Monday, 9 February 2015

The Associates at Sadler's Wells - a hit and two misses

Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon in A Picture of You Falling. Photograph by Michael Slobodian

One difficulty for dance is finding a way of letting choreographers try out ideas in front of an audience without exposing them to dispiriting criticism.  Resolution! at The Place exists to do exactly that.  You pays your money, takes your choice, and you know that in turning up to the annual experiment-fest you are risking your eyes and your evening.  You might see something wonderful or something less good, but it is fun simply to be there in hope.
At Sadler's Wells or the Royal Opera House, however, if you buy a ticket for the main house your expectations are higher. And the problem with The Associates, a triple bill at Sadler's, was that the work on display was more experimental and less finished than I expected. But one wondrous exception made the entire evening worthwhile.
Let's dispense with the misses first.  
Kate Prince's Smile, a solo created as a showcase for Tommy Franzen, felt like a misstep in both their careers.  She has enjoyed great success with ZooNation Dance Company with works such as Into the Hoods and - more recently - Some Like It Hip Hop and The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.  He is simply a wonder, a seemingly boneless hip hop dancer, with grace, presence and style.
But this tribute to Charlie Chaplin - and the sad life of the clown - was over-extended, sentimental and cliched, saved only by Franzen's skills as a performer.  It simply didn't delve deep enough to make any impact.
Hofesh Shechter's the barbarians in love -how I wish he'd readopt capitals - also skated along the surface of things, though in a more intense way.  It combined the choreographer's traditional love of smoke effects and a ferocious, pounding score with a new interest in baroque music (Couperin) and classical ballet (presumably because he is making a work for the Royal Ballet.)
The piece seems to suggest a contrast between the order of the past and the wildness of the present, hinting at a need for discipline and control, an impression emphasised by a spoken soundtrack that suggests Shechter is struggling to find inspiration and has cheated on his wife.  It is all a bit puzzling and not very effective, particularly since the dancers are tested by classical shapes that seem outside their experience. At the close, when they stand staring at the audience in degrees of nakedness like ancient statues, I felt irritated rather than intrigued.
But the night was redeemed by an extraordinary contribution from the Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, the most recent associate to be appointed to the Sadler's Wells roster.  A Picture of You Falling - part of a larger work called The Second Person - tells, in expressionistic and confident strokes, the story of a relationship from beginning to fraught end.  With an evocative sound track by Owen Belton and text by Pite herself, the movements and occurrences we see on stage are also described in words, read with just the right haunted weight by Kate Strong.
What I love about Pite is her precision. Every step, each reaction, is thoughtful and exact. The dancers - Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon - seem to inhabit their actions so completely that every muscle, each turn of the head, or flex of the back, speaks volumes.  You read the movement like a book - and the text sounds like music.  
At one moment, Chu falls repeatedly to the floor, showing in articulated stages the words we hear: "This is a picture of you falling. Knees, hip, hands, elbows, head. This is how you collapse."  His hands shoot out, in sad squares.
Under moving spotlights, on a darkened stage, the piece feels like a play by Samuel Beckett or a Japanese haiku.  It shows that less is more, letting ideas resonate into the space it had created. It felt timeless and truthful.  I could have watched it over and over again.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Why The Hard Problem is a conundrum

Olivia Vinall as Hilary in The Hard Problem. Image by Johan Persson

Tom Stoppard's new play premiered at The National Theatre last week.  It was in every sense a big occasion: this is Stoppard's first new play for nine years and the last to be directed by Nicholas Hytner during his triumphant 12-year term as the theatre's artistic director.
Anticipation ran ridiculously high.  Then the play started.  
In a typically Stoppardian move we enter on what might be a love scene between a teacher and his pupil; only it isn't romance they are discussing. Or at least only incidentally. Instead they are locked in argument about the nature of consciousness - the hard problem of the title. Is it purely a physical mechanism, something produced by the hot wiring of the brain, or does it spring from something and somewhere different?
The entire play continues to explore this question.  Hilary (Olivia Vinall), its appealing protagonist, is a psychologist who wants to believe there is more to life than the mechanistic workings of biology and chemistry,  Unfashionably, she prays to God, hoping for miracles - a course of action prompted by her sense of guilt and sorrow about something that happened 13 years before.  It is her longing that propels the play - and you feel it is Stoppard's desire too, a reluctance to assent to science as the only source of answers.
Even more than most Stoppard, the play is full of long speeches of explication. It covers an extraordinary amount of ground: not just the question of consciousness, but philosophical arguments about the nature of altruism, the workings of the financial markets, and the likelihood of coincidence.
 Despite Hytner's elegant direction, Bob Crowley's clever set which suggests the electronic pulses of brain activity, and some good performances - notably from Vinall and Lucy Robinson - while I was watching it, I felt engrossed, but slightly disappointed. It seemed to fail to spring into full and engaging life. 
Yet on the bus home, I found I was thinking about it, slotting its pieces into my mind. In these days that have followed, it has stayed with me, making me ponder the questions it raised.
 I realised how its action is actually a laboratory model of its argument - how the uncharacteristic altruism of the billionaire financier Jerry Kroll (brilliant Anthony Calf, shouting into a mobile in many languages) is not a failure of plotting but an example of the unpredictability of human behaviour; how Hilary's actions are an embodiment of the love which her cynical tutor reduces to the need of the species to maximise gene survival. .
This sense of the richness of the piece, its thought-provoking subtlety doesn't alter my experience of watching it. But it does make me value it more.
At his best, Stoppard can both entertain and challenge, simultaneously making his audience feel smart and reducing them to laughter.  
The Hard Problem never does that.  Sometimes, indeed, it makes you feel rather stupid as you struggle to follow its arguments.
For that reason, I don't think it can be counted as the playwright at his very best. Yet it is vital and stimulating, resonant in a way that many more obviously enjoyable plays are not.  Having seen it, my world view and interest has been changed.  That in itself is a definition of terrific theatre.