No doubt about it, the pairing of Watson and Whelan is an inspired one. They in fact share similar physical characteristics – both are rangy in body, gifted with an eloquently athletic élan, and both excel in contemporary choreography. Both are in the latter part of their careers with which comes experience and artistic ability. So too I gather they share a similar mindset on objectives and visions for their dance.
Good then to see the pair together here, though the material wasn’t 100% successful to my mind. “Other Stories” sees five stories (three duets and two solos) choreographed for especially for the event. One imagines that these other stories are perhaps other than stories they have been historically made to tell in their professional careers, hence the title: the vocabulary frees them into different expression.
Being without a programme I named the first piece “Afternoon of a Waiting Room”. (It is in fact First and Wait by Javier DeFrutos). No music though, there is only a ticking clock. Five chairs sit on the stage and a clock on the back wall gives us the time. Watson waits, Whelan enters. Are they lovers? Strangers?
Certainly any advances are denied, touch is elided and intimacy avoided – A hand tries to find cheek and is dodged – in favour of teasing. There is a story here I am sure, but it was hard to discern. De Frutos’ writing reminds of a childhood game of denying a sibling seating, musical chairs for two. Choreography and gestures are performed by Watson then repeated later by Whelan. Watson does moves akin to chair dips, and (memorably) lavishly extends into a deep extension using the chair seat for support.
I had written “boredom and creation” as a thought when watching, and reading ROH tells me that as much as anything his piece is almost a diary of moments of discovery and creation in the studio, here presented for us. As such it is a little light in import and absent of narrative telos: if there was any story at all it wasn’t too deeply delineated, and it displayed its piecemeal improvisatory foundations a little too honestly. That said, there was a memorably audacious lift in the piece, and I’m still not sure how the two even pulled it off, but they did. So too we saw a lovely interplay and intimacy between the two dancers which was only to grow as the evening progressed.
The next piece “Arlene Phillips – Dance Me to the End of Love” was Watson’s solo with four piece live band backing him. The vocalist sung a torch version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and later she played the violin. This live backing would switch to baroque every so often (Telemann, I am told) and it was here where Watson unfurled, transforming motion into poetry. Something about the languor and the pace of the baroque sections (a more “classical” music allowing a more classical grace?) became him, elegaic music giving freedom of (written) expression. The yearning arabesques and reaching hands, and the chords and arcs of classical port de bras fully suited the langauge of the piece: Watson’s depiction of morose and depressive living wrested lyricism from despair. This writing was too brief, but it made one want more of it.
After a few small solos to each style – baroque and modern – a pair of ruby stiletto shoes descended on a trapeze. Watson pulled a chair over and sat down, trying on first one shoe, and dancing a little, and then trying the other. I have to say that he did a great job dancing in killer heels but though the imagery was novel, the idea at first glance was a bit odd. Only later did I realise he was perhaps quite literally attempting to follow in the footsteps of a lover he had lost. A chair performed partnering duties once more, and I didn’t mind that.
Whelan’s solo (by Annie-B Parson and entitled Short Ride Out ) was next, involving her removing a pair of pink slippers at downstage right, dancing frenetically for a bit, then doing the same downstage right. Accompaniment was provided by a drummer playing drums (hi-hat and a few cymbals crashes it looked like) for a very long time, at 16th notes and faster, all in one feel and mic-ed up no less. About 1/4 of the way through I had to put my trusty earplugs in due to unremitting smashing of hi-hats. I swear I lost about 2 dB from my top freqs due to this sustained aural assault. Such was my ongoing discomfort that I couldn’t quite focus on Wheelan’s artistry. Sorry Wendy.
Next came a duet, rather more traditional (boy and girl, perhaps in love) and hence intelligible to my old fashioned faculties (The Song We Share by Danièle Desnoyers). The aforementioned backing group played Phillipe B’s “L’oiseau mécanique”* and other jazzy-esque music and it was a welcome respite from the previous drumbashing.
Lastly was Arthur Pita‘s tango pastiche “The Ballad of Mack and Ginny“. Fully the most dramatic and well-knit piece of the evening, it was also perhaps the most bizarre. W+W emerge from the wings with a chair each and boxes. Watson strips off her jeans. She is wearing suspenders and stockings, all black. Watson wears braces and a derby/bowler hat. Both apply vampish makeup to their faces: a startle-red of lips and over-the-top mascarara. Wheelan lights a cigarette and extinguishes it on her tongue, flicking it to (a very surprised) person in the third row. This is cabaret gothique which turns into almost a perversion of the tango art form. Both dancers showed they had adopted the pieces of the idiom handily, but I imagine “real tango” dancers would pick holes in their attempts. Counterfeit or simulcara as it was, it more than did the job,, Pita’s writing referencing the lifts and legwork that make the style so distinctive. The added twist is that each has a switchblade. And each runs at the other, stabs them, and mimes extracting their heart.
Musically the band used saw and bow, bowed xylophone, electric guitar, weird ambient tube things, violin, whistling and voice to create a soundscape for movement. What followed was cleverly written. Wheelan holds her hair up and Watson uses this to support her and as hold-point for his partnering. A memorable image. Once more an astonishing lift or two punctuated the proceedings which always get the blood going.
What threatend to get it even more going (for me) was when things took an odder turn. Wheelan removes her top facing away from us and stands there swaying to the music. Watson gives her a long tiered necklace which he puts on her so it is on her back. One’s perception is reconfigured: we begin to see her back as the front. Uncanny. Later on Wheelan strips Watson totally naked, except for his sock suspenders. One senses an equality in Pita’s manner: “for her Ed, and the same for for you”. Sultry and teetering on the edge of sexy but never completely riveting, the piece ends wtith a deep kiss: male dominance? or an attempt to give a strong end to a not so strong narrative?
At the end of it all, standing ovations from a few audience members, cheers and applause. All enjoyed it, and the playfulness and bond that the two dancers share was evident – Whelan coaxing Watson for another curtain call by pulling him by his braces, hugs and smiles.
Not quite the most satisfying evening, due to the unevenness of the pieces, but worthwhile to see two great talents show us (in the intimacy of the Linbury too) what they can do – which is a lot, in various styles, and always with commitment.
* and it is to the vocalist’s credit that her French was so good, that I understood and remembered the lyrics enough to find that song.
*As a note, this band should have been helped in their instrument and equipment swaps by a better sound dept at the Linbury. More than once we had loud pops and a bit of 50kHz loud buzz from unplugged instruments and plugging in cables.