Review: New Movement Collective - Casting Traces – TestBed1
Reviewed: 11 July
Finding originality in dance theatre is much like Willie Wonka’s quest for the Golden Ticket in a chocolate bar. We unwrap each terpsichorean experience only to find the same variations on a few very well-worn themes. Turning up in an ex-dairy warehouse next to Ransome’s Wharf on the south side of Battersea Bridge was already a first for dance. Testbed1 is an experimental arts space run by “The Committee With No Agenda”, which includes the maverick architect Will Alsop and the artist Bruce McLean. The very first tweet from Testbed1 read: “…implicitly a place for testing. For testing….what exactly? A wisp of a thought, a nugget of an idea, the beginning of a dream”. This promise of creative originality took immediate shape as an origami ticket into this peculiar, immersive, voyeuristic experience.
The performance began in an outer ring of the venue where a wall of paper faced the standing audience, each person wearing a white coat of thin, synthetic material that blended in with the paper. This prelude was played out by the silhouettes of a violinist and several dancers, their shapes growing and shrinking in response to the light, developing some generic mystery involving a call on a vintage Bakelite phone, the receiver dropped and dangling. Three performers slowly traced around their head and upper bodies, cutting through the paper, which was torn apart to allow the audience into the inner sanctum of this cavernous space. Audience members were free to roam and the usual housekeeping reference to mobile phones being switched off was replaced by one urging spectators to beware of the dancers’ limbs!
The large (650 sq. m) area was divided into a paper maze of rooms. At one end was a bar, with a performer seated on a stool. Film noir clips were projected onto several paper walls. They showed closed doors or the wood-panelled interior of a house oozing with psychological suspense and then, in close-up, there was the urgent handwriting of a love letter. All this imagery, evoked an overlay of surveillance, suspicion and latent malice; feelings further influenced by the edgy musical composition of Szymon Brzoska (well known for his many collaborations with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui). It felt as if we had been sucked into the camera and onto the screen and this was no romantic comedy but a thriller of Hitchcockian impact. We could peer around a corner, peek through paper walls. It was “What the Butler Saw” without the need of keyholes.
Although the audience was urged to move around freely, it took awhile for us to adjust to the unconventional. Most stood in line watching the dances unravel before us until a few braver people decided to move within the action. The impact of this freedom on the audience was amusing. We started by threading our way nervously through performers, until a few of the spectators began to experiment with their own dance gestures and even the occasional pirouette; by the end most of the white-coated people, intoxicated by the bug of performance, were dancing as they walked.
Most of the eight real dancers (four guys and four girls) had a past or present association with Rambert Dance Company. They performed solos and duets all around the paper maze, mixing floor-based work with acrobatic handstands and powerful, expressive lifts. This deconstruction of the normal theatrical experience meant that we missed more than we saw but it threw up unique moments of intimacy: I found myself alone, watching Jonathan Goddard dance behind a roll of paper that obscured his body from chest to knee; later I stood inches away from Patricia Okenwa as she slinked through a melancholic solo for my eyes only; and finally there was a powerful duet by Goddard and Gemma Nixon that exploded into life behind me. The dancers seemed oblivious to the people and paper around them, frequently causing audience members to move quickly out of their way, sometimes colliding with the hanging paper and, on one occasion, even hitting a fluorescent light.
With so many recent Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performances still engraved in my memory, I reflected on how that company regularly punctures the fourth wall to engage directly with their audience. There were no walls here, just one shared space, and yet there was no direct engagement either. The dancers performed as if they were holograms beamed amongst us; a feeling enhanced by the film projections often flipping to show audience members. It was unsettling to see images of oneself from a few minutes before sitting between the dancers.
The end was signalled when the dancers began to tear apart the paper walls and the violinist (Linda Jankowska) played to a close as the light faded around her. Casting Traces was much more than a ‘wisp of a thought’: it was a fully-fledged, well-considered, multi-skilled collaboration maximising the talents of a remarkable team. The New Movement Collective does what it says on the label, giving us a new way of experiencing dance theatre in a shadowy world of illusion and intrigue. Testbed1 promised us ‘the nugget’ of an idea but delivered the absorbing alchemy of that Golden Ticket.
Continues until Friday 13 July
Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.
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