Lilian Baylis, Sadler's Wells, London, UK, April 24, 2019
Eleanor Sikorski, Flora Wellesley Wesley and Stephanie McMann, the charming dancers behind the London-based trio Nora, routinely invite guest choreographers to create new work on them. The approach is useful for showcasing their versatility as performers, particularly their flair for theatre, but makes it difficult to identify stylistic through-lines in their rep. Previous pieces shown at the Lilian Baylis have been hugely disparate, their moods ranging from jovial to irreverent to tranquil. With its abstract, contemplative tenor, the troupe’s newest work, “Where Home Is,” by Deborah Hay, adds another contrasting number to the mix.
Hay, a founding member of the venerable Judson collective, is a pioneer of postmodern dance and known for her choreographic experiments with time and space. Her new piece for Nora is, therefore, perhaps best defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t a routine with an obvious start and finish; it isn’t a meditation on a discernible theme; it isn’t an exhibition of technical rigour. In fact, the half-hour work is dislocated from almost all the normal parameters of performance: there’s as much standing around as there is dancing, there’s almost no music, and only once are the audience lights dimmed. Hay herself describes the choreography as “disorienting, comfortingly spare, right in silence.” For me, it registers as equal parts intriguing and confounding.
The dance we do witness includes shuffling and scooting, crawling and
twirling, languid repose and goofy stabs at athletics. These motions are slow,
casual, fragmented, the trio rarely moving in concert or intensifying their
movement into something physically robust. Every so often a phrase materialises
with some expressive lustre. In one, McMann and Sikorski egg on Wellesley
Wesley as she bops around the stage, teasing her with daffy cheers like “bring
it home” and “do it for London!” In another, the three align for a harmonised
choral arrangement, a dusky display that’s both serene and unsettling.
Witty shows of motion and emotion surface, along with individual strengths, like Sikorski’s forte for ad-libbing and Wellesley Wesley’s leonine form, a striking edifice of long, twisted lines. The passive choreography does little to highlight these talents, though; they seem to emerge incidentally. The questions posed are interesting—Are the borders of performance fixed? Why is stillness so uncomfortable?—but there’s an aloofness that dulls even the livelier segments.
The troupe followed up the performance with a conversation inspired by Hay’s experience of rehearsing her own solo work while creating “Where Home Is.” The three took turns asking the audience to consider different frames for viewership, each meant to widen our perception of how we absorb a performance. The first frame asked us to “remember to recognise time is passing,” while the second pondered whether space can be “anything we want it to be.” The third—“What if my whole body sees what my eyes see?”—invited the audience to voice their thoughts on the subject, prompting one woman to reject “the very presumption that our eyes see the most.” It’s a thought-provoking exercise, but again the abstract, intellectualised tact dims the sense of dynamism.
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