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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Wayne McGregor's Entity

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Ballet or dance are not forms with which I am particularly familiar. In fact, my closest affiliation with ballet is the dim memory of dingy nights in the basement nightclub of my former student's union, which bears the ironic name of the Margot Fonteyn Ballroom. So I approached Wayne McGregor's contemporary dance production, Entity, not knowing what to expect, excited but uncertain.

Now, as I sit down to write my thoughts about the performance, I realise just how impoverished my vocabulary of dance is, how hard it is to accomodate it into structures of interpretation that are familiar to me as a literary critic. Having spent the day of the show teaching dramatic theory, throwing around terms like tragedy and metadrama, I feel acutely ill-equipped to say anything appropriate or perceptive about McGregor's production.

Ordinarily, if struggling to review something, I would start with the simple things, recounting the plot, or trying to make my claim for what it is all "really" about. Yet to talk of the plot of such a piece is as useless as trying to say what a Chopin Nocturne, or a Jackson Pollock painting is "about." There is no sense of narrative relationship between the performance and the thing it seeks to represent. It is I suppose (and I fall back on my inappropriate literary vocabulary here) postmodernist, non-referential, purely about the thing itself - the thing in this case being the human body, and its orbit of possible motions.

The sheer movement, litheness, physical range of the nine dancers (five female, four male) is incredible. It is like watching a sustained version of Usain Bolt's power, or a super slow-motion free dive. Their Olympian bodies twist and elongate in ways that should not seem possible, whilst the dynamic lighting pulls out the organic architecture of the pose: the bones of a curved spine, the ripple of muscles on the thigh.

Against a thumping bass soundtrack composed by Jon Hopkins (collaborator with Massive Attack and Coldplay) and Toby Talbot (of the Divine Comedy), the nine dancers interact in strange chain reactions. Someone's leg bumps into another's arm, sending first the arm, then the entire other dancer, spinning in a new dynamic; two dancers at the centre stage create an arch, under which a dancer from the wings suddenly slides, sending all three tumbling into a mass on the floor, which then rises and twists like some emergent statue.

In the opening piece, two male dancers twine together in what seems to be homosexually provocative, until a female slides in and suddenly supplants one of the men, and continues the routine, albeit taking it in a new direction. The five female performers are somewhat androgynous, then, interchanging freely with the male dancers.What we get is a strange deindividuation. The dancers become mere focused forces that set off other other movements in the objects that we might formerly have known as bodies, but that here become abstract forms, shapes, expressions of geometry that just happen to be shaded in pastel skin tones. It is impossible to follow a single dancer and to attempt to interpret their actions as a metaphor for something else. Instead, it is all about the interaction of these dancing parts, that coalesce and interact to form a continually mutating, moving, shifting whole.

The closest analogy I can come to for the overall effect is that it is like staring into a fire and, trying but failing to follow the path of a single flame, one instead projects imaginative patterns onto the smoke that emerges. And just as the fire creates a hypnotic effect that appeals to some primitive instinct deep in the bones of man, Entity too appeals to a bodily instinctive rather than cognitively analytical spectator. At which point, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the other instinctive current that buzzes through the show: the sexual one. For whilst it is by no means crudely erotic, the intimacy of the dancers who connect with others in forceful ways is undoubtedly powerful. Indeed, the only weak point of the production is when the video screen - employed thankfully sparingly throughout - momentarily displays two naked bodies sliding over one another. It expresses something that does not need such blunt envisioning, and underestimates the unconscious sexual power that is cored through the entire performance.

In a sense, then, I suppose that my failure to describe or explain the thing is testimony to its effect. The name "entity" suggests something that simply exists, merely is. And although some of the video projections of scientific equations, spiral charts, running dogs, and animal skins might imply that we are to see the dance as a kind of evolution or expression of the natural world, to place it in such an interpretative vein does not really do it justice. For it is precisely that it taps into our evolutionary sympathies - sex, power, musculature - at a subconscious level, as the bodies come together to form strangely organic but not-quite-human entities, that is the hallmark of its success. I guess.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:04 am

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