The Life and Times

Joan Clevillé
Dundee Rep Theatre

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Jessie Robeerts- Smith transforms Credit: Sean Millar
Kieran Brown Credit: Sean Millar
The Life and Times Credit: Sean Millar

Scottish Dance Theatre is Scotland’s national contemporary dance company which has existed since 1986. It has not been in Newcastle for a long time, too long in fact, so it was a pleasure to be invited to review their hybrid work, The Life and Times, created for both theatre and digital audiences by the current Artistic Director Joan Clevillé in 2021.

Clevillé is known for his humour and lightly absurd approach to dance and dance theatre, and this is both a clever and an ambitious work, which appears to make no sense but ultimately really does!

It centres round two dancers, Jessie Robeerts-Smith and Kieran Brown, both clad in loosely Baroque-style costumes by Matthias Strahm, but already they set the tone of everything fluctuating, neither Baroque nor contemporary, but continuously shifting between eras and time.

Robeerts-Smith, quirky, charismatic and powerful, emerges slowly, looking over a table edge, but the perspective is illusionary, and what seems big is small. Brown is some kind of scruffy Bacchus—there’s quite a lot of slightly silly mime and running about. In other words, it’s both absurd and slightly confusing. There is a hint of the great contemporary choreographer Jiri Kylian’s later work, and it is also reminiscent of experimental filmmakers such as Spaniard Buñuel.

This illusion of time, space and perspective is used throughout with great success; the camera is a dancer among the dancers and, impressively, it’s only one camera. The set, also by Strahm, suggests backstage and on stage. There are recurring motifs and themes as dancers, dressed in simple contemporary costumes, move, mostly walking slowly, from left to right across our view either near to the camera or in the distance, often pulling unpainted flats on wheels.

There seems to be something happening when Robeerts-Smith starts trying to do something with the items on the table: a plastic jug, a book. Other dancers appear in beautiful, fluid, exploratory contemporary movement, not connecting with her, though she may look at them. She gets herself in a muddle with a bucket on her head—the images just keep coming!

There’s a lovely moment as dancers appear from behind the flats, half emerging and then retreating. The couple look between the flats, and a male dancer moves half-seen and then disappears. There’s a short solo with a male dancer skateboarding, half lying on a small plinth on wheels with the camera filming from above, and later a fine solo performed by a female dancer; it was not possible to work out who was who on the screen, which was uncomfortably small. The midway floor-based quartet, that grows to the full ensemble of nine dancers, is really evocative, quiet and beautifully blue lit by Emma Jones.

The couple get closer, there’s a skirt dance, it all begins to get clearer. Finally, there’s a wonderful group dance to Handel’s "Zadok the Priest"; Robeerts-Smith dances vibrantly with light sticks and then re-emerges with costume transformed.

The piece clearly has purpose and has evolved into a life-affirming dance work. The music, beautifully curated with pieces by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Marais, Abel and Scarlatti, gives structure and is balanced with short sections of silence.

Writing my review this morning, I like the work even more—it’s wonderfully joyous, unpretentious and slightly weird. It blends silly, playful, connection and beauty and has an underlying intelligence; the nine dancers are marvellous, whilst clearly having fun!

I wonder what the theatre audience felt; I’d love to see Scottish Dance Theatre in Newcastle.

Reviewer: Dora Frankel

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