A dim light rises on the dark stage of the bijou Borough Theatre in Abergavenny and the figure of a black-suited man begins to writhe and twist. Snake-like, his contortions are simultaneously tortuous and sensuous, and his body eloquently speaks of a repressed and tightly-held passion from the core of his stomach to the stretch of his fingertips. He cuts a fine figure in the loose spotlight and captivates the eye from the first moment in Gwyn Emberton’s dance production, My People.
Soon, multiple figures rise ominously through the gloom, moving with the same fine-boned intensity and the production’s mood begins to take its particular flavour as the community represented by the dancers begins to reveal its forbidding character. Emberton’s dance vocabulary resonates through each dancer as a fluid whole-body experience, and all the dancers take full ownership of the material with bags of technique and a ferocious freedom over their work.
Throughout the production, Emberton stamps a consistent approach to the choreography. Everything he creates gives the dancers a range of vocabulary to express their emotions through pure dance technique and he shows solid confidence with many vibrant solo and duet sequences. The choreographer also finds added strength by using variations on the solo material to make powerful group sections when he brings the cast together as the community they portray. These infrequent group sequences are one of the pleasures of the production, leaving us wanting more of them to enjoy Emberton’s easy handing of the form.
The Welsh roots of the work are clear from the source inspiration, Welsh writer Caradoc Evans, whose controversial My People of 1915 was seen as an attack on the small-minded religious bigots of Welsh communities prevalent where Evans grew up in West Wales. Recently returned to Wales after a successful dance career elsewhere, Emberton portrays empathy to his characters as a community of pain-filled denizens, living in a dark world that only occasionally finds a bright light before being consumed by the dark once again.
Long tendrils of rope are a dominant prop and symbol for Emberton’s vibrant imagination. At times the rope violently restrains movement and binds a dancer to an immovable post. At other times it tangles up in limbs and marks out the stage as if setting the boundary of what’s possible. It’s a rich symbol and the choreographer uses it to great effect.
During the production, the fierceness of the dancing from the wholly excellent cast is sometimes lost in low light levels, even though the lighting design is justified by the theme of the work. When the stage does brighten for a few minutes, we see the dancers’ faces and expressions more clearly and feel more connected to their plight, but the gloom settles back in and our empathy slightly fades. For his choreographic narrative, Emberton uses several of Evans’ stories to create an interwoven seamless whole which has the advantage of giving an elegant flow to the work, but his portrayal of each individual’s character is somewhat lessened by having too much to say. Every choreographer struggles with this challenge of how to reveal more by saying saying less, but at least Emberton has enough dance inventiveness to keep the audience tightly in his grasp.
Emberton’s choices of music are a touch obvious occasionally, and the production’s lighting and costumes are modest due to tight budgets and low resources. However, with experience he is sure to learn how to maximise what can be achieved with what he has. However, the real pleasure of this current work is how he gives us time in front of such talented dancers who perform their material as if their lives depend on it.
My People is the type of dance production that might benefit from getting itself out of a conventional black-box theatre and placing itself in an aggressive physical environment where its outpouring of resonating emotion could be framed more strongly. A ruined factory site, an abandoned hillside chapel or a desolate farm shed might lend it a more powerful setting.
In this first full-length touring work, Emberton shows a voice that can reach into his own Welsh roots and then make work that speaks way beyond that to audiences anywhere. His talent is raw but strong and he now needs high investment to enable him to exploit that talent to lift him to the success he deserves. Time will tell, but with strong marketing support and additional design and production backup, Gwyn Emberton could be a break-through artist who will both entertain and challenge a wide general public.
Borough Theatre Abergavenny
My People at Edinburgh Festival
24th to 29th August at Zoo Sanctuary – 1pm