One of the things I love about dance is that dancers can do anything. But sometimes they are not allowed to reveal themselves: their bodies become cogs in someone else’s machine.
Alexander Whitley’s new piece Overflow is a case in point. Whitley is a choreographer full of bright ideas, and here he’s decided to investigate the way digital technology is beginning to dominate our lives. He does this with the help of a light installation from Children of the Light and biometric face masks and costumes from Ana Rajčević. The result looks gorgeous, dominated by a moving blade of light, an LED strip that shines like a radiant spear, pulses of energy flickering across it like coloured glass beads.
Beneath this ever-changing display, six dancers in black are anonymous. They pump their arms and nod their heads. Sometimes they link hands in a chain of support; at others they collapse, bent double under an oppressive force. There are interesting moments: a solo under a diagonal white beam; frozen groups caught in despair or flight. But over 75 minutes the movement and the music become repetitive and limited; you feel, like the dancers, that you are swimming through fog. That might be the point, but it’s hard to care too much.
At the other end of the dance spectrum there is Rosie Kay, now an acclaimed choreographer, returning to live performance for the first time since 2015. I wasn’t able to get to the premiere in Birmingham but was allowed a sneak preview on film of the show that she will next perform in Salisbury (aan 16 Junie) en Edinburgh (24 Julie). It is sensational.
Absolute Solo II is in fact three solos. The first, Artemis Clown, inspired by the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, mixes baroque elegance with gambolling skips and hops; the second is a filmed record of Kay’s 1999 solo, Patisserie. Both are terrific. The third, Adult Female Dancer (2020), an autobiographical meditation on what dance means to Kay, binds the evening together.
In simple T-shirt and tights, and in words and movement, Kay explains how dance has carried her through grief, joy, injury and life-threatening danger. She talks about repeated incidents of sexual abuse, and what it means to live in her body and to be a woman. The descriptions are matter-of-fact, not overwrought.
The dance is stripped back too, but intensely expressive. Kay has an extraordinary centred poise; she can make simple steps and gestures speak. She dances with freedom and effort, grace and intense control. There are moments of wild abandon and others of pure clarity. As the narrative of her life unfolds, dance repeatedly asserts itself, allowing her to communicate. At the end she says: “What can this body say, what does this body want to say? Let it dance, Rosie.”
Then she does, letting rip to Patti Smith’s Gloria, arm raised in triumph. Watching, I wondered if this was what it felt like to see Isadora Duncan. A woman, strong and free, full of sadness and hurt, but also of power, defining her life in dance.
Star ratings (out of five)
Alexander Whitley Dance Company: Overflow ★★
Rosie Kay Dance Company: Absolute Solo II ★★★★