For her Wild Card curated evening of new dance theatre, Vicki Igbokwe chooses pieces whose linek is more thematic than it is aesthetic. We begin with Alesandra Seutin’s Ceci n’est pas Noire! Seutin is a London-based Belgian-Zimbabwean whose solo piece explores her dual identity as both African and European. The opening image is of her sitting with her back to us a batik wrap around her head, wearing a polka-dot dark blue jump suit. She brims with the energy of potential as she sits surrounded by the strains of an aria.
It is such an arresting image and one that says so much about the two cultural identities she straddles that the rest of piece unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise. Seutin uses audience interaction a lot, playing a parlour game with us where she puts the name of someone on her face and we have to answer the same questions for each person: Beyoncé, the Queen, God, Seutin herself. It’s a neat device and gets the audience laughing at one another’s responses but ultimately it doesn’t have anywhere in particular to go. The movement, though beautiful and powerful, doesn’t feel particularly integrated into the dramatic gesture of the piece. By the end, I felt that the two elements were coexisting on the assumption that one would fill in the gaps left behind by the other but that this piece still had a way to go in finding its form.
Ecdysis, by contrast, is a short, simple, wordless piece is entirely focussed on the key elements of movement, costume, sound and lighting. Mesma and her choreographer Anthony Egea’s inspiration for the piece are no less ambitious than Seutin. Mesma also wants to explore her mixed heritage but the visual and mythological metaphors she finds for this are the idea of an insect shedding skin and the Andean symbol Chakana which represents the threshold that connects the three worlds (Gods, humans and the dead).
I may have missed something through my lack of understanding of Peruvian Inca beliefs but the idea of the skin came across particularly strongly. Mesma is covered in a tight, futuristic body-suit with a hood. Crouched over, breaking, she looks and moves like a humanoid alien, constricted by some elements we can’t quite see but able to move around a lower plane with terrifying speed and violence. Her breaking really pushes the form beyond battles and bravado. It reminded me of Storyboard P’s claim that his “style is mutant”. All this strangeness is contrasted with moments when Mesma lets her head down and we see her as a real-life woman after all. In the piece’s final moment, she stands up straight and tall, dignified, proud and confident in her skin as she leaves the stage.
For any reservations I might have had about Ceci n’est pas Noire!, the first half of the evening constituted a fascinating pair of new works exploring some similar ideas from different angles and in very different ways. Anything else was always going to be a bonus. I wasn’t expecting what came after the interval though. All the seats had been removed and the Lilian Baylis Studio was now playing an underground house club in New York City for Vicki Igbokwe’s Our Mighty Groove. That the dancers are extremely skilled is worth mentioning but perhaps not entirely surprising given the context. It was nice to see, through the casting of Kendra Horsburgh of Ivan Blackstock’s Birdgang Dance Company, emphasising the continuity and connections between the various young choreographers involved in the Wild Card project.
What was so impressive about Our Mighty Groove was its staging. The audience are unsure of themselves to start with. The delineation between where we sit and where they dance had disappeared. Instead we were in a recreation of a space where we might normally be expected to dance ourselves.
Igbokwe starts by reinforcing our position as audience. There is a podium with two professional dancers on it. It’s obvious that they are professionals. She then places a few dancers on the periphery of the space though: one blends in to the crowd brilliantly. She’s one of us. She starts dancing a little, shyly at first. We smile. She’s getting into it. A minute later she’s really getting into it. She’s picking up. She seems to know what she’s doing. We start to clock what’s happening. She’s part of the company of course but she plays the outsider so well that she opens up the space for genuine audience members to join in. This being very much a dance audience: some do. OK, he was clearly an off-duty professional but then there was the woman on the stairs, arch, fabulous but a bit above it all at first. Until she starts to strut…
The more traditional audience interaction techniques of audience call and response, copying the hand movements of the dancers on the podium worked well with this by-then very fired up audience but they felt less interesting compared to the way Igbokwe had meticulously designed the experience to draw us in. In doing so, she conveys an emotional state to us: her first visit to an underground house club in New York. Feeling an outsider, on the edge, not part of this, being offered the space, accepting the invitation. All of this through movement, through the feet, the hips, the arms, a crowd shifting and opening, a smile. It’s pure dance theatre.
For more on Sadler’s Wells Wild Card initiative read our feature.