Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Vincent Dance Theatre, Underworld, Brighton Corn Exchange, May 12

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Charlotte Vincent’s set is beautiful, the kind that draws you in so you don’t realise you’re sitting in a theatre; you’re in the set. In fact you are sitting in the apse of a cathedral looking down the nave with its endless rows of chairs to a refectory table at the far end around which the performers are gathered. It’s all beautifully lit (by Jason Taylor) to give weight and depth and there’s a mist hanging over the nave as if we are on a battlefield. Underworld seems to borrow from both these landscapes in its depiction of humanity trying to rise above the level of the sordid earth to heaven. Well, maybe. Vincent has always a perspective or two up her sleeve that she drops into the action until you’re not quite sure what you have just seen.

Underworld ‘draws on the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice and explores the art of not looking back.’ For the life of me I don’t see this though there is a mythological aspect to the work, not least in its duration of two and a quarter hours (there is a longer version) without a break. The audience is invited to ‘come and go as they please’ but the action never lets up so there is no need for a break unless you really need to have a pee. Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss anything. It’s a perpetual motion event in which the performers never leave the stage; they come down the nave or retreat to their table that is lit like a Caravaggio painting to keep the smaller details ever visible. One senses the energy back there; whoever happens to be at the table forms a small chorus seated in repose or in attention to their friends’ performance. They cajole, applaud, encourage or disparage with equal vehemence and once refreshed — at one point a chef noisily serves up a chalky concoction they tip over their heads — they return to the battlefield to fight or pray. There is a lot of praying at different moments in Underworld and in the kneeling and abasement you can almost feel the coldness of the flagstones. The gestures are similar but what they recite seems to follow a laissez-faire religious policy covering Christianity and Buddhism (perhaps more). Gavin Bryars’ score captures all these elements: mystery, violence and redemption, coloured with sound design by Mic Pool over which Patrycia Kujawska adds from time to time her own soulful voice on violin. Underworld shows Vincent seamlessly marrying scenography, music and action to produce a monumental mythic vision; it’s a remarkable achievement.

Underworld is primarily physical; the events and actions, sometimes distressing sometimes morbid mixed with a strong sense of sardonic humour, elicit a physical response from the audience and it argues its case in body language that defies translation. The location does not change, nor the overall dichotomy of light and dark, heaven and hell. It has a musical structure akin to a theme and variations rather than a dramatic one; it is not linear but circular.

All eight performers deserve mention: Robert Clark, Greig Cooke, Antonia Grove, Patrycja Kujawska, Silvia Mercuriali, Janusz Orlik, Phil Sanger and Josh Wille. Mercuriali, Sanger and Wille were part of Phoenix Dance Theatre when Underworld was first commissioned in 2012 as a collaboration between Vincent Dance Theatre and Phoenix; the trio has returned for this restaging. It is the unity among all eight performers and the intensity of their punishing, bruising performance that keeps our attention; they are all warriors of the stage who have fought many a battle together under the banner of Vincent’s leadership.

At BDE in 2010 I saw Vincent’s If We Go On. It was an uncompromising (and I mean uncompromising) dissection of the performance process, reducing the theatrical presentation to a point of no return: a case of theatrical existentialism. Vincent had the courage to take her proposition as far as she could take it, coming up against the nature of performance (and some hostility in the audience) in the process. If We Go On couldn’t go on, and in Underworld there are traces of that questioning of theatrical convention. How far can you go to set alight a funeral pyre of chairs on stage? How close can Clark come to setting himself alight? How naked can Kujawska be to step into a bath on stage and have a shower (courtesy of Clark with a watering can)? None of these events go to their full conclusion but the attempt is made. This is not a matter, respectively, of health and safety, of the sanctity of life or of modesty but a statement of how artificial theatre can be. There is also a Brechtian scene where Kujawska performs in a makeshift proscenium of chairs and sacking to an audience of Sanger who claps as she makes successive entrances. So while the energy and exhaustion of the cast hurtling into each other and hurdling over the chairs is palpable and real, these mock events hold us back from reality and remind us we are in the theatre. And yet at the end of the action the performers eschew the conventional bows and simply retire to their table while Orlik adusts the chairs in their rows, leaving the audience unsure of its relationship to the cast and to what has just happened. It is Vincent’s playful, destabilizing intelligence at work, pulling the theatrical rug from under our feet yet again.


