A journey of discovery with Luca Silvestrini and Protein’s En Route

Woolwich, London
July 31, 2021

En Route, the latest production from Luca Silvestrini’s company Protein, proved an adventure from start to finish.

Last Saturday evening, amidst squalls of rain, I found my way to the point marked on the map of Woolwich Common that came with my ticket. I was greeted by stewards with a poncho, cup of nettle tea and ribbon indicating the dancer I was to follow. Even their welcome couldn’t banish my slight trepidation at the prospect of a three-hour walking performance. It was somewhat reluctantly that I bid my friends farewell to seek out the dancer in red.

Rachele Rapisardi’s immediate warmth and charisma eased my reservations. As we walked down a path, she told us the story of June, a lady always to be found searching the Common for Andrea, either her long lost husband or Jack Russell. Drawing us through banks of delicate wildflowers and shady woods, Rapisardi began to embody June. She improvised sequences in response to the changing landscape occasionally answered by mournful notes from a disembodied horn. As we emerged onto a plain and re-joined the other groups, June’s strange world was replaced with another, equally strange; the dancers racing ahead, popping up from tall grasses, wheeling about like great birds guiding us across a savanna.

En Route by Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

In this way, the troupe transformed various locations as we snaked from the Common to the river, inventively realising the promise held in the title. As though petrified in postures of agony, the ensemble lay in a taut zigzag across a path in front of the Royal Artillery Barracks. In time with George Garford’s saxophone, the dancers slowly rolled to life, lurching from one side of the path to the other with increasing momentum like the chaos of a rolling ship’s deck.

A moving moment took place in the memorial gardens of St George’s Garrison Church. The musicians played from the altar, the only part of the church that survived World War II, in all its gilt, mosaiced former glory. The dancers performed in the aisle, some holding their bodies rigid as though injured; supported and lifted by the others. In the context of the bombed-out church with barracks over the road, the scene evoked the mass of soldiers that must have lived, trained and tramped through Woolwich on their way to war.

The troupe’s playful use of mundane features in the urban landscape was a joy to witness. Locals reacted joyfully too as they spotted Folu Odimayo twirling on an electrical box, Kenny Wing Tao Ho jiving behind some railings, and Sophie Arstell poised atop a gate. Anders Duckworth’s whimsical solo with an orange on a gatepost caught the attention of a family who gathered to watch and wave through their window and prompted a pair of women on the balcony above to scream, “Eat it!”

On the hill down to the town centre the dancers wound in and out of cars, spinning, jumping, and strutting along either side of the road, while the raucous brass band enticed customers out of the Anglesea Arms to throw their own shapes. Kids cycled along in their wake; one boy filmed and commented on the proceedings; bus stop bystanders looked bemused. The ensemble gathered; two men unperturbedly continued to smoke despite the line of now sombre dancers processing directly towards and around them to the Town Hall.

Here they broke into a flash mob, chanting motley political slogans. While noble, this section felt superfluous given how effectively En Route used music and dance to encourage its audience to engage open-mindedly with all they encountered.

It was a testament to the multi-talented dancers and their sheer stamina that En Route consistently bought Woolwich to life in mysterious, magical ways. The musicians were crucial to this, setting tone and providing cohesion. Without the consistency of Helen Chadwick, Matteo Fargion, Orlando Gough and Any Pink’s score, En Route might have become fragmented and lost its way. Instead, as the heavens opened on the approach to the river, the band blared out in a jubilant crescendo, binding dancers, audience and public together in a fabulous, final spectacle around Peter Burke’s The Assembly at Woolwich Arsenal.