Scottish Dance Theatre in The Life and Times by Joan Clevillé. Still by Tao-Anas Le Thanh

Prelude to Anarchy

Joan Clevillé's new dance film for Scottish Dance Theatre

There is no genuflecting here. Joan Clevillé’s new film for Scottish Dance Theatre, The Life and Times, is as close to the classic lush period cinema of Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, with all of the integral anarchy, mischief and darkness as it’s possible to create, without getting too controversial or explicit (neither director was a stranger to controversy, or well-crafted filth).

Like an old-fashioned wooden puzzle, component parts reveal themselves through the drip-feed of Clevillé’s knotty, intelligent choreography, filmed with one camera by the equally wonderful Tao-Anas Le Thanh, who freewheelingly tracks the action with twists and turns, framing the piece so as to place the viewer up close to the ensemble, as if following in the empty auditorium, and then right there on stage with them. Clevillé dispenses with the archetypes associated with the Baroque period of dance: monarchs; courtesans, noble ladies and men, sundry guests and ribald jesters. Instead, in the main, the dancers, mostly in modern costumes, perform a contemporary spin on this decadent era, albeit with a few typically Clevillé touches, and still using a triumphant soundtrack by Handel and Bach. There is enough surrealism to counter choices which could have been considered wacky in lesser hands, such as the parade of sliding platforms, wooden slats that seem to go on interminably like extras, and a set unfolding like a work-in-progress, all brooms, props and dry ice being brought on as the action begins.

There are no powdered wigs here. A few concessions are made to the era, though, of sorts. Matthias Strahm, whose gorgeous costumes tip a nod to the 17th century, also designed the set with lovely velvet drapery. There’s a ridiculous incident at the start, with a fine lady almost tripping over her dress, until the camera pans upwards to expose . . . a bucket on her head. It’s as though Cleville wants to prick the reverence, but also the pomposity, of these times, with its well-documented clear divide between the rich and poor.

Two brats take centre stage in glorious costumes, all piled up hair and silk. Said urchins, portrayed by Jessie Roberts-Smith and Kieran Brown, bring a rolling, carnivalesque spirit to the piece, bookending it with their bouffon humour, reminding me at times of Clout Theatre, superb proponents of the anarchic French clowning from Lecoq school. When not bickering over a loaf of bread, or perceived slights, the impish duo run through an astonishing series of routines together. One sees them embrace a madcap flurry of acrobatics with flailing limbs, races on tiptoe, clapping games and exquisite pratfalls. Another has Roberts-Smith almost unscrewing Brown’s head as though it were a cork stopper from a wine bottle—it’s bizarre, disturbing and hilarious, all at once. 

There are no heroes and villains here. Emma Jones has lit the ensemble in gorgeous Renaissance chiaroscuro, meaning there is an undercurrent of fragility to everyone. This is especially true when the music stops playing, and mimesis and dance is fused. These silent scenes are ambiguous, running counter to the puckish pranks of the bouffons. Clusters of dancers strike poses with legs extended to the point of discomfort, and hold them fast there, as they stare back at the camera. The effect is discomfiting, almost as though the ensemble is asking the viewer how much physical human endurance is required of dancers.Nicole Nevitt’s solo is the most balletic, and by extension the closest thing here to tradition; and Luigi Nardone is almost giddy-drunk, falling through a series of twirls and extensions, weaving out and in the others (observing impassively) a modern play on courtly dance rituals. Then, the bodies tangle and hands link in a sweaty mass, like the saddest orgy there ever was.

There is no join-the-dots, linear narrative here. Nor should there be, as here, the dance is storytelling enough—just the most extraordinary, breathless work from a company who are not afraid to take risks, and a choreographer who trusts his audience to understand the complexity of his works of great integrity, space and playfulness.

The Life and Times streamed live through Dundee Rep Studios on June 17 and 18, 2021.