Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tost - conversing but not communicating (Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre)

A year after my first experience of contemporary dance, I’m still trying to get my head around the art form. Pony Dance’s brand of high energy, live music-backed prancing and wiggling – simultaneously exuberant and exhibitionist yet skilful – is relatively easy to read. (For blog followers of a certain vintage, it’s what the kids from FAME must have got up to when the cameras weren’t rolling!)

But this more controlled performance from Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre is a much more difficult artwork to get to grips with.

At the premiere of Tost in the MAC last Saturday evening as part of Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, the two performers stood at opposite sides of the stage, hands by their sides, eyes fixed ahead. (The show’s title has its roots in the Irish for ‘silent’.)

A long string of dental floss connected their mouths. The audience filed into their seats to watch this domestic scene. Over ten or fifteen minutes, Jenny Ecke and Dylan Quinn shuffled towards each other, gathering the loose floss into their mouths. At times taut, sometimes sagging, yet never quite broken. Dressed in mundane work clothes, perhaps this represented the thin and tenuous link between many household couples.

Each scene was punctuated by the liturgy of a football being dipped in chalky paint and pressed against the dark back wall of the theatre. Like prisoners marking the completed days of their sentence on a cell wall, or points scored being duly noted. Hands were then washed in porcelain bowls and dried on sheets strung up on a washing line at each side of the stage.

Three large aerofoil blades rotated above the performers heads throughout the hour long show, driven by the draught of two small fans. Perhaps a sign of the external forces and pressures constantly being exerted on life. Paddy McCann’s set was definitely brutalist industrial, echoed by Andy Garby’s metallic sound design.

A caged office filled with tall stacks of paper provided an opportunity for the couple to converse. But rather than discuss the important looking documentation, they recited whimsical nursery rhymes. Conversing but not communicating.

The dancers reached their hands out behind their backs but didn’t look, nearly tripping over each other, swirling around the stage like banshees. Until a sudden shock in the final scene there was no contact between the couple. That final scene left Dylan trying to prop up his flaccid partner and keep her upright. In the midst of catastrophe, they no longer had the strength remaining to sustain each other. They were finished.

The show’s subtitle is “silence can be a dangerous thing”.
“The language of inclusion and exclusion feeds the daily diatribe of the other, where what is heard is not necessarily what is said. If the language that gives us a set of ‘signs’ and ‘rules’ becomes vulnerable or is unknown, how do we communicate and where does the true meaning of what we are communicating reside?”

You can read some more of Dylan Quinn’s thinking in my interview with him in the preview post I published last week.

There’s a hidden complexity to the slow controlled movements, the trust between the performers, and Jenny’s ability to dance in high heels across loose sheets of A4 paper scattered on a floor (a bigger health and safety disaster waiting to happen than the circling blades overhead).

Certainly in Saturday night’s performance of Tost, while there were two people present on stage, the duet they performed was discordant.

At first I found Tost a little underwhelming, but it grew on me more the longer I delayed finishing the review. I’m not entirely sure I’m even beginning to read the performance correctly. A Q&A afterwards with the cast and creative team would have been a great extension to the performance. [You can read John Higgins’ thoughts over at Culture Northern Ireland.] But Dylan Quinn is okay with that. He told me:
“Dance is not going to answer all the questions but it might be one other way of trying to investigate the subject matter. Just like abstract poetry and writing it doesn’t answer the questions but it might just raise some more questions.”
Publicity photos: Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre (and not representative of the show!)

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