Reviews DanceReviews Published 3 October 2017

Review: On The Habit of Being Oneself at Sadler’s Wells

September 28 - September 29

“Does the work think we care? Does it care if we care?”: choreographer Joe Moran’s evening of minimalist dance performances and installations.

Paul Hughes
On The Habit of Being Oneself, Sadler's Wells. Photo: David Edwards.

On The Habit of Being Oneself, Sadler’s Wells. Photo: David Edwards.

A screen hangs above the stage. Their images projected on both sides, dancers improvise energetically across its surface – leaps and hops, limbs outstretched, turning, curling – never seeming to tire. They’re not tremulous or restless so much as continually embracing the next emergent thing – gestures appear, get tested a few times, before they hop or stretch or shake or fold out into something else. Each dancer has their own tendencies, and appears free to pursue whatever occupies them. My eye slides between these figures, and the limits of my attention understand the rhythm and tone as simmering and homogeneous.

We’re standing on the stage itself, looking up – the screen is massive and rectangular and very bright. The camera pans and moves about the white cube space they’re dancing within – maybe inviting sympathetic shifts of attention or disorientation within us. I’m reminded of blockbuster films of musicals where the dancers continually sweep in past the camera frame, to seamlessly offer the next delight. It’s a lush image, utterly unresistant to associations with advertising and commodity spectacle. But then the group disperses to leave one man standing on another as he lies on the ground; remaining standing on him as he slowly and precariously rises to his feet. The associations it produces are vivid – violence, dependency, domination, weight, guilt, desire – but the duet remains resolutely abstract, giving space for these readings to arise, mutate and complicate one another. Only a brief segment of the wider video (Here and Not, a collaboration with Sam Williams), it has a stunningly disquieting presence, that un/balances the entire work; it quietly corrupts the spectacular tone from within.

We leave, and go to the bar, where the same choreographic proposition is presented again as a standalone work, Thirst. Outside of the screen, Samuel Kennedy looks around at us and preens as a wild tremor arises within Christopher Owen’s body below him. It’s tense – the potential fall on the hard floor, the proximity to the audience – they play it up a little, losing some of the restraint I enjoyed in the film. Back in the theatre we sit to watch the brief solo Indefinite Article, danced by Andrew Hardwidge. He slowly and deeply bends at the waist – revealing the exceptional training he’s undertaken, his body as a mechanical system – before commencing a sequence of made-up-looking yoga, odd flourishes, and the occasional burst of action. He performs a focused attention toward his outstretched arm, before casually shifting into a super-flexible, leg-above-the-head pose, from which he wiggles his foot at us. Strongly referencing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, it sheds this historical work’s imposition of a blank and rigid tone. He repeats some gestures from the start, before leaving the stage – its uncertainty is enticing and powerful.

Technicians lay out a glossy black floor, then six figures come out to start dancing On The Habit of Being Oneself  with the same kind of movement as in the video at the start. They do this for a while, (more or less) respectfully ignoring one other, and don’t concern themselves with developing a relation with their audience, either through sustained gaze, or through the legible development of set of propositions. The differences between the dancers are evident and negligible. Angsty gestures appear – wringing, squatting, breast-beating – but the contiguity of the choreographic frame mixes this all into the whole, and undermines any antagonistic potential – these organic and minor disruptions sustain the wider energy, rather than constituting any radical shift. The dancers stay within the borders of the stage. It’s pretty clear not much else is going to happen – no sustained change will take place in rhythm, nor will they settle into set spatial constellations.

This invitation to the Lilian Baylis stage, alongside recent work at ICA and Delfina Foundation, includes Joe Moran in a generation of choreographers beginning to gain access to major institutions. While celebrating these artists’ (much deserved) entry into these contexts, we should consider how they choose to preserve or adapt their strategies for critique. For the most part, the evening’s works accept the frame of the white cube and the clean bare stage, and presents virtuosically dancing bodies; as such, they are in many ways congruent with the histories of these institutions. While Moran insists on dance’s political potential, his work flirts with a certain institutional readiness – what critical potential does he secure within this position?

I found it refreshing to see the work of a single choreographer presented across screen, foyer, and stage in the same evening – highlighting an artistic practice sensitive to diverse contexts and forms – but I’m not sure the specific works in question help each other out. Thirst, arguably the most succinctly powerful work presented, loses some of its charm when reproduced immediately from video to the bar. Similarly, the final work invests heavily in its coda, a duet between two of the dancers which is undertaken with radically different logic to the previous dancing – but this is a pretty similar compositional shift made use of in the video work at the start of the evening.

At the post-show talk, Moran discusses durational aesthetics, and the extended presentation this ‘bare’ dancing of the final work as resistant to the normative use of compositional time within the theatre. It’s an invitation for us to attend to the materiality and duration of dance – a minimalist proposition, substituting continually moving and improvising bodies for the solidity and austerity of traditional materials of concrete and light. So, what can we see? How do our thoughts shift around this proposition? My eyes gravitate to the dancers I admire, the ones I haven’t seen perform much before, the ones I think are hot, the architecture of the space, my neighbours in the audience. I notice the men showing off a bit more. I’m reminded of auditions. I yearn for one of the dancers to look around and take stock; to shrug, swear or half-ass it. Does this duration wear down the ‘specialness’ of this dancing – for us to grow bored? Or does it reveal this dancing’s irresistibility and enduring capacity for seduction? These questions are to be answered for each individual viewer of the work in their own spectating – perhaps what might take us further are: does the work think we care? Does it care if we care?

The successors of minimalist practice began to question the supposed facticity of materials, and critically expose the contingent political realities that surround their production. I understand the dancers of this work to be tasked with a contradiction: to direct their attention to their sensitivity and potential for surprise – to somehow exceed their capacity for intention – while this very activity is harnessed as a means to satisfy those watching. A contradiction to forget, in order to simultaneously serve, the obvious pressures posed by the presence of the audience, choreographer and institution. I understand On The Habit of Being Oneself to celebrate the bare materiality of dancing, but found this celebration to leave unquestioned the wider and implicated conditions of labour of the precarious freelance dancer, who – as Charlie Ashwell writes – must always be available; must endlessly move between and within whichever choreographic contexts can offer some brief work; must ceaselessly invest, depart from and spectacularly exceed themselves.


Paul Hughes is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: On The Habit of Being Oneself at Sadler’s Wells Show Info

Choreography by Joe Moran



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