What I love about Caroline Finn is the eccentricity she brings to her work. Finn, the Artistic Director of NDC Wales and choreographer of The Green House, has an innate ability to tap into the “Britishness” of a situation, and as a result comes up with such quirky, endearing and aesthetically powerful works as The Green House.
This whimsy is also present in past works such as Bernadtette, Bloom and Folk , an ability to mine an off-kilter oddness, whether that be the misplaced hubris of baking (Bernadette) or the solemn, melancholic face masks used in Bloom. Indeed, the fundamental atmosphere of Folk, with its pastoral aesthetic, was another manifestation of Finn’s skill at shining light on the quirkier corners of our culture.
With The Green House, Finn has arguably crossed the Pond to soak up some of the tropes of American culture, especially those deep-seated in the 1950s – that I Love Lucy ’50s housewife vibe, mixed with a Stepford Wives oddness most familiar today through its Desperate Housewives filter, and, as the programme notes point out, the bizarre other-world of David Lynch.
But the British eccentricity is still there, like a spinal through-line. Joe Fletcher’s impressive set is half American diner (day-glo decor and lighting, swing double-doors) and half British sitting room (fireplace and hearth with ornaments, sash windows). This set is a major character in Finn’s presentation, providing a playground for the dancers to perform on. Coupled with Fletcher’s stunning lighting (the stark shaft of light pouring in from the left through a window is beautiful), the whole set-up never fails to fascinate over the course of the 45 minutes. Dare I say it even runs the risk of taking the focus away from the dance…
Finn’s inspiration for The Green House was the idea of “pruning”. We all do it, especially as we get older. When we’re young and making our way in life, we obtain, accrue, purchase, collect and accumulate all manner of things to build our lives, like starlings building a nest. We make friends, we buy records (or mp3s!), we get qualifications, we buy cars and houses, we make babies and gain families. But once our nests have been feathered, our attention often turns to trying to get rid of the things that aren’t working for us, the things we no longer need or feel passionate about. So we have clear-outs and spring cleans and reappraisals which benefit both charity shops and our own state of mind. The older we get, the happier we are with less clutter in our lives.
Finn takes this idea and turns it into a hypnotic dance which shows how difficult it can be for one person to break into an established group of people. Angela Boix Duran peers in at the Green House through the window, through the door and over the wall, desperate to get inside and join in with the others. But those others seem trapped into carrying out the same moves and tasks in repetition, stuck in a groove. Matteo Marfoglia topples from a sideboard, caught each time by a passing Josef Perou; Ed Myhill perches atop the mantelpiece, carried away each time by Perou; and Elena Thomas is picked up from the floor by Perou as he passes, to be reunited with her partner Franklyn Lee. It’s the same, but with each pass, things alter slightly, people move until the routine is broken.
The feeling of loneliness, of looking in from the outside, is beautifully embodied in Duran’s solo outside the window, sometimes mirroring the moves of those inside. There’s also a wonderful routine from Myhill where he feels choked and suffocated, and his physicality as the body’s fluidity breaks down into a stop-start struggle to get off stage is well done. Every performer has their highlight, which includes a splash of that British eccentricity I mentioned when Lee nudges one of the blue duck ornaments on the mantelpiece with his elbow, and almost drops it in trying to put it right. That tiny little move spoke volumes to me, a beautiful bit of slapstick in the mix!
The Green House wears its themes on its sleeve and, coupled with Fletcher’s stunning design and lighting, and an intuitive soundtrack (the choice of Max Steiner’s A Summer Place is genius) is one of the most aesthetically memorable pieces in NDC Wales’s recent canon.
The other piece presented on this tour is Israeli choreographer Roy Assaf’s Profundis, which was at first inspired by Arvo Part’s choral De Profundis, but in the event, is nothing to do with it at all.
Tellingly, the programme notes do not refer to what Profundis is about, and that core question which drives almost all art is at the centre of the piece. Is it, indeed, about anything at all? Does art have to be about something in order to exist? Assaf uses a 1958 lecture by Leonard Bernstein to illustrate the point – music isn’t about anything; music just is. It can be inspired by something, it can take a certain thing as its subject, but at the end of the day, the musical piece will mean different things to different listeners, and not necessarily what the composer intended.
The same goes for dance, especially contemporary dance. People are always trying to find the meaning in dance, and because it’s such a nebulous art form, that can be quite hard, even alienating. But dance need not mean anything. It just is. What matters most is what a piece of art makes the observer feel, what ideas it gives you, as Bernstein says.
Profundis is a mixtape of styles and aesthetics. It starts with a dancer moving in slow motion to a spicy percussive track, portraying a sense of alienation, separation from the real world. We’re then presented with a group of dancers moving in unison to form brief tableaux to the soundtrack of the beautiful Arab singing of Egyptian Umm Kulthum on Enta Omri.
Next up, the dancers are given voices, something rare and sometimes frowned upon in contemporary dance, and each wear boldly coloured outfits which single them out as characters. They reel off a tumbling list of what the music is – and is not – about, whether it be clowns, lions, coconut milk, Michael Jackson, a penguin or a princess in a tower. Each statement is accompanied by a move or posture evoking the subject – Myhill does a great clown, Thomas an amusing penguin, and Perou gives good princess. However, I’m still not convinced how well dialogue works in contemporary dance, certainly to this extent. While it gets the choreographer’s message across more directly, I also expect it to be done through the medium of dance rather than prose.
This whole routine is to the heartbeat rhythm and melancholic piano of Uoon I by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, which gives it a fluidity and continuity, underscoring the sometimes eccentric, sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes inane dialogue.
What is Profundis about? Why is Profundis named after something that does not form a part of it? The message is that it doesn’t matter. It can mean nothing, it can mean something, it can mean everything. There is no right or wrong. It will provoke and inspire a feeling or idea in the observer which is unique to them, and ultimately that is what Profundis is about. Actually, it’s what any art is about. As soon as a piece is shown to an audience, its original meaning is forever diluted, and it becomes the property of everyone and no one.
The Green House
Wales Theatre Awards winner Caroline Finn talks about The Green House:
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
28 April 7.30pm
29 April 2pm. Discover Dance.
29 April 7.30pm
029 2064 6900
Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, Pembs
3 May 7.30pm
Dundee Rep, Dundee
13 May 8pm