Sometimes, even in abstract, non-narrative dance, it’s possible to match the movement up to its inspiration. The pencil sketch of the rehearsal is visible beneath the full-colour choreography. These results can be mixed, as can any art that references some other piece or medium with mimetic specificity. The twitch of the familiar can be comforting or satisfying to spot. Seeing a reference literally translated can feel like a secret handshake – both you and the choreographer are in on it. But it can also induce a frustrating sense of déjà vu.
Boy Blue’s new piece, REDD, following their critically acclaimed Blak Whyte Gray, is inspired by a poem by R Moulden. The images, melancholic and keeningly sad, are transposed directly on to the stage: grief ‘slinks in like a beaten dog’, ‘clambering over your chest / reaching for your mouth’, ‘pretending to be a small thing’. Co-creator and co-director Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy is the protagonist, the body to whom the stages of grief and redemption happens. Other performers grip his mouth into silence, flicking his limbs back and forth, or drop the weight of their bodies onto his, hanging off his shoulders and waist like new and sudden burdens. It’s powerful, tonally exact performance, but Moulden’s words hang over the proceedings like a checklist. Gesture overshadows intuitive choreography.
At other times, the rest of the cast appear to form scenes from a life Sandy’s character is disconnected from, unsure how to negotiate. They clump together, maniacally smiling, as if posing for a workplace portrait (though occasionally one of them will physically stutter, judder, break away, before forcing themselves back into the group). Sandy watches them from the side of the stage, eventually forcing himself to join the patently false show of good cheer.
In another section, another performer slinks up to Sandy and gently pinches his fingers together and seems to teach him to write in the air, lovingly guiding the shapes he draws. They smile at one another with genuine warmth and tenderness, but when the performer rewinds himself back into the darkness, Sandy seems to lose the ability to move melodically – to express himself without outside help – and is assailed again by the literalised weight of grief.
The performers themselves are superb. They appear imbued with Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s gulping, fizzing, throbbing lo-fi hip hop-inspired soundscape, and their pops and locks exactly match every thud and drop in the music. It’s a shame that the incorporation of an Asian language – what might be Mandarin, though I cannot say for sure – in Asante’s musical creation is used in such a bizarre, exoticising way, clearly intended as incomprehensible and purely aural. The ensemble piece at the end of REDD showcases remarkable athleticism and stunning technique.
What can be said, then, of a work of art that hits every mark with great competence and even some flair, but where the power of the execution is dogged by the visible scaffolding of the inspirational text? Perhaps the long shadow cast by Blak Whyte Gray is difficult to escape; perhaps, in its solidarity with and honouring of the source material, REDD simply doesn’t have the overall confidence in the way that each of its individual elements does.
REDD is on at the Barbican until 5th October. More info here.