I’m still trying to work out what connects these two pieces. It feels unusual, I think, to be watching work by two male dancers who are still very much entrenched in their careers as performers, careers that are going on alongside their choreographic work. As I settle in my seat in the cavernous Borough Hall, I wonder if this might create some common traces in the work – some kind of complication or interruption of traditional choreographer-performer binaries.
‘Amstatten’ by Robert Clark is a solo for performer Janina Rajakangas. A single spotlight fades up on a chair: a woman in jeans, bag on her head, head resting on the floor. As a three-noted Aphex Twin track appears as aural backdrop, I feel a sense of dread – partly at the familiarity of this set up – and partly because I’m going to be told something, something I am not ready, or willing, to be told. Rajakangas moves softly, understated. She advances and retreats, sits, knees up, in a corner, shifts and twitches uncomfortably in the chair. The insinuation is that more is going on than meets the eye: the body as casing for the real stuff, the juice, the ‘psychological landscape’ we are told about in the programme.
I think there is a dangerous understanding that dance can be a blank canvas carrying any message we want. As soon as you have a performer, however, the stage is full. The subject matter of the piece is everything that this performer carries – womanhood, Europe, feminism, post-feminism – everything that she signifies. In this piece, I feel like I am being told the story of female struggle by a man. I know that I am not, necessarily, and that that is not the intention, but I cannot extract this from my experience. I see it, I feel it and it remains a question in my head.
Rajakangas is a charismatic and delicate performer, but the piece’s allegorical agendas leave little room for performative agency or authorship. At one point a man appears just out of the light, covered completely in black. He is only just visible, to the extent that I’m not convinced we are meant to see him. His role remains a mystery – not for us to know. I am distracted throughout the fifteen minutes by the invisible position of the choreographer and this not-quite comment on it. Was that almost imperceptible man an acknowledgement of Clark’s invisibility as author? For me, not acknowledgement enough.
Where Clark’s work is confined and dark, Theo Clinkard’s ‘Ordinary Courage’ is expansive and full of light – literally. There is much to see and yet there is also a ringing simplicity about it. Six performers, Clinkard included, are kitted out in an array of Contact Improv-y cotton pants and tops, brightly coloured in a way that would usually make me roll my eyes and huff about contemporary dance, but somehow, I am not offended; in fact, the refusal to avoid these colours, the backing away from caution and into joyful acceptance- we love colour!- pleases me, and is a reoccurring theme to my experience of the piece.
At first I am unsure, again, about the driving forces behind what I am seeing. All six performers run towards the audience, apparently meeting an invisible wall or force that sends them tumbling backwards, to pick themselves up and try again. This feels like a familiar ploy to illicit a particular reaction in us, the resonance of which I feel is too anticipated or assumed for me to actually experience it first-hand. I know it too well for it to impact.
The piece really takes off in the last 20 minutes, for me. This particular mix of dancers is thrilling to watch, each bringing a radically different presence to the stage, creating an enjoyable incongruity to their individual offerings. There is an indulgence in virtuosity, which I sometimes find distracting as it feels a little too isolated and out-of-joint – a huge barrel turn landing directly on the floor makes me cringe – although I also admire that Clinkard is unafraid to claim this as his realm. I wonder whether the piece ends in the same world that it began. The beginning section is exactly repeated – and yet I feel it has also left the heavy, didactic agenda that it began with and found a more liberated, playful ground. This ground is enough for me.
Directed by Robert Clark
Performed by Janina Rajakangas
Movement developed by Louise Tanoto
Lighting design by Guy Hoare
Music by Aphex Twin and Katyna Ranieri & Riz Ortolani
Sound design by Robert Clark
Costume design by Elizabeth Barker
Production manager/technician- Rob Pell-Walpole
Produced, choreographed and designed by Theo Clinkard
Movement developed and performed by Adam Blanch, Theo Clinkard, Maho Ihara, Helka Kaski, Charlie Morrissey & Margarita Zafrilla Olayo
Pianist- Cliodna Shanahan (playing Scarlatti and Bach)
Lighting design by Zerlina Hughes
Sound design by Alan Stones
Bear costume handmade by Theo Clinkard
Production management- Mat Ort
Production and administrative support- Chris Fogg and Zoe Manders at South East Dance