Contemporary dance programme notes are curious things. Sometimes they ground the audience in a space, setting context and expectations before the light come up; at other times they’re a mess of imperfect descriptors and grand claims that appear to have no bearing on the spectacle. Occasionally they can be useful schooling in the unspecifity of vocabulary. In tonight’s double bill, Alleyne Dance’s A Night’s Game and James Finnemore’s TERRA both reference the ‘athletic strength’ or ‘athleticism’ of the performances, but despite this adjectival link, the two pieces are extraordinarily different in their execution and style.
A Night’s Game, choreographed and performed by Kristina and Sadé Alleyne, opens to a woman at one side, sitting on a chair, and a fist of smoke hanging at the forefront of the stage. The smoke highlights the emptiness and vastness of the stage not occupied by the woman, who begins to beat a rhythm by stamping her feet and slapping her body without ever leaving the chair; bound to one spot, the empty space around her picked out by the smoke, we feel more than ever that she is trapped in one space. Her body percussion reaches a speed and complexity that sounds warlike (and is impressive to watch), but the fierce thundering is softened by the show of emotion on her face – distressed, yearning or afraid, she casts around for a place outside of this binding. She is only released when a new figure enters the stage and disrupts the negativity of the unfilled space. New boundaries are created by the light (where lit space is occupied but constricting and unlit space is free but terrifying), entered and railed against. These burning, powerful characters, commanding expression, demand release.
Alleyne and Alleyne’s piece is remarkable for this contrast: vigorous and undeniable technical virtuosity, delivering deep backbends, fiery spins and leaping energy, combines with ripples of dramatically expressed emotion. Their duet asks the body to unbend, to comfort, to hold one another, as much as it requires shows of force and collision, as one woman pulls another over her head or swings her body against the blackness of the stage. Whether they are in opposition, in cahoots or even as one, it is never clear and doesn’t need to be. Abstract and emotionally rich, A Night’s Game tells no more concrete stories than the ones the mind tells itself in the desperate depths of night, but dramatically evokes the sensation of the telling.
After such breathtaking intensity and unrelenting physical activity, TERRA is almost startling in its use of stillness. As it begins, four women, dressed like explorers or possibly labourers, in an eye-catching array of textures and layers, stand in a square in one corner. Over the course of five minutes, they very, very slowly turn their heads, breathe in unison and gently pick up and drop their wrists for a pulse that has dissatisfied them.
It is possible to chart a sort of narrative through TERRA. These four women have entered an unknown place, and something external is tormenting them or testing them for resilience. When they walk towards it, or acknowledge its presence, it starts to change them. Lawrie McLennan’s outstanding light design variously suggests the lights of an alien spaceship, the glow emitted by nightmarish creatures, and secret spaces the women enter, whether by accident or deliberately.
Episodes from their struggle with the unseen, unknown enemy stand out. A duet between two of the dancers – Erin O’Reilly, haunting in her subtle portrayal of a soul breaking with confusion, and Anne-Charlotte Hubert – reads like a discussion that tenderly turns to measured violence, as Hubert repeatedly twists O’Reilly’s face to the side and slowly sinks her fist into her stomach. In another time, in another episode, three sit or stand and watch one another until the fourth scuttles and shudders along the floor, transformed into a monster they consider with flattened, exhausted trepidation. The closing ‘scene’ describes a frightening struggle against an unseen force: the four explorers/labourers crawl, limp and drag themselves away in desperate slow motion from something in a corner, but the force of it wheels them back like leaves in the wind.
TERRA is a challenging, daring work as it stretches tension and time to breaking points, confounding expectations for action. The audience have to enter a sort of meditative state, finding fascination in the complex minutiae of James Finnemore’s choreography. Finnemore keeps his dancers heavy and low, and their kinetic energy curls in and under. Tiny flicks and twitches interrupt the progress of limbs through the air. It’s deliberately unshowy, uncompromising in its detail, making the climax of the piece – as the music and the movement builds into a swirling, pulsing momentum – quite shocking when it comes.
Not every episode works: sometimes the tension is held for too long and the energy fades. In one moment of peculiar pacing, at the height of the climactic movement, the lights black out for slightly too long while the music still pumps: deliberate again, but looking a little mistaken. The risks, however, are worth the reward. TERRA is difficult and revels in its difficulty, blending a richly cinematic sensibility with captivatingly intricate choreography.
Alleyne Dance/James Finnemore was performed on 24 April 2018 at The Place. Click here for more details.