Saturday 2 November 2013

A detached view of the march of history

Sun, Sadler’s Wells, London

Sun might be the first dance piece you see that opens with a spoiler. Over the blacked out stage, a (cute-accented, foreign, male) voice comes over the theatre’s PA welcoming us to the show and telling us that, so we can enjoy the rest of the show without worrying, they’re going to show us a bit from the end first, so we know it’s all going to be OK in the end. Which they then duly do. The cleverness of this is that, as well as being quite funny, it immediately makes us think about the idea that whatever happens from the ‘real’ beginning until this point at the end is going to perhaps involve some sort of situation snowballing out of control. ‘Oh, and no animals were hurt in the making of this piece,’ the voice ominously adds.

The dancers are clad in light, colonial-looking clothing, with a couple of them maybe dressed as Pierrots. They look almost exactly like the cast of a production of The Tempest set in maybe 18th or 19th century Italy. They’re dancing to the Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg from Wagner’s Tannhauser. We see maybe thirty seconds to a minute of this. Then there is a black out. When the lights return, there is a single large cardboard cut-out of a sheep centre stage. Slowly, gradually it is joined by other cardboard cut-out sheep. This sequence is repeated a few times across the show, so I couldn’t say with any certainty which time it is that the cardboard cut-out wolf first appears. A woman seated in the front row of the audience stands up and screams, pointing at the wolf cut-out. Later, this sequence is repeated with a life-size card-board cut-out drawing of a native African (or possibly an Aborigine – is that still a word we use? It sounds more than a bit racist now). The ‘wolf ’ to this ‘sheep ’ is a cardboard cut-out drawing of a typical white Victorian colonist. Much later, a lone ‘hoodie ’ (looking like a cardboard cut-out by Banksy) makes an appearance, but this thought is not followed up. Similarly, close to the end, a lone banker on a mobile appears. We do not know if he is the natural predator of the hoodie or vice versa.

These faintly humorous sequences are interspersed with a lot more of the main event – namely the dancing. Shechter’s famous signature style is a kind of three-way collision between Jewish folk dancing, the more classical structures and shapes of ballet, and the sort of dancing to dance music that was popular when I was about 15. It’s also reminiscent of the sort of dancing you maybe saw native Americans doing in some old and probably racist cowboys and ‘Indians’ films. The soundtrack to this tends to be new, original music by Shechter himself. The choreographer originally trained as a percussionist before switching to dance, which is immediately apparent from the enormous reliance placed on rhythm in the music. Both strings and guitars are pretty much also used as additional percussive, rhythmic elements much more than for their properties as vehicles for melody. It stuck me in his earlier piece Political Mother that the majority of this music sounded a bit like a middle-eastern inflected version of Rage Against The Machine. Here, the use of the riff from RATM’s Bombtrack seems to confirm this diagnosis.

As suggested by the costumes and the cardboard cut-out pictures (even before the Aborigine turns up 27 minutes in), the theme of the piece seems clearly to be that of colonialism. The cluster of dancers seems to variously take the roles of natives and then split to also enact invaders. There is a sense throughout of a growing history. A sense of the inexorable tide of colonialism. This is leant poignancy by the make-up of Shechter’s company being so remarkably international. Without this colonialism, we might reflect, would there ever have been such a diverse dance company. On the other hand, should we really view it as inevitable just because it did happen to take place historically? The thesis being presented here (insofar as any dance really ‘presents a thesis ’ any more than it reflects a viewer’s prejudices or preoccupations) seemed to me to be suggesting that conquest and subjugation are a fairly essential and basic human condition. There is the thought that just as the native exercises dominion over the sheep that they find, then the colonialist whites simply applied the same policy to the indigenous peoples they ‘discovered ’. That this is played out underscored by music played at real volume suggest that we should view this as a catastrophe.

On a simplistic level, the fact that this apparent ‘march of history ’ culminates in the troupe goose-stepping and then the final reel, after a merry-go-round of sheeps, wolf, natives, colonials, hoodie and banker, dancing with apparent happiness to some Wagner… Well, you can infer what you like. There’s a darker moment before this where one of the dancers breaks off and screams into the auditorium ‘It’s behind you! ’ and then,  ‘The wolf is behind you!’ Now, you could choose to interpret this as saying either that these bad old days are behind us. Or that it’s all just coiled like a spring and ready to pounce on us – that history is already ready to bite us again. It reads as if Shechter is suggesting that while we all dance about in a fluffy ‘post-ideological age’, his reassurance at the beginning, that it all ends fine was the heavily ironic statement I suspected from the get-go.

In Sun we the audience are expected to do some ‘reading ’ to identify what it was that is being proposed. That said, I’m not entirely sure Shechter’s politics and my own entirely meet. If I were to try to explain the divergence, I might say it feels (and only feels and only to me) that he takes a slightly more detached, amused, ironic view of humanity and history. Less satisfactory, however, is a short sequence in which there are only women. And it is the only section where anyone removes any clothes. And it is the only section to feature any overt sexuality/sexualisation. Sure, the clothes the three women strip down to are functional pants and sports bras, and the sexuality exuded may just as well be their own as something dreamt in the mind of a male choreographer. But since there’s no comparable sequence with men or male sexuality it seems a point worth drawing attention to. Also, I had no idea how it fitted into the wider narrative.  ‘There’s history, now, let’s see how the women are doing,’ it appeared to briefly suggest.

Against this perhaps nit-picking at the dramaturgy or ‘story ’, I should offer a word about Lee Curran’s lighting. Curran’s designs for both this and Political Mother rank in my top five favourite lighting designs ever. There’s a school of thought that says if an audience member notices the lighting then it has failed. Subscribers to that school of thought are, in short, dicks. Here the stage is deliberately shrouded in haze. The haze gives form to every beam of light. This is lighting design made structural. And what a structure. What’s interesting here is how the lighting functions not only as a kind of second set – describing and creating new spaces and new ways of perceiving the stage and looking at the people on it. At times early on, you feel almost as if the dancers and the clothes they are wearing might be there largely to show off the lighting, to give the design a change to better accentuate new and different folds in cloth and textures of skin and hair. I am pretty sure I don’t really have the vocabulary or imagination yet to describe a ‘dramaturgy of lighting ’, but it feels like such a thing, such a discussion, is as central and crucial to the overall meaning of the piece as the movement of the dancers.


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