Saturday, November 19, 2016

Bastard Amber - a celebration of understated strength & control (Liz Roche Company at Lyric Theatre)

“The stage is any bare place close to a wall”

The set was crisp and unfussy. A rectangle of sturdy wooden beams hung over the dance floor, with small phrases in white text occasionally projected against them. Three rows of vertical translucent screens were raised and lowered to different heights to change the audience’s perspective. To one side sat the band (fiddle, bass guitar, electric guitar and drums/percussion). To the other a small dais with nautical objects and empty bird cages. The lighting was similarly subdued, quite possibly using the eponymous Bastard Amber gel that casts a warm light.

Now when I gush in a review about the set and the lighting it’s often a sign that the human performance was less notable. Nothing could be further from the truth with Liz Roche Company’s mesmerising seventy minute Bastard Amber on the Lyric Belfast stage last night.

Inspired by W.B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium the eight dancers made their highly choreographed performance look easy under the golden light. With the full ensemble on stage, they could move with smooth precision even while whirling around in seemingly chaotic motion, yet never colliding or looking where they were going.

Gender and age was of no consequence or barrier to the moves. Dancers could become as weightless as a bird gracefully perched mummy-no-hands-style on the shoulder of a colleague. Seemingly every ten minutes another beautiful tableau would be created: a dancer lying prostrate on the floor wrapped in silver and gold tinfoil, wriggling like a wave. Liz Roche’s choreography formed and deformed shapes. A circle of eight effortlessly careered around, loosing one dancer into the middle without breaking step or losing its fluid movement.

Ray Harman’s music was often tonal, sometimes discordant, with live looping of riffs and falsetto harmonies layered over the top to create hypnotic sequences that enhanced the dance and evoked the feel of Yeats. Catherine Fay’s finely tailored costumes – elegant tops and light trousers used a Moroccan colour scheme that blended into the light and the foil props.

The final sequence was performed against a setting sun. The pursuit of perfection included three pairs of dancers mirroring each other’s movements before the ensemble built up flat shapes with their hands, arms and heads, meticulous yet apparently effortless tessellation.
“… Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” (Yeats)

As a two left footed and eleventh-hour observer of the local dance scene, I’m often encouraged to “just feel the dance”. It’s mentally exhausting to sit and watch dance shows, trying to figure out the storyline or the reason for the sequence of emotions being portrayed. Theatre has a plot. Even foreign-language opera has characters and clues that allow a narrative to be pieced together. But dance is so much more abstract. A show’s title or a one sentence blurb is sometimes the only clue to the inspiration. The skill is often hidden: the easier a move looks, the more talent is being concealed.

After last night’s show, someone described it as “exquisite”. Bastard Amber’s combination of live music, skilled movement, the set and lighting created a superb spectacle that celebrated understated strength and control.

Bastard Amber was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin Dance Festival and Kilkenny Arts Festival. It’s tour will shortly visit Letterkenny (Tuesday 29 November) and Limerick (Friday 2 December).

Photo credits: Luca Truffarelli

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