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Baroque ‘n’ Roll

Created by Scottish Dance Theatre’s artistic director Joan Cleville, and filmed in one long, continuous take by digital artist Tao-Anas Le Thanh, “The Life and Times” is inspired by amongst  other Baroque works, the Diego Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas, which invites the viewer to observe the painter in his studio, flanked by a group of sumptuously attired models. The performance was originally streamed in 2021, partially in response to Cleville's rumination about our time spent in lockdown.

Performance

Scottish Dance Theatre: “The Life and Times”

Place

Dundee Rep Theatre, Iive-streamed on March 29, 2024

Words

Lorna Irvine

Scottish Dance Theatre's “The Life and Times.” Photograph courtesy of Scottish Dance Theater

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As this painting allowed a glimpse into the artistic process, so this film lets the viewer see dancers up close, and plays with multiple perspectives. It's a typically idiosyncratic approach from Cleville, whose choreography endlessly vacillates between high concept and playful, surreal abstraction. He has described it as having “both a pop video and silent film” aesthetic.

Since Baroque—both the art movement and classical music—is governed by chiaroscuro, the principle of both light and shadow, there is both in abundance here. The elasticity of time being a key factor, initially, and intermittently, some of the company move in manic bursts as though speeding up on an old silent movie; whereas others are in slo-mo, moving as through mud. This effect disrupts any notion of a linear sense of choreography.

There are some noticeable tweaks from the last iteration of the piece: more focus is given over to the many anachronisms: slats of wood for screens, neon lights which are used as though the dancers are in a seventeenth-century rave, trolleys where they push each other around, and a bucket covering a head. This only augments the otherness of the Bach, Handel and Vivaldi soundtrack. 

Scottish Dance Theatre's “The Life and Times.” Photograph courtesy of Scottish Dance Theater

But the allusions to the original source material are apparent, too: Kieran Brown is the naughty cherub with grapes from the many famous Rubens, Caravaggio and Velazquez paintings. This is but one character—he and Jessie Roberts-Smith also reprise their naughty childlike roles which provide a mischievous central motif. They're balletic, and also bouffon, at once elegant and puppet-esque, symbolic of the freewheeling nature of the camera, always watching as they slide, roll and bicker. They even reference the original bawdy British theatrical tradition of the pantomime horse. Matthias Strahm has kitted the duo out in seventeenth century clothes, yet the others look more contemporary—another conscious choice.

It's the solos which feel most traditional: Kai Tomiaka creates gorgeous extensions and Molly Danter's limbs stretch out into statuesque glissade. But there's a minimum of ballet steps- in the main, many dance genres collide, almost imperceptibly.

Shadowplay, mimesis and vaudeville provide comedic interludes. These are court jesters interrupting and interrogating the  pomp and reverence of the Royal Court. A scene featuring several dancers, led by the wonderful Solene Weinachter in a knotty tangle of hair and sweat even feels suggestive, as does Roberts-Smith and her over-enthusiastic kneading of bread at her groin level. They're power crazed court jesters by any other name.

The restless and ever-changing nature of the production is also reinforced by the ways that screens conceal, then reveal. If Velazquez was first to break the fourth wall, as many art historians over the decades have suggested, then Cleville aims to tear down walls altogether. His characters within the company cannot be traduced and smeared in the way of mere muses, stereotypes and ciphers, but rather, flesh and blood people with likeability and stories through lived experience. Like all of the finest works of art, they have agency, and like “the eyes that follow you around the room,” they stare back.

Lorna Irvine


Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.

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