Saturday 29 September 2012

Continu – Sadler's Wells

[proper review. first draft/stab-at]

Sasha Waltz's Continu is apparently two works, one made for the (re)opening of the Neues Museum in Berlin and the other for the Maxxi Museum in Rome designed by Zaha Hadid. It feels like three pieces, however. Two before the interval and one afterwards.

The first piece (which I'm quite happy to believe is an opening act of the whole first half) is set to the percussion piece Rebonds 'B' by Iannis Xenakis (incidentally, I am staggered afresh that YouTube has all this stuff readily available to watch – this Information Age of ours is a wonderful thing, and not just because it might save me a lot of work trying to describe everything to the last detail). It is performed by six female dancers, dressed in similar long black or near-black navy dresses.

The interesting thing for me here was the way even in its brief duration, it taught you how to watch it. At first glance, it looks like it might be a very rough stab at synchronised movement, but as each dancer in turn is given a break-out solo section we learn to perceive them as individuals rather than as uniform members of a group, and so the individual interpretation of the group movement sections grows to feel more deliberate.

For some reason – and, God knows this is probably a useless observation – I didn't much go for this first brief section. Although having gone in more-or-less blind, and not knowing the shape of the evening, other than at some point there'd be a twenty minute interval, I was working pretty hard on reconciling myself to watching a lot more of it, and so had started to warm to the piece – concentrating on specific dancers, alternating my attention between the live percussionist (Robyn Schulkowsky) and the movement. Admiring the use of the stage and Daniel Hermann's large, looming, austere black-walled “set” (a high, dark, sheer, matte black, three-walled room, basically). And there was something interesting and admire-able about the way that the individuality of the dancers seemed to create layers within the group dynamic.

But then it stopped. After only about ten minutes. The lights went off, and when they came up again, there was no live percussionist. Given that, if I had to try to pin it down, I think it was the music I wasn't really into, I confess I was a bit pleased.

Interestingly, the second piece also begins with a piece by Xenakis: Concret PH. However, without the programme and YouTube, I'd have just described this as a slightly treated recording of some of those “rain sticks” you find in new age shops. Even with this information, I'm not especially tempted to alter that description. However, played initially in the dark the sound is nicely spooky and evocative, partly because of the sheer quality of the sound recording. There's a brittle, hi-fidelity to this treble-heavy that is pleasantly jarring at this volume.

All the dancers cluster in the northwest corner of the stage. 24 of them (though I thought I counted 25). Bent double, hands pressed against the floor. They shuffle forward, feet before hands, heads hanging down, looking like Figures at the Base of Bacon's Crucifixion.

The music for this piece is Edgard Varèse's Arcana. It's a piece I've never heard before, so I was relieved to discover post-fact that even Wikipedia agrees that it's strongly influenced by Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. The combination of this music and the shuffling group reminded me incredibly of Pina Bausch's Frühlingsopfer; to such an extent, in fact, that I started to false-memory-remember some idea that the piece was some sort of direct hommage or quotation; along the same suggestive lines as Alain Platel's Out of Context.

But it's not just the music and choreography that initially recalls the Bausch. There's also something about the way that the piece seems to make narrative and the narrative that it seems to be making. Admittedly at first the ensemble didn't seem to especially divide along any tangible lines. Waltz's company is comprises a diversity of performers that theatre can only envy for how effectively people from Africa, America, South America, the near east, the far east, the middle east, Australasia and Europe can communicate on stage. They are dressed, at random, in single colour costumes of black, gunmetal navy and tan/khaki. Shirts or t-shirts and trousers for the men and similar long dresses to before for the women. The cuts are clean, classic, minimal and modern.

The group divides into three smaller groups, still arched on all fours (I think). The groups' patterns of movements shift. Figures from the groups start to break away, pair up, dance solos. There is a sequence in which a small number of the performers cower or skulk at the stage's eastern wall, while the rest apparently riot in the northwest corner, held back by only one of their number.

