Scottish Dance Theatre: Life and Times

June 17, 2021

Choreographed for the camera by Joan Clevillé with video by Tao-Anas Le Thanh, Life and Times is described as a fusion between silent film and a music video and “meditation on our relationship with time and human fragility.” It aims to be a new way to enjoy dance for an audience that is not necessarily dance literate.

Clevillé states that he wants to use the camera to show the effort of dance and in that he succeeds. Life and Times certainly strips it of anything that flatters and, of course, on film, the audience is stripped of visual choice. This is a major disadvantage of abstract dance. Whereas in narrative, a director can shape and manipulate the viewer to great advantage (and often it is good to see dance in close up) this seems just to layer it on how hard it all is and how ugly the dancers can make themselves.

One brief note of light relief (literally). I would really like to sing Zadok The Priest with the entire chorus dressed in his vis and wielding aircraft direction batons whilst being pursued by a MEWP (mobile elevating work platform). Village People eat your heart out!

The fashion for long periods of silence has yet to diminish, alas. Such pauses seem to suffice only to make the audience uncomfortable and then to indulge in thinking about anything other than what is on stage, making it less likely that they will re-engage when the relief of a soundtrack recommences. When John Cage ‘created’ 4’33”, he was at least attempting to get the audience to think about the context of the soundscape without needing to retain their interest in anything visual.

It opens with a wobbly hand-held camera shot close up on a loaf of bread. A feral-looking couple investigate, then devour. Dancers walk slowly across the stage carrying sections of the set and trolleys. A solo dancer twitches and jerks in contrast to the glacial pace of the set carriers. A trolley is piled with bodies (plague victims perhaps?), the feral woman appears with a bucket on her head and a toolbox in her hand. Another writhes on the floor in a disconnected pas de deux as a plaintiff lute melody plays. And so it goes on.

Far from being a broad investigation of temporal humanity, the very detachment of Life and Times makes the audience work hard at an impossible task: guessing what was in the choreographer’s mind. I would not choose a work like this for anyone new to dance. Silent film made huge efforts to communicate in ways that we may now find clumsy but this is an example of dance that does exactly the opposite. At the end of the day, we want to see life, and sometimes beauty, reflected in performance, but to do that, we need continuing connection with the people on stage which this level of abstraction negates.

In a way, Life and Times fails in exactly the same manner that an overly-literary work fails in dance: it cannot communicate the choreographer’s (or author’s) message. If the audience is left to do all of the work in bringing their own meaning to a piece, then they may as well just listen to some baroque and think while looking out of the window.

Who are these people, in what context do they exist, why should we care about them and what are they trying to communicate?

Life and Times answered none of those questions for me and, the Zadok The Priest section notwithstanding, there was not enough in the choreography to sustain my interest for more than the odd minute.