It might be seen as ironic that one of the most entrancing performances in 2017’s Cardiff Dance Festival doesn’t contain very much dancing at all. However, since Hardy Animal is about the experience of being a dancer, and one who has to deal with a serious threat to her career, it fits perfectly within an ambitious and eclectic programme.
Laura Dannequin is a French-born performer and choreographer living in Bristol. Hardy Animal is about her battle with chronic lower back pain; “battle” being an over-used word in the context of illness but in this case, entirely appropriate.
The 45-minute piece is divided into clearly defined segments. It begins in darkness, with Dannequin at the back of the bare stage, speaking into a microphone, telling us about the kind of intelligent, political, sexy, funny, sad, angry dance performance which she would like have been able to give.
The lights then come up, and she moves centre-stage. There, she stands in silence while her voice-over gives us some impression of the thoughts which go through a dancer’s mind mid-performance – about their bodies, friends and strangers in the audience, life in general.
It is it this point that health concerns become uppermost in the narrative. She returns to the rear of the stage, and gives a lengthy outline of the nature of her physical (and consequently, psychological) travails, medical treatments (conventional and non-conventional), and therapeutic interventions.
As she speaks, having partially disrobed, we observe the laboured rippling of her back muscles while she relives the trauma. For the first time, a little music comes in – some Adele, prescribed as ideal to move to when attempting to exercise her troubled body.
In the next phase, she comes back to face the rapt audience, replaying awkward conversations with friends and family members about her unfortunate condition and the effect it is having on her career. Inevitably, many of those present are fellow dancers who feel her pain.
Dannequin then goes to a lectern, delivering an academic-style lecture, focusing on the difference between helpful “take your hand out of the fire” pain, and the tedious, chronic variety. Gradually, as she speaks, one of her arms seems to take on a life of its own, moving apparently at random, sometimes seeming to attack her, perhaps symbolising the pain itself.
She suggests that it is her confrontational approach to her pain which has resulted in some improvement in her condition – an improvement which is demonstrated when, finally, cathartically, she allows herself to dance; tentatively at first, then more fluent and sinuous. A profoundly emotive conclusion, with the music of Bach enhancing the magic.
While there is no suggestion that Dannequin’s pursuit of this career path was directly responsible for her condition (unless she said otherwise in the post-show Q&A, which I missed), Hardy Animal is a salutary reminder of the heavy price often paid by dancers – or, indeed, anyone whose profession which involves putting the body under extreme physical pressure. This is a highly engaging tribute to human resilience.