Figures in a Floating Landscape

Concept and choreography by Dora Frankel; concept and music by Peter Coyte
Arts Academy, Sunderland College

The work of J M W Turner holds a great fascination for choreographer Dora Frankel and musician Peter Coyte. In a previous piece, The Unfolding Sky: Turner in the North, they explored the artist’s response to the northern landscapes he travelled through and now, in Figures in a Floating Landscape, they focus on his residence in Margate and the improvisatory sketches he made along the Kent coast, in particular the area of Herne Bay (Beltinge to Reculver) and Folkestone and Margate.

But Figures is not a look back at what Turner saw but a modern look at what has happened to those places, at the effects of industrialisation and environmental damage.

As a starting point, Coyte and fellow musician Martin Elliott retraced the artist’s steps, making field recordings of the natural sounds. Then he spent time exploring and developing the sounds, moulding them into the final score. He took this into the dance studio and Frankel and dancers began the process of creating the piece.

They were joined by another of Frankel’s long term collaborators, Newcastle-based costume designer Kate Collins, who created costumes which reflect not only Turner’s time and his colour palette but also the effects of plastic and other pollution on the land- and seascape.

Natural sounds and the words of Turner himself, spoken by Isabelle Defaut, open the piece as the four dancers—Luca Braccia, Becky Horne, Livia Massarelli and Zara Sands—separately wander through the “landscape”, taking in all there is to see. There is almost a sense of wonder in their expressions and gait, as, wearing their 19th century coats (which seem to have some sort of insert down the back), they gaze at their surroundings. It’s a bare stage, and yet the dancer’ expressions and reactions and the soundscape create a series of pictures for us.

As the five “movements” of the piece progress, the serenity, the wonder in the landscape turns to something more unpleasant. The coats’ inserts—which turn out to be plastic—assume a greater dominance, and the movement language becomes more angular, even industrial. At one point there is a striking—actually almost horrifying—picture created as one dancer lies on the floor, not so much covered as smothered by the plastic of the coats, the plastic which by now has completely overwhelmed the fabric.

In forty minutes Figures in a Floating Landscape takes us from Turner’s Romantic view of the Kent coastline to the modern, waste-choked, eroding, urbanised version. Yes, it takes its inspiration from Turner but is more about what we have done to our world than about his vision.

Having said that, though, it is a powerful piece of dance!

A third part of the Turner trilogy, based on Turner in Venice, will follow, Dora Frankel tells us, in 2021.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan