Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Returning / To Be Me

Choreography Julie Cunningham
Julie Cunningham Company
The Pit, Barbican

Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Hannah Burfield, Julie Cunningham, Alexander Williams and Harry Alexander in Returning Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Alexander Williams, Julie Cunningham, Hannah Burfield and Harry Alexander in Returning Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Harry Alexander, Julie Cunningham, Alexander Williams and Hannah Burfield in Returning Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Julie Cunningham, Alexander Williams, Hannah Burfield and Harry Alexande in Returning Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Harry Alexander, Julie Cunningham, Alexander Williams and Hannah Burfield in Returning Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Hannah Burfield, Alexander Williams, Harry Alexander and Julie Cunningham in To Be Me Credit: Stephen Wright
Julie Cunningham & Company Double Bill: Alexander Williams, Hannah Burfield, Harry Alexander and Julie Cunningham in To Be Me Credit: Stephen Wright

Award-winning dancer Julie Cunningham is stretching her wings. In September of last year, she joined former alma mater Rambert “as the inaugural recipient of the Leverhulme Choreography Fellowship”, which gifts her “a year working part-time with Rambert exploring and developing her choreographic practice”.

The Barbican co-commissioned double bill is the showcase of what feels to me still a work in progress, the work of a student still tuning her instrument, given exposure in the Pit’s unforgiving black studio space. There’s a literalness that one recognises in novice work.

Two half-hour-long compositions—Returning to music mainly from Anohni (Anthony and the Johnsons); To Be Me to Kate Tempest’s poetry (Hold Your Own)—gender fluidity is the name of the game.

The choice of underpinning speaks volumes, at times more eloquently than the enigmatic hieroglyphics of the four dancers: Cunningham herself, Harry Alexander, Hannah Burfield and Alexander Williams.

Liverpool-born Cunningham danced for ten years in legendary American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham's company and three in Scottish-born wunderkind Michael Clark's. To say that she has not absorbed her mentors’ styles would be impossible.

On balance, I expected to see more Merce than Michael, but it’s Clark who comes through loud and strong. Maybe it is the presence of former Clark dancer, the statuesque Harry Alexander, in her company of four that reinforces that link.

Another connection is Stevie Stewart of BodyMap, Clark’s costume designer of choice—her two-tone shiny unitard costumes, menthe green and blue-grey for Returning; black and red for To Be Me. Clark has certainly got under her skin.

One listens to the words of the songs and poems to understand the significance of the semaphoring arms, articulating hips, arabesques, groupings, crouches and bends, the synchronised walking, bodies vessels for Anohni’s words that speak of rebirth, transcending gender and patriarchal society. He sings of religion, of his Catholicism, of wanting to feminise the deity. Cunningham’s slow Returning solo, feet rooted, upper body expressive, is a calm firm statement of intent.

Using long silences and blackouts to sharpen attention, To Be Me is surely Cunningham’s manifesto, turning to Tempest’s heartfelt words mining the Greek classics, her Hold Your Own collection appropriating the myth of Tiresias, the boy who became a woman, then a man, then blind seer, “born strong, born wrong”.

Cunningham, it seems to me, also turns to Plato’s Symposium, to Aristophanes’s speech in particular, in which he talks of three types of double-bodied creatures, all male, all female, and androgynous. Zeus split them and now we constantly seek our other half, looking to complete ourselves. In mirror pairs, in tumbling four-legged conjunctions, she animates this satire.

Gender, class, identity are Tempest’s subjects; Cunningham takes them on, and, as my companion notes, turns them into an earnest lecture. Her heart may be on her sleeve, but the choreography is cool and clinical—Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness comes to mind.

Reviewer: Vera Liber