Sunday, January 15, 2012

Opening night of Anatomy of an Afternoon: Nice dance, shame about the title

Anatomy of an Afternoon—Paul White’s hour of solo dance, choreographed by Martin del Amo—had me thinking throughout, not of its titular inspiration, Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, but of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed…” Except, here, the transformation is not from human into “horrible vermin” but from reptile into human.

An hour of uninterrupted movement has to be well paced, for the dancer’s sake, and Anatomy opens with gesture rather than dance: deliberately awkward placement of limbs, and then torso, then hips, then finally feet and legs. The positions are interesting enough, and lend themselves to various interpretations, garish angles that evoke birds or lizards, but could equally be the choreographer’s musings on what one might look like if dropped from buildings of various heights—from which you’ll guess that I was rather indifferent about the performance at this early stage: admirable technique, but little emotional effect.

The piece picks up as the choreography becomes more generous, leading the dancer across the stage on all fours, his body close to the ground, one leg outstretched, the other bunched near his hip; arms likewise. Evocation of a lizard is clear, well crafted and well executed. In retrospect, the opening makes more sense, evoking the inching, rippling spread of mobility from “finger” to “toe” as a cold-blooded reptile awakes. But we are still in the scene-setting phase of performance and everything veers on mime and imitation. A “plot” has yet to develop, or anything to affect the watcher (or, at least, this watcher).

This changes soon enough in what is one of the most striking moments of the performance. White is seated V-shaped, his torso and limbs floating in effortless suspension, like a sleeping child being carried to its bed. Then gradually he relaxes towards horizontal, and, as if the invisible person carrying him worries he might fall, the grip is tightened and he returns to his original, closely clutched V. This opening and closing repeats several times (“as when the heart of this flower imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending”) and delivers the very feeling of intimacy that holding a sleeping child creates.

But then, suddenly, the lizard is awake again and aware of some danger, searching, checking, alert. The dancer strips almost naked and—to my mind—the reptile has shed its skin. But what emerges from the ill-fitting shell—loose trousers and t-shirt—is a human suddenly aware of himself and the world. In the exploration of self and surrounds that follows, the disjointed angularity of the opening sequence returns as lithe force and lissom fluidity, and, in a fugue-like sequence, is even inverted, with the dancer on his head—this ought to be gimmicky, but is so naturally excrescent from, and complementary to, the dancer’s exploration of his metamorphosed body, that it creates a similar sensation to the sleeping child sequence.

Intimacy, and, indeed, tenderness and vulnerability, recur throughout Anatomy. In another sequence, reminiscent of the sleeping child, White transitions repeatedly from prone to supine, again with limbs and torso in apparent weightless. His shapes alternate between a child stretching in the womb, encapsulated and suspended, and a person falling unconscious through air or floating in water.

In places, the choreography interferes with the artistry. When the lizard is crawling across the stage, it opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue. This tipped things from mime (which I wasn’t crazy about) into pantomime. A muffled titter from the audience. Later, the newly transformed human explores his body by smelling the fingers he had just stuck in his crack. Titters, tuts, and a few guffaws, and then two couples make a dash for the door. These moments break the connection between audience and performer. White’s phenomenal artistry and physical self-mastery are able quickly to repair the rift, but removal of these moments would be an improvement.

(The early exit incident was inadvertently amusing. Just after the first couple left, White pulled down his pants completely and bent over so his arse was facing the door they’d used. He may have been executing preplanned choreography, but, by a coincidence of timing and location, he managed to moon the people who’d just given his performance the finger. Honestly, who leaves a performance because of five seconds of arse? Well, probably people who get put off by the first five minutes of micromovements and who find their excuse to quit sandwiched between White’s buttocks.)

My only real gripe is with the title. Anatomy of an Afternoon is neither anatomical nor postmeridian. You could call it Composition of a Morning or Reductive Evening without impacting on the experience at all. Which means that the title misses the mark. What it does instead is record where the choreography draws its inspiration from. Such facts about process belong with the creators’ bibliography in the program notes. The title should reflect something of where the audience is transported to, not where the artists departed from.

Precisely where the audience is transported will vary, of course, from member to member. The juxtaposition of lizard and human inevitably reminds me, a cognitive scientist, of our own reptilian brain. So a dance shared between lizard and human—sometimes angular, sometimes inverted, at other times, liquid and powerful, or floating and fragile—looks like a musing on shared inheritance, an imagining of what our natural movement might have been, if only we had evolved or developed differently. White is the perfect vehicle for the exploration and the compelling, engaging, touching result left me both humbled and uplifted.

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