A night of passion, conflict and energetic dance. That would possibly be the simplest way to sum up the advertised ‘evening in two parts’. Once more I am grateful that Sadler’s Wells continues to support new productions that are experimental and bring together collaborators of that high quality. Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart is (in complete reversal to its premiere by English National Opera) used to extend the evening due to Undance being too short to be the only work of the evening. And we have to be grateful, as having the chance to listen to Sarah Connolly is always a treat.
TTH is a wonderful scena, cum operatic monologue. The libretto is made of Jackie Kay’s poetry, based on her script for a 1993 TV programme having as its subject Amelia Rossiter, a pensioner who murdered her abusive husband and was finally released on appeal. Kay’s poetry creates the confines for Turnage to paint the scene with an expressionist flair. In at times chilling contributions from the percussion, jazz quotations and Alban Bergesque angular strings creating tension. The vocal writing is very much in the same mode as the darker moments of this year’s Anna Nicole, that I enjoyed very much. Turnage is managing to create a complete soundworld with only sixteen musicians (in this case including his wife and brilliant cellist, Gabriella Swallow, who also fixed the band of players for these performances). Sarah Connolly did delve into the core of the character in her bluish/purple patterned blouse and camel skirt, unfolding the story of a suffocating paternalistic society and how the suffering of domestic abuse can drive one to the extremes. Unfortunately she had to sing behind a semi transparent screen in order to allow for the 3D projections to be shown on by (the very new media titled) OpenEndedGroup who created drawings with a chalky texture. Sometimes they occupied the opposite end of the stage as Connolly and others they would take over the whole stage. I’m feeling torn about them as I’m finding Connolly highly watchable in this piece without the need for the projection, her table and chair would have been fine for me. But this is a dance venue and most people I’d imagine came for the second half, so adding an extra visual element was a good commercial decision. When the drawings were very scratchy and shifting in perspective mirroring the thickening texture of the music, it worked well. But this was from my standpoint, coloured by the excellent performance by the orchestra and Connolly, who sang with deep conviction, marvellous diction and crystal clear projection. No wonder she has been much in demand (as the programme puts it too). The incisive cooler voice she found for the character was a perfect match to the material. The drama culminated with her undressing down to her negligee and singing China Cup, the last part while she tumbles and writhes on the floor and makes her way to the table and chair to sing her last phrases ‘Locked in, locked in’. A truly riveting half an hour. Kay’s poetry and its shifting metaphors and focus on female experience, Turnage’s colourful music, beautifully played sang by one of the undeniable star mezzos of our era. Shame how she only got a pretty short burst of applause…had this been the ENO we would be clapping for another ten minutes.
After a much needed ice cream and spotting both Connolly and Turnage at the foyer the time came for the main event of the night, Undance, the collaboration of Turnage/Wallinger/McGregor. Against most usual ways of putting a new dance piece together and against most traditional involvement of a visual artist with a choreographer, here Wallinger essentially put the parameters on the table that both the composer and the choreographer had to take as the basis for development. Mark Wallinger is a fascinating, varied and truly profound contemporary artist. His obsessions have been: the class system, war, religion and pop culture. His reflections on those themes have always been ambivalent and mostly quiet. He was possibly the only one artist of the YBA generation that did not compromise his integrity and did not grow predictable.
Clearly the collaboration was intense and based on a text given to them by Wallinger to start the conversation. It was about performative actions DO/UNDO/UNDANCE as the programme puts it. His starting thesis is the work of Eadweard Muybridge and his set up for his series of photographs published as: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs. He used a three meter high grid backdrop that was based on Alberti’s veil, the archetypal measurement system used in western art as a way to bring the 3D world on the 2D surface of a painting. Muybridge captured movement and for the first time studied in detail animal and human movement in frozen in time moments. He was also a showman and with his zoopraxiscope he toured and lectured about his new discoveries under the name Helios (meaning Sun in ancient Greek). The exhibition last year at Tate Britain (and the Corcoran in Washington, earlier) must have been a huge source of inspiration for all three. Even the staging seemed to use the back projection in the same way as Tate’s exhibition had in the last room, where a glazed wall made all visitors specimens in front of a Muybridge/Alberti grid. In the staging the dancers (wearing flesh coloured two piece outfits) were dancing in front of a full length screen that shows out of sync video of them against the grid. Either side there is a backlit photo canvas with a UN compound gate somewhere in the world (possibly Afghanistan?). The idea of the United Nations as the failed force that is trying to undo the bad politically motivated actions of different governments around the world is clearly part of the concept. It may be seen as one of Wallinger’s cruel jokes or as an extension of his interest with modern warfare and politics. Most strikingly expressed by his 2007 State Britain installation in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, where he recreated Brian Haw’s banners and protest camp as originally was set up opposite the Houses of Parliament. A striking confrontation with a fiction of one’s imagination (as the Met Police confiscated and destroyed most of the original banners) some instant archaeology of our recent past. It was a butch pronouncement of anti war sympathy but with an economy of means that made it both intriguing and visually striking. In many ways Undance is similar in that front, the following sections became the basis of the choreography: Action/Iteration/Mirroring/Reversal and vice versa. This creates open ended movements that fold into each other and reopen the same section. A continuous unfolding story over four movements doubled up/mirrored to become eight.
The first four movements have obvious fades from theme to theme, where Turnage’s music is distinctive between them creating a spare, frequently strings dominated soundstage. Strikingly a brass marching band like sound is giving vitality to a brisk third movement where all ten dancers are intertwining in pairs and slowly engaging as one group. Violins and cellos gave an intimate, jazzy, sexy sound to the fourth movement, a heated Pas de deux almost reminiscent of Kenneth MacMillan held the stage. The movement quoted Muybridge photographs throughout and found its culmination in a live zoopraxiscope like display at the end of the seventh movement when a strobe light gave the circular running of the dancers look like one of Mr Helios’s touring projections, concluding with the music dying down and the heavy breathing of the dancers becoming the sound till the lights fade once more. The last movement summed up all the broken movements in pairs and the en masse group actions into an almost training camp exercise class, with arms rotating in the air, that led to the culmination of a grandiose unfolding of the dancers using the perspectival depth of the stage. Creating a visual reference to the Darwinian development of man from the ape to homo sapiens and of course a reference to the progressive nature of Muybridge’s series of photographs allowing the progressive unfolding of a single movement. This last thrust of the dancers froze on its final unfold into this beautiful human fan shape. A logical and handsome end of this exuberant but idea heavy new dance creation.
For hardcore fans of Wayne MacGregor this evening may have possibly been a disappointment, as his much more aggressive confrontational style was virtually absent but Turnage’s accomplished, varied and highly danceable music gave the piece a sharp focus on physicality and a melting flow. Wallinger’s shaping role created an interesting frame for the other collaborators to react against and to be constrained by. In many ways it lacked the astounding wow of a truly incredible creation and had more the searching intellectual brand of Wallinger’s other work, it left me questioning and wanting more. He is scheduled to work on a new ballet for the Royal Ballet next year, to which I’m looking forward to already. Undance will surely return to Sadler’s Wells next year in order to recoup some of its costs, as usual with their own productions. If the above seems interesting look out for it in 2012.
Find out more:
Mark Wallinger’s text is reproduced in full on Random Dance’s website
Muybridge was the recent subject of a play / Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge:
A 2002 Guardian interview with Jackie Kay:
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s official bio:
State Britain by Mark Wallinger: