'Feeder', 'Await Turn', 'Faceless'
June 14, 2004 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London
Snappy titles and unfathomably ambiguous advertising imagery go a long way in the arts, but then when the audience turns up, you have to do more than just stand and deliver. Especially if your product is a contemporary dance performance.
Starting with “Feeder”, Niklas Laustiola dances a heterosexual relationship with co-performer Joanna Cansell. The ‘emotional power struggle’ mentioned in the programme notes is plainly portrayed without too much deviation from clichés. Initially, Cansell seems to be making somewhat of a fool of herself, dancing and weaving around the stage with verve and precision. She’s wearing only hotpants and a see-through black lacy vest. Laustiola is watching on, long-trousered, unstirred and unappreciative until he eventually steps forward to start a tussling dialogue with her, but without passion or tenderness. They move together in close proximity, but the co-dependency is emotionally stunted, limbs tangle awkwardly and attempts at harmonious manoeuvres are luke-warm. Perhaps we are supposed to perceive subtle emotional tones, as intimated by the shifting colourless lighting, but, like the visual effect, this only comes across as different shades of grey. Laustiola breaks free to dance solo. Her back is turned, and when he tires of his freedom and moves towards her as though to embrace her or ask a question, she turns and walks off stage, leaving a cold and slightly depressing atmosphere.
Something much different, however, on returning for the second half of the programme. Piercing through the auditorium “Await Turn” opens with rock concert chords from a fully amped electric guitar played onstage and dancers linked in a chain of spasmodic, stuttering, snapshot poses. Harsh bright lights and loud noise confuse the senses, so that as Joanna Cansell’s proceeds to her solo, I’m distracted by questions such as ‘Is that a wig she’s wearing?’ and ‘Is he really playing that electric guitar?’ Having established that the answer is yes to both, I turn my attention to trying to make sense of the dance/film scenario.
There’s a female dancer in a red dress - this seems to be a compulsory ingredient at The Place performances, or maybe it’s just me - Cansell. She’s all sultry and flouncy, one bent arm thrown behind her head intermittently. The tall female in a black dress is Walker/Park dancer Catherine Bennett, who’s all skittery and wiry. Rugged, languorous and gorgeous, Ben Wright, seems to be dancing as himself. And then there’s another guy, Damien Stirk, who’s camp as Butlins, a bit Michael Clark-esque, and is inexplicably wearing either his pants or a skullcap on his head, ears protruding. At first, I think that the back projection film is filling in the cavernous gaps in my comprehension of the piece as the onstage characters are shown interacting in outdoor locations. Then other people appear in the film. A bloke in a red dressing gown looms large on the back wall and proceeds to don mascara, lipstick, the afore-mentioned wig and then a short black dress. My mistake. There is no plot. This is postmodern, stream-of-madness, with only a tiny shred of irony. If this is humour, it has been out in the sun too long, and become dried and shrivelled and warped around the edges.
“Faceless”, a solo work for Laustiola - with others featuring in the accompanying video and spoken soundtrack – fluctuates between being dark and sinister, and mildly irritating, which is in itself an impressive feat. During this final piece, I reluctantly thaw to Laustiola’s impenetrable oddness. His complete absence of self-irony is in itself almost ironic, and perhaps I have again mis-judged the intentions of this oblique portrayal of social disguises. He dances a series of episodes as a successive development of new ways of moving. There’s something boyish about his genuine game of exploration, and the moments when he gives over to unabashed exhibitionism are ingratiating. How many are able to tune in to this niche wavelength, though? The End. Oh, sorry. Not the end yet: I’m still dancing. There, I’ve really finished now. Lights dim. Applause.
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