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Darshan Singh Bhuller

'Caravaggio: Exile and Death"

by David Mead

October 27, 2011 -- Patrick Centre, Birmingham, UK

As the title suggests, “Caravaggio: Exile and Death” is inspired by the life and work of the 17th-century Italian master. Sadly it only occasionally even comes close to matching the artists’s vivid work and the dramatic, tempestuous nature of his life.

Bhuller opens with Caravaggio in the throes of death as he returns from exile. Lee Clayden’s body reflected not only the pain of death, but also the ravages of his dramatic, and all too often violent, life. The scene has an intensity that is never recaptured. Thereafter, a series of scenes and tableaux are presented, all based on his paintings and incidents from his life. Into this is weaved a fictionalised love triangle between the artist and a penniless young couple who employs as models, an idea he took from Derek Jarman’s film on the subject. He first develops a relationship with the boy, but then switches attention to the girl, which leads to jealousy and murder. That narrative, however, all too often gets lost in the sometimes representational, sometimes symbolic other action.

Bhuller studied at the Metropolitan Film School following his stint as artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre from 2002-2006, and it is when combined with film that appears to draw the dancers into the images that the work is at its best, although it would have been even more effective had the screen stretched the whole width of the stage. It is also here that we see his roller-coaster relationship with the church portrayed through a series of projections featuring a sunglass wearing cardinal in picture frames, danced by Bhuller himself. There are also some striking, almost photographic images, most impressively in a recreation of Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin”, in which a group stand round a girl in a red dress laying on a mortuary table.

The dance that surrounds all this is not unpleasant, but is strangely lacking in drama and does little to enhance or even illustrate mood. Bhuller has a tendency to over-prolong sequences to the extent that they become unnecessary padding. One section that seemed to be based on a single phrase and floor pattern not only seemed particularly interminable, but failed to illustrate anything. It is not all like that. There is the occasional inspirational idea, such as illustrating a disputed game of real tennis by having two dancers grunt and shriek a la Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. It was mildly amusing, for a while at least, although oddly failed to make the point that in Caravaggio’s real life the game ended in death.

All this was rather a shame because his dancers are clearly excellent. Clayden, remarkably dancing while suffering with the flu is stocky, powerful and has a brooding presence. Among the ensemble Luo Wei-chun particularly caught the eye with her clarity of line and movement.

“Caravaggio: Exile and Death” has some beautiful moments, and some stunning images, but ultimately disappoints. All too often it simply fails to communicate or hang together as a work. One was left with the feeling that it could have been so, so much more.

“Caravaggio: Exile and Death” continues on tour to Newcastle (Dance City), London (The Place) and Buxton (Opera House). See for details.


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