I have a distant memory of an album entitled ‘Freedom is a State of Mind’, which may or may not have had this slogan painted as white graffiti on a grey wall in an urban setting as its cover image. Perhaps I have mixed two distant memories, but no matter. This vague recollection was the first of many things that sprang into my mind when this marathon began. Vardimon’s latest work is all about “Freedom” (it says so on the tin) but, in further explanation by the choreographer herself, we are told that, in particular, it is about the contradictions that mean that to be free is often closely associated with issues of ‘ties and restrictions’.
My “state of mind” suggestion was implanted by Guy Bar-Amotz’s intriguing set design: appearing to me like the brain’s complicated nervous system with neurons and axons dangling down from above. On closer inspection, there appeared also to be an industrial component with wires and vacuum tubes in amongst the trailers. I suppose the organic nature of the set could have suggested a jungle, or the seascape sounds of flowing water might also have hinted at the seaweed-entangled flotsam and jetsam washed up and coagulated on a deserted beach. It could have represented all these things and more besides. There were periods in which Freedom had a soothing, soporific effect.
The good thing about Vardimon’s choreography is that the flow she achieves with these six outstanding dancers (three boys and three girls) is superb. The falls and rolls, twists and turns in liquid movement that spreads from a vertical plane to the horizontal and back again are given with such unanimity that we might imagine the sextet to be puppets turned by a single handle. But there is nothing remotely mechanical in harmonies that are achieved with such fluid, human warmth.
The bad thing is that there is nowhere near enough of this dancing in a work that lasted 90 minutes plus, without an interval. For most of this time, the performers are participating in a series of unrelated, often clunky, episodes of physical theatre that – in some way or other – are intended to signify freedom. These range from the comically absurd – Estéban Fourmi in long yellow/black shorts using his compliant girlfriend (Júlia Robert Parés) as a human surfboard brought about the most laughs; to the grotesquely sinister, where for example the dancers are apparently buffeted around the stage by the silhouette of a predatory bird or dragon.
The least interesting episode came in a long shadow-puppetry divertissement at the centre of the work that took forever to make its point. It concerned a mermaid leaving the sea and getting stranded far along the river while chasing a giant fluffy bunny. This reminded me of the section in Pina Bausch’s wonderful Kontakthof where the performers take a break to watch an extract of a black-and-white film about ducks, but with nothing even remotely approaching the same impact.
Other elements in Vardimon’s eclectic mixture of text, dance and visual prompts have a ring of Bausch’s Tanztheater about them, not least the leit motif of a doll-like Japanese girl (Aoi Nakamura) nervously suggesting that she has a story to tell but getting no further than repeating “it’s about… it’s about”; and a ballerina’s pas de bourrée to the up-tempo version of Over the Rainbow (the one performed by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole for the closing credits of Meet Joe Black) which lead to her arms being caught in two giant white tubes so that she becomes a poignant, captive insect trapped by a carnivorous plant ; and then there was an extraordinary light-show of a green lizard crawling over a male dancer’s torso and down inside his shorts, which made me feel distinctly itchy!
Freedom came when the performers were allowed to dance. And that just wasn’t often enough. Their episodes of pure dance seemed like a liberating spell in the exercise yard after a long period of solitary confinement. Contained within this piece there is a much better – and shorter – work struggling to break free.