Probe: Running on Empty II

Posted: February 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Probe: Running on Empty II

Probe Project, Running on Empty, Soho Theatre, February 5


Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

The good news is that Running on Empty is now running on full. In its second major iteration it has become what it first set out to be, a study in a relationship running on emotional and physical empty (with the gauge trending towards dreams and the hereafter). The narrative elements that sidelined this focus in its first outing have given way to a more abstract core that is expressed uniquely through dance. Both Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke have honed their partnership to its raw essentials and it is riveting to watch, especially in the intimate space at Soho Theatre. They push their performances to the limits both in their respective solos and in their duets, and the reward is a partnership that is as alive as it is ruthlessly honest. Grove’s voice finds its form in the opening song, setting the poignant tone of the work, and after all her exertions at the very end her voice emerges from the depths of her breathless being as if rising again from the dead. Fabrice Serafino has pared down the set and improved the balance of colours in the costumes, while Beky Stoddart has sculpted the lighting beautifully around the two performers. Scott Smith is still a kind of doleful, one-man chorus but has a reduced role as counselor to Grove and can devote himself to what he does best: playing the musical score on guitar, clarinet, thumb harp and a range of electronic instruments. When all the elements of a production fall into their rightful place there is a sense of truth that pervades the work, and that sense of truth reinforces the directional line around which the performers can give their all. Twelve performances to go.


Probe Project: Running on Empty

Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Probe Project: Running on Empty

Probe Project, Running on Empty, The Place, November 5

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)


The printed program doesn’t give much away about the nature of the piece, but it’s immediately apparent that Running on Empty has a full tank of collaborators: apart from the three performers (Antonia Grove, Scott Smith and Greig Cooke) there is a director (Jo McInnes), writer (Brad Birch), choreographer (Charlie Morrissey), songwriter (Lee Ross), composer (Smith), set and costume designer (Fabrice Serafino) and lighting designer (Beky Stoddart) — an array of creative inputs that begs the question of who exactly has a handle on the direction. The marketing material features an enigmatic image of Cooke and Grove running together across a landscape as if escaping from a party: intense, focused, out of breath. That snapshot is replaced on stage by another indeterminate place but without a specific flight path. The set suggests a no man’s land where paths meet, an intriguing dreamland with a detrital heap of old furniture on one side with a tree of lights behind and a low wall delineating the unknown beyond. The set and lighting together create a sense of expectation as Smith takes his place behind a keyboard amongst the furniture as if sitting at a bar. He plays some doleful minor chords on the guitar as a prelude to a song remembering a relationship that Grove sings in a voice that is out on a husky limb, aching and velvety especially in its higher register: “Are we too close or too far apart?” with a bluesy harmonica accompaniment from Smith.

Cooke can just be made out lounging on the wall at the back, listening to Grove’s words: “I’d dive into the abyss if I thought I’d save your life”, she continues, glancing at Smith. Cooke stands, his hands and face caught in the narrow pane of light, and responds in dance, swishing and swirling in an intense solo in which he manifests his force and self-doubt in equal measure. Grove looks over at him for the first time. Smith, who plays both confidant and analyst to Grove, asks her: “What do you remember?” She shines a light underneath her chin, then at something unknown beyond her. Death? “What colour are its eyes?” asks Cooke. Grove is bathed in a subtle, fragile light, her arms raised and slightly behind her as if she had just been shot, and launches into a solo that is based on that arching back, wild and abandoned. With tenderness in his eyes Cooke comes to her rescue. “What are you doing?” “Bang, bang, arms, fuck,” is what I hear. The diction is rather muffled, perhaps a function of the portable mikes. “I’m building a boat,” she adds, kneeling, “to get you out of here. Just trying to build you a boat.” Evidently the running idea has been subsumed by metaphors of the sea, of boats and rafts.

The sound of breakers colours the clashing duet that follows, both Groves and Cooke forcing their limits (running towards empty) yet never touching; blowing each other away, shouting and screaming over the sound of sea. Smith pulls out a wooden pallet that serves as a raft on to which Groves and Cooke clamber. They look at each other. Is it over? Cooke leans out over the edge of the raft, hanging from Grove; she pulls him in; he takes her head as they fit into each other’s forms, but are they strangling or comforting? The Stevie Smith poem comes to mind,

‘…I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’

