Scottish Dance Theatre was founded by choreographer, Royston Muldoon in 1986 as a mixed community and professional dance company based at Dundee’s repertory theatre. Since then, it has developed its identity through several Artistic Directors notably Janet Smith from 1997 until 2012 when the current Director, Fleur Darkin took over. Smith’s time defined the Company’s artistic profile, taking a firm line with production values and giving it a reputation as a reliable, middle-ranking repertory dance company, touring widely through the UK and abroad. Her artistic policy was to commission mainstream dance choreographers with an emphasis on strong technique dancing, high rehearsal standards and a keen eye on building a regional British audience sensibility.
Based on seeing the current Company at the dance-friendly Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea, Darkin has moved the Company forward with more expansive and longer productions while retaining the Company’s trademark identity with a group of personable and talented youngish dancers. Classical music rules the roost throughout and production themes are abstract and touchy-feely, mostly avoiding the extremes of physical or dance-theatre aesthetics.
In the double bill, similarities between the works are striking. They are equal in length and inhabit the equivalent emotional territories as eccentric characters dance and strut their way around the stage with occasional semi-narrative scenes coming and going without accumulating significant character development or possibility of catharsis.
The opening work, Winter, Again by Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren is a take on one of Schubert’s most famous works, Winterreise, a piece that has been reworked by choreographers all over the world. The music, a setting of 24 poems for voice and piano relates to a journey of the heart in a melancholy mood and contains a rich set of allegorical allusions and states of mind throughout the winter’s journey to death. Deeply sensitive and moving, it has constantly inspired choreographers and audiences since it was published in 1827.
In the programme, the music is listed incorrectly as Eine Winterreise, perhaps suggesting Strømgren’s Winter, Again is selectively taking ownership over Schubert’s music and the exquisite poetry of Wilhelm Muller. Throughout the production, the choreographer interposes several prose/poetry readings by a recorded voice but frustratingly, only the speaker but not the writer is credited. The effect on the performance is somewhat unnecessary as Schubert is enough to be dealing with.
The production begins solidly with a beautifully danced duet before the cast of six begin to make suspicious entrances and exits through a large double curtain that divides the stage in half. A variety of stuffed dead animals are dragged back and forth across the stage which gives the dancers something to work with to comical effect while they face off in a series of mock confrontations. The choreography throughout is high quality, giving the dancers enough to show how good they are, especially the lovely Amy Hollingshead who impresses constantly. The final image of a hidden gunshot killing one of the dancers concludes the work and while the production looks glossy on the surface, it eventually loses the fight against Schubert’s masterful music.
Following a short interval, choreographer Anton Lachky offers up Dreaming, a half-hour work that garishly claims in the programme to be ‘exploring links between reality and surrealism’. The choreographer also suggests he is ‘…challenging our subconscious impulses that allow us to slip into dream-like fantasies…’. Hmmm…really? Aggressive programme notes such as this that tell the audience what to think are notoriously misleading, not least in setting up high but unmet expectations. Good programme notes help an audience enjoy work better, but Lachky offers a hostage to fortune and risks being held to account for what see and feel for ourselves.
The work begins with a contemporary dance equivalent to a break dance scene with high speed flourishes of dance being passed to and fro between the eight dancers. It’s fast, furious and fun. Scenes follow that mix pure-dance and character studies mostly dealing with personal control scenarios. Lachky makes the dancers gurn and grimace all over the place to achieve his purpose, but this mostly strives for self-conscious effect. There are two curious scenes where dancer, Audrey Rogero mugs herself into grotesque and bedraggled form first in a female duet and then a quartet with three bare-topped men. Rogero nobly gives it her all and almost makes sense of it, but I wondered how much better it might have been with a more subtle approach. Fortunately, Rogero’s professional commitment to her work is heart-warming and she contrives to give it considerable artistic dignity. The music throughout the work seems chosen for speed or rhythmic functionality, adding only an effective backdrop to the choreography. The finale, with a virtuoso blast of voice-led material by Francesco Ferrari is high voltage stuff and brings the work to a cheery but mysterious ending. Surreal yes, but challenging to our subconscious? Perhaps not. Although Dreaming is popular with the audience, this work could be even better with more restraint on hand.
As one would expect from Scottish Dance Theatre, the evening’s production values are high from start to end and the dancers give full voice to all that is asked of them. The two apprentice dancers, Christopher Radford and Nerea Gurratxaga Arruti distinguish themselves by performing out of their skins and show the high value of these apprenticeship schemes that are supported by London School of Contemporary Dance.
The Taliesin Arts Centre audience cheered the performances at the end, showing their strong appreciation of a hard night of dancing from everyone on stage. Taliesin, as always is to be congratulated for its long-term commitment to programming high quality dance, bringing interesting, exciting and sometimes downright exceptional companies to Wales.
Scottish Dance Theatre
Taliesin Arts Centre