Empathy

Neon Dance

South Street Arts Centre

On 23 November 2016

Review by Liz Allum

Adrienne Hart and her team at Neon Dance have created a fascinating, unsettling and aesthetically stunning show in Empathy, performed at South Street Arts Centre at the beginning of their international tour.

Five performers, dressed in white body suits, twitch, creep and writhe on a stage partitioned and cut by a beautiful and award-winning choreography of lasers, designed by Numen. Their characters, at times human and at times something quite ‘other’, move alone or in groups through this constantly-shifting landscape. It is captivating to watch.

The piece is organised almost as a series of vignettes, some just fleeting moments, others are longer explorations of the space. Two green lasers seer the floor, lift to form three-dimensional squares marbled with smoke that instantly appear to be rooms or cages. The dancers move effortlessly within and through this landscape as the lights move across their bodies.

The combination of light and movement is very visually engaging; the first moment that a laser touches the body of a dancer is breathtaking and, when the choreography fully acknowledges the lasers' movement and architecture, it raises the performance to a higher level. However, this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

One vignette sees the two lasers form a deep corridor-like valley that a performer precariously moves within as it shrinks and turns around her. This moment really highlights the strength of fully matching the choreography to the spaces that the lights form in the room. The power of these moments make those where the lights incidentally touch the dancers, without consequence or reaction, really stand out.

The exploration of empathy comes from the research conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen, an unflinching look at the best and worst of human behaviour and how true empathy can deliver us from the worst of our capabilities as human beings. Hart reinterprets this with almost non-human creatures, moving, conflicting, navigating their way through a series of states and emotions, trying to find place or stability, but constantly moving on.

Some scenes reflect clearly identifiable moments in everyday life, for example sitting around a television watching events unfold. Other moments are more ambiguous: one feels like a war scene, another a hospital, all of them evoke some reflection on human connection or lack of it. Elongated arms, blank shining face masks and other simple costume elements are used sparingly and further dehumanise and distance the performers, making our focus on light and movement even more intense.

It is refreshing to see a young, female-led company using highly original choreographic techniques, complex but focussed concepts and ambitious lighting design to create a piece laden with atmosphere and questions. Despite the big visual effects and powerful music score, the piece has an intense quiet to it which is just as unsettling and intriguing as the strange creatures that move through the space.

A bold and thoughtful performance from a forward-looking company, which clearly has something significant to offer to the genre.