We’re in the basement of Dance4’s new building. There’s black plastic-y decking on the concrete floor, and the audience is seated either side: an extra-wide catwalk, with enough room for four women to be standing in a grid at one end, facing the wall. They start to move side to side, in an oscillating jump/hop/stomp. They keep time, feeling more like kids jumping rope or playing hopscotch than anything military. They rotate, and begin to step up and down the platform, producing a loud booming when they land.
It’s extremely satisfying and frames everything with a sense of urgency. Passing back and forth, they test their different jumps and walks with different groupings: in pairs, or threes, perhaps crossing each other. When they reach the end of the platform and hit the concrete, the booming cuts out, and the audience laugh; but now they travel down behind one side of the audience too; or just hang out in the deeper space over to the side, leaning against pillars and looming a bit vampirically. They’re testing themselves, and each other: I feel part of a crowd they need to witness this beautiful bouncing, hopping, weaving, jumping. They’re pushing at something: a pointless expenditure of energy to prove to themselves they can keep going, that they can persist.
It feels something like an all-female punk ceilidh; something in particular about this repeated gesture of their arms slightly raised and opened out, knees rising to lift each step; not really about travelling through the space as maintaining a certain verticality. Sometimes they loop around halfway, or just get stuck there in the middle. The movement persisting in just the torso and head, arms jutting out into space. As they keep threading these pathways, sometimes they pick up on each other’s rhythms, and sometimes they don’t.
Although there’s a resemblance to De Keersmaeker’s aesthetic of an austere femininity, Roberta Jean presents something less precise, more open to minor variations; not a strict reproduction of the same but a set of patterns that might echo or be passed between the dancers. I’m conscious of their sweat, and their knees as they repeatedly slam into the decking and concrete. It’s not turning into a durational thing – they can shift around within what reads as a loose score to negotiate the strain – but bodies have become more unruly, more heavy, more vulnerable-seeming: simply more evident.
Throughout all of this, I’m thinking about groups of women: roller derby, militias, factory workers. I’m thinking of cities of former industry, and rave, and the anger of artists like Sleaford Mods. I’m thinking about these women before me weaving steps and rhythms in a former hosiery factory, now Dance4’s International Centre for Choreography, and the smart and understated curation of this being presented on the opening night of the first Nottdance festival since the move in here. I’m thinking about films set in American high schools, and the popular clique striding down the corridor. The words form in my head: “this is the only kind of dancing that might make sense in a Brexit Britain”.
There’s enough heat here – between them and the floor, between them and each other, and them and the audience – enough energy flowing about to keep this thing going – and it definitely feels important that it keeps going. But as the piece persists, its seductive minimalism is compromised. Music is layered in, something electronic-sounding with a pulse, and then a live violin with odd, space-filling scraping/drawing of the bow.
Fewer journeys through the space don’t get stuck into a jerky dancing half-way down. These are dances of self-interruption, a mixture of angular and curving expansions out into the space, framed by looks of contemplation and hesitancy. Perhaps there’s a more intricate interrogation of each moment – the pathways exploded into a series of questions directed towards each step – but there’s also a sense of centre-stage-ness, an apparent desire or need to show us something, to impress us. While these short (and not so short) fragmentary solos feature the most impressive dancing of the performance, the energy of the work as a whole becomes diminished as its intricate and insistent rhythms break apart.
For more information on Brocade at Nottdance, click here.