Yet again dance shows it has the power to communicate with us in a way that theatre so often fails, thanks to the direct appeal to the senses that words often fail to reach. So much contemporary, well-meaning (and award-winning) spoken drama slides into agit prop and cliché when put into spoken words, while music and movement can transcend such pitfalls.
Gwyn Emberton’s RAFT looks at one example of the contemporary disaster of political and economic failures in so many parts of the world that have galvanised mass movements of population in search of refuge and/or a materially better life. The choreographer has taken the most visible form of this tragedy, people risking their lives to cross seas, as the basis for his dance which it would seem divides into the journey and the arrival.
This is a very dark piece in both the subject matter and the lighting and while the physical gloom of the production encapsulates the theme and atmosphere it also inhibits some of our ability to appreciate (i.e. see) the faces and details of the movement. For the first half of the show I sat at the very front of the Riverfront auditorium and it was near and light enough to see these facial contours, the open mouths of despair, the desperate gestures and wide eyes of exhaustion and fear. For the second part I sat much further back and while there was more spectacle (many people walking across the stage to either ignore or embrace, blank or clothe the dispossessed landing on their shores) it was harder to see, to appreciate details and I rather wished I had stayed right at the front.
Emberton has assembled a strong group of dancers and while I would not guess at their nationality or ethnicity I did think of the furore poor Music Theatre Wales has found itself in, casting non-Asian singers portraying Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai chefs. I am sure similar casting issues determined the make-up of this troupe and I am unaware of any complaints about having blond, white people presumably representing largely Middle Eastern and African migrants/refugees. (I have subsequently been advised by the choreographer that they are not representing actual migrants/refugees, see comments below). The importance for me is what the artists are saying in the work and so the expression through dance of isolation, mutual support and dependence, misery and exasperation through a gamut of intense solo, immersive ensemble, and intricate duets, shouted out beyond skin colours, as all art should.
The dancers are battered and bruised, tossed and traumastised by the sea as they clamber, grasp, collapse on, in and around Becky Davies’s set, light metals frames and floating panels that can be anything from containers to broken craft, battered by a fierce musical soundscape ranging from tunes for each of the UK home nations, discordant extracts of speeches and broadcasts and Sion Orgon’s throbbing, unrelenting pounding music. The first all at sea section could perhaps be trimmed to the length of the second section, to concentrate the emotion and intensity of the movement. For this touring production groups of local people have been recruited to come on to the stage in that second half act as our castaways (figuratively and literally) find themselves beached (again figuratively and literally) on new shores. Some walk on by zombie-like, others comfort and tend to the new arrivals, while in the background a cracked wall is beautifully employed by Emberton for his dancers to express through their movement their experiences and emotions on terra firma.
Emberton is capable of creating brilliant dance that is aesthetically gorgeous and deeply intelligent in narrative and emotional communication. While his work can also be difficult to comprehend in this dance there is no such problem as the message and form of conveying the message is clear, effective while also visually engaging. It is a hard task and possibly a little ironic conveying horror and ugliness through the beautiful aesthetic of dance but there is no conundrum here.
3 / 10 / 2017 Canolfan Y Celfyddydau Aberystwyth Arts Centre 7.30pm
7 / 10 / 2017 The Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog 7.30pm
10 / 10 / 2017 Ffwrnes, Llanelli 7.30pm
19 / 10 / 2017 The Riverfront/Glan yr Afon, Newport/Casnewydd 7.30pm
24 / 10 / 2017 The Hafren, Newtown/Drenewydd 7.30pm
27 / 10 / 2017 Galeri, Caernarfon 7.30pm
Gwyn talks about Raft:
Images: Warren Orchard
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