Twilight Dances

Choreography by Renaud Wiser and Malgorzata Dzierzon with the company. Music by Franz Schubert
Fertile Ground
Arts Academy, Sunderland College

The evening opened outside, in front of the Arts Academy building, with a performance of a short piece based on Re-Rosas! by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker by Sunderland College’s HND Performance (Dance) students under the direction of the Fertile Ground dancers.

An interesting and enjoyable start to the evening showing the influence the presence of a professional company can have on the students, a positive and even inspiring interaction between them. Unison movement, sometimes by the entire group and sometimes by sub-sections, requires precise timing and sensitivity to the music and this group passed that test. Their performance was justifiably warmly received by the audience.

Then it was back inside to the theatre for Twilight Dances.

The piece is danced to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, Death and the Maiden, which takes its name and the theme of the second movement from a song he had composed some seven years earlier, a setting of the poem Der Tod and das Mädchen by Matthias Claudius. Schubert was ill when he wrote the quartet (he had syphilis) and died just four years later at the age of 31.

Death and suffering is ever-present in his work in general and in particular in this piece, to the extent that some critics have described it as programme music and his work certainly lends itself well to inspiring dance. In 2003, for example, baritone Simon Keenlyside and postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown produced and toured a dance version of another of his works, the song cycle Winterreise, songs which Schubert himself described as “frightening.”

Artistic Directors and choreographers Wiser and Dzierzon, along with the company, researched the theme in the visual arts, in film and poetry, looking at science and myth, at ideas ancient and modern. Excerpts of poems by Hayden Carruth, Günter Grass and, of course, Claudius' poem which gives the quartet its name are shown on screens on either side of the stage at various points throughout the piece.

But significant though these researches may have been, it is the music which gives the piece its form. It is characterised by sudden, often violent shifts, from fortissimo to pianissimo, from lyricism to violence, from slow to fast. Sometimes these changes are lurches rather that shifts and there is, at times, something of the Sturm und Drang in the music.

The dance movement reflects the changing nature of the music. It’s eclectic: at one point we have a touch of the ballroom but it’s a little frantic rather than romantic and graceful, and I did, I think, sense an echo of Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite of Spring in the fourth movement—jerking shoulders and twisting feet recalling the primitive feeling of the Ballets Russes piece.

The company of four dancers—Kiran Kumar, Ashling McCann, Megan Otty and Olivia Paddison, who are between 23 and 25 years old—have a confidence and sureness in even the most complex of movements which belie their years.

The music is played live by Laura Armstrong, Abi Hammet, Rebecca Howell and Andra Vornicu, but they are not tucked away in a corner or a pit. They too are choreographed, changing position for each of the four movements, an integral part of the work rather than a supporting adjunct to it.

And, expanding on the idea of integration, the lighting by Alan Dawson is shadowy; filtering through the smoke which hazes the stage, making its own contribution to the darkness and sense of foreboding of the piece.

At the end of the fourth movement, there is sudden key change from major to the home key of D minor; as it draws to a close musicians and dancers freeze; the lighting fades to blackout. Silence for a long moment and then, when you thought it would never happen, the audience bursts into enthusiastic applause. Well justified applause, I have to say.

Twilight Dances tours to Jarrow Hall (27 May), The Maltings, Berwick (7 June), Gosforth Civic Theatre (9 June) and Dance City (17 October). London and Oxford autumn dates TBA.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan