same museum-goer as a bust trapped in a plinth that glides around the space, and then again near the end upstage, in the place of the Venus of Urbino picture she once contemplated; we see her lying in state, dead, surrounded by flowers at her funeral. The painting she once admired, in which the observing subject saw her own face looking back at her, is replaced by the image of her own end, and we have taken her place as the ones looking on.

La Veronal seem to be making the point, through the movement that defines dance and the presence at the heart of theatrical performance, that meaning is always already in motion, even as we invent it, it slips through our fingers and ripples through history, and that if any aesthetic encounter has meaning at all, it is due to its function as a reminder of this infinite multiplicity within our finite existence.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2014

Photo: Jesus Robisco, courtesy Southbank Centre

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College. Find him on Twitter @jeffreyGordonB

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