Transforming the performance landscape: Puzzle Creature by Neon Dance

Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome
Wednesday October 17, 2018

David Mead

Publicity for any dance show that boasts of being a “unique, immersive experience,” usually requires taking with a huge pinch of salt. It’s rarely either, and certainly not to the degree claimed. But you have to admit that Puzzle Creature, choreographer Adrienne Hart’s new work for Neon Dance that asks us to examine our attitudes to ageing and the body, is different.

For a start, the first half is set inside Numen/For Use’s giant inflatable structure inhabited by performers and audiences alike. At first sight it reminded me of a giant cocoon. Inside, it’s a strange, shifting place where, for thirty minutes at least, you are insulated from the world outside.

At the heart of Puzzle Creature are notions of death and immortality, the work inspired by artist/architect duo Arkawa and Madeline Gins, and their exploration of what they see as humans’ one fundamental design flaw: we don’t live forever. In a sort of Rejection of mortality, they have spent decades exploring ways to defy death and achieve a kind of immortality through work left behind.

Carys Staton and Luke Crook in Puzzle CreaturePhoto Tom Schumann
Carys Staton and Luke Crook in Puzzle Creature
Photo Tom Schumann

Luke Crook, Mariko Kida and Carys Staton move around the audience and what are described as ‘wearable body sculptures’ than hang from above. Created by Ana Rajcevic and made from a sort of mesh, the heads in particular can be seen as death masks, but there’s also a backbone, an arm and hand and more. The dancers move around them and respond to them. They even put them on, but they are very much bit part players in the action. It feels like an opportunity missed as the dancers do very little other than pose with them. It creates an image, but no more.

The dance is uniformly slow but the fabulous cast all defy you to take your eyes of them and create interest. A duet sees bodies and limbs entangled. There is a sense that one is watching some sort of strange life form. A solo reminds one of a new born foal, limbs all angles and going in all directions as it tries to stand up.

The best moments come when the cocoon itself is manipulated. When dancers lean against its walls, it rolls and shifts. It feels like being at sea and in a swell but below decks. Later, it’s gathered in at one end, changing its shape significantly, revealing the silhouetted shape of Staton, who has stepped outside.

Puzzle CreaturePhoto Tom Schumann
Puzzle Creature
Photo Tom Schumann

The use of Japanese and English sign language is not particularly effective, and certainly not as well integrated into the dance as I hoped given that Chisato Minaimiura, the super deaf Japanese dancer was a coach for the project.

Oxford based composer Sebastian Reynolds apparently comes from eight speakers. But only once did it feel like surround-sound. Maybe I was standing in the wrong place.

With the audience and dancers outside the now partially deflated structure, the second half seems to take place in some heavenly place. The dancers look like angels in the clouds, which gently billow as they move, hiding and revealing them. As inside, the audience become part of the landscape as they are encouraged to stand on the set.

There are some beautiful moments, not least when Kida walks across through the scene in silhouette. There’s a gorgeous shadow solo that looks just like aboriginal cave art come to life. Again, there isn’t a lot of contrast, which oddly becomes one of the works more appealing features, at least until a sudden change from the previously rather somnolent score to abrasive percussion. There’s a change in dance tempo too, and lights start going up and down. It feels like one is suddenly in some weird club. It feels out of place and doesn’t make sense.

Puzzle Creature is an interesting hour, and certainly an unusual way to transform the performance space. The audience really do become part of the landscape. But while it’s a work full of ideas, some need editing and some need developing. It felt not quite like a work in progress, but one where there’s still a way to go.

For more information, videos and details of future performances, visit