Jem & Ella

Ella Treays & Jem Treays
Run Ragged / Creu Cymru
Sherman Cymru

Jem and Ella Treays Credit: Jorge Lizalde
Jem and Ella Treays Credit: Jorge Lizalde
Jem and Ella Treays Credit: Jorge Lizalde

Jem & Ella arrives back at Sherman Cymru two years after its first incarnation (then entitled Transition). At the time, dancer/theatre-maker Jem Treays was pondering the approach of his fiftieth birthday; his daughter, keen ballet student Ella, was ten years old, and keen to create a show with her father.

Now, Jem has passed his half-century, while Ella is on the cusp of adolescence and seriously contemplating a career in dance. Jem & Ella is an attempt to paint a picture both of their ever-evolving relationship, and of the realities of life as a dancer.

Saz Moir’s set is simple: largely white, suggestive of a domestic environment, consisting of cupboards, a chair and a table. This is where the action begins, with Ella performing acrobatically ambitious ballet exercises as her recorded voice talks us through them (or something similar) and video projections (designed by Nic Finch) show her practising on a trampoline.

Once she has finished, her father reveals himself to have been sitting amongst the audience, enters the performance space and begins a solo performance of his own; ironically more “modern”, less classically balletic in style.

When they start to perform as a duet, this contrast is played up, as are other disparities between the pair. The father seems the more playful of the two, wearing his professionalism lightly; he also plays with the idea that his energy levels are lower than his daughter’s, refusing to conceal the fact that he is frequently out of breath.

Any production involving a parent and child performing together is bound to contain moments of cuteness which verge on the emotionally manipulative. The skill and commitment on display here, under the direction of Paula Crutchlow, and the truthfulness with which the relationship is portrayed conspire, however, to subvert any simplistic “aahh” factor; as well as affection, there is conflict, impatience and irritation on display.

Audio recordings of Ella and Jem describing their lives are cleverly woven into Chris Young’s sound design, which also utilises a mixture of indie-pop (The XX, Vampire Weekend) and evocative instrumental music, subtly reflecting the shifting moods on display, in conjunction with Jane Lalljee’s lighting design.

This is a reflective rather than narrative piece, although some of the most striking moments occur when a conversation consists of a spoken question and a danced response. The bulk of the dialogue is movement-based, however, and highly accomplished—the climactic moment involving the aforementioned table is quite breathtaking.

Experimental multimedia productions which celebrate family relationships are rare; those which, like Jem & Ella, are both family-friendly and sufficiently accessible to appeal to non-specialists in dance still rarer. Alternately funny and profoundly moving, this is a beautiful achievement.

This performance came at the end of a Welsh tour; it seems inconceivable that this is the end of the story. It would be fascinating to catch up with it in ten years’ time.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith

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