Dance and drama but strangely disconnected in Civilisation by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart and Morgann Runacre-Temple

Assembly Hall, Shoreditch Town Hall, London
September 8, 2022

Collaborations are always intriguing. The meeting of two or more minds in order to create something that supersedes (in theory!) that of the individual. They’re also risky. Will the creative minds involved stay on the same path? Could the end product feel conflicted, or overly busy?

Civilisation by playwright Jaz Woodcock-Stewart and choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple is just such an experiment. Woodcock-Stewart’s website describes her as a Theatre Director and Artist who “makes work between theatre, performance, dance and whatever feels right.” Runacre-Temple has become quite the name on the UK dance scene, recently working with her regular collaborator Jessica Wright (collectively known as Jess and Morgs) on a well-received, contemporary reworking of the 19th-century ballet Coppélia, that Scottish Ballet premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival.

So, no film or Jess, but rather Jaz and a theatre for this meeting of minds. The creative duo look at grief and loss through a darkly comic lens, and how the collective ‘we’ handle them in 2022 and all that that means. As an outsider contemplating the blurb pre-performance, it felt like a ‘the chicken or the egg’ style dilemma. What came first, the text or the movement? If something comes first does it dilute the collaborative possibilities? Perhaps it’s absolutely none of my beeswax. But we’re told it’s a “thrillingly original experiment in theatrical realism and contemporary dance” – so no pressure then…

Caroline Moroney in Civilisation
Photo Alex Brenner

Not all experiments work, and this one didn’t for me. There is evident commitment but Civilisation lacks cohesiveness. That’s assuming the creative team wanted a work of connectedness.

There are cons, and pros, and more cons.

The biggest issue is that I felt I was in one space having two separate experiences: one ‘drama’ with a very limited script, and one dance. Whether individually successful or not is kind of irrelevant. When something is so divided, it can be difficult or even impossible for the mind to engage, either separately, or when endeavouring to find the underlying relations.

The space is set up as the home of the lead female protagonist known as Woman (Caroline Moroney). As Civilisation unfolds, it becomes clear she has lost her partner and is dealing with the fallout. The audience basically have access to the livestream of her life; theatrical realism in action. But what people do when they’re alone isn’t necessarily that interesting. We see comings and goings, everyday ceremonies and fleeting moments of emotion. Moroney plays the depths of grief in a pretty deadpan way, which feels normcore, but doesn’t really allow for a relationship to build with the character.

Stefania Pinato and Imogen Alvares with Caroline Moroney at the table
in Civilisation
Photo Alex Brenner

She blow dries her hair, gets dressed and undressed numerous times. She makes a fried egg, watches porn as she eats it, calls the tax office, butchers some flowers, changes bedding and has a visit from a friend that finishes with an awkward kiss. Any given Tuesday in my humble opinion. Some of the antics are done with the intention of comedic value, but it was lost on me.

Early on, dancer James Olivo enters and takes a natural first position on a diagonal looking away from the audience. He does grand pliés and rises with coordinated arm movements, soon joined in them by Imogen Alvares and Stefania Pinato. Woman was at the dining table doing something, but I can’t remember exactly what, which isn’t surprising, as it seemingly has zero relation to the newly introduced dance element.

Alvares, Olivo and Pinato are brilliant. Capable and energised, they move dynamically throughout. Choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple uses the space well. Entrances and exits feel purposeful, and the choreographic structure features interesting pathways and spatial relationships. The content is original and valuable. Even though laced with many references, I saw Cunningham-esque triplets, Mattox jazz vibes, national dance pivots and line dancing heel steps and hand placements. But while there is solo, duo, trio and partner work, not once do they interact with the Woman, physically or, it seems, narratively. Well actually there were two, maybe three moments when the dancers were executing slow-mo when I pondered whether they were representing her emotional state, although I think that says more about the power of slow motion than a poignant artistic decision.

So, I left a little annoyed. Which is better than indifferent, but still not ideal. Experiments are imperative, especially in the arts. But as mentioned earlier, collaborative inquiries can be risky. Civilisation was originally meant to premiere pre-pandemic. I wonder if it has been sitting still since 2019, or whether the creatives have been tweaking it for the past three years. I’m unsure which reality is the better one. Sometimes experiments need to go back to the drawing board if wrong decisions have been made. I think I’ll leave it there.