A dancer moulds a penis out of clay and starts strumming her newfound manhood while her male counterpart sculpts a pair of breasts, wearing them proudly, as they wrap together simulating sex. Another swings her hair into an orgasmic frenzy, as the rest of the cast knead their way through three tonnes of clay dumped onstage for Icon, the UK debut for Sweden’s GöteborgsOperans Danskompani.
This is a collaboration between Angel of the North Sculptor, Antony Gormley, and choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, in which dancers make sculptures and movement onstage as part of a live process – a cathartic journey of clay throwing and repetitive movement that alludes to some unidentifiable spiritual cult inhabiting the stage.
For over an hour with no interval, dancers systematically build and destroy forms – clay figurines – sexual organs – pellets of war – while movement sequences mirror their clay creations in expressive outpourings of physical extremism. This is set off by an atmospheric live composition from Joachim Böhall, drawing sounds from the ancient worlds of Japan, India and the Mediterranean and creating a sense of sect-like spirituality.
The beige and orange jumpsuits from Jan-Jan Van Essche characterise dancers that could be either prisoners or part of a cult. Either way costumes are eventually peeled off to reveal beige/pink pants and athletic sinewy limbs that slither in and out of clay on the floor like salmon swimming upstream.
Cherkaoui plays with the flock ensemble in his choreography, bringing his dancers together in beautiful sigh-worthy harmony, only to single out one dancer who often crouches in a corner building and destroying a little clay figure or postulating in speech in a lecture style delivery of academic references. There’s talk of “intentionality” and “focus,” references to the work of US based lecturer, Lynne McTaggert.
Lending form to the spaces and tensions of the body is a fascination that unites both Gormley and Cherkaoui, though they work in different media. Dancers build forms from the ground up using layers of clay. Watching the action unfold, it’s undeniably an awe inspiring feat to witness the dancers take such shapes and forms of clay into their own movement patterns. There are passages where dancers are covered and consumed by the clay, others where material is used as a plaything or clumps to represent cradling babies only to be smashed to the floor violently.
The movement is at its most powerful when the cast act as a united force, memorably when they pull together like some cultish magnetic force, gulping large breaths, heads swinging down and up as if one pulsating organ breathing life and regeneration in amongst the debris. The rhythmic chant of collective breath inhaling and exhaling only to gather, then scatter to all four corners of the stage like prisoners breaking free from an enclosed unit, is mesmerising.
The problem is that I feel like a kid at Christmas opening all my presents at once and experiencing multisensory overload. With all the talk of focus, I’m struggling to take it all in as a performance. The stage is heavily laden with imagery and ideas. The dancers are clearly enjoying an embodied experience responding to music and clay and all of its nuances, but are the audience on the same journey? How exciting it must be to respond to clay through movement. A bit like watching a dancer perform in front of a painting in a gallery, it feels like the dancer is embodying the work of art, but where does it leave the observer?
The speeches don’t help. While it’s engaging to listen to words and build context on some level, it’s mostly jolting when dancers fall out of movement to address the audience directly, the equivalent of being thrust under a cold shower and taken out of the moment. I have the niggling feeling that I am being guided, lectured. Here, embedded in the speeches, meaning is served up on a platter. And to make matters worse, each question is delivered to the audience with the question: “right?”, tagged onto the end of the speech. I spiral into panic.
I want to stand up and shout out why? Why is this right? And why are you talking? I was enjoying watching you move like feathers floating on a winter lake or flocks of birds crossing an ocean, only to be slowed down by the weightiness of clay. The text takes away gravity leaving me wondering what to think or feel.
Icon was on at Sadler’s Wells on 30th November. More info here.