The danger games persist. Who will fall off first? They kneel on the front of the raft and step with their hands and knees into the water. Smith reels in the raft, casting them away on the beach. Cooke and Grove embrace roughly then he chases her round the island, catching her, lifting and releasing her in a fury of entanglement and abandon. The sound of a storm whips up the action until it finally abates in an attempt at reconciliation: “Please forgive me” and “Where are we going?” but it’s impossible for Cooke to brake and he ends up — as I noted detachedly in my notebook — ripping her head off. It happens quickly, and its violence is unexpected. Grove crawls away; Smith brings her a glass of water and returns with the raft, dropping it with a bang as if offering a means of exit. “It’s not your fault,” he says, adding something about chance. She is in no mood for philosophical argument, so Smith goes back to his microphone and begins a song about an otter and a trout. It begins in surreal fashion with a pinwheel blast on his mechanical whistle, and prompts a series of surreal crustacean images: Cooke conjures up a lobster on its back as he crawls upside down towards Grove who scuttles in sympathy, or perhaps in fear. He crawls on to the raft, blowing out his cheeks like a conch shell, eyes popping, sounding like an angry elephant. Their duet develops into a tour de force of fragments of dialogue and screeching  fitting into behavioural tics: snorting, itching, scratching, spitting, leaping, At the end, Smith as analyst or agony uncle, brings Grove a beer: “You’re having problems.” She denies it. “Maybe that’s your first problem.” She counters: “Do you understand what it is to be me?” He mimics her itching, tentacle-like fingers that he then extrudes into the shape of a gun, the trigger caught in the light. Cooke is back on the sea wall. There’s text about illness and disease, the problems and insecurities of old age — all highly relevant but I’m not sure how it fits in here. “Will I recover, is it too late?” asks Grove. Smith smiles. It’s clearly too late for rhetorical questions. He rubs his hands and pushes away the microphone with his hip.

Grove and Cooke in smiling mood embrace and explore each other. After they have been through so much, the question arises of where this is going. The mood is playful, producing a natural, infectious laugh from Grove before she appears to confront her present. “Do you drink?” asks Cooke, followed by a question about dreams. “This is where my dreams are set,” she responds. Her final words to Cooke are, “Can you do me a favour? Stay away from the cliffs.” It is the first time the cliffs are mentioned, the landscape described beyond the rear wall, and in this place above the sea she starts to dance, scooping, twisting and turning to Smith’s guitar accompaniment that is somewhere between flamenco and hillbilly banjo. She throws herself into her moves, repeating phrases with a mix of courage, abandon and hopelessness and finishes by running around the stage, running out of steam. She prompts Smith into a last song (which repeats the melody of the opening song), dragging the microphone to centre stage, pouring all her emotional exhaustion into the lyrics: “So slowly now you bow into eternity… How long can you keep running?” with that gutsy, velvety voice running full on empty.

At the close, we are left elevated by the visual and aural imagery but there’s a disconcerting sense of gaps in the narrative cohesion. We learn later that Cooke has fallen off the cliffs to his death, but this loss fails to register. Does it matter? Death offstage seems a uniquely theatrical concept that dance can’t do by itself, which leads me to think that the narrative and the dance in Running on Empty are like oil and water; they are not blending. Grove suggests in the program that the work moves ‘from the dark and surreal world of dreams to the intricate and sometimes absurd nature of our daily human interactions.’ This is something that dance can do really well, and Grove is particularly adept at drawing the drama out of dance. Perhaps Running on Empty simply suffers from too many creative inputs; dreams inevitably have a consistency because all their fragmented elements can be traced back to the individual psyche. Running on Empty needs to forge a unity of its own creative psyche before its dream will ring true.


Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Antonia Grove, Small Talk, directed by Wendy Houstoun, Soho Theatre, October 2

It was an inspired decision for Antonia Grove to hitch her star to that of Wendy Houstoun. An original ten-minute sketch of Small Talk was worked out by the two of them in 2010, and the version performed at the Soho Theatre upstairs last week evolved from that sketch. If anyone can get a grip on a mercurial, conflicted, miasma of a personality and create from it a compelling piece of theatre that makes us laugh while keeping us unsettled, it is Houstoun. This is not one of her own solos she has adapted for someone else; she has got under Grove’s skin, into her psyche and coaxed out something that is not a portrayal, nor a story, but Grove as you will never be able to know her. Houstoun says of the work that it ‘hovers around the territory of theatre but it sidesteps character and motivation and instead pushes for an immediacy that I often feel is missing from acting.’ Grove sees her role more from the performer’s perspective: ‘The woman, the women, they are all me and they are not me. They are themselves and they are not themselves. They know something and they don’t know anything.’ Small Talk is the confluence of these two complementary ideas.

Grove’s first line of defence for her many personae is a line of disguises. She begins in neutral territory, arranging her props and costume changes on a table to the side of the stage. She pulls out a chair into the centre of the room and wanders back to her table. She puts on earphones and a pair of high heels, checks her phone and takes off her tracksuit top to reveal a slinky mini dress. Attractive and voluptuous, the starlet Grove nonchalantly wanders out to her seat. She looks out at us but doesn’t see us. It is as if we are looking at her through a two-way mirror. Her eyes are very dark and piercing, or would be if they were brought into focus. Instead they seem to stare into the indeterminate foreground that stops just where the audience starts. Instead of looking out from her face, her eyes seem to be drilling back in, trying to get their bearings, trying to find out who is in control. We in the audience are wondering, too.

