Shadows: Alexander Whitley Dance Company in Overflow

Sadler’s Wells, London
May 21, 2021

Created in 2019, the London premiere of Overflow has twice been postponed thanks to Covid-19, but has now finally made it to the Sadler’s Wells stage.

Whitley notes how the pandemic and lockdowns have resulted in soaring use of digital technology and social media on platforms that he considers have been designed in such a way as to exploit human data and developed to deliberately stimulate emotions and behaviour. The platforms have also provided a conduit for disinformation, polarisation and extreme points of view, which impact how many behave. Dark themes indeed.

Overflow was made in collaboration with Dutch light artists Children of the Light, and it is their powerful contribution that sticks in the memory.

Central to the work is an overhead strip light. It almost becomes an extra dancer as it tilts, turns and twists; shifting position, height and angle; changing colour. and even formings dotted lines. Or if not a dancer, then a force. Sometimes it’s warm and protective, the human dancers reaching towards it, embracing what it offers. But it has a split personality, a dark, threatening side, especially in those moments when it seems to bear down on them like a huge overseeing eye.

Along with Guy Hoare’s lighting, the installation creates shadows, dark corners that conceal or hide performers. At other times there’s a band of light hovering above the stage so that only torsos are lit, pulses of light run down an arm and, in a moment of vivid colour, a rainbow effect.

Underneath this, six dancers in black embody emotions. Whitley and his collaborators paint some great pictures. There are writhing ensembles, mechanical movement, and moments of fluidity and stillness. The light is used superbly to pick things out, often making the dancers appear as if in a black void, but all the time making us see what the artists want us to see. No more, no less.

Nothing hangs around for long. Nothing has great depth of meaning. It’s instant, quickly dealt with and on to the next. Not unlike the way many use social media like buttons or emojis, I suppose. It also feels random and in no particular order. And therein lies the Overflow’s biggest issue: for all the emotion shown, and for all its important overarching theme, very little actually communicates.

Perhaps that’s why I reached a point where Overflow started to feel long. I started to feel I had seen things before. I was struggling to connect. Perhaps too, in these maybe not quite so grey but still very uncertain times, as much as Whitley is addressing an important topic, my mind has had enough darkness for now.