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Motionhouse Dance Theatre

‘Perfect’

26th May 2005
London, Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall

by Graham Watts


© Chris Nash

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Perfect ------- : if asked to fill in the missing word, in the manner of ‘Blankety-Blank’, one might say ‘harmony’ or ‘day’ (as in the U2 song) but there’s a good chance that the popular choice would be ‘timing’ or ‘time’ and that is what this ‘Perfect’ is all about.

As the audience busily search for their seats in the minutes leading up to an 8pm start, one of the dancers lies on her side at the front of the stage. Helen Parlor’s stillness means that many people don’t notice her immediately and as the scheduled start-time draws closer, the more obvious it becomes that latecomers are oblivious to her presence.

Her fingers twitch, she lifts herself up and reaches out despairingly towards the audience whilst her darkly pleading eyes follow the earnest movement of a late arrival. There is a dichotomy here that provides an important message for the performance to come. Everyone in the Purcell Room is subject to the same passage of time in relation to this one event. But there is an immense contrast between the agonisingly slow perspective of the dancer and the scurrying crowd in front of her. One, submissive and horizontal, appears to have all the time in the world but perhaps is also anxiously waiting for the performance to end her misery: the others have no time to spare at all. Their anxiety to reach their seat in time has perhaps meant that by not noticing the slumbering, twitching performer on stage, they have already missed the opening act.

Parlor’s evident distress continues in an awkward, introspective solo at the front of the stage, danced against the backdrop of giant projected shadows from inside the paper wall. The outsider eventually sinks to her knees and resumes her original prostrate position, watched over by an alter ego shadow from within, before disappearing through a tear in the paper screen.

The performance continues through several episodic sequences that capture images of how the clock and the calendar dominate the core of all our lives. Passages of intensely physical theatre are entwined with tranquil sequences of reflection. The whole experience moulds together dance and aerial movement with a wonderful, hypnotic and creatively integrated score by Sophy Smith and Tim Dickinson, a remarkable metal-box set, designed by Simon Dorman and, superimposed upon it, Caroline Bridges’ integral film installation.

A fundamental aspect of the Motionhouse experience is the seamless interaction amongst these elements. Dorman’s set is a vital tool for both the film and the performers. The stage is covered in sand, the tangible emblem of time, and a huge paper wall dominates the front of the set. It serves both as a screen for the projection of time-related images (construction workers on their lunch hour, a man quietly reading a newspaper on a park bench, peak time at a busy station) and as a curtain to enable apparently disembodied legs to perform a comical early dance sequence.

 


Motionhouse in Perfect
© Chris Nash


The paper wall is gradually sliced apart from behind by the unseen dancers, whilst close-up film of their faces is shredded as they cut through it. The strips of paper are symbolically turned into shapeless flowers, rooted into the sand as another metaphor for time. The flowers provide a more important opportunity for interaction, as watering them also enables the sand to be dampened down, thus minimising the obvious problems of performers kicking up dusty dry, mini-sandstorms into each other’s faces.

Caroline Bridges’ film installation includes a powerful vignette where the five dancers are literally pulled, flicked, and pushed around by a giant hand. How often does life seem like that? As an image, it reminded me of the live action/film integration of the Black Light Theatre of Prague.

A later sequence describes the time of pregnancy, dramatised on stage by two of the dancers whilst giant images of pregnant women are projected onto the set. There is no linear narrative to the piece but it is clear that relationships between the five dancers begin, develop and move on throughout the various episodes of ‘Perfect’: a physical attraction that flickers into life early in the piece, develops through a sweet courtship in the flower-growing sequence and follows its natural course through to pregnancy.

The set is also the anchor for five aerial harnesses, enabling the dancers to balance behind the screen in the early passages and literally walk in the air during more reflective moments. They become vehicles for the flying end to the performance as the five dancers twist, roll and hurtle around the small set, ravelling and unravelling their harnesses like a giant, human maypole.

Wendy Hesketh joined Motionhouse in October last year, having worked as an aerial harness specialist on ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’. There were leg-crossing moments when she swung at full force into the metal stanchions at the corner of the set and at the last split-second straddled the metal pole without collision.

The remarkable, mesmerising Tanztheater imagery of ‘Perfect’ is counter-balanced by the alternating quiet beauty and energetic physicality of its dance. A central sequence includes a frenetic, relentless, spectacular passage of twisting, diving, holding, throwing, falling and catching that represents the extreme “time flies” nature of modern life. It also showed the strength and fitness of the dancers who throw themselves into this 70-minute long piece with limitless reserves of strength and stamina. If you have ever imagined what mixed tag-wrestling in a sandpit might be like, then this performance might give you an idea! In addition to Parlor and Hesketh, Junior Cunningham, Vanessa Cook and Stuart Walters (who remarkably learned the piece in a week) make up an outstanding quintet.

This is the sixteenth touring production of Kevin Finnan’s brilliant Company but there is nothing tired or repetitive in this work. It is as bright, fresh, innovative and captivating as if it were the first Motionhouse dance experience.

As I left the Royal Festival Hall complex at around 9.15 pm, still on a high from this exciting banquet of dance theatre, in the softly fading light of a beautiful early Summer evening, the haunting melody of a zither drifted unhindered over the still, large space of the Thames. For a moment or two, time stood still. Perfect.


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