Three dancers stalk across the stage, dressed in identical ankle-length black dresses. There is something chorus-like and austerely statuesque about them. They move in perfect tandem, turning their heads, owlish, to the audience, acknowledging the space between us and them. Partners are lifted and curled into alphabet-like shapes; in these positions their exits from the stage read like running ticker tapes of letters scrolling off screen. Performers adopt supine positions on the floor, and drag themselves off, still coolly reclining. Occasionally, one or two will glare coldly into the audience, as if to check we are still paying attention. In the background, a near-coherent soundscape of clicks and syllables and gulps, coming just close enough to spoken language to give the piece an air of syntactic inner logic, understood only by the dancers.
Such is the start of Eun-me Ahn’s Let Me Change Your Name, presented as part of the Dance Umbrella festival. In its inscrutable opening, it is languid and a certain difficult kind of beautiful – in short, exactly the sort of contemporary dance I’d worry about taking my mother to. It says: this is dance. This is a closed society. This is not easy. Deal with it.
It is exactly this closed society – this highly structured, unanimous, unyielding presentation – that Eun-Me Ahn delights in breaking apart. Performers previously in black, previously part of a synchronised bloc, return in dresses in neon pinks, yellows, blues and green. Though the dresses are cut in the same pattern, the individual colours give singular personalities to each performer. The subdued lighting is abruptly washed out by a cold, white glare, filling the stage with a restless energy reflected by the dancers, leaping, slicing the air and slamming out energetic but exquisitely framed spins.
Let Me Change Your Name is a surprisingly flirtatious, provoking piece. Eun-Me Ahn works with repetition and strongly gestural language that allows the audience to recognise evocative phrases and to feel directly spoken to by the movement. A good example is the frequently repeated act of dancers pulling up their skirts to reveal their underwear and letting it drop again. The way it is performed is sensual without being sexy, relishing in plucking and pulling, in making shapes that – like the soundtrack – is almost on the point of communicating something concrete. Dancers mix and match clothing and colours, pulling clothes on and off one another, tugging and twisting, testing for personality, individuality, and opposition. Whizzing spins, whipped out with frankly dizzying frequency and ferocity, make them appear compelled by an inner gyroscope.
Eun-Me Ahn herself is present in but outside of the piece. Never part of the ensemble, her progress across the stage is thwarted by the cast, who push her back or block her way. With a shaved head and a studied grace, she is a deeply compelling performer.
Gorgeous, silly and gloriously performed, Let Me Change Your Name manages to do a lot with what is essentially very little, and in fact this review has been a struggle to write because there seems to be very little for a reviewer to say that is not listed observation served with adverbs. The nebulous idea of ‘the individual in society’ is so broad that it can easily mean nothing at all, ad nauseam. It takes a great deal of humour, a strong aesthetic, a playful choreographer and a talented cast for Let Me Change Your Name to come out as well as it does.
Let Me Change Your Name was performed as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Click here for more details.