A self-help relaxation tape is playing. Allow your mind to relax and sink deeper into this place…even deeper…you are in an open body position, legs uncrossed (she crosses them). Just breathe in and let it out. Grove closes her eyes and smiles enigmatically. With her iPod she selects some breathing music. Her voice cuts through it with a nasal American accent, giving us a movie scenario about sweet young American school girls being caught up in a European torture ring, and dying in horrible ways, delivered in a tabloid-dispassionate way. ‘We create whatever we want to be…Lauren lives in the moment…Heather is such a good actress…’ As her small talk threads through self-help, self-realisation and self-delusion in a flawless continuum, she crosses and uncrosses her legs as if they are somebody else’s, slips off the lip of the chair and recovers, in one long, slinky move. She shakes out her hair, laughing self-consciously and steps behind her chair, keeping her gaze on the imaginary screen between us. ‘Exelle seems very innocent, but she knows how to get what she wants…’ Grove dips down as if her legs give way, keeping the small talk going as her mercurial body recovers its glittery poise. Sitting down again, she blows away a strand of hair from her face, traces her finger down the front of her chest, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She continues the scenario about fighting mutants, ‘rocking them and killing them,’ she laughs, opening her eyes and closing them again. She changes to a motivational tape and moves the chair to the side. What do you want to become? Who do you want to become? You have the power to change… She changes shoes, another pair of sexy high heels. She puts on a tiara and takes a single rose stem, poses at the back of the stage, a camera without a film. A new persona emerges, and more small talk to camouflage it. She steps forward like a model, over-crossing each step but slowly, balancing unsteadily on each forward movement. ‘I guess I’m shallow,’ she concludes. ‘I think I’m kind of a chicken actress.’ Her eyes are glaring (and she can glare convincingly), as she picks off rose petals distractedly, speeding up, madly dismembering the stem and discarding the remains at the feet of the front row. Nobody dares touch it.

She sidles to the microphone and sings. ‘Some say I’m a devil, some say I’m an angel, but I’m just a girl in trouble’, her voice a crevice of vulnerability from an emotionally turbulent soul. She throws off her shoes and the tiara and puts on another disguise, taking the time to get ready. Grove takes a sip of a drink and dances a spin to the appropriately named Foggy Notion by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers before downing another shot, losing herself in uncontrolled laughter when she is already lost. Her wig unseats during the turbulent dance, and she adjusts it back in place. We hear the same warning shots as in Houstoun’s own 50 Acts, though here they miss their mark; Grove seems unaware of any danger. Status Quo plays Down Down as the tape continues: And you allow yourself to drift down to this warm comfortable and safe place. Down deeper, letting go, down deeper. She crouches on the balls of her feet and pushes her knees forward slowly to the ground, then bends back revealing quite obliviously her black trunks and smooth legs. She rolls over and lies exhausted. Time for a change of persona. Taking off her wig, she puts on a cowboy shirt, and replaces the short wig for a long one. Donning a leather jacket she stands at the microphone. ‘Funny comes from smart…accidental funny comes from not so smart.’ She tells a crap wedding story she alone finds funny, her eyes looking around, mouth in a grimace. We hear a lot of people laughing, but she is not; her eyes are lost and sad while the mellifluous female self-help voice assures her she is on her way to being able to make other people laugh. Grove steps into the shadows away from us and turns back to reveal a large red clown nose. Good, says the voice. She begins to clown around with crazy moves while the woman’s voice continues to encourage her. Her mouth is in a grimace, then a smile, going through the motions of a twitching guitarist, a crazed rock and roll musician. Punching the air, jumping, bouncing, her wig falling over her nose, she throws off her jacket, and her wig follows. More taped laughter. Another shot rings out; Grove grinds to a halt and puts her wig back on, taking stock. Over at the table she opens a beer and drinks it. At last you love your life. Notice how your outlook on life is enhanced. You are calm (as she drinks a beer). You are working towards the person you were always meant to be. The new you.

Grove puts on her cowboy boots and hat and sings beautifully accompanied by a toy xylophone. The song is interlaced with the other voice. Grove seems to be herself when she sings, but the voice talks of ‘leaving everybody permanently’. We are not sure who she means by everybody. The many personae, perhaps. One marvels that Grove can inhabit them all so convincingly. Perhaps she will be left with herself. Perhaps not. She puts on her jacket, gathers all her accessories, her shoes and tiara into a plastic bag. ‘I want to say thank you to so many people…I’m just trying to matter… I’m just trying to make work that means something to people.’

It is a stunning performance from Grove; for more performance dates, see her website. And if there is any doubt about Houstoun’s ability to make work that means something to people, she was the dramaturge for h2dance’s Duet that recently won the audience vote to participate in The Place Prize final; her Imperfect Storm (based on The Tempest) for Candoco can be seen next week at the Laban Theatre, and her own solo, 50 Acts, is at Dance Umbrella this Friday and Sunday.