Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The quality of the dancing is typically perfect

Terra Firma

National Dance Company Wales , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , April-03-18
Terra Firma by National Dance Company Wales Until this time three years ago my answer to any question about contemporary dance was something along the lines of “It’s not really my cup of tea.” However, upon giving it a chance I realised that making such a broad statement was akin to several other nonsensical standpoints I used to have such as “I don’t like London”, “I don’t like folk music” and “I don’t like fruit out of context”. The point being, until you’ve taken yourself out of your self-imposed comfort zone and explored a variety of aspects of the subject matter, it’s impossible to make an informed judgement on such things and it turns out that when contemporary dance is done right – it’s as powerful an art form as I’m yet to encounter. Oh and for the record, I also quite like fruit out of context these days thanks to my wife’s favourite book, “Half Baked Harvest”. Anyway, I digress.
National Dance Company Wales’ visit to Aberystwyth has now become a firm date in the diary for me. I pick up my tickets from the box office, I enjoy a Sierra Nevada pale ale with Paul Kaynes, the NDC’s enthusiastic and charismatic Chief Executive, and I then sit back and enjoy a trio of sheer brilliance.
The company’s tours generally include four pieces by different choreographers, of which three are performed at each venue. This year we don’t get to see The Green House by Caroline Finn but the evening does start with another of Finn’s inventions – the aptly titled “Folk”. I’ve seen this particular sequence previously but one of the beauties of the NDC is that the make-up of the company is very fluid and there is so much happening on stage that you have a different experience each time you watch them and tonight is no exception.
The setting for Folk is rather distinctive and starts with one of the dancers sweeping up leaves that have fallen from an upside-down tree, which is suspended from the Theatre Y Werin rafters. Having said that, my personal take on it is that it’s actually the roots of the tree and the dancers are living in some sort of underground community. I asked Paul about this once and apparently there is no right answer – it’s all open to interpretation – and I rather like that.
The music that accompanies Folk is diverse and, amongst other places, is Italian, Greek and Spanish in origin and this is a phenomenal example of how dance can transcend language, culture and many other constraints that limit other art forms.
The quality of the dancing is typically perfect with plenty of bent limbs and flat feet as pioneered by American choreographer Martha Graham, but the NDC layer their works with so many other clever facets that it’s almost impossible to keep track. They flex their sense of humour in Folk whilst being deliberately provocative and suggestive. At points the dancing seems almost freestyle but within a heartbeat structure returns – the dancing my appear random but the choreography is anything but.
In summary, Folk explores the best parts of “community”. No matter who you are, where you’re from, what you do, your community is there for you, embraces you, holds you and looks after you. It’s a powerful statement which is delivered in the most glorious way.

After a short interval, Atalay by Mario Bermudez Gil begins. With only four dancers this is a more obviously structured routine than Folk, but is no less powerful. We’re definitely a bit further east judging by the music and costumes and whilst it’s hard to pin down anywhere specific, there are certainly subcontinental influences at work here.

Whilst the music is once again crucial to the piece, the silences are just as important and at one point all we can hear is the heavy breathing of the dancers who are saturated in a deep gold light. You could hear a pin drop at this point – the audience are in the palms of their hands.

There are other clever effects such as the dancers retreating from a light set at the back of the stage to give the impression of a risen sun and also the use of talc (or some other powdery substance) which provides an amazing visual effect when the aforementioned gold light reflects off it a nanosecond after the dancers clap their hands.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this piece as a whole, my eyes were drawn to one of the dancers in particular - a young lady called Nikita who hails from Reunion Island. Fierce, intense and completely “in the zone”, this was a very special performance.

After another short interval Tundra by Marcus Morau begins and I’ll say at the outset that as far as I’m concerned, this is the best piece of work the NDC has produced during the three years I’ve been watching them. It starts with the dancers in huge blue skirts – think of an upside-down wine glass and you’ll instantly picture the shape. The dancers then begin their routine, which is as intricate as always, but with a magical twist; the base of the skirts never leave the ground which gives the impression that the dancers are gliding across frozen ground (the reason for the name of the piece instantly becomes clear!) I’ve been trying to put my finger on what the effect reminds me of most but am still torn between the Daleks and the Wottingers from In the Night Garden.

In a flash, the skirts are removed by the eight dancers revealing multicoloured bodysuits. I didn’t spot it at first but actually the colouration on the suits is very important (white feet and flesh coloured forearms for example) as you see flashes of symmetry and coordination throughout the piece.

For me, the two main themes of the piece are the celebration of the human form and also conformity. Taking these in order, in a similar way that Folk transcends language and culture, Tundra transcends both of these and more including, most importantly, gender. With everyone dressed identically and the routine delivered with the precision of a surgeon, it’s a fascinating insight into the way that everyone’s joints, muscles and bones all work in exactly the same way. The Times describes the piece as “ingeniously mechanical” and whilst I’d agree with that, there are deeper meanings to this piece and the androgyny alone tunnels right down into our DNA – quite literally at the point that the dancers effortlessly morph into a double helix.

With such mechanical precision, the word “uniformity” would work perfectly well but here the focus is on conformity. All of the dancing is set within the confines of a white box and 99.9% of the routine involves the dancers being at one with each other and mirroring or effortlessly triggering the next person’s move. However, at one point one of the dancers does something slightly different which gives rise to a collective head turn which quashes the rebellion instantly. It’s a fantastic contrast to Folk which celebrates tolerance and difference and provides a beautiful irony in that although this piece is blind to gender, nationality, colour, sexuality, religion and many other things, it flags up something far more scary – the thought of us all simply being part of the process where individuality is meaningless. Wow, these guys are deep.

So that concludes this year’s trip to watch the NDC. I was absolutely blown away as usual, will be back next year without fail and as I sit here on a train to London drinking a cup of tea listening to folk music (ok that last bit isn’t true), I beg any of you even slightly tempted to give them a chance next time they’re here. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by: Alan Rock

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