Take it outside: the shows pushing dancers out of their comfort zone

A ballet in an old warehouse. A duet between a woman and a shipping container. A walk through London’s docklands. Choreographers have long been fascinated by the challenges of taking dancers – and audiences – out of their comfort zone of the theatre, and three unconventional performances in London this month did exactly that. In doing so, they raise a range of questions. Is a set the same as a setting? When does the performance start and finish? Is sound the same as the soundtrack? And who is watching whom?

Robert Binet, formerly choreographic apprentice at the Royal Ballet and currently choreographic associate of the National Ballet of Canada, presented his show The Dreamers Ever Leave You at Printworks in south London, a vast venue that once housed the presses for the Metro and Evening Standard newspapers. Performed by dancers from both ballet companies, it was inspired by the stylised landscape paintings of Canadian artist Lawren Harris and originally made for the light, white spaces of the Ontario Art Gallery. The dark cavern of the Printworks hall imposes a very different ambience. Binet sets three narrow oblongs of light as his stage, and we cluster around them like moths. Within them the dancers – in solos, duets, occasional trios – flow through abstract balletic sequences, whirring past us in travelling spins, stretching arms like wings or undulating fluently between floor and air.

Though the dancers flit between one oblong and another, they seem not to notice us; it’s as if they inhabit a higher plane. At first that dimension appears lyrical, almost angelic, but also superficial. When Lubomyr Melnyk’s scintillating music – imagine the rippling arpeggios of a Chopin nocturne combined with the motoric textures of Michael Nyman – clouds and rumbles with thunder, the performers betray signs of vulnerability and disquiet. A woman’s body rumples as one knee keeps giving way; four dancers lie in repose, their sleep seemingly troubled by dreams.

Lyrical and angelic … The Dreamers Ever Leave You. Photograph: Alice Pennefather

These impressions depend on our proximity. Up close, we can register small details as well as big actions; we can stand next to the pianist – Melnyk himself, long-haired, grey-bearded, godlike – who is producing such celestial sounds. The performance works best once we stop wandering around, and instead stand or sit still to watch – almost as if we were in a theatre.

London’s Dance Umbrella festival, which has a long record of taking dance outside the theatre, issued a telling edict for its opening outdoor show: “No umbrellas.” The organisers knew well that the weather is a capricious scenographer, and that umbrellas spoil sight lines more than any big-haired tall person. So macs and hoods it was.

Satchie Noro and Silvain Ohl’s Origami is a duet between a dancer and a shipping container, visually striking if choreographically muted. Segments of the huge red container open out and fold back, as delicately as pleats in a paper flower and as inexorably as a machine. Noro traverses the almost imperceptibly moving construction with a dancer’s careful placement and clean lines, planting her feet along moving wires, scaling the contraption’s perilous planes. At one point, she swings a huge cleaver down onto the container top, and it thunders back a hollow response. The overwhelming effect is of imbalances of scale: between the dancer’s body and the container’s, in the unhinged relationship between Noro and her implacable metal partner.

But there is a whole other dimension to the piece. For while Origami has a fourth wall that divides audience from performance (we all face the container from one side), it doesn’t have the first three. Rather, its wings and backdrop extend as high and wide as the sky itself. Battersea Power Station, where I saw it (the piece played at four sites), looked as portentous as any film set or album cover, while the gunmetal clouds, the river breeze, the chop of helicopters and the snore of traffic all came to feel stranger, more unknowable than the performance unfolding before us.

Is This a Waste Land?

Stage melds with setting … Is This a Waste Land? Photograph: Pari Naderi

Charlotte Spencer’s Is This a Waste Land?, also for Dance Umbrella, takes that weirdness a step further: there is no longer any division between stage and setting, and no audience as such, only participants. Created for a derelict industrial site in London’s docklands, Is This a Waste Land? follows a similar method to Spencer’s 2015 Umbrella hit, Walking Stories. Through headphones, we listen to a soundtrack of instructions and audio effects, and find ourselves moving in groups across the site in a kind of coordinated choreography, as tinglingly self-conscious as if we were actual performers.

Our actions evoke the human histories composted into this urban soil: we make structures of sticks and rope, build towers of detritus and witness their destruction. It’s a shame, though, that the work doesn’t bear more witness to its location. To neglect these eerie surroundings – watery flatlands, an abandoned mill and a shiny conference centre, passing trains, constellations of crane lights against a blackening sky – is a slight waste of its own landscape.

In taking dance out of the theatre, Is This a Waste Land? not only takes the theatre out of dance, but most of the dance too. We’re left with a kind of social choreography, and an open expanse of questions that can – like other projects that venture outside theatre’s contained space – revitalise our experience of performance, spectatorship, sometimes even the world itself. Like seeing a familiar landscape anew.

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