Review: Turnage/McGregor/Wallinger UNDance at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 1 - 3 Dec 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 5 December 2011

UNDANCE Photo Ravi Deepres

The first challenge set by this work began even before the start in determining the meaning of ‘Undance’. Was it some fragmented Franglais or perhaps, more likely, an expression to signify the deconstruction of dance? It never once crossed my mind that the first two letters might represent the acronym of the United Nations because visual artist Mark Wallinger, the designer of this production, was influenced by the UN peacekeeping signs in trouble spots around the globe. He referenced this on stage by positioning a screen with the UN logo stamped onto a gate at one side of the set. Wallinger was apparently also persuaded to see the UN sign as a signifier of “un-doing” strife and so ‘Undance’ might also be viewed in the context of undoing movement.

While Wayne McGregor has always been generous in acknowledging the input of many collaborators – not least his dancers during the rehearsal process – his work invariably starts with his own ideas. Here, however, McGregor’s choreography is superimposed onto concepts that have been pre-packaged, beginning with the twin influences of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographic sequences, capturing animal and human motion in the late nineteenth century; and a sequence of handwritten verbs, known as ‘Verb List’, written by the American sculptor Richard Serra in the 1960s. Wallinger created a text from elements of both works (such as the gridded upstage screen which replicates the backdrop to Muybridge’s human motion photographs) and Mark-Anthony Turnage was commissioned to create a score to reflect this text. McGregor was later given a developed scenario onto which to create movement. I elaborate on this convoluted genesis to explain its uniqueness within the McGregor repertory. Although the movement that represents the doing and undoing of actions is threaded through with obvious references to McGregor’s style – hyperextensions, fast, angular actions liberally studded with twists and spins – it is also unlike any other McGregor dance: a blessing when it has seemed to me (at least) that there has been too much similarity in the choreographic palette of his recent offerings. It is certainly complex, purposeful choreography that looks likely to reward multiple viewings.

The essential scenario of Undance was the relationship of the verbs to the twin reference points of the live dance on stage and the filmed performance on the “Muybridge” screen, where the “verbs” were being undone. The counterpoint between live performance and film was not always clear, either in terms of reflecting, or reversing the movement iterations and the filmed element seemed as if it might have been rushed to be completed in time for the premiere. It needs refinement to make the case with more clarity. The concept, however, is intriguing and the athletic performances of the dancers from Wayne McGregor | Random Dance were superb. The journey from stillness in a line of dancers in skin-coloured costumes to the final sequences of flickering, perambulating phenakistoscope images was a perfect cipher for Muybridge’s work.

The evening had opened with an hour-long solo tour de force by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the contemporary opera Twice Through the Heart, also composed by Turnage (and directed by McGregor). Enlivened by the set being almost entirely comprised of 3D imagery created by the OpenEndedGroup and projected onto a downstage screen, the plot concerns the prison cell reminiscences of a woman who murdered her abusive husband by stabbing him in the manner described by the title. This matricide provided a random link to ‘Undance’ since Muybridge had murdered his wife’s lover during the period of his most intense photographic experimentation. It was the most depressing way in which to welcome December!

watch a video about the making of UNDance

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