What kind of value judgments and viewing habits do we bring to the theatre when we are watching a new piece of dance? It’s a question posed by Dance Umbrella and CCN-Ballet de Lorraine in their new, joint production, Unknown Pleasures. By presenting an evening of five new works, whose choreography, design, lighting and music all remain anonymous, they are inviting audiences to look at the stage with their senses rinsed clean of all preconceptions – and all PR.
It’s a bold and engaging experiment, challenging the roles that reputation, context, gender and age play in our evaluation of dance. But much as I enjoyed the novelty of the concept (and the freedom of arriving at the theatre without making any advance preparation), I didn’t find that the experience made me a more innocent viewer.
The five works in Unknown Pleasures are presented as one, near seamless performance, but with the first item divided into short sections that function as hinges between the four longer pieces. The movement in Anonymous #1 (my title) is a study in fragmented, frozen gesture and its dancers have a slightly lost air, as if unsure whether or not they are actively performing. They drift across the space, they place themselves precariously on the front edge of the stage, as if hoping to merge themselves with the audience. And while #1 adds a smart sliver of the conceptual to the programme, as a framing device it is perhaps too distancing, too self-conscious, for a show already fraught with questions.
The other works are admirably diverse in style. Best of the four is #2, a pure minimalist piece for 17 dancers whose elegantly repeating walks, turns and glides accumulate into grids, circles, and progressively mesmeric kaleidoscopic patterns. These patterns form and reform with such tantalising rapidity that we cannot see whether the letters printed on the dancers’ T-shirts are meant to make any sense; only at the end do the cast order themselves into a line in which the words “The world is burning but I keep on turning” become clearly legible. The drollery of it, combined with the musicality of the phrasing and the exquisite control of structure, all suggest the imprint of Lucinda Childs – if not the choreographer herself then a talented disciple.
Piece #3 is about three couples, who seem to be locked together in a language of gluey, febrile body contact. At moments they break apart, as one or other dancer makes a swerving break for freedom, yet some dark force of emotional gravity keeps dragging them back to the confines of the duet. I suspect that if this work were longer and revealed more about each couple I might have rated it more highly. At 15 minutes, however, it doesn’t transcend the very generic nature of its ingredients – the dysfunctional-looking relationships, the moody lighting and electronic score.
The dance clock is turned back a couple of decades in #4, where dancers in retro-gold Lycra and black tights perform choreography that looks like an homage to Merce Cunningham. The stiff-legged footwork, the tight little clusters and rushes of energy are pure Merce, although the movement is also invaded by a different, less disciplined voice. It’s one that shakes the dancers into looser, blurrier lines, sends them toppling off balance and disrupts the symmetry of the floor patterns – almost as though the anonymous choreographer were having his or her own argument with Cunningham’s legacy.
Unknown Pleasures closes in grandstanding style with a setting of Ravel’s Boléro. As 11 dancers criss-cross the stage to the insistent, orgiastic swell of the music, the blatancy of their pelvis-thrusting demeanour, their swagger and strut feel like a parody of the classic Béjart version of the same score. But there is also a strange, vivid torque to parts of the choreography that make it more animalistic than human, with the dancers springing across the stage on their hands and knees, or with their arms angled above their heads like antlers. The work also springs a sweet and funny surprise as the central couple, who first emerge from the group like jousting animals on heat, end up sitting cosily together on the edge of the stage, two quietly domesticated lovers.
Overall it’s a good evening of dance – and #2 and #5 are both works I would particularly like to see again. But while I was watching Unknown Pleasures I found the question of context and authorship a nagging distraction, which at times got between me and the stage. Perhaps the critic’s part of my brain doesn’t know how to shut up. But as a species we are wired to be puzzle solvers; given the conversations I had with other people, and the conversations I overheard, I wasn’t alone in finding the evening as much of a quiz as a liberation. The programme will go on international tour and at the end of its run, I’d be happy to see it return to Umbrella – but this time with the name credits inserted. It’s not that I’m desperate to know how well I scored at Guess the Choreographer, but I would be able to absorb myself far more completely with the works themselves if I wasn’t bothering about their provenance.