Part of thinking about dance is thinking about bodies, the space they inhabit and the intimacy involved in creation: this is surely as true for critics as makers. So it is with Jasmin Vardimon Company’s enigmatic Canvas, which interrogates such themes. In the middle of the pandemic, we are all becoming increasingly mindful of the space we take up, how to not get in the way of others, and how to be sensitive and recalibrate where we walk, queue, run, and travel (if possible). Just a hand placed in the wrong way is dangerous, just invading someone else’s path is inadvisable.
This film, performed by fourteen dancers from JV2 (the emergent strand of the company) directed, designed and choreographed by Vardimon herself, gnaws away at the horrible issues around isolation, being kept separate from others, and what happens when we join them after a longing for meaningful connection. How do we become integrated once more? What new steps are left to learn? The young company of dancers, who look like they operate from an abandoned house, resemble a coven of witches or cult, an eerie chorus casting spells with spidery fingers and raised arms. In grey outfits, the solemn young women strut in unison, bend and stomp, all the while beckoning to a solo dancer through an insidious chant. They seem like one big mass, an impenetrable steel fortress.
She (Andrea Paniagua Urquiza) clad in a black top and sky blue skirt, individual from the rest, seems immune to the bewitching of the women, preoccupied, focusing instead on a mysterious young man (Sam Reeves) who appears behind a screen and is nose to nose with her, in symbiosis, but for the partition. They draw circles on the glass and slide down, desperate for union. We are left wondering who the potential lovers are, and if/why they have been cast out. It’s up to us as viewers to fill in the story for ourselves. They seem like two halves, magnetically pulling towards each other. It’s deeper than desire, more instinctive in the way they move, as if the steps they perform together were somehow pre-ordained.
The push and pull of restriction and connection is reinforced throughout by the textures of sound. The swish and march of the company’s feet on sand makes a satisfying crunch, the murmurs, yells, exhalations and hisses become quite percussive, staccato and sharp. These enhance and add extra layers to the more mournful elements of the soundtrack, such as Tindersticks’ characteristically dolorous music.
“Follow me,” urge others, not so much a command as a seductive enticement. Thus, the duo are brought together, slink off into the darkness with a torch to light the way, and slide on their knees in an intense mating type dance. But now they are starting to succumb to the conditioning of the group, melting into the company and emulating the kicking up of their heels. Suddenly the choreography transforms, as is typical of Vardimon, into something utterly gruelling, a frenzy. Urquiza’s wild solo throwing sand over herself is as nothing to the finale, as the whole company are put through their paces by yelled out instructions like some kind of fitness regime at a bootcamp or cult. It’s unsettling and off-kilter, with thrashing limbs and hair flying, occasional respite coming in slow-motion running on the spot.
Suddenly the choreography transforms, as is typical of Vardimon, into something utterly gruelling, a frenzy.
The tone of Canvas remains a deliberately ambiguous one. Is Vardimon implying that by following along with the popular dance of others, we lose our sense of free will? Or that it’s better to remember that we all have our place in the world and are inter-dependent, so we may as well embrace the collective group mentality? We can only guess, and this film has enough space to provoke discussion. The title itself seems to be apt, as the double meaning of a material which is associated with creation itself (a blank canvas) could also equally fit with the verb with an additional s, to convincing people to follow along.
Screened online on Vimeo and the company website, Friday, May 28th until Sunday, May 30th, alongside May You Listen? by Sabrina Gargano and Eterna by Anthony Matsena.
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