Velvet Petal is a work about change; about the moments when people, relationships and bodies choose to undergo transformations, to decidedly alter shape, to attempt to grow. Landing at Dance International Glasgow for its UK premiere following its debut at Mexico’s Festival International Cervantino, Dundee-based Scottish Dance Theatre’s new work is by turns beautiful and frustrating, but never seems to quite hold its beautiful images for long enough to allow a change to occur within its audience.
The work cites an eclectic and exciting range of influences, including the life cycle of a Monarch Butterfly, the work of the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Torben Lars Sylvest’s musical arrangement, which itself incorporates music by LCD Soundsystem, Spoek Mathambo and Fourtet. Added to this are a ten-strong ensemble of dancers, texts from playwright and dramaturg Pamela Carter, and two clothing rails carrying a series of different layers to be selected, worn, removed and discarded.
The result is that Velvet Petal is a very busy piece of work, where images are quickly assembled and disassembled, often collapsing into each other. Watching it is at times mesmerising; there is simply so much going on at once. There is a distinct pleasure in observing one image, becoming distracted by another, and then, upon turning your attention back, finding that the previous image has radically changed. Such moments, and indeed the entire work, articulate the sensations of bewilderment, excitement and affirmation that choreographer Fleur Darkin and the company of dancers seek to celebrate.
Robert Mapplethrope’s self-portrait (1980) is presented in the space, one of many indications of the work’s fascination with photography and the image. In the programme notes Darkin makes reference to the relationship between photographer and subject, a relationship she describes as one that grows or reveals itself through time:
“It’s when we spend time letting the object communicate with us that the magic happens. I think the revealing nature of time is particularly true of dancers.”
One of the consequences of having such a busy and mesmeric stage space, though, is that too little time is afforded to letting this magic happen. As an audience member watching on, I am presented with a series of changes, a series of individuals exploding into colour, flowering and turning into butterflies. Beautiful though these changes are, I find it difficult to care about them, or to in any way feel changed by observing them – there is nothing that seems to grow within the moment of performance. Perhaps, as described above, this is intentional, borne out of a desire to convey the affective quality of change, rather than make me care about what those changes might mean for the individuals experiencing them. I am presented with the image of change, not of change itself. Yet there are hints of a story or narrative throughout, voices and characters that reoccur, events that happen. The result is a work that appears to wear its narrative with discomfort, that lets it get it in the way, and becomes less accessible than if there hadn’t been much in the way of story at all.
The most interesting thing about the Monarch Butterfly is it’s migration pattern. During the autumn, populations on the east coast of America migrate from southern Canada and the United States to central Mexico, departing again for the return trip in spring. During this journey, no individual butterfly completes the round trip, their offspring – or offspring’s offspring – doing so, instead. At the risk of forcing this metaphor to migrate somewhere up my own arse, the issue with Velvet Petal is that it does not inspire change, or an awareness of the ability to change, within its audience. Nothing carries forward from their journey into mine. Walking out, I don’t feel particularly like it’s offspring, or that I have any connection with the work at all. For the sake of clarity, this isn’t the case for everyone – indeed the curtain call is made to rapturous applause – yet these beautiful images of growth, change and rebirth do not connect with me. Everything is so loud, so performed, so gorgeously presented; so far removed from the mundane small changes and transformations of the everyday.
Velvet Petal is a very beautiful piece of work, choreographed and performed with a great deal of skill. The performances, lighting design and overall aesthetic of the work are gorgeous. Yet the whole always keeps me at a distance, these images always hovering out of reach.
Velvet Petal was at Dance International Glasgow until May 7th. For more details, and future dates, click here.