The Venue, Milton Keynes
September 22, 2020
Live dance made a welcome return to Milton Keynes with the visit of mapdance, the University of Chichester’s MA touring company. The programme of four ensemble works, including a revival of Inside the Animal by Jose Agudo from the 2018 tour, made for a rewarding evening, although perhaps the most pleasing part was actually sitting in an audience once more.
That the company are able to perform ensemble choreography is thanks to five weeks of rehearsing and living in bubbles. Watching them, one certainly had the sense they were a tight-knit group, reflected in the togetherness in the unison work, which was generally rather impressive.
In the opening AYIN, Ceyda Tanc draws heavily on traditional Turkish folk influences while simultaneously giving things a contemporary touch.
Set to a Turkish-influenced soundtrack by Alex McCall, the work has the feel of an informal gathering. Natalie Rowland’s lighting suggests we are outdoors on a warm evening just as darkness falls. That sense of heat is emphasised by designer Rosie Whiting’s earthy beige, brown and ochre costumes.
The choreography is unhurried but flowing, There’s an occasional feeling of friendly competition, of dancers trying to outdo each other, but more often than not the mood is one of sharing and acceptance.
Gentle, feminine choreography is full of overhead waving arms and furling and unfurling hands, but Tanc puts more male-oriented dance on her all-female cast too. It is fascinating to see how that movement, designed to show off male strength and virility, takes on a softer, more sinuous look when danced by the women.
Highlights include a solo full of dynamic turns and a largely floor-based long duet that sees a complex intertwining of bodies. Powerful but smooth and controlled, it never loses its quality.
Suddenly We Were All Alone by Tel-Aviv based choreographer Noa Shadur is a cut down version of her work of the same title created originally in Israel for Inbal Theatre Dance Company.
From it’s opening that features much individuality, most obviously in moments of Chinese and Irish dance, there is a vague sense of coming together and a physical commonality developing. I wasn’t not sure if they are searching for meaning and togetherness, or are having it unconsciously thrust upon them. Perhaps there’s an element of both.
The communal dance features much of the trance-like, repetitive movement so loved by a number of other Israeli choreographers. A few gestures recur and at one point, the dancers meet in a circle, steps recalling folk dance. From time to time, the togetherness unravels as individuals’ original vocabulary returns to break surface, however.
The sense of one-ness is emphasised by having everyone dressed in white, which also adds a starkness to the work, and is in sharp contrast to the more varied colours of Inbal’s costumes.
In what may be a commentary, nothing is resolved as it ends suddenly and with one person left all alone.
Jose Agudo’s Inside The Animal takes the audience into the existential swamp with a contemplation on human instinct. As the dancers’ hair flies, Agudo paints dramatic and dark pictures as he calls us to view the wild side of humankind. The furious and thrilling maelstrom of movement is always compelling and draws you in.
It’s a dance of complex patterns and rituals. Groups form and dissolve. Pictures and links flip in and out of the head, in my case for some reason, Macbeth’s witches. As with the previous two pieces, the work is heavy on ensemble moments, and while there are some impressive individual break outs, it’s those group sections that generate the power. They also feature some pretty impressive unison.
“Welcome to the dance of destiny,” says the MC who kicks off the closing work, Gary Clarke’s On Your Marks, which takes a look at the dance marathons of the 1930s. Quirky, inventive and done naturally in his idiosyncratic style, it engages easily. The humour had me smiling under the face mask several times.
Those dance marathons saw couples competing by dancing relentlessly to be the last pair standing. As the Great Depression hit, what was originally a fun spectator sport became deadly serious. They really were endurance contests and people really did dance until they dropped.
With half the cast playing men (mapdance 2020 features not a single male dancer), historical references abound. A nod to the incredible time these competitions could go on for comes as someone walks across with a sign. “They have gone 2,498 hours”. That’s 104 days, a bit of an exaggeration but not quite as crazy as it sounds when you think one of the longest known actually ran for just over 1600 hours. And the mapdance cast do show that sense of exhaustion, but of being driven on and on.
The special sections that the marathons featured put in an appearance too. There are separate dances for men and women, and we see the couples parade in a circle. There’s a nod to the ‘silver shower’ as well, that moment when the audiences showered the performers with coins which the dancers then scrabbled for; and to food breaks, as a figure sits somewhat incongruously in the middle of it all calmly buttering bread for a mid-dance refuelling.
Clarke does actually give us a winning couple, although taking the evening as a whole, the real winner is surely dance and theatre. This was a small step on a long road, but welcome back!
And what of the experience?
With only alternate rows in use, and only every third and fourth seat available in those that could be sat in, The Venue’s 380 capacity was cut to around 80. Although not close to full, an audience of around 50 was probably not at all bad. With everyone spread out, atmosphere was unsurprisingly lacking (although it’s hardly the first time I’ve sat in that sort of audience in that size venue) but on the plus side, we all got plenty of personal space with no chance of having someone tall sat right in front of you.
Most importantly, it felt very safe. It was very well organised too. The staff were generally friendly and welcoming, gently explaining the ‘rules’ and routes we needed to follow. A pleasant surprise was the bar was open pre-show, and in the interval, and that there was an excellent printed programme.