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Phoenix Dance Theatre
Phoenix Dance Theatre in “Bloom.” Photograph by Brian Slater

Dance Lab

Phoenix Dance Theatre's mixed bill

Performance
Phoenix Dance Theatre: Mixed Programme 2015
Place
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK, November 11-14, 2015
Words
Rachel Elderkin

Phoenix Dance Theatre returned for the fourth time to the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House London with a triple bill of new and recently commissioned works. Phoenix is a company with a diverse repertoire and while a programme will always exhibit the technical strength of their dancers, it’s a pleasure to not quite know what to expect.

The company opened with the world premiere of “Until.With/Out.Enough” by Israeli-Dutch choreographer Itzik Galili, a piece originally created by Galili in 1997 and now re-worked for this co-commission with the Royal Ballet. The programme notes suggest that “Until.With/Out.Enough” will explore “the enclosed space that exists within our minds.” This is of course an abstract notion, but there is little in this work that seems to really grasp at the essence of its idea.

The movement is technically strong, the classically influenced lines showcasing the ability of the Phoenix dancers. Repeatedly they move into a vertical line, then break into staggered groups, solos or duets as if escaping from their imposed confines. Galili’s choreography truly suits the company dancers but the repetitive phrases of the music do little to aid a growing monotony.

The dancers sporadically mouth silent words, yet without a clear notion of why they are doing this any meaning or artistic quality is lost. At one point a female dancer crosses the stage, a white balloon in hand, as if walking on a tight rope. A few moments later she re-enters, the balloon now red. It all feels a little overstretched.

There are however moments of promise. In the solo and duet work the movement starts to gain an emotional depth, but sadly these budding ideas are quickly left behind. “Until.With/Out.Enough” is a work full of content, yet somehow it manages to say little.

Artistic director Sharon Watson’s latest creation for the company, in partnership with London’s Wellcome Collection, joins a growing catalogue of works combining science with dance. Shobana Jeyasingh recently toured “Strange Blooms,” a work based on the cellular life of plants, and Wayne McGregor, also in partnership with the Wellcome Collection, showcased an exhibition entitled “Thinking with the Body,” a scientific exploration of creativity in dance. To explore something so precise through an abstract language like dance is a challenging combination but when done well it can perhaps render accessible something otherwise difficult to comprehend.

“TearFall” begins with promising clarity. Through spoken word dancer Prentice Whitlow relates the astonishing scientific facts about human tears. As he talks the company dancers begin to move in a way that emphasises his words. It’s a necessarily simple opening, but as the piece progresses the work gets carried away in the beauty of its fluid movement and this initial clarity melts away.

As the dancers thread between each other and engage in moments of intricate contact work, their movement could be seen to represent some scientific process on a molecular level, but it’s a tenuous connection at best. It is the duets which pertain most strongly to the initial idea, hinting at the emotions that might evoke tears.

Watson seems to have pursued our emotional association with crying rather than the scientific facts and the set design enforces this with its comforting, dream-like world. Lightbulbs hang down like dripping tears while clear balloons, brought on by the dancers, bob in the background like large dewy drops. It’s a setting suited to the floaty pastel coloured costumes, a stark contrast to “TearFall’s” no-nonsense scientific beginnings—a bare stage, the dancers dressed simply in white. Without its introductory information “TearFall” could really be about anything. It’s a lyrical, enchanting work but it loses the thread of its idea, all the more noticeable because it began so clearly.

“Bloom” is the saving grace of this variable triple bill. Choreographed by Caroline Finn, one of the 2014 winners of the New Adventures Choreographer Award, “Bloom” is a playful, darkly comic work, charming in its oddness.

The piece opens to a cacophony of noise; sounds and squeals uttered from the mouths of an unusual collection of characters as they converse incoherently around a table. They are waiting for something, their attention on a masked figure who eventually takes his place behind a vintage mic stand. Yet the tables are soon turned. It seems the dancers are all a part of this dark, cabaret-style show and the line between spectator and spectacle quickly becomes blurred.

Elements of clowning and mime pervade the choreography. Each dancer has a distinctive character and the quirkiness of Finn’s movement is fitted precisely to each. The level of detail is remarkable, each step of the choreography matched with a facial expression, filled with meaning. No more so is this evident than in a solo by dancer Carmen Vazquez Marfil which echoes the words of its accompanying rhyme. The song pokes fun at society in 1814 but slowly the humour gives way to a more serious note on the treatment of women and perception of madness at this time. “Bloom” may seem light-hearted but its showy outlook belies a darkness that leaves you questioning what really lies beneath the façade.

Phoenix Dance Theatre continue to push the versatility of their dancers and their repertoire in this latest mixed programme. It’s an enjoyable and technically strong bill, but it is Finn’s intelligent and entertaining contribution that really brings the company, and the evening, to life.