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On The High Road


Clod Ensemble
CAST, Doncaster

Early in this phantasmagorical monochrome hour of almost entirely wordless performance, I found myself thinking irresistibly of a computer game I had played recently. Little Nightmares, like Clod Ensemble’s show, plunges its player / audience into a black-and-white world of dream logic, in which light and shade play tricks on the mind, and whose inhabitants—including scuttling, gnome-like figures—might flip in your imagination from friend to foe and back again.

Clod Ensemble’s work, choreographed by co-artistic director Suzy Wilson, is a kaleidoscopic, allusive piece which functions best if you let your mind drift, as mine did, to generate your own associations, stories, relationships.

It begins, cleverly, with a distant rumble. Thunder, lightning and the beating of heavy rainfall start to form a backdrop as the lighting and sound worlds of the piece cohere. The set is a bright white block of steep, geometric, asymmetric staircases and steppes, against which the black-clad, cone-hatted inhabitants start a sleepy, rhythmic set of moves. The choreography of this early part of the work sees these denizens nod, twitch and shuffle one by one, evoking a muscle-drooping weariness with lightness and humour.

The spectator’s mind is a curious thing, reaching always for meaning, story to grasp onto, and this piece exploits this fact playfully. Just as one set of relationships becomes perhaps apparent, another emerges, and any “meaning” in the choreography is always only transient and up for grabs.

In the strobing light of the storm raging outside this—what, house?—a presence scurries and gathers. There’s a knock at the door, and the dynamic and tensions shift. Malign presences turn out to be benign; the imperious interlopers become the bullied minority; what appears to be a team becomes disparate individuals who each in turn assert their ascendance—but only for a fleeting moment.

The opening of the show is soundtracked by the transcendental singing of acclaimed soprano Melanie Pappenheim, and the music, composed by the other co-artistic director, Paul Clark, is dissonant but versatile, often with a moving beauty. It shifts from discordant piano to the kinds of squelching white noise experimented with by Björk, Guy Sigsworth and Matmos. Lightning strikes and rain sounds become looped and resampled as organic sounds become electronic noise, and vice versa.

There were times when I found it hard to believe that the sounds emerging from Pappenheim were human ones, so pure and ethereal were they. Similarly, I often found myself doubting that the choreography was humanly possible, that these dancers have human bodies in the same way that you or I have them. They are insect; they are fluid; they are animal.

There are a dozen performers in total: three singers and nine dancers of immense discipline and invention. The sheer range of movement styles, physical shapes and gestural contortions creates such rich, vivid, uncanny imagery that I found myself frequently gasping or chuckling to myself at the sheer ingenuity and sensory overload of it all. It is a viscerally pleasurable performance.

There are some tonal shifts, particularly late in the piece, which did less for me personally, but the beauty of this work is that each viewer will pick their own journey through it—and there is a curious joy in never knowing quite what will unfold next.

And on this note, another reference which insistently suggested itself to me was the art of M C Escher, as the performers spiral round the staircases or tessellate their movements. It is dizzying, transfixing—some kind of genius. Nightmarish, short on overt meaning yet crammed with ideas.

It is not a relaxing show to watch, but rather I found myself leaning in, hungry to take in every corner, every twitch, every strand of the often densely interwoven choreography. I would happily watch it again, and doubtless find yet more fuel to drive my dreaming.

Mark Smith