The Unfolding Sky - Turner in the North

Dora Frankel

Dora Frankel Dance with Dance City

Tynemouth Priory

On 13 June 2013

Review by Peter Mortimer

This must have seemed a good idea; the Joseph Turner paintings created round historic buildings in the north, interpreted via dance and performed al fresco at many of the venues themselves, including Lindisfarne Priory, Bamburgh Castle, and here, Tynemouth Priory.

The three dancers work incredibly hard. Peter Coyte’s muscular music—somewhere between John Adams and Steve Reich—is terrific. And Dora Frankel Dance, operating out of Dance City in Newcastle, is a well-established, respected outfit.

Plus which, Turner was the painter of light and here we were in grounds of the spectacular cliff-top Tynemouth Priory, a bright summer’s evening, panoramic views up and down the coast and the kind of north east light the film-maker Polanski said was unlike any other. You could sense the audience’s spirits were lifted even to be in this setting.

Yet the experience overall doesn’t really come off. Only the cognoscenti will be familiar with the eight paintings featured, and we are given no visual aids. Why not simply reproduce the works in the programme and give the audience a helping hand?

In this beautiful light, we were too much in the dark and the dancers’ movements in the nine pieces (including an introductory one) always struggled to give voice to one art form via another.

But then, even as I write, the thought arrives as to whether this particular interpretation is possible anyway. Dance can interpret stories and novels (and indeed is at its strongest when given a narrative framework to operate out of) and it can ‘translate’ mood and emotion into movement, but paintings with the complexity of Turner’s?

I hae me doots, whatever Professor David Hill of the University of Leeds claims in the programme notes. Rarely when watching the acrobatic flexibilities and gyrations of Audrey Rogero, Luca Rapis and Sonia Zini, dressed in diaphonous tops of Turnesque hues, did a painting rise up in my imagination. Fragments of dance suggest small particulars, but maybe that’s all they can do. The bigger picture may be beyond the form.

The nine dances are performed on a roped-out area of grass with only two large speakers giving any other visual hint of a performance to come. The programme lasts only 40 minutes and pays little homage to its marvellous setting. The pieces could be performed almost the same in a studio. Curiously, the programme’s front cover photograph of two dancers is not relevant to the show.

We all wanted it to succeed, but Turner remained elusive.

I’ll end with a wonderful sentence from the programme notes. ‘Turner was relentless in locomotion but his legs were unusually short.’ Ace.