Horniman Museum, London
July 28, 2016
Upon entering the Horniman Museum for Labirinto, I was greeted with a flurry of guides, maps and brochures. Trying to balance all of these in my hands, I hesitantly approached the largest group of people, assuming they knew what was going to happen.
This set the tone for the rest of an evening that included contemporary dance, theatre, music and visual arts; twelve performances across different spaces in the museum, with the galleries all slightly confusingly renamed for the evening. And so it was that the attempt to navigate around the Horniman and the scattered performances at times overshadowed the work itself.
The navigation is indeed part of the experience for Jean Abreu, the choreographer and curator, who wants the viewer to be a traveller, a treasure hunter within the space. I found I became more of a hanger-on, frantically running around the spaces, trying to catch the rest of the audience and often missing the beginning of pieces. Perhaps this was down to a flaw in my viewing practice and the need to do justice to the whole piece and so try catch ‘all of it’.
Those who remained in the gallery square, their work-place chatter punctuated by spectating, seemed to have accepted they were there for an ‘experience’ rather than a performance. I will happily step out of the black box of theatre to view dance, but as I stood behind one viewer who remained talking on her phone, right in front of a perspiring performer, I couldn’t help but feel the audience’s attention had drifted slightly away from the performers.
This may have been down to the museum itself: the Horniman is a great museum, almost too much so. I found myself happily being distracted by stuffed flamingos and life-size walrus statues. And so one wonders how much the Horniman spatially and thematically figured into Abreu’s plans. Spatially, it suddenly feels cramped when you are edged between display cabinets, and a sense of intimacy and peering in can easily translate into neck craning.
Thematically, Labirinto is part of a wider Festival of Brazil commissioned by the Horniman, and so while I questioned if the museum’s collection of early human skeletons or stuffed squirrels had made a concrete intrusion into the work, some of the dancing acquired an added resonance when viewed from an upper gallery containing a temporary photography exhibition on favelas. The sculptures and props being used by the dancers (created by Brazilian visual artist Elisa Bracher) began to resemble building materials, and the placing of the weights on each others’ backs, or straining against a large, free moving ball, gestured towards restrictions or freedoms allowed by drastically different urban environments.
This dance sequence was one of many excerpts from one of Abreu’s current works, A Thread. This made up of the majority of the dancing, and it is upon zooming into the work itself, away from the intricacies of the museum, that a vision really started to appear. Dressed in grey, with designs hinting at martial arts, the dancers dealt well with having to move not only in confined spaces, but also in committing to their piece and intention while the audience around them drank mojitos. I particularly liked Rosana Ribeiro’s performance, whose expressions were vivid and daring. Such openness is necessary with the conventional distance between spectator and performer, and so it was engaging to see this carried through in closer surroundings.
The four dancers moved with a unanimous, flowing quality, the pulse between them nicely undetectable to an outside viewer. The choreography was based mostly on moving in and out of the floor. In such a technique, a deft use of the body that can spin upside down or use parts of the body not normally used for support, is both unpredictable (we do not normally go upside down) but also completely predictable, for the dancer has efficiently organised their body to allow this negotiation with gravity. The rhythm that we see is effortless, tracing curved and harmonious pathways, even if the movement itself might suggest strain or superhuman effort (which it no doubt does). This almost uncanny play with weight was further enhanced by Bracher’s sculptures. The piece investigated heaviness, resilience and release; I wonder if a more contemplative space would have allowed me to be pulled into the dancers’ rhythm and experience my own shifts in weight.
Throughout the evening, musicians Andrew Maginly and Orpheus Papafilippou sat serenely, providing a sometimes eerie, constant soundscape with their stringed instruments. I confess to never fully seeing Diogo Sales’ physical theatre solo (what I did see was slightly lost in the air outside). Fernanda Prata and Ben King provided a wonderful interactive duet in the conservatory. Completely different in tone from the other performances in Labirinto and eliciting giggles from the audience, the two played out their cultural heritages through music, personal movement solos, and props that included a Beatles poster, flip flops and liquor shots for the audience.
Overall, the parts were strong, but Labirinto veered towards confusion. Whether it came together as a whole depended on what you wanted from the evening. As an experience it may have succeeded; as a performance, I would have liked more focus, less scurrying.