In a show lasting sixty minutes the New Youth Dance Company (NYDC) seemed to expend enough energy to power a small nation. That nation something like an ideal – a shared enterprise of dance. The pieces stressed the brotherhood of human ambition and addressed discrimination against disability; war and general conflict, ostracism, judgemental attitudes, common pain – with a smattering of neurobiology added for good measure!
Frame[d] is a melange of material drawn from Belgian/Algerian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. His pieces Babel(words) (co-choreographed with Damien Jalet,) Puz/zle, Loin and TeZukA reknit especially for this company and tour. No mean feat for National Youth Dance Company (NYDC) to score the coup of his touch and so too a coup for Dance East, going from strength to strength lately.*
A promo before the action actually took place was projected onto the back of the space. High on narratives of journeys and meaning, the children taking part were obviously deeply respectful of Cherkaoui’s help, and vision. So too one felt a love of dance from all.
But back to that dance. No uniform or costumes here when the youths arrived onstage. The kids were in practice clothes throughout, which I didn’t mind at all. One got a real feeling of individuality from each person, personality by design, where dance often erases it.
The event began with martial arts themed motion, pulled punches, and kicks, a maelstrom of movement growing from simple beginnings. I bet there was more than a few accidental strikes during rehearsal (ouch!). All was force and arrested violence, “Kiai” and “hard style” technique. People ran at each other, leapt en masse, shouted cries. One felt the earth shake: as CEO Brendan Kearney said, one is lucky to be so close to the action at Dance East. The people in the front rows had a treat. Thirty or so leaping dancers can sure generate a lot of power, Cherkaoui referencing karate, capoeira, probably some kung fu (he really loves martial arts!) but in places too there was movement reminding of “push hands” from tai chi, a counterpoint of grace from the preceding kinetic abandon. So too, later as the violence subsided a young man (Luke Harden) sat in Buddha attitude, a centre of serenity amid swirling chaos. As spectacle, it got the blood racing (and jeez, not just mine for sure – the poor dancers). The point of this? It may not be Cherkaoui’s intent here but to me the ritualised moves suggested how violence is fetishised.*
And not just physical violence. At one point a young dancer (Annie Edwards) is trapped in one of these frames and mimes trying to escape. Knees and elbows strike the invisible walls, hands try to push but meet force constraining them. as she struggles, the rest of the dancers close in and congregate to stare and watch: the violence of the gaze. Brave of Cherkaoui to have this presented, salient and uncomfortable to see, brave too perhaps of Edwards to dance it.
Frantic hand gesturing then began to a background of techno music – which from some could have used slightly more intensity. A young man street-danced his way through the action, noteworthy for his grace and skill.
Autonomic action from all was Cherkaoui’s aim and well given: there was no denying the incredible synchronicity which a young man and woman showed when speaking the same text (about mirror neurons). At times it sounded as if his voice had digitally merged with hers. The whole ensemble joined in the speech. We admire and celebrate the Mariinsky’s swan lanes – uniformity somehow pleases us, but this was no less impressive. Gesture and speech as one mass, to no accompaniment: excellence from all.
Dancers next confronted each other doing “hear/see/speak no evil” faces/hands facing anxious motional interlocutors: passion versus impassivity. In the frantic mime scene a young blond man was definitely “in the zone” here. Leading his group it was wonderful to watch the effortless articulation and conviction of motion in his dancing: perhaps it was the expression in his eyes – involved in the moment yet acting distant,: present, and yet absent: focus negating the self. Captivating to see.
Another dancer emerged with a paintbrush and began (most beautifully) to “paint” a couple into life whilst others swirled around – as if Lascaux were come alive. Her brush caressed a limb, and the limb followed: a flick of the brush as it left a hand and finger gave a grace note of elegance to her movement, the painted dancers falling back into languor as their creator’s brush left their body
Eventually the boy and girl had been in effect created. The painter left and thus began a pas de deux noteworthy for its democracy of execution: boy carried girl and girl carried and rotated boy (no mean feat, this): equality of motion knowing no judgement. The boy was particualry impressive,his face animated with ardour and wonder at finding himself here made and too, dancing with this girl to himself. Once more the eyes had it, and it showed. Only a few hands and lines less than perfect belied the girl’s youth here. Background music sounded pseudo-Japanse, lots of wailing, but also, perhaps I heard the haunting voice of Fadia Tomb El-Hage in there?
Any presentation of Puz/zle’s monumental (some said monumentally boring, but not I – I think it is wonderful) work for troupe and huge foam blocks would have to adapt to tour and adapt it did. Its primordial beginnings, its grand edifices and intimations of cities couldn’t quite be shown here with these frames, but the frames were pushed around to good effect, a few rotations, some dancers finding themselves once more entrapped: this was translation (of shape) defeating openness (and here one thinks of Babel again.) It made me wish to see Puz/zle once more.
Cherkaouis final piece began to the strains of Fischerspooner’s “we need a war“, It was perhaps the best part of the night. “Dancer Striding”* began, collisions avoided, but then inevitable. All left the stage but then all ran on in one huge human wave, each sliding to the floor (ouch, friction burns!) in simulation of death. A bare chested young man “died” last. A burly young man drew himself to the mass. He took a hand from the bare chested man, it fell inert. He took another hand from another man: inert again.
There then began a truly beautiful pas de trois for burly guy and the two inert men (comrades, fallen, one assumes) – the mover hoping for resurrection but defeated by flesh the tragedy unfolding, shot though with pieta. Heaving and manipulating and lifting in desperation what a marvel for Cherkaoui to manufacture elegance from inertia, dance’s natural antagonist – to wrest beauty from mute flesh. As an ending image, the troupe assembled into a loose human pyramid (more a mound) – a terrible Babel once more. The animator of comrades climbs this mephitic mass to reach out – for what? Who knows, but hope is powerful, and this image too. It was a memorable end to a memorable night.
As an hour of dance Cherkaoui has done well to adapt and modify his pieces into a whole. What a thrill for NYDC and what a pleasure for us to see the fruit of their labours.*
* it was announced that their new season has no less than three world Premieres including works by Maliphant and Khan.
*It also looked cool.
* a particular way of crossing the stage: hands like blades, sharp turns, stare fixed ahead.
* I was amazed that the NYDC had only 4 weeks of school holidays time from start to performance to learn the works. Incredible.
Final note: two girls behind me were dumbstruck, and a small standing ovation was given. Well deserved.