Review: PanicLab - Swan Lake II: Dark Waters - Chelsea Theatre

Performance: 24 & 25 November 2015
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Monday 14 December 2015

PanicLab - Jordan Lennie in 'Swan Lake II: Dark Waters' Photo: Dinah Mullen

Performance reviewed: 25 November

Identity – in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and sexuality – was the theme of the 2015 edition of Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred, an annual season of performances, screenings and installations assembled this year with curatorial in-put from the Live Art Development Agency.

I caught a couple of evenings, including one given – with tongue very much in cheek – the umbrella title Old Dears that focused on the histories of a generation of radical and now mature feminist artists including Liz Aggiss and Geraldine Pilgrim. The public discussion in which they took part was followed by performances from Marcia Farquhar, whose Recalibrating Hope: (h)old dear and let go was a carefully calibrated stream of consciousness fuelled by 45rpm records; and Mexico’s Rocio Boliver, collaborating with nearly two dozen women (including art-critic-turned-performer Sarah Kent, a mainstay of my own GOlive programming) on a collective living tableau called Between Menopause and Old Age, Alternative Beauty that used strong and sometimes bloody imagery to both underscore and play with ‘the horror of old age’ from a female perspective.

My other Sacred venture, earlier that same week, was a double bill kicked off by Sylvia Rimat in a thoughtful piece about time. This Moment Now featured simple rhythmic movement (some of it cued by drummer Chris Langton), an audience tea break and a brief but beguiling guest appearance by a cockerel. The surprise of the latter dovetailed neatly with the night’s second work, Swan Lake II: Dark Waters by PanicLab. Directed and co-choreographed by Joseph Mercier with the performer Jordan Lennie, this solo is in some ways more conventionally staged than some of this plucky, investigative young company’s previous work, and not entirely satisfying in its present state, but it benefits from pockets of gutsy, sensual invention and strong casting.

Rachel Good’s striking set, atmospherically lit by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, is an island of white feathers above which hangs the corpse of a (fake) swan. Muscular but lithe, the long-locked Lennie emerges naked from the down via a series of slow tumbles and stretches that do drag on a bit. The slow-burn start, however, has a quietly spectacular pay-off. The initially sleepy-seeming yet instinctually determined Lennie gathers eggs hidden among the feathers, and one that might’ve been nestling in his bottom, finally cracking it with a messy, reclining – save for an elegantly erect leg – and orgasmic shudder.

Besides being beautiful to look at, Lennie has presence and timing. Is the lone character he’s embodying half-bird? There’s definitely something wild about him, but also knowing. Gradually he evinces an awareness of being observed, slyly making eye contact with us. A version of this performance has been presented in a cabaret setting, and it shows in Lennie’s teasing cognizance of his own display as well as the show’s sometimes dubious, shallow humour.

As the signal of a kind of character evolution Lennie dons princely tights. Other symbols of a more modern civilisation are buried among the feathers: an iPhone, with which to quickly snap a selfie, and a frying pan and small, plug-in hob upon which Lennie cooks – and, dully, eats – an omelette made from the eggs he’s hunted up. Lennie also unearths (or should I say unfeathers?) a small white tent, tucking himself inside for a short spell and re-materialising blindfolded and in pointe shoes. He finds his feet, rising from the floor and breathing in ways that accentuate his ribcage and midriff – good stuff, this, but overindulged. Additionally he does a rolling, would-be lyrical love dance to the suspended swan that’s set, a tad obviously, to The Carpenters’ cherishably kitsch classic Close to You. Spoiler alert: eventually the faux bird is rather clunkily lowered, allowing Lennie to engage in a final spot of avian necrophilia.

Part of my semi-resistance to PanicLab’s admittedly original take on the famous tropes of Swan Lake is that its waters aren’t dark enough – not for my taste, anyway. I’m not saying I wanted the show to be a downer, nor do I mean to devalue it as a piece of entertainment. It’s just that for all its considerable surface attractions and potential wit, it lacks a deeper beauty and poignancy. The borderline camp comedy didn’t quite chime with the undercurrent of aching isolation, loneliness and longing that I suspect was among its makers’ intentions. Lennie was something to see but ultimately I didn’t believe him as much as I might’ve wished.

www.chelseatheatre.org.uk


Donald Hutera is a long-time free-lance writer (The Times, People Dancing and more), curator (GOlive, Chelsea Arts Collective), dramaturg and workshop leader (English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word). Find him on Twitter: @donaldhutera

Photos: Dinah Mullen



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