Dancing the Invisible

Posted: May 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Dancing the Invisible

Dancing the Invisible – Late Work at the Ivy Arts Centre, University of Surrey, with Jennifer Jackson, Susie Crow, Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones, Simon Rice

The stage at the Ivy Centre is bare, with seating arranged on three sides, and the two musicians and their array of electronic instruments taking up the fourth. Jennifer Jackson is the compere with words of welcome and orientation. Is this part of the performance? Simply and elegantly dressed, she looks as if she is about to cue the dancers to emerge from some dark edge of the performing space. But it is she who starts, initiating this dialogue into the transformative effect of ageing on dancers and its implications for choreographic practice. As Jackson writes in the program notes, “…opportunities for professional dance artists to sustain performance practice as they age, and for audiences to engage with repertoire that speaks to this experience, are still rare…” The trouble is that ballet dancers age so gracefully it is quite easy to forget this central focus of the research and to simply enjoy what Jackson and her colleagues perform. Perhaps this is the point. Watching Jackson’s introduction to the formal elements of the improvisation that will follow – the Signature section to Late work – it is immediately apparent that her classical ballet training is so deeply embodied in her that no advance in age can take it away. A fourth position of impeccable line and oppositional forces is a beautiful thing, and when Jackson finds this shape, in this intimate space, we are initiated into the essence of ballet without the historical context and trappings. That is another point worth remembering. Despite the years of accumulated training at the Royal Ballet, this loose collaborative of dancers will not be donning tights and tutus. As Jackson reminds us, “I am interested in…how dance might challenge the aesthetics of established dance performances.”

The musicians (Malcolm Atkins and Andrew Melvin) enter, playing spiritedly on melodicas, and Susie Crow follows them, like a small procession in a festive parade. Susie’s torso finds her own beautiful, subtle shapes, engaging the classical vocabulary in a fluid and understated way. Jackson and Crow are at ease in this performing space, filling it with their game of improvisation. Recognisable gestures – a raised arm pointing upwards, a framing of an angle with the hands – appear out of these shapes, as in a narrative. Late work is engagingly internal, addressing what is going on in the minds and bodies of the two dancers but there is also an external dimension, the mysterious domain of the dance that  transports us elsewhere. Behind their array of electronic equipment Melvin and Atkins are also intimately involved in what is happening, adding their own magic to that of the two dancers: four improvisers on a fluid theme.

The boots and shoes come off and are replaced by the ballet slipper. Aurora and the Queen, pale deconstructed eminences from the past, play before us. It is enough for Jackson to say “I am a princess” and for Crow to say, “I am a queen” for us to believe it and to enter into the play. A recorded voice reminds us that steps a dancer has learned are without meaning unless experienced within the context of a rhythmical whole. It is Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Samuel Becket. Jackson develops phrases from classical ballet: en dedans, en dehors. Taken apart, detached from a sequence, they nevertheless have a power of association. En arrière, backwards, into the past. Aurora has been here before. Jackson and Crow change roles, and Crow journeys through the body’s memory, bringing out courtly gestures, childlike longing, a trembling leg and arm. The two Auroras embrace, comfort each other, merge.

In the Pulse section, the music is off in all directions and the two dancers are sitting on chairs improvising a set of movements to different counts. This is the evidence, if any is needed, that the mind of an ageing dancer is not in decline. It is functioning at lightning memory speed until the game comes to a halt. This is where the men come in, or so it seems from the musical cue. But it is a section called Fragmentation, sung in disconnected syllables, with an accent on the second syllable. The movement vocabulary is fragmented too, breaking dance phrases into abstract fragments, what Crow calls ‘the merging of personal memory and disciplinary structures.’ In the Haiku section, brief phrases of movement and gesture suggest a poetic narrative, transferred from one dancer to the other. There is an element of contemplation here, eyes closed, a suggestion of an afternoon of a faun. It is this section that is perhaps the most tantalizing, because the relationship between the two dancers begins to acquire some context, a story that is about to find expression, a potential that is awaiting to find its form. The improvisation of movement and music fuses here most convincingly.

In the final section, Rhythm and Melody, Jackson and Crow are seated opposite each other. They begin with a basic port-de-bras and develop it in mirror image, sharing elements of the classical canon that are explored, extended and broken. Assemblé, développé, élancé are quoted though without relation to the seated movements. The two dancers slow down, as if lost in space, fingers searching, reaching across a divide in silence, watching each other, closing in, bending forward in a gentle but inevitable surrender to the pull of gravity.

Part 2, Dancing the Invisible, is set to the Bach’s cello suite no. 2 in D minor, played beautifully by Emily Burridge. The suite’s movements derive from the courtly dances of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet and Gigue. Jackson and Crow are joined by Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones and Simon Rice. The five dancers are seated in the audience. During the Prelude one dancer follows the weaving, courtly musical line across the stage to introduce another, until all five are on stage. The choreography is, like Late work, a collaborative venture with all the dancers, though here the improvisation has already happened and the choreography has by now acquired a set structure. The four women disperse once again to their seats leaving Simon Rice propping up the back wall at a rather desperate angle. Rice is the one male presence of the evening’s works, and he takes full advantage, playing the cock among the hens. Jackson chases him into the beginning of the Allemande, but once caught, Rice playfully makes her repeat movements as if in rehearsal. Rice then dances with Jones, commenting that the last time they danced together was 29 years ago at this very university in 1983. It is an anecdotal dance of old friends with a shared past. Crow expresses reticence in her solo, then Dickie and Jones join in a gestural conversation of searching hands and eyes. Dickie’s wrists and hands seem to begin a dance all by themselves, winding and interweaving, engaging her expressive arms and torso. Reminding us of the strains and stresses of a long stage career, the five dancers regroup in the centre to agonise and sympathise with their respective aches and pains. Jones is a shiatsu therapist, but this is not the moment. Each dancer has a signature movement that they express and develop in a final gigue-inspired game.

Dance is often described as ephemeral, but for the dancer it is anything but ephemeral. It is lodged in their muscles and the mind. Looking at these dancers, it is clear the dance has never left them, a vast resource that needed the gentle enticement of academic research for it to emerge into the light. And even if the dance doesn’t come out as a variation from Sleeping Beauty with full orchestra, the power of its associated elements is richly rewarding. The importance of age in this process is that it provides a greater reservoir of experience from which to bring these memories to the surface. Because all forms of memory are invisible, this is dancing the invisible, but the aspect we saw last night was manifestly visible. These are not older dancers strutting their stuff past their virtuosic prime – as some older dancers have been known to do – but offering us the rich territory of individual and shared dance experience.

Jackson herself affirms this in the final lines of her introduction in the printed program: “Does the dancing stop as the body ages? Clearly I think not…and it is a pleasure to share ways in which for us as ageing people the dance and music continue to provoke and promote life, well-being, communication and community.”

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