Creeping in and out of a lit square, four black and white figures pose and contort onstage, smooth and slightly unnerving. This is Laberinto – a collaboration between Bristol-based choreographer Lea Anderson, composer Steve Blake, and the Peruvian Compañia Danza PUCP.
Their early explosions of movement are almost overwhelming; it took me a little while to become fully immersed in this world, but in the end it was the little details that really hooked me. The dancers’ shifting expressions and gestures balance on the tightrope between familiar and strange – they stick their tongues out, or glance at each other, or seem to be signalling to the audience, but it is unclear what. It feels like we are seeing people doing funny things, without it being funny at all. This doesn’t feel like a failure, but instead creates a slightly disturbing atmosphere, like watching clips of an old black and white cartoon out of context, or hearing someone pretend to laugh – the unsettling gap between what is being done and what is being understood.
It is unclear whether these figures are here as mischief makers or something darker. If they are there to make mischief, it is almost definitely at our expense rather than for our pleasure. There is a looseness in the bodies of the dancers throughout that intensifies this sense of them as clowns, or almost marionettes – even when performing precise sequences or impressive feats of athleticism, there is never a sense of rigidity in what they do. Instead, it feels like they’re playing, performing these movements as though they’re everyday and unnoteworthy.
Labertinto‘s cartoonish feel is fitting for a work that counts Betty Boop among its inspirations, alongside Cab Calloway, Ancient Greek nymphs and pre-Incan art. These eclectic sources create a mercurial atmosphere around these mysterious figures, with references jumping out and weaving together – like a series of stills from a zoetrope suddenly shifting into vogueing-like movements. With each audience member bringing their own library of cultural knowledge, each pair of eyes multiplies the meanings in the show.
This layering of references continues in the design. Each performer is completely covered by their costume, created by Alonso Nuñez, with their faces further obscured by black and white face paint. It looks like the costumes should get in the way of the dance, with tall fluffy wigs and strange barred dresses, but they bend and adjust. Their monochrome geometric patterns make the dancers seem like figures from a deck of playing cards, coming alive and stepping out off the card’s surface, as they step in and out of the playing space onstage.
Repetition helps draw out different aspects of this shifting meaning, as patterns and postures return again and again, and different couples dance the same duet. Steve Blake’s soundtrack helps accentuate the differences each time a motif returns, with music ranging from driving soundscapes to jazz classics.
Fittingly for the cartoons and nymphs and fauns that inspire it, the overwhelming sense of the piece is of unsettling fun – a joke which you don’t understand, never quite knowing if you are the butt of it.
Laberinto was at Bristol Old Vic from 16-18th January. It tours to Swansea and Newport until 23rd January. More info here.