The small pen meets the mighty giant. Heading into Watford Palace Theatre to digest Phoenix Dance Theatre’s triple bill, I felt the gravitas in the atmosphere. “35 years of excellence, diversity, and innovation” is no small feat. Nor is it something to take lightly in this sector.
The young Undivided Loves, created in February, is joined by fan favourite Melt on its fifth year touring, and Until.With/Out.Enough, created in 1997 and re-imagined in 2015.
As the curtains parted, an electric buzz was in the air; quickly dampened by the opening piece Melt, spearheaded by Artistic Director Sharon Watson. Inspired by the elements of water and fire (with a focus on ice), Melt journeyed through stages of calm and chaos.
The mood was set by the composition of Wild Beasts – creating a calm lull as a quartet broke into slow, flowing contact work. The artistic director’s choreographic style became apparent. Elegance. A running theme which took to great heights, made capable by a pair of aerial ropes. They were expertly used by each performer in a series of lifts, carefully painted pictures, and hypnotising movements, as if each dancer was a metronome easing us into a calm state.
Such grace was juxtaposed with a sudden crescendo in music. Equally met by an explosion of controlled chaotic phrases. I did not see it coming. Ironically, it left a burnt aftertaste, as I struggled to make sense of the chaos. Where to look and which of the seven performers to fawn over. I felt a bit cheated. Denied the chance to observe the incredibly skilful and diverse cast.
This cycle of chaos and calm was left in a loop, yet a celebratory feeling veiled the theatre. One could feel the elation in the air. I caught myself helplessly smiling as an upbeat carnival-like score danced with the almost childlike joy oozed by the performers. The dimming and burst of lights, designed by Michael Mannion, also set the mood. Craftily matching the reaction of the audience.
I didn’t melt. But exploding and imploding with awe form a better description of the experience.
Undivided Loves plucked the elegance from its predecessor and ran away with it. Choreographed by Kate Flatt, the piece explores the dream world of a character as he crosses paths with two different lovers and attempts to navigate his emotions. The scene: a mattress where the character laid with Shakespearean sonnets in hand, dimmed lights trickled down a rope curtain stage left, and a musician tucked away in the corner. As simple as it gets. Yet the performance demanded undivided attention, and allowed it with its soothing score (composed by Adriano Adewale) matched by the delivery of poems.
This is when things became confused. An unbalanced mixture of pre-recorded sound and live music clashed with the slow transitions between the surreal and the real. I was left unnecessarily focused on Adewele as a form of live key frame to each world, not helped by his sporadic interaction with the characters, during both supposed states. Though the Brazilian inspired music brought a different flavour to the mix, it felt an unnecessary addition to the recipe.
The duet consisting of Marie-Astrid Mence and Prentice Whitlow embodied incredible technique, neat lines, and commendable artistry. The performer’s ballet training came into its own. A mesmerising phrase that must be mentioned is a sequence of contact work where the passionate lovers moved without letting go of each other.
The recipe became a delight as the sweet, sensual love of the couple was contrasted with the injection of burning passion between “the Reader” and Sam Vaherlehto’s character. Lifts came in abundance. The energy, much like Melt, flourished and the physicality augmented. The trio, caught in elusive dance, reached a climax as sonnets scattered by the protagonist draped the stage.
Until.With/Out.Enough had a much darker mood. Seven performers were fixed in a line, centre stage, with their backs to the audience as the curtains pulled open to release a glum throb of a violin concerto (composed by Henryk Górecki). As they stumbled forward, performers broke out one by one and began abstract movements.
An eccentric piece devised by Tzik Galili, it promised intimacy and tension. What we received was a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek realisation, with much of the audience not knowing if they should laugh or not. At one point, a canon of arse-slapping trickled down a line of dancers, who looked as surprised as we did.
“A good work should move you emotionally and intellectually, and I think it works with this ballet” – Tzik Galili
Challenged perhaps, moved not so much. This was a piece that leaves one pondering, dissecting every metaphor. The dancers took turn at times to aggressively mouth in each other’s ears and avert gaze once they received attention. We were witness to restriction, in the form of lifts being half attempted and denied, all the while performers looked through the audience, reaching for something (the arse-slapping certainly broke the build-up of emotional investment).
Galili may be alluding to personal loss, the search of identity, or even the search of a friend in this performance, but there is a sense of longing omnipresent. The shift between slow states and energetic instances (filled with deep plies and flailing arms) is a feature made very familiar by the pieces of the night. I was left feeling destabilised, experiencing the wrong kind of emotional turmoil due to the pieces overtly abstract construction.
Yet one can’t help but marvel at the brilliant and diverse cast who personified beauty throughout, expertly assembled by Sharon Watson and co.
35 years and counting, and still the giant stands.
*Photos by Brian Slater, Joe Armitage, and Stephen Wright.