National Dance Company Wales – Tundra ****
Scottish Dance Theatre & Scottish Ensemble – These Bones, This Flesh, This Skin ***
Protein - The Sun Inside ****
Matsena Performance Theatre - Are You Numb Yet? ****
As its name suggests, Zoo has always been home to an eclectic mix of creatures. So even if we can’t walk into the venue’s various buildings this August, its online programme of dance and physical theatre proves as diverse as ever.
Works from previous years rub shoulders with filmed versions of what would have been performed live. But perhaps most exciting are the specially created works that belong on film and would never have graced a stage.
Matsena Performance Theatre’s Are You Numb Yet? is powerful, relevant and raw, taking us into the heart of a Black Lives Matter protests. People wipe tear-gassed eyes to a soundtrack of wailing police sirens, and an atmosphere of impending violence thickens and disorientation grows, as one young black man is picked out by the camera, alone and frantic in the chaos.
It transpires, however, it’s not the protest he fears most, but the potential silence that follows. The face masks and BLM placards capture the zeitgeist, but in a world where memories are short and news cycles fast, will the 2020 momentum last? Our hero feels left behind, stating “I used to have allies – our weapons crafted in the form of t-shirts and protests, screaming for justice, but now . . . ”
At one point, dancers drag themselves across wooden floorboards towards him, the groaning creaks and dim light eerily reminiscent of the bowels of a slave ship. Alone in a cave gasping for breath, his outstretched hand meets with nothing, and in the final moments, poetic words and teardrops fall in an empty room.
We all looked for upsides during lockdown, and perhaps one of the biggest consolations was the unseasonably good weather. Finding sunshine instead of rain through the window, and during the prescribed hour outside, was a definite saving grace. Protein Dance captures those moments beautifully in The Sun Inside, a ten-minute film in which the fireball in the sky plays the starring role, with over 150 acolytes.
Conceived and created by Luca Silvestrini, the footage arrived via an open call to the public to share their experience of sunlight during lockdown. Each submission is different from the last – some catch the rays as they fall through Venetian blinds, some chase shards of light across their walls, others dance with shadows on the living room floor.
The film jumps from orchestrated artistry to chance moments of fun – but throughout, the sense of community shines as bright as anything the sky has to offer.
Scottish Dance Theatre and the Scottish Ensemble look for a more brutal beauty in their new digital collaboration, These Bones, This Flesh, This Skin. A work for solo dancer and violin, one of the most interesting aspects of this project is that we, the viewer, get to choose which version we watch.
First, we select our ‘visual layer’, from bones, flesh or skin. Then we can add up to three audio layers – leading to 21 possible outcomes. The resulting short films invite us to observe the kind of things our busy lives usually preclude us from noticing: new spring growth on a branch, scratches on a Perspex window, flies caught in a spider web.
The colourful newness of dancer João Castro’s clothes juxtapose sharply with the rusty dereliction of the Dundee industrial estates in which it’s shot. Playing with the different audio/visual permutations is fun and thought-provoking, but a few extra glimpses of a full body in motion would give the choreography more room to breathe.
A piece of dance that’s been filmed, rather than a dance film, Tundra was first performed by National Dance Company Wales in 2017. It won some accolades back then, and in the absence of seeing it live, this digital version certainly does the piece justice.
Choreographer Marcos Morau was inspired by Russian folk dance and the history of the USSR – evident in the striking multi-coloured costumes, evocative of Orthodox church spires. First seen wearing long blue gowns, eight dancers slide across the stage as if on wheels, their scurrying feet hidden from view.
When the skirts are cast aside to reveal equally colourful legs, the sense that we are viewing one large organism becomes even greater. Moving in unison, or as if propelled by a chain reaction, there’s something almost supernatural about the performers. An eight-headed, 16-legged creature with no individual autonomy - like watching the famous pas de quatre from Swan Lake with double vision.
In sharp contrast to social distancing, these dancers rarely stray more than a few inches from each other. In one particularly memorable sequence, sideways arms float up and down, redolent of an elegant Mexican wave or shoal of fish gliding through the ocean.
There’s little to latch on to emotionally in Tundra, but the precision movement can’t fail to empress. Each sock-covered foot that points, head that turns and hip that juts out is executed with perfect timing. Created to coincide with the centenary of the Russian revolution, there’s a definite military vibe to the straight lines and sideways looks, with Morau making astute use of the dancers’ varying heights.
There are over 30 performances on the Zoo TV channel, and while nothing compares to the shared live experience we hope to return to in 2021, bravo to this passionate venue for keeping the faith.
Zoo TV continues until tonight, with shows available on catch up for seven days after their first broadcast here https://www.zoofestival.co.uk
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