Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Mixed Programme 2015: Shift / Shadows / TearFall / Bloom

Choreography by Christopher Bruce, Sharon Watson and Caroline Finn
Phoenix Dance Theatre
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Shift Credit: Richard Moran
Shadows
TearFall
Bloom
Bloom

The last night of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s 2015 spring tour saw the company playing to a packed and enthusiastic audience at Northern Stage, an audience which was, most appropriately, very mixed itself. There were children, many teenagers and young people, and adults of all ages, including some who were even older than this aging critic.

I have to say that, for me, any programme which contains any work by Christopher Bruce is a good programme and this has two, both of which are new to me, Shift (created in 2007) and Shadows (2014).

The evening begins with Shift, which is danced to the last movement of Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift. In just eight minutes we are immersed in the rush and pressure of an industrial setting with human interactions dominated—and interrupted—by the necessity to tend and adjust machinery. The movement is constant, hurried. The costumes are of male and female workers of the 1940s and the idea that this is perhaps wartime adds to the sense of pressure. And there is just the feeling that these people are perhaps becoming more machine-like themselves.

A good start to the programme, not just because of its own merits but because it also provides an excellent introduction to the Christopher Bruce style.

Shadows, created for Phoenix, is more complex, even surreal, darker. Two couples sit at a table, straight-backed, hands on the table. A woman breaks away, her movements quick and tortured; returns to the table, her partner steps away, then back, she writhes as if pinned or crucified. This “scene” ends with the couple back in their opening positions and another relationship is explored with the other couple. And so it goes on.

Bruce’s programme note says that the actions can be “read literally or metaphorically, within the intimacy of an insular family environment or on a more universal scale.” He’s happy with both.

I saw it as both, microcosm, a family, and macrocosm, society at large, equally dark. And it is riveting.

The piece ends with them all putting on coats, picking up suitcases and lining up to walk downstage as if setting off on a journey—but with no guarantee that what they’re going to is any better than what they’re leaving behind.

The third piece is TearFall by the company’s Artistic Director Sharon Watson which premièred in February at the start of the current tour. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, it’s a fusion of science and dance exploring tears, their biochemical make-up and how they vary depending on our emotional state.

This fusion extends from the concept to the actual movement: the chain of amino acids which make up the protein molecules which form part of our tears merges with the tear-producing emotional journeys of individuals and groups so that the science becomes the emotion and vice versa. It’s a complex piece in concept and yet accessible in performance.

The final piece is Bloom by Caroline Finn which was commissioned in partnership with the New Adventures Choreographer Award.

This is a world of strange characters, each hiding behind a façade: there’s a singer, dressed in a series of very odd outfits and wearing a full-face mask that owes not a little to the Commedia dell’Arte; a girl in a peculiar tutu-like dress who is reminiscent of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting in her appearance but of a marionette (I kept thinking Petrushka) in movement; others equally strange—none “real”. They have their moment in the spotlight, telling their stories.

There’s no happiness here; in fact, there’s a sense of desperation, even madness, and definitely of being totally out of place. Our tutu-girl falls apart in front of our eyes to Emilie Autumn’s weird and creepy “Miss Lucy had some leeches” whilst our singer goes through clothing change after clothing change, following a spotlight around the stage, trying so hard—but not succeeding—to live up to the image he is trying to project.

The word which kept coming into my mind was “grotesque” and that would, perhaps, elicit a certain sympathy, for these people are so essentially pathetic, but it’s not all so. There’s the man who wants to project the idea that he is a sexual star but in fact is a misogynistic bully: he pushes a girl’s head between his thighs then twists her so she is facing upwards, balanced on hands and feet, with legs apart, available and vulnerable. Just one powerful and bleak image among many.

All in all, it’s a very well balanced and eclectic programme, with work from one of the world’s leading choreographers and from someone who is clearly a rising star—watch out for more from Ms Finn in future. And no one can fault the dancers whose talent, energy and commitment shine through.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan