‘I hope this helps you lose your fears…’ says choreographer Fleur Darkin in a brief introduction to Scottish Dance Theatre’s two-night run at the Southbank Centre. Each evening’s performance is split into two pieces. The first is a 30-minute submersion into the primordial rumble of a composition by Abul Mogard accompanied by visuals by Marja de Sanctis and, eventually, one lone dancer languidly contorting round an empty silver clothes rail.
The flickering projections onto the back wall variously look like:
Static on a TV set, layers of a sandcastle, close-ups of a woolly jumper, a telescopic view into the Milky Way, the speckles of gold leaf left on the transfer sheet after it wasn’t rubbed well enough, the fur of a tabby cat, the autumn clouds drawn with a fat piece of chalk, a ball of scrunched-up aluminium foil in a lunch box, and the lines of dried earth squidged into the deep tread of a walking boot.
And the sound is like a transmission from outer space (if the aliens were into clubbing) mixed with the mechanised relentlessness of a train coming to hit Anna Karenina whilst a thunderstorm grumbles and roars in the next valley.
It’s fear-conquering the way being swallowed into any work of art – particularly theatre or live music – is fear-conquering, but only if you have the initial bravery or willingness to let yourself be sucked inside it. Fear-conquering because realising there’s something much bigger than you out there is as comforting as it is scary (perhaps more so).
The second piece is Velvet Petal, an ensemble dance work inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids and the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
At different points it brings to mind:
Warhol’s Factory, perfume ads, nightclubs full of undergrads interlinking fingers with childish shyness, American Apparel ads, the changing rooms of Beyond Retro, car parks in borings towns filled with teenagers setting each other ridiculous challenges, the first fuck with a stranger, a bedroom carpet smeared with make-up before you all ran out the house, and the type of contemporary art that makes people want to live or die.
The work is performed by an ensemble of individuals who could all plausibly be the ‘star’ of another group, but together bounce off each other’s brilliance. At almost any given moment there are about five different places on stage you could be looking, meaning that each time you get fixed on watching one part, you remember the rest and feel a little sad that you weren’t watching whatever was happening over there instead. At other times they dance syncopated pop video-like routines. The next time the National Theatre wants to stage party scenes like the ones in Carrie Cracknell’s Julie,they should phone up Scottish Dance Theatre and hire them because this group manage the difficult task of performing ‘going out’ scenes without any hint of cringeworthiness or falsity.
It’s fear-conquering the way red lipstick, black eyeliner, dressing-up and The Cure heard through a wall are fear-conquering. The absolution and freedom that’s hard to explain to someone who’s never felt the calling to run into a mosh-pit and have the weight of other people’s bodies take their feet off the ground. Or, the compulsion to dissolve into one giant body of football fan in a stadium. Or, the desire to go into a theatre and leave with mascara on their chin. It’s the fear-conquering associated with youth, as though that means it’s something to forget once learnt rather than hang on to forever. And in Fleur Darkin’s work, it’s the pointless, sublime beauty of everything from unknowingly exposed bra-straps to the pelt of a deep purple pansy petal.
Velvet Petal is on until 1 September 2018 at the Southbank Centre. Click here for more details.