My morning begins gently. I’m at Cardiff Dance Festival for a day of performances that begins with Second Hand Dance’s Touch – a show made for 0-3 year olds, who, sat on cushions around the performance space, are free to crawl and stumble and roll around as they please. The dancers improvise around them – stepping over, skirting round, making contact with gentle touch. I like that dance is inherently sensory – watching other bodies move makes something move inside you – and Touch takes this one step further, inviting physical contact between performers and audience. The soundtrack, live mixed by a DJ, moves from soothing ambient soundscapes into upbeat pop as the piece makes a gradual ascent into participatory dancing, then high-energy choreography. It’s a rainy morning and the audience isn’t huge (just myself and three families) but it doesn’t matter because the piece is wholly responsive – literally – to the specific people in the room. For the little ones, it encourages play, curiosity, exploration. For me, I come out feeling looser, more alert.
Theo Clinkard and Leah Marojević’s The Elsewhen Series also engages the audience in an unconventional relationship, but this one’s uniqueness is spatial and logistical. g39 gallery is a large, open white cube, with a gap in the far wall leading to further unseen rooms. Congregating at the entrance (no seats, no performance space marked out), we wait expectantly, looking across the empty space at this pregnant gap. There’s a strangeness to this arrangement – that gap feels like some kind of portal from a dream. When Marojević and Clinkard emerge out of it, it’s unheralded – I don’t notice them at first. They move in unison, to a silent but strict beat. Their costumes, collaged from everyday clothes, look fantastical – shiny flared trousers poking out from under large patterned green skirts, too-big white sweatshirts and bright red trainers. They’re like twinned sprites, briefly invited into our world. After 15 minutes, they leave as unassumingly as they entered, leaving no trace of their presence.
More waiting; then, we realise that this time we have to go and find the next part in the series, and so we cross the space and breach the gap in the wall (take a wrong turn, backtrack) and find ourselves in a tiny, carpeted room. The only light comes from two laptops, and Clinkard and Marojević are sat naked on the carpet in their glow, under a diaphanous lavender veil. Screensaver clouds drift slowly, and a robot sing-song voice chants, invoking the pastoral: green grass, children playing, a contented community. Another fantasy space, but not the one we’re in – the physical space is cramped, dark, mysterious. The dancers, like slow-moving statues, or children weaving stories under the covers, are conjuring an elsewhere (or elsewhen): a dream-space where longing and desire can flourish and be fulfilled. The website copy says these duets are meant to be ‘stumbled upon’, like organic events which would happen regardless of their being witnessed, sprouting unseen out of cracks in the concrete.
Following this are two solos – Siriol Joyner’s Morfa Rhuddlan and Tereza Hradilková’s Swish. Joyner’s piece draws from a ‘lost dance’ in commemoration of Llywelyn, Prince of Wales, and a ‘quest’ to find this dance. It mainly consists of Joyner crawling very slowly along the edges of a triangular performance space, with a piece of fabric (yellow, with red and green lines – the colours of the Red Dragon and Saint David flags, perhaps) draped over her shoulders, whilst words and sounds occasionally splutter from her lips. These are, I believe, Welsh, or drawn from Welsh words, or an old Welsh. At any rate, they come half-formed, repeated, seemingly involuntary like possessing spirits which trigger jerks and flights of the body and tongue. If I’m honest, I struggle to read into any of the codes and signs here, which are anyway minimal and sparse. It’s not a forthcoming piece of work, but one where you sense the drama is happening within Joyner’s slow-moving meditative state. From my seat, I can’t find the tools to access that.
Swish, on the other hand, has a single, instantly recognisable hook – Hradilková skips with a skipping rope for almost the entirety of its 40 minute duration. We begin in darkness, and hear only the sharp tone of the rope cutting through air, handled like a weapon for martial arts. When light appears, it’s dim, often from a single source, tightly focussed on Hradilková’s small figure – she’s totally isolated in a huge black box. The darkness around her becomes a kind of memory tunnel: while she skips, she offers tiny fragments of autobiographical detail – a birthday present (a Mickey Mouse onesie), tennis lessons as a child, a first kiss, pissing in her wedding dress, McDonald’s, going to New York, being born in Czechoslovakia and coming of age in the Czech Republic.
It immediately brings to mind images of Soviet discipline; athletes, figure skaters and gymnasts; regulation, uniformity and perfection; the greener grass of Western capitalism. But Hradilková substitutes the grace of disciplined, athletic performance for the sweaty work of training, and the crack of the rope is kind of violent, fortified by hits of electric guitar in Filip Misek’s live score. The jumping shapes Hradilková, her identity constantly redefined and conditioned by forces seemingly out of her control. She’s trapped in the unforgiving rhythm of her task and the hovering risk of tripping up. Each crack seems to split a country in two, or represent a choice which takes her life in a certain direction. At one point, lights at each corner of the stage multiply her shadows – ghosts of other lives not led, perhaps. Ghosts of disappointment and imperfection.
I like that Swish courts failure both in its themes and its actions, because in live performance a degree of failure is inevitable. That they seize upon the inherent qualities of performance is something these works all have in common – whether that’s play and intimacy, ephemerality, or the heightened attention of spectatorship. It’s nice to be reminded of the things that make performance unique, the things that capture and entrance me, the reasons I keep coming back.
Cardiff Dance Festival took place from 8-24 November. More info here.