A magnificent triple bill from National Dance Company Wales, Terra Firma explores assimilation, interdependence and difference with flair, precision and innovation. It’s a frequently electric evening, and wholly accessible contemporary dance.
Pitching up in Germany, Austria and sixteen venues in the UK, National Dance Company Wales’s 2018 triple bill – Terra Firma – gets off to a sensational start with Caroline Finn’s 28-minute, 9-dancer Folk. A striking set from Joe Fletcher displaces and arrests: is this enormous, gothic tree ignoring gravitational forces and growing down from the sky – or are we actually under ‘Terra Firma‘ quite literally, looking in on the sprawling sunken roots of an unseen structure?
Thematically, the piece is satisfyingly clear – which makes the former route more obvious perhaps: that we’re looking in on a surrealistic and ethereal microcosm where human communities develop, thrive and occasionally splinter. Isolationism of contemporary experience is effectively conveyed, as is the beautiful (if transitory) nature of relationship formation. But I’d like to believe the latter – that we’re deep in the undergrowth. Because although the vastly impressive choreography is sometimes reflective of unmistakeably human narratives, at others, there’s something darkly parasitic about the movements. Dancers appear to feed off each other during interaction; they cluster and separate when it makes sense for them to do so. When there’s a shared goal, or target. And maybe that’s an insight into the true nature of humanity – that we’re all borrowing off each other without necessarily anything to return.
Moments where voice is used are less successful for me than sequences of propulsive and uninhibited movement – temporarily snapping me out of this other-worldly, beautiful dystopia (the intention, perhaps, but lacking the sophistication of the movement alone). The choreography, though, is gloriously crowd-pleasing – with plenty of stunning lifts, powerful moments of unison and a captivating solo from Kat Collings. As beautiful as this section is painful, there’s a real hypnotism to Collings’ movement and a palpable level of conviction in her performance.
Apprentice dancer Mathew Pritchard won my undivided attention during the rest of the piece though – superhumanly precise and abrupt, and frequently electric. Choreographer Caroline Finn’s style seems to allow for much individualism in dancer execution, and Pritchard takes particular advantage of this. Props – also – to costume designer Gabriella Slade for managing to incorporate a real sense of high fashion, Gaga-esque ‘couture’ into the performer’s rags. Slade lends the piece an attitude and swagger, which ensures the triple bill’s opening piece is as captivating as I’ve described.
Mario Bermudez-Gil’s four-piece Atalaÿ follows: a melding of Spanish and Israeli choreographic influences that again seeks to explore human endurance and the tensions between unity and disparity. Movements seem consistently tribal; dancers appear both warrior-like and balletic at once. The pertinent juxtaposition of man being in constant opposition – yet yearning for connection – is explored successfully, but the piece and choreography perhaps suffers from taking itself just that little bit too seriously and a tad too much ambiguity.
Although the strength, power and – again – conviction of performances is palpable (Julia Rieder, in particular, caught my attention during Atalaÿ), I wasn’t entirely convinced the dancers were clear on exactly what the piece was supposed to be represent (I don’t have all the answers, either). So perhaps I was wanting more to exist beneath the spectacle of the piece’s ‘power’ – more emotional impact, for instance, or traces of the playfulness that Folk demonstrates in bucketloads.
Fletcher’s stunning lighting design is the other star of Atalaÿ – creating the eponymous watchtower, looming suitably sinisterly over humanity, out of smartly placed spots alone. The moment where one solo performer movement skews and distorts the backlight was my highlight of the piece, an impressive and effective visual spectacle to supposedly represent entrapment (although more could have been done to clarify).
If Atalaÿ dips momentum ever so slightly, the final offering in the triple bill more than claws it back. Marcos Morau’s Tundra is spectacular; wholly mesmerising from start to finish and possessing every bit of the synchronicity and slickness necessary to comment on interdependence.
Morau’s eight dancers move with a staggeringly hypnotic, and codependent, mechanicism: each is a cog in a non-descript organism, essential for patterns to form and evolve smoothly. Tundra is as much an endurance/’risk’ exercise for the performers as it is a spectacle for the audience (in fact, the former informs the latter). You become acutely aware how one early or tardy movement – or the briefest slip – breaks the entire sequence, which lends a palpable – and wonderfully fun and exciting, at least when spectating from a difference – tension to proceedings.
Moments frequently remind you of world-class syncronised swimming, or – even more so – the infinite effect achieved when a video camera is pointed at its own playback video monitor and there’s that tiny moment of lapse. Watching perfect synchronicity is thrilling (hauntingly so) – but there’s perhaps even more interest in the fleeting moments where the matrix ‘glitches’. Intentional (or otherwise) tiny moments of variation catch your eye – but playfully, and hopefully, suggest man’s resistance to assimilation. It’s as beautiful in Tundra to watch chains break down as chains perfectly complete themselves. The piece even effectively alludes to how ‘resistance’ eventually becomes part of the canon (and therefore the ‘new’ norm).
There’s a wonderful moment where all eight performers offer genuine smiles to the audience in perfect unison. The first instance in the evening, I believe (obviously with exception of curtain calls) where audience is directly acknowledged. The moment becomes even more wonderful when these smiles dissipate: instantly and robotically. An apt example of how playfully slippery Morau dares to be in his choreography – and in his creation of this machine-like organism. Folk may have the most delicacy and finesse, but Tundra was my personal favourite of the evening for its ambition, attitude and spectacle alone.
The evening’s curators deserve ample praise for how thematically linked Terra Firma‘s three pieces are; each makes perfect sense aside the next (not something I find you can often say about triple bills). Though I imagine the logistics of Folk‘s set installation probably make changes to show structure an impossibility, I wonder if moving Atalaÿ to first position would make the evening even stronger. It’s a captivating piece in its own right, but difficult for an audience to not directly compare it to the astonishing former piece in the existing order.
I left Terra Firma absolutely buzzing; the first time, admittedly, that’s happened for me with a piece of contemporary dance. It’s a genuinely accessible, impressive and inspiring triple bill – which even the most unschooled (and I certainly include myself in that) should take a lot from. A real delight.