Wayne McGregor and Ben Cullen Williams: A Body for Harnasie

Royal Festival Hall, London
March 6, 2024

A Body for Harnasie is a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor and visual artist Ben Cullen Williams, initiated by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and co-commissioned with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, is a reimagined concert production of Karol Szymanowski’s ballet score Harnasie. It’s a strange production; certainly an unusual way of presenting dance. It is also surprisingly unimaginative, dull, and incomprehensible.

Harnasie is a simple tale of a village girl (in the ballet, known simply as ‘the Girl’) preparing for her wedding to a shepherd, who is visited by a robber (called Harnaś in the original folk story, hence the title). They sleep together, but the girl decides to continue with her matrimonials, only for the robber to return with his posse on the big day and abduct her, although the final of three tableaux show them living happily ever after. Thankfully, the programme notes included a synopsis because there is absolutely no way you would otherwise know what was going on.

A Body for Harnasie is billed as ‘dance re-imagined’, and ‘re-imagined’ it certainly is, to the point where there is so little of it, you could be forgiven for wondering why it was billed as a dance piece at all.

To the backdrop of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing the score, a series of images are projected onto a giant revolving screen. For the first eight to ten minutes, these were dancers. However, it was not clear what they were dancing as the projection was several times larger than life and much of the movement was lost off the screen. In this overlarge visualisation, bodies looked grotesque and graceless, their act of love faintly pornographic.

The rest of the hour is taken up by an endless stream of, presumably AI-generated images of colour, bubbles, clouds, scatterings, whatever you would like to call them, punctuated by glimpses of a Greek-looking statue. What this has to do with Harnasie is anybody’s guess.

McGregor is a renowned British choreographer. Cullen Williams is an internationally exhibited sculptor. And yet I came away feeling that rather than being whorled-up in a wonderfully imaginative, choreographic fusion of dance and projected images, had instead been sat listening to Szymanowski, albeit played magnificently by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, while being subjected to a random stream of shapes flowing across a giant elongated screen, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Pretentious? Perhaps. Pointless? It certainly felt like it.