It’s Thursday night in Cambridge, and the way into the show I am about to see, Of Riders and Running Horses by Dan Canham’s dance theatre company Still House, is a long climb up a winding, breezeblock stairwell to the top of the five-storey car park next to the Cambridge Junction. I eventually emerge into open sky on the rooftop, and it is real dusk. The remaining daylight is bright strips of colour smudged together over in the west, and it’s fully dark in the east. Live, energetic Afro-Cuban music is blasting from speaker towers around the perimeter of a brightly lit performance space, made by a live band of two musicians, Sam Halmarack and Luke Harney (AKA Typesun), who are nested within a tightly packed cluster of varied percussion instruments, guitars and electronic music kit at one end.
The audience settles, the drumming goes quiet, and then into the silence, Sam Halmarack sings a cappella – a beautiful, simple melody and interesting, subtle lyrics, which after a time is grabbed by electronics and amplified, sustained, and layered. And then percussion comes back in, with fierce drums and surprising syncopations, building to an intense, exciting jungle beat. The first dancer jumps in, and her movement is like an exact embodiment of the music in dance form. Then four other dancers come out of the audience one by one to join her, five women in urban street clothes, and I wish I could join them, too, because the music is so strongly beckoning.
They spin in interlocking patterns of individual movements, and I wonder how much of the music and dance is improvised, because it’s tight, but there are ripples where they catch ideas and energy from each other, clearly listening to each other with their bodies. Eventually, after what feels like a long time, they fall into unison, and this feels wonderful to me on some deep, primal level – it feels like an expression of the constant elemental progression from times of wildness into harmony.
Then the music quiets again, and together they explore small, subtle movement, stillness, pauses and they are still like a human embodiment of the percussive music – which is now slow, with shakers and rattling metal – and it is as if the women are cymbals themselves, or streams of air shaken by percussive vibrations. Then four dancers drift away, and one is left, moving quietly to a long, low, electric bass drone.
She moves like she is underwater, and again it occurs to me that this piece feels elemental, like a depiction of nature. But whenever my mind tries to capture this show and cage it within a description or theme, the abstract fights wildly back, the performance saying, ‘I just am’ and the dance saying, ‘I just am”¦the music’ and the music saying ‘I just am”¦the dance’. This piece is a lush, abstract expression and exploration of feelings.
And at this point, when I have been fully captured by the performance, and I have been prompted into thoughtful consideration of the axis between programmatic and abstract art, the dancers shift into a section of the piece that is like the interplay of different musical voices working in harmony: they line up and combine like fingers pressing down the keys of a piano, overlapping in different patterns like individual notes making different chords. Then they start calling out, noises that sound like animal calls, and the music grows bright and joyous underneath them, and eventually they break out of the patterns into pure wildness again, and I notice their dance is sending rumbling vibrations through the roof under our feet.
I loved every moment and every element of this piece. The musicians created walls and waves and trickles and forests of sound, moving expertly and creatively through Electro-Indie, Techno, Electronic, Afro-Cuban and Santaria music. The dancers – Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber and Stephanie McMann – were brilliant and energetically, symbiotically connected to the music in a way that was extremely satisfying and fertile. The staging – the night sky, big sound and bright lights – created a sense that we were at a rare, artistic, rooftop rave. And after an hour of having all the cells in my body dancing to the music, but having to hold myself outwardly still, the thing I was hoping for happened: the last thing the dancers did after our final claps and cheers was to pull the audience into the dance, and the musicians kept playing, for us now.