There can’t be many dance pieces which are directly inspired by the work of Charlie Chaplin and Goldie Hawn, but when choreographer Christopher Bruce heard a section of music by American composer Kenji Bunch, the ideas that flooded into his mind were clear and precise.
Shift is the first of two of his pieces performed by Phoenix Dance Theatre in their 2015 mixed programme, touring the UK this Autumn and which premiered at Mold’s Clwyd Theatr Cymru to a young and enthusiastic audience.
Created eight years ago, Shift is only eight minutes long, but its intention is obtainable from the outset. The regimented, purposeful final movement of Bunch’s Swingshift provides the soundtrack to a perfectly evoked depiction of life in a factory. Foremost in Bruce’s mind were the World War Two imagery of the obscure 1984 Jonathan Demme film Swing Shift, and the genius staging of Chaplin’s Modern Times, but really, this could be any factory in any country – it could be a munitions factory in 1940s England, or a sweat shop in modern-day Bangladesh (although perhaps the workers wouldn’t be so jolly in that case!).
The rhythmic movements represent the turning of knobs, the pulling of levers and the repetition of operating machinery in a ceaseless environment. Each dancer arrives at work with a nod of acknowledgement or a wink of greeting to their co-workers, then set about their shift individually, but over the course of the piece their work interacts as the operator almost becomes a part of the machinery, or as Bruce says: “The machinery takes over from the functions of the body.”
It’s a beautiful, simple and fun evocation of factory life which is perhaps a little too short, but as the piece is constrained by the length of Bunch’s music, this is understandable. A small but perfectly formed starter for the programme.
Christopher Bruce’s second, and newest, piece is Shadows, a 13-minute study of a family which has perhaps seen better times and is afraid of something. That something is open to individual interpretation – it could be loss, one another, or the greater threat of war. Certainly when I was watching it I took away the idea that it was perhaps a poor German family (maybe even Jewish?) feeling trapped in their small home and with the invasive threat of conflict and prejudice just outside the door (and if they were Jewish, smashing right through it).
The use of the sparse furniture to create a barrier – the table becomes a bunker, the stools become projectiles – suggests the family is railing against whatever threat they perceive, and certain movements, such as the pounding of the floor with fists in anger, make this a highly emotive and affecting piece.
Bruce is happy for the audience to project their own themes onto Shadows, and is content to create a world individual to him but malleable enough to apply to other people’s experience. He says the music by Arvo Part is sad and melancholic, laden with the human experience of a thousand years, and this is signed off movingly at the end as the dancers pull on their clothes and walk steadily toward the front of the stage, in a line (perhaps a firing line?) and in silhouette. Whatever the audience takes from Shadows, this sobering ending must have the same thought-provoking effect on everybody.
Phoenix’s artistic director Sharon Watson has a history of choreographing the enigmatic. She’s choreographed the wedding of Victor Frankenstein for a live TV broadcast, visualised the imaginative dances featured in Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for BBC1, and made DNA flesh in 2013’s Repetition of Change.
For TearFall she has taken human tears as the basis for a varied, energetic and creative 20-minute routine which begins, startlingly, with the muscular form of dancer Prentice Whitlow telling the audience what tears are, what’s in them and what they’re for. This monologue is educational stuff: we learn that 98% of a tear is water, but that the remaining 2% consists of a wealth of proteins, mucus and even painkillers. We’re also told that humans are the only creatures on the planet to produce tears of pain as well as joy.
The movement and form in TearFall reflect the different types of tears, why we cry and what happens when we do. You can tell Watson has done her homework; indeed, she worked with scientists and the Wellcome Trust to produce the work. Each dancer has their individual emotional journey sparked by an intense exploration of how different experiences make people cry.
But while each performer has their own tale to tell, they are still a collective part of a tear’s protein structure, and this breadth of personal experience within the confines of a group creates some interesting dynamics. The use of balloons to represent the pearls of tears is highly effective, each balloon being weighted by a tag upon which must read a message or emotion. One tear is weighted by sorrow, another by joy, another by remorse, another by horror.
Because TearFall is rooted in so much academic and emotional investigation, it almost feels like the finished project is so personal to Watson and the dancers that it’s hard for the audience to see the messages playing out, but that’s not really the objective, I don’t think. The point of the piece is to embody both the physical make-up of tears, as well as the reasons for their creation, and in that sense, every single member of the audience can relate to that. Everyone has cried, everyone will cry again. Tears are a tangible and uncompromising element of human existence. When we feel, we cry, which makes TearFall a very emotional journey indeed.
You get the impression that Phoenix knew they’d saved the best for last when they put Bloom fourth in the running order. It’s a new piece, half an hour long but never feeling like it, created after Caroline Finn won the 2014 New Adventures Choreographer Award to come up with a new piece for Phoenix to stage.
Bloom is all about facades, masks, the barriers we put up to both protect ourselves and to represent us in different environments. We’re different at home with our loved ones to how we are out and about meeting strangers, or with our work colleagues. We’re different again with friends than we are family. And sometimes we wear a facade to lie to ourselves too.
Finn’s work has a surrealism and an eccentricity that fits the subject matter. It’s centred around a dinner party, the sort of environment where everybody is on their best behaviour but is also presenting themselves in the way they think others see them, or at least the way they would like to be seen. This is rarely the real individual, but an aspect of them: a facade.
Yaron Abulafia’s lighting really enhances the oddness of the staging, especially when Carmen Vazquez Marfil gets her time in the literal spotlight and begins to play out an intensely surreal character with a hooped dress and demented facial expressions. It’s a delightful solo from Marfil, and no easy task when Emilie Autumn’s mind-boggling Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches is your uncompromising soundtrack.
There’s also a lovely routine between Prentice Whitlow and Vanessa Vince-Pang laced with comedy and sadness, with an impressive series of leaps and catches, including one moment where Vanessa perches precariously on Prentice’s hooked palm. Clever, unexpected and charming.
But the star of this show is undoubtedly the solemn-faced misfit played by the wonderful Sam Vaherlehto, a dancer with experience in everything from ballet to street dance. Wearing a beautifully crafted mask for the entire routine, and some eccentric clothes straight out of a second-hand vintage shop, he creates a character through both dance and mime who instantly earns a place in your heart. The forlorn, sorrowful fixed expression of the mask, coupled with the gentle, characterful choreography, creates a centre for the routine that you almost can’t take your eyes off. Vaherlehto is masterful in this role, at one stage managing to take off all his clothes while sliding around on his back among the frantic movements of the other dancers.
Make no mistake, Bloom is a fantastic, meaningful, entertaining and well-presented piece of work, and Finn and the Phoenix company should be proud of what they’ve achieved, and nobody more so than Vaherlehto. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear Radiohead’s Creep given a swing interpretation and sung by a Frank Sinatra wannabe, you’ll love the finale. Everybody else did!
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Mixed Programme 2015. Touring