A very attractive man once described to me what taking salvia was like. He was very attractive, and I was interested, and actually I had asked, and so I listened. He told me he had a feeling of intense euphoria, and that he’d seen a pirate ship sail down from the stars. “But actually, all I was doing was sitting there sweating and breathing really heavily.”
Watching Darren Johnston’s Zero Point is basically occupying my role in this story. Johnston’s programme notes are the euphoric promise of the pirate ship; in Johnston’s case, it is the promise of a highly designed and researched piece on trance-like states, meditation, Zen, and the ‘zero point’ of the existence of energy even in a vacuum. The actual experience of Zero Point is so much heavy breathing. I could see that something intense was happening, but it was happening for the choreographer and not for the audience.
Zero Point opens with the audience being half-blinded by lights which pulse slowly down the collective field of vision. Thought faintly headache-inducing, it is a powerful way for the lighting design to announce itself, and the lighting design of the piece is sufficiently clever and elegant to warrant such a violent entrance. It traps dancers in spinning, translucent cones, or cages them in severe lines. Projections turn white-clad bodies into white noise static hallucinations and plain black backgrounds into streaming lines of code or skyscraper cityscapes. The light encloses then explodes mysterious new spaces. Realms of possibilities are built with both tangibility and ephemerality. But what modes of being will be explored in these new spaces?
To be perfectly honest, not a lot. Johnston’s dancers are excellent, eloquent in their sinewy exactitude (although, in a couple of ensemble pieces that are seemingly designed to explore symmetry and simulacrum, the unison is very, very slightly off). The choreography is tightly focused and gesticular, with scooping, swooping arms and exploratory twitching and circling of head and joints, or of dancers around once another. But the movement language goes on and on and on at the same low murmur, and doesn’t seem to be saying very much.
And in these revolutionary new spaces created by the light, filled with the meditative futuristic drone of Tim Hecker’s ambient score, a very old-fashioned bit of partnering takes place: a small, slender female dancer is picked up (in a couple of cases, literally slung over the shoulder of), carried, and manipulated by a much taller male dancer. So far, so conventional. Later in the piece – hard to say how much later, given the repetitive nature of the dancing – another male/female duet presents us with a seeming pursual of a woman by a man, walking around one another like anxious trapped animals. Transcendence of the mundane this is not. The only genuinely interesting decision is putting the extraordinary ballet dancer Hana Sakai in pointe shoes, and then never having her really go up on pointe. Instead, the shoes are used as an aesthetic extension of the lines of her legs, or illustrate an interesting precarity of weight transference.
The virtuosity of the performers, and the impressive work of the lighting design, are this piece’s very attractive man; we’re just about willing to sit through it to experience being around them, even if they are going to bore us a bit. But the good-looking dazzle isn’t quite enough, and nor is the promise of something special. It has to have something of substance that we can share (like the very best of very attractive men). Zero Point may have reached a personal transcendence, but it doesn’t reach the audience.
For more information on Zero Point, click here.