A narrative – still reminiscent of The Rite of Spring – seems to emerge of fairly forcible courtships. Men and women are divided. The men perhaps the aggressors against a community of women. But then there also appear to be tribal or familial groupings. Dancers seem to emerge as specific characters. Characters with developing relationships to other characters.

At the same time, Waltz plays interesting games with impossible divisions of our attention. Several different threads, narratives, sub-plots, seem to break out simultaneously on opposite sides and ends of the stage so that it is impossible to to take them in at once. There seems to be an abduction or a rape, and retribution for it. Perhaps also a forbidden romance between members of opposing factions, and perhaps the destruction of the male party in this affair. There are stand-offs and arguments, competitions and feats of strength.

As well as the pictures of pagan Russia Stravinsky might have evoked, here it seems to owe more to the profusion of classical mythology. Something like a mash up of The Bacchae, the whole of the Trojan war and a fair bit of Ovid's  Metamorphosis all vying for attention. This sense is perhaps advanced by the way that the “stories” seem to emerge from this one central stem, this sole body of an ensemble. I wondered if this was simply a product of me over-reading the connection of the piece to a museum housing classical statuary or whether the movement and tableaux also referenced these. The piece, when standing alone, was (with happy synchronicity) originally entitled Dialoge 09. I think that dialogue is between the mise-en-scene and the ancient artefacts of the museum. (Although, looking into this a bit more (and by “a bit” I mean a Google image search), Neues Museum seems to be primarily famed for its Ägyptische stuff than its Griechischen und Römischen collections.)

What I found staggering – knowing next to nothing about the genesis of this work – was the sheer extent of it. There seemed to be more clear stories being told here than you could possibly get away with in a play. And they seemed to run like quicksilver, almost tumbling over each other, for too fast to keep a hold of or pin down. And yet this didn't seem to matter. There seemed to be a joy of cumulative effect that communicated more than underlined “meaning” or simple moral structures.

At one point close to the end all but one of the entire company line up against the back wall. The other company member shouts as if gunshots. One by one members of the company drop, as if dead until all but one is left standing.

Again, one has no clear idea of what precisely has happened or to whom, and yet at the same time, the primary meaning is totally clear. Elsewhere a pair of women seem to dance a dance of raw sexual frustration, swishing their skirts like a couple of shirty peacocks during mating season. At once abstract but incredibly, unmistakably clear in meaning. The performers, without speaking, are clearly acting. And they are great actors. And the use of the stage, the sheer pleasure of these repeated stage pictures which seem pleasurable solely because of the artfully informal positioning of bodies in space was a revelation to me. (The nearest comparison I can think of was the tangible fluency of Katie Mitchell's choreography of the crowd scenes in Idomeneo).

If the first half could be characterised by a yearning tension between wildness and formality – its most striking recurrent motif was the almost right-angled stretch: both arms and whole body from the waist up bent to the right. – then the second half perhaps distilled this into two separate bottles. It opened with a solo man in off-white (beige?) pants, in a kind of angular rictus. Toes splayed and waved like fingers, muscles seemed to spasm. He is joined by three more men, and they are spread across the large white sheet that forms a stage upon the stage in the black room. Each like a kind of pinned butterfly or low statue of a writhing form.

The rest of the ensemble enter severally dressed now in blacks, khakis and whites. Cooler, more classical. Like so many chic gallery attendees, with these near-naked men as the statues.

The music here is Claude Vivier's Zipangu. (Never has there been a less onomatopoeic title.) It starts like a fitful modernist cross between the beginning of Mahler's O Mensch! Gib Acht! from his 3rd Symphony and Bartok's Concerto for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and then just gets more violent.

