Theatre in Wales

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Soaring Debut for New Company

My People

Gwyn Emberton Dance & Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , March-21-14
My People by Gwyn Emberton Dance & Aberystwyth Arts Centre The Western Mail of 2104 is, as a rule, inclined to a benign approach in its critical judgements. This was not always the case. For its issue of 13th November 1915 the paper’s reviewer was confronted with Caradoc Evans’ slim volume of short stories. The Rhydlewis-born author, fumed the reviewer, “would appear to have raked in the garbage of the countryside for his characters” with the result of “a squalid repellent picture.”

The passing of time has calmed tempers somewhat. Caradoc Evans “flung a bucket of dung through the Welsh parlour-window, and in case anyone was genteel or well-meaning enough not to notice anything amiss, had flung the bucket in after, with a long-reverberating clangour.” That was Gwyn Jones.

A dance choreographer who wishes to transpose a collection of short stories has two artistic challenges. Firstly, the likelihood is that a proportion of the audience, and more probably a significant fraction, will not be familiar with the source. Secondly, the dance cannot be a narrative transposition of densely composed short stories. In effect that approach would tip it from dance to mime. Caradoc Evans’ stories are not just crisp but rely in particular on great last lines, that drip like dabs of acid. The challenge is to catch the essence of “My People” and communicate it in a way that both pays tribute to the source but is independent of it in another medium. Gwyn Emberton Dance's first night carries this off to acclaim.

The most powerful image is taken from the story of the farmer’s wife regarded as insane, who is taken out once a week but within a cow’s harness. Gwyn Emberton first envisions her as tethered at the end of a fifteen-foot rope. The dancer strains and pulls against the limits of the bond that holds her to the wall. Another image evokes a simmering ménage a trios. Black-waistcoated ministers are ever-present. A sightless woman totters in total dependence on another. A dancer drops to move with awkwardness on all four limbs, a body collapses to the ground, is draped in white and roughly carted off.

“My People” has had benefit of an intense period in its making, over which choreography and music have been developed in tandem. The fifty-five minute score created by Tic Ashfield and Benjamin Talbott has a dense power of suggestion within it. There are the obvious sounds of scraping cello, choral voices, brooding bass and sonorous keyboard. But there are also intimations of the sounds and natural forces of Caradoc Evans’ Cardiganshire. The soundscape embodies wind and wave, the clatter of hooves and the bite of shovel on earth.

Montgomery-raised Gwyn Emberton was inspired to dance by seeing the then Diversions company. Diversions in turn told him that his development as a dancer require that he experience the world. So the eighteen-year old did just that and left Wales for a couple of decades. The result is that the experience of Matthew Bourne and a host of international companies are fuelled back into a work distinctly of Wales in source and inspiration.

Aberystwyth Arts Centre has a flourishing dance education programme; wisely its many young learner dancers are not present. In its truth to Caradoc Evans the production ought to carry a certificate of no under-thirteens. It is a sombre vision with the stage bare and black. Lighting designer Aideen Malone has used low-positioned lighting to throw giant shadows onto the back wall.

The venues in Wales have to take care on their choice of productions. Aberystwyth’s co-production role is entirely fitting for a work that does honour to Ceredigion’s greatest author. The programme’s credits for “My People” are many, the Kevin Spacey Foundation among them. A harbinger of the future perhaps is in the thanks given to crowd-funding donations.

“My People” continues to Theatr Hafren, Theatr Harlech and WMC’s Dance House on 27th March.

The centenary of “My People” is next year, 2015. Caradoc Evans is grown-up writing for a culture that is not always growing up and he deserves celebration. The presence of Literature Wales, Arts Council Wales and the National Eisteddfod at the WMC next week would help spark off some collective ruminations.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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