Coming to the Dance House as part of the Cardiff Dance Festival, Swish is a work that cannot truly be separated from its roots in the Czech Republic, where Tereza Hradilková, both performer and mastermind of this piece, hails from. Aided by a mix of raw electric guitar and electronic music performed live by Filip Míšek, she brings to the stage a narrative that is meant to be felt more than followed, a series of vivid vignettes illustrating a connection with a country locked in a moment of rapid historical change, split between a childhood memory and an adult’s present. The connection is not without nuance – in turn nostalgic, conflicted, reassuring, and suffocating; as an immigrant myself, the theme immediately resonated with me, even without the backdrop of political turmoil which here colours everything, especially in the first half of the performance.
The skipping rope that marks the time of the whole performance, almost never stopping – one grows used to the rhythm of it almost without noticing, so that, in the rare, pivotal instances in which it does stop, it feels even more poignant – changes meaning too, and almost shape, as the nature of the character’s relationship with her country changes. Through an expression of movement only apparently constrained by the repetitive nature of the rope-skipping, the rope itself is a toy, the flutter of a dress, an umbilical cord, a cage. There is an ingeniousness in the way this trivial object and this simple movement are explored, through which Swish walks a fine line that separates the challenging from the repetitive; it is to its credit that it never falls into the latter. This is also aided by the fact that the piece is exactly as long as it needs to be, making it sharp and incisive, all excess trimmed out.
It is, nevertheless, fundamentally a piece based around a single narrative gimmick – the skipping rope – and as such it has all the strengths and all the weaknesses that come with it. The work deliberately takes into account the limitations brought by being constrained by the tool, but limitations they are all the same, and in some points it is impossible not to wonder what would perhaps be added if the choreography broke through and beyond its self-imposed rule. The risk of repetitiveness, though almost always avoided through a clever handling of timing and tempo, is also still there, and there are one or two moments which feel already-seen, and less impactful because of that. Lovers of the finer complexities of dance as an art may find it underwhelming, though Swish is a show of a different kind of finesse, more conceptual and based on testing the limits of a challenging context – no less technical, therefore, but more stripped-down.
More than just a dance performance, then, it is perhaps correct to think of Swish as a hybrid work, drawing much from avant-garde theatre and performance art, where the text and the movement exist together and can’t make full sense without each other. As someone who, as a critic, is far more familiar with theatre than with dance, I found this made the work more easily accessible and its codes easier to decipher; it might be an excellent approach to dance for those who have a curiosity towards the art form but are somewhat intimidated by its purest expressions. Those who have a long-term and in-depth experience with dance will also, I suspect, find it interesting in the way it sets itself challenges and manages to work, not around them, but within them; and in the way it translates images, and memories, into movement. It remains, regardless, a work that exists both as dance and as drama, and any understanding of it would be incomplete without considering both elements.
Swish is challenging, deliberately so; it is a technical exercise and a raw narrative of conflict and belonging, all at the same time; it has clockwork precision while being at times intensely emotional. It asks much of its audience, and it is far from a given that all responses it will elicit will be positive. But it is a deeply honest work that doesn’t fear to push its own boundaries, and there is value in that regardless of anything else.
Image: Vojtěch Brtnický
Cardiff Dance Festival: http://dance.wales/whats-on