Review: Motionhouse - Broken - The Peacock

Performance: 6 - 9 April 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 11 April 2016

Motionhouse 'Broken' Photo: Katja Ogrin

Dance takes on the Big Bang in Kevin Finnan’s Broken, made for Motionhouse, the dance company from Leamington Spa, which he co-founded with Louise Richards, way back in 1988. Finnan’s version of the Big Bang Theory doesn’t ape the antics of Sheldon and crew in the seemingly unending, ubiquitous TV sitcom of that name but the actual cosmological forces that created the universe. It’s mighty stuff and to give Finnegan and Motionhouse their due, this travelling show is often an absorbing cocktail of powerful dance and circus – liberally garnished with immersive graphics, theoretical physics and a twist of illusion – to achieve a theatrical spectacle with cinematic scope.

Broken is not a new show. In fact, it premiered at Warwick Arts Centre, back in October 2013 and these performances at The Peacock complete its fourth tour. In fact, at a pre-show reception, Finnan talked about his next-but-one show, which – following on the quirky Motionhouse tradition of single word titles – will be entitled Charge (with the subject of energy) and will tour from 2017. Motionhouse’s next show, Block, is an outdoor fusion of contemporary dance and circus, opening at the Norwich and Norfolk Festival on 21 May before arriving in the capital for the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival on 25 & 26 June.

The best of Broken comes in a seamless – often fascinating – fusion of dimensions – it’s like the Hadron Collider has mulched a crossover between 2D and 3D, merging live human action into cleverly projected digital graphics. Ever since the 1960s film of Mary Poppins, we have become used to seeing cartoon characters and humans sharing a reel of celluloid but this translates a similar surreal experience onto the stage. This interaction of people and projections gives Broken the feel of an ultra-realistic Armageddon-style computer game.

Lasting around 70 minutes, Finnan’s choreographic journey is not always clear. The narrative intent appears to take us from the natural Big Bang of creation on a thirteen-billion-year journey, coming full circle to an imagined “Big Bang” of our own creation. My least favourite part was a relatively hackneyed and unadventurous opening, largely consisting of computer animated representations of cosmic explosions matched with the loud, reverberating, belly-rumbling growl of deep thunderous noise.

Later, men with potholing helmets descend into the bowels of the earth to encounter translucent floating angels; and, having apparently awakened these primeval forces, we are transported to modern-day housing where a couple romp on a bed, truly making the earth move as an earthquake then destroys their home (and, one guesses, the rest of civilisation with it). On the way to this denouement, in generally dim light, I was regularly perplexed by the symbolism and integration in several of the linking scenes. But just as these disassociations began to blur my consciousness, something special and entirely unexpected came along. These welcome interventions included various aerial tricks and a strange duet between a vulnerable girl and a hooded man in black, elevated on stilts.

The merger of graphics and live performers is partly facilitated by the fact that the six dancers are able to pass through a vertically-sliced backdrop with minimal effort. This cast of three men (Daniel Connor, Junior Cunningham, Alasdair Stewart) and three women (Martina Bussi, Naomi Tadevossian, Rebecca Williams) are all powerful performers, each contributing different specialisms to an impressive pool of skills that enable a wider spatial range of movement potential with their activity occupying most of the proscenium area, both along vertical and horizontal axes. They climb, lift and balance precariously with impressive physicality and hyper-flexibility.

Broken takes on an enormous challenge in a reading that encompasses both the universe’s beginning and the world’s imagined end. The sombre lighting and bespoke music sometimes has a monotonous feel, tending towards a soporific effect; but, the use of technology is impressive and the powerful performances are diligently integrated within this digital world. Under Finnan’s direction, Motionhouse has developed an effective reputation for delivering dance theatre with an edge and Broken has continued that credential, very successfully. Now, from Broken to Block and then Charge. It sounds like a strategy for war games!

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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