‘We find a space in the margins of the city in which to gather: to start an ad-hoc ceremony, to stamp our feet and shake our limbs, to dance in the face of an ending… The music is the rider, and we are the running horses’
So states the poetic manifesto of Still House’s Al Fresco Urban movement experiment. The space is effectively a square of ground, delineated by the seating (one row on three sides, everyone else is standing) and lights at each of the four corners, the far side dominated by a small pavilion housing the live music. The effect is both electric and atmospheric, heightened by the subtle, carnivalesque lighting. After a short, hauntingly keening vocal intro, the drums begin to set up an exciting, throbbing beat. ‘Ok’, I think, ‘Here we go!’ Excitement mounts further, until a woman from the audience leaps up and begins throwing some fairly confident shapes all around the square. She is followed by four more, until, with a total of five twisting, surging figures, the troupe is complete. We are only five minutes in. The show has begun.
And there, unfortunately, it stays. The dancers continue to lose themselves in the dance, sharing knowing smiles, and excited grins mostly, it must be said, with one another. In many circumstances, it can be exciting to watch a performer abandon themselves to the joy of creation. In this production, however, for me, it is a curiously distancing experience. I have the unshakable impression that I am attending an exciting rave at a roof-top party but one that, for some unknowable reason, has decreed that the all the fun and dancing is to be enjoyed by five select people who, judging by their movement and expressions, has recently taken something fairly invigorating, and are given free-reign on the floor. Meanwhile, the rest of us are obliged to remain, figuratively speaking, leaning on the bar, enjoying the show and the soft drinks, as we bounce our heads in pitiful enthusiasm at the spectacle.
Occasionally, it must be said, there are fluctuations in the tone of the piece; the drum would slow, and the dancers with it, adopting serious expressions and languid movements. Once, the music stops altogether, and the staccato intrigue of body percussion claims the scene. Dancers drop in and out, with the occasional solo performance, and, here and there, even something resembling choreography emerge from the chaos, before they appear to realise that anything so restrictive of personal expression is not to be tolerated, and it would settle back into the familiar physical self-indulgence. This, one feels, might be what most characterises the production, and underpins all the slight variances stated above; there is always the great sense that the performers really are exploring something intensely meaningful to themselves, some great story in their minds, but never have I felt so excluded from so visceral an encounter.
Finally, at the end of the show, the audience are finally called to the space on their (in my case) now cold and aching feet, and invited to partake in the festivities themselves. One feels like, had this simply been the case from the start, and had we not been required to watch the self-gratification of a chosen few for the preceding fifty minutes, the evening may well have been worth the price of admission. 3/5
Review written by James Adams.
Of Riders and Horses was shown at the Still House from Thursday 19th until Sunday 22nd May as part of Mayest 2016. For more information on the production, visit here…