(I should say at this juncture, I don't think I've ever spent such an enjoyably evening in the company of “difficult” modern orchestral music. Here the music is played at an admirably loud volume throughout, and the way that it is offset with such a strong visual component means that your attention somehow tunes in and out of appreciating the music at the same time as trying to take in all the movement, colour and potential meaning, like the best sort of information overload imaginable.)

Where the second part could be characterised by a sort of primitive aggression, this third part (or second piece?), in contrast to its accompaniment, was most memorable for moments of formal precision. There's a stunning section where three women appear to walk round the walls of the stage sideways, apparently balanced on the shoulders of three men. It is at once clever, breathtaking and incredibly elegant.

The piece builds to an unexpected conclusion (well, Ok, I peaked at my programme and knew that by fifteen minutes before the end, we still hadn't heard the adagio from Mozart's Oboe Quartet). But, even knowing it was coming doesn't quite prepare you for the way it's staged.

A single man and woman are suddenly alone on the enormous white sheet of paper, which for the duration of the piece has been getting more and more marked as dancers drew on it, and smashed dried pigment into it, leaving traces of every step in earthy red, raw umber, burnt sienna and black.

Gradually this vast page is lifted by five or six performers, who hold it as a human height, light backdrop as the couple almost waltz to the pretty, Viennese tune. After almost two hours of a solid black box, the different that this sudden marked white horizon makes is strangely hopeful all by itself. It might or might not be saying something about Kunst and Kultur, but the combination of this necessarily naïve art-on-paper and the sublime effect of Mozart feels significant and makes for a beautiful close.

It's not quite the end, however, since, as the quartet fades, so the performers left holding the paper high above their heads, with only their fingers clasping it visible, these hands gradually seem to scurry across the top of the paper bunching up on the east side, looking like they're preparing to make a run for it. While one pair of hands has been left stranded on the west hand side.

The paper drops briefly. The stage is empty, before a solitary, black clad man rushes to the far corner, picks it up and runs across the stage folding the page into a briefly billowing sail and then a collapsed, changed sculptural form.

[original place-holder "review" below] 

[very quick “review” for reasons of urgency. Proper long one to follow asap]

Work in theatre? You have to go and see Continu. Don't work in theatre, but like “The Arts”? You have to go and see Continu too.

I went solely on the basis of Sasha Waltz's reputation and didn't know anything about the show when I went in, other than checking that the running time when arriving at the theatre (it's two hours including a 20 minute interval). As such, I'm slightly loathe to give too much away (actually, I should also be trying to manage expectations a bit more efficiently...).

It took me maybe five minutes to slightly warm up to the first piece – I'd say there are three distinct pieces overall, although the first is very short and might be an intro for the second. Anyway, by the time I'd decided I could just about watch it for an hour or so, it stopped.

And then the second piece started. And was pretty different. Any misgivings I had about the first piece were eradicated within seconds.

This second piece – probably about an hour long? – is just stunning. I really don't want to say too much about it in this initial MUST SEE rave. Suffice it to say that I think it's pretty much essential viewing for anyone who wants to make or watch work for the stage. It presents possibilities about the movement of bodies on stage, the architecture of space and stage pictures involving large (-ish. 24) numbers of performers like nothing I've seen for a while. It also seems to say some really interesting things about narrative. It seems to present more ideas of stories and sub-plots than would ever be allowed – or even feasible – on the theatre stage. And, oh, look, just go, will you? It's great. Promise.

The third part (after the interval) is also pretty damn awesome. Not as all-out awesome as the second part, but frankly that's kind of a relief. The second part left me genuinely kind of speechless, or at least not-wanting-to-say-anything-and-just-think-about-it. The third part is just slightly clinical or remote enough to let you have some coherence at the end of the evening. Even so, while slightly reusing motifs from the first two pieces, it would still be a great bit of work if standing alone.

Now, while you're trying to book your tickets, I'll go away and try to write a hopefully more measured account that might be of use to people who won't get to see it, or who believe that reviews should maybe offer a bit more than breathless PR copy... :-)


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