Review Roots, National Dance Company Wales, at Theatr Clwyd by Simon Kensdale

This touring programme of new pieces of contemporary dance creates something of a buzz – a buzz provoked by the NDCW’s Artistic Director, Fergus Ó Conchúir coming forward to encourage audience members to talk to someone near them who they don’t know about their reactions to the work.

The approach will work for those who, like me, are a bit mystified by dance and perhaps also for those who have come on their own.  It might not appeal so much to purists because it generates a bit of atmospheric untidiness:  conversations start up and have to be quietened down.  Still, given that the whole programme is not very long, there is time for all of this.

As for the main event itself – the performances and the choreography –  I should repeat that I am relatively ignorant as far as dance goes.  I am not dance phobic but if I go to see a show it is usually a play or a concert, possibly an opera, very occasionally a ballet – almost never contemporary dance.  Unfortunately for development officers, we are all creatures of habit.  This is a shame because, ‘knowing what we like’, we don’t venture far from our comfort zones to take in new experiences. I had a complimentary ticket from Theatr Clwyd and a free evening and I’m glad I was able to see Roots.

The programme contains four pieces.  Ecrit is choreographed by Nikita Goile and features two dancers.  Both Why Are People Clapping? by Ed Myhill and Codi by Anthony Matsena featured four or five, and Rygbi by Fergus O’Conchuir himself featured seven – or was it eight?  The imprecision in my counting is not just middle-aged muddle: it’s a reflection of the impact of all the dynamic and fluid body movements out in front.  You lose track of numbers because of the intensity of what is going on.

Ecrit is about a man and a woman and the balance of power in heterosexual relationships. Rygbi is about rugby, prompting thoughts of what it would be like if economics and logistics permitted a full team of at least thirteen dancers.

However, I’m not sure that what the pieces are said to be about, or what the choreographers and the dancers themselves intend to do, matters much.  The performances take you some distance beyond the start point.  The titles and notes really only serve as spring boards, or launching points for your reactions.  (You don’t think about rugby, for example, in the same way as you might watching a performance of Hull Truck’s Up and Under).  The show’s overall title, Roots, is not hugely satisfactory because it reminds you of the eminently forgettable best-seller/blockbuster movie/TV series phenomenon.  But it’s there to let you know that what you going to see is largely about Wales, having been made in Wales by people who work there, or who are Welsh themselves.

Knowing that the start point for Ecrit was a letter to Diego Riviera by Frida Kahlo made me search for references to them and their painting, to murals and to Mexico – but only briefly.   Dance tends to liberate you from your thinking through the movements – in this case by the movement of the woman’s hands, which dance together, forming shapes expressive of both passion and suffering.  The piece depends on a dramatic use of a screen and shadow play to convey the essential distance and separation in a relationship.  The male dancer is concealed from view – as he is from his lover – and appears at first only in silhouette, the back lighting permitting him to grow massively in stature, like a nightmare monster and then shrink.

Why Are People Clapping? asks a question for which of course there is no real, single answer, other than ‘just for fun’ – although the loud, sustained and rhythmically very accurate clapping throughout must be hard work for the performers. It provides a percussive sound wall which the dancers move against, either together or in solo movements.  It’s very reminiscent of flamenco, except that here there is no singing and no shouting and, as with much of the programme, the musical accompaniment is not very noticeable.

Codi is apparently about ‘the strength of the Welsh communities who come together to tackle isolation and depression during troubled times’ but if you hadn’t read the programme notes you could be excused from thinking it was about coal mining.  This is because the main impact of the piece is achieved through the ingenious use of single bright lights worn around the neck by the dancers, instead of on helmets.  They shine out through a smoky atmosphere at you and their beams strike out in all directions.  The dancers are also dressed in overalls which don’t restrict them but which do suggest they are miners.

Rygbi was very well done – NDCW performed it for the World Cup in Japan – but I found it the least interesting of the four pieces.  This could be because it came on last and by that time, despite the conversations and the detailed introduction, I had had enough contemporary dance for one evening.  I wanted there to be more humour in it – rugby being fairly ridiculous  – and even some ugliness – rugby is also often quite unpleasant. (It’s not a beautiful game!)  I was unsure about what the dancers were wearing – brightly coloured ensembles, tops and shorts and long socks which were definitely not team strips.  What happened drew a lot on typical rugby moves but I was unsure, I suppose, of what the piece was saying and it wasn’t a comfortable uncertainty.

That said, this was a good evening’s entertainment, giving me plenty to think about and lots to remember.  It may also encourage me to see contemporary dance more often.  I think, in the end, it’s a pity that, for a number of reasons, dance occupies a separate niche in theatre and that it has to be enjoyed in isolation.  Dance was originally central to drama and even today it can be effectively introduced in plays.  A weakness of much modern drama is its lack of physicality, with actors relying on their delivery of text and not understanding the importance of suggestive body language and sinuous physical expression.  What shows like Roots demonstrate is how evocative and expressive pure movement can be on its own, when it is performed by talented and disciplined dancers in companies like NDCW.  Long may they continue to tour.

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