Alexander Whitley Dance Company: Overflow

Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome (presented by DanceXchange)
March 2, 2022

Relentless, that’s the word. Alexander Whitley’s Overflow delivers the audience into a hazy, dark, dystopian landscape; a bleak place where there is little sign of hope or escape. Rival Consoles’ loud, thumping, electronic soundscape is equally unremitting, as is Children of the Light’s LED strip that continually hovers ominously over proceedings like some all-seeing, unforgiving eye that forever watches over and controls the five dancers below.

Relentless too is the quality and precision of the five performers. Chia-yu Hsu (徐嘉妤), Stephen Quildan, Jack Thomson, Yu-hsien Wu (吳禹賢) and Ena Yamaguchi are superb as that strip of light hangs heavy as if bearing down on them.

For Overflow, Whitley took inspiration from what he calls “an overexcited human emotionality and the all-seeing eye of big data” and the ever-increasing reliance on digital technology. Rather than being overtly described, those themes are communicated more by the feelings he attempts to evoke in the viewer, not always successfully. The work is many things, but emotionally engaging it is not.

Alexander Whitley Dance Company in Overflow
Photo Johan Persson

The ever-shifting strip of light mirrors the way digital technology constantly exerts pressure and impacts lives. Together with Guy Hoare’s lighting, it certainly impacts how the choreography is seen. As it constantly changes height and angle, displaying different patterns and colours, it very much dictates the mood and energy of the piece.

When seen last year at the vastly larger Sadler’s Wells, that strip very much took over, making the dance very much secondary. In Birmingham’s smaller Patrick Studio, light and choreography came together much better, the two aspects of the show very much integrated and utterly dependent on one another.

Overflow is episodic, scenes separated by blackouts. Whitley’s choreography is precisely drawn and danced. Limbs fold and unfold, and most obviously reach up. Are the dancers being drawn towards the light like moths, reaching for it as a friend, or searching or pleading for an escape? Not unlike social media, maybe.

That light soon becomes more threatening as it hovers stationary above or swoops down over them. Below, individuals slice through beams of light that comes from the wings. One particularly clever effect sees one appear like a hologram dancing a little above the stage, before vanishing into an energy field before our very eyes.

Moments of connection come when the dancers split into shifting groups of two and three, unison appearing out of the isolation and alienation. Physical connection comes when they form in a flexing, curling chain, although I’m not sure about the scene where two of the women join with one of the men to give him extended arms, though. It’s a clever idea that would be humorous in another context. Here, it just feels odd.

A spotlight scanning a knot of near naked bodies on the floor is presumably a reference to harvesting data, but given what we are presently seeing daily on the TV news, other thoughts come to mind.

Somewhat surprisingly, although one can see the tension as the dancers move and gesture, it struggles to cross into the audience. Overflow feels cool and distant. Perhaps that’s a result of everything that the world has been through in the past two years. Perhaps we have become desensitised, in part at least. Perhaps it’s a response to current events.

There is a momentary dash of colour as a rainbow of beams shines from an upstage corner like the sun appearing after a storm. It is a moment of hope, teasing with its presence before vanishing away as the darkness returns.

Possibly it’s the repetitive feel of the work, possibly it’s the structure, there being no sense of direction of travel, of there being any resolution, but after an engrossing first forty minutes or so, the work increasingly struggles to hold the attention, most notably during one section near the end, where the strip is left to ‘dance’ alone, the dancers having melted away. Several times, it feels like the end is coming only for the piece to plough on. When the end does arrive, the work sort of just drifts away leaving one feeling not very much.

And that’s a shame, because Overflow does paint some stunning images. In its own way, it is beautiful. It’s also one of those rare real joinings of live dance, design and digital technology. But its message does get rather lost along the way.

Alexander Whitley’s Overflow continues on tour. Visit for dates and venues.