What is happiness? Umanoove/Didy Veldman’s The Happiness Project

Patrick Centre at the Birmingham Hipodrome
November 15, 2016

David Mead

There is some laughing out loud and moments that will make you smile, but not as much or as many as you might think in Didy Veldman’s The Happiness Project, her new work that launches her own company Umanoove (the title is a combination of human, manoeuvre, move and you, Veldman explains). What there is, though, is lots of fabulous and absorbing dance as Veldman and her outstanding cast of Dane Hurst, Mathieu Geffré, Hannah Kidd, Estela Merlos consider ideas of happiness; something we strive for but that can be momentary, elusive or absent.

Yes, people can seem to be happy, as here when the dancers all laugh out loud, but is that necessarily a sign of real happiness or just going along with the crowd? Is there a coercive side to it? Is true happiness something deeper? While happiness is something that pretty much everyone seeks, it’s a tricky concept that means different things to different people. It’s also something that can be elusive and that so many people never really find, it seems. In The Happiness Project, Veldman doesn’t try to define it, but takes us on a journey showing some of the forms it can take.

Dance Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd in The Happiness ProjectPhoto Chris Nash
Dance Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd in The Happiness Project
Photo Chris Nash

Veldman and the dancers question what is happiness and what it is to be happy. The answers come in many forms, not least through various items that appear from the four boxes the dancers shift around the stage, sometimes sitting on, sometimes dancing on, sometimes dancing with. Various designer clothes are brought out, for example. Everyone swoons over them; all except Merlos who shows a complete disinterest.

“Are you happy?” asks a voice. “For me it’s a bit of a balancing act,” answers Kidd, which probably sort of sums up most people’s situation. “Happy? Me?” wonders Hurst. “I don’t know. Maybe. Being here today. Maybe.”

[box type=”custom” bg=”#dce7f2″]Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I posses
I thank the Lord I’ve been blessed
With more than my share of happiness
(from the hit by Ken Dodd, lyrics by Bill Anderson)[/box]

As the explorations continue there’s some seriously eye-catching dance. A solo by Hurst is danced with panther-like grace. I’ll swear he even hung in the air at one point. A clever duet for Merlos and Geffré is at the expense of Kidd, who is left out, who they dance around and through, oblivious to the fact she is even there. Most of it is made to look remarkably effortless, not least the difficult and innovative lifts and the way the all melt into and raise from the floor.

A few references to notions of happiness in iconic dance works find their way in. Kidd has an ‘Isadora Duncan moment’ as she runs around the stage, that plastic sheet held aloft, flowing behind her. Later, a nod to Pina Bausch’s famous Café Muller scene slips in, the one where a woman repeatedly throws herself at a man, who repeatedly lets her slip to the floor.

Hannah Kidd and Dane Hurst in Umanoove/Didy Veldman's The Happiness ProjectPhoto Chris Nash
Hannah Kidd and Dane Hurst in Umanoove/Didy Veldman’s The Happiness Project
Photo Chris Nash

On stage with the dancers, Alexander Balanescu conjures some great sounds out of his violin. It was just a shame that they drowned out one monologue by Merlos. I think she was telling us what happiness meant to her, but such was the volume of the music, it was impossible to hear what was being said. Sometimes I despair of sound engineers.

So often, happiness comes from the uncomplicated things in life. Towards the end, the dancers write a few of their ideas of what it might be on that big plastic sheet. And they are simple things: espresso, cycling downhill, winning the pub quiz, his Yorkshire puddings (with an arrow pointing to the individual concerned). To which one might add spending an hour in the company of four fabulous dancers exploring some thoughtful ideas in a piece that more than holds the interest throughout.

[box type=”custom” bg=”#dce7f2″]A wise old man told me one time
That happiness is nothing but a frame of mind
(Ken Dodd/Bill Anderson)

The Happiness Project is next on at Chichester University on November 17. Touring resumes in April and May 2017. Visit www.umanoove-didy-veldman.org for dates and venues.