It’s more than two decades since Didy Veldman last did an independent show, and it’s a shock really that it’s taken so long to do another. But it’s not like she hasn’t been busy working – working around the world creating contemporary dance for major ballet and dance companies. It’s just been such a shame that so little of it has been presented in the UK. I have fond memories of her Carmen for Northern Ballet Theatre, and much more recently her The 3 Dancers for Rambert, inspired by the Picasso painting, gave many food for thought. Hopefully with the formation of her own company, Umanoove, we will now see more of Veldman’s thoughtful work and classy humanesque choreography. Their first piece, now touring (and also next year), is The Happiness Project – an investigation into Western society’s endless search for fulfilment.
The Happiness Project has been on Veldman’s mind for 5 years and she’s brought together a cracking team of four dancers to realise it – Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Hannah Kidd and Mathieu Geffre. These are all world-class contemporary movers and, as importantly here, they are all terrific dramatic communicators. Musically she’s chosen one of the best as well – Alexander Balanescu – a Romanian violinist and composer, who has worked with Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars and, in dance, collaborated with Meryl Tankard, Pina Bausch, Rosemary Lee and Phillipe Saire, to name a few. Balanescu plays live at each performance, sometimes alongside a recording, and moves around the stage – definitely part of the stage action. There is no set as such, just 4 black boxes, a polythene sheet and some other odds and ends of props to play with – the work of Kimie Nakano, who also put the dancers in everyday dress.
The good news is that Balanescu and the 4 dancers do a stunning job individually and collectively. Movement-wise (the dancers are co-credited with Veldman) they all seem to move with impeccable grace, sometimes sliding, sometimes scurrying lizard-like over the floor and then they come together in satisfying groups and tableaux. They all have solos while the others look on in the shadows, as impressed as we are. Balanescu’s solo violin is good listening too – I’d call it accessibly modern. Which come to think of it is what you’d say of the dancing.
The less good news is that I really haven’t a clue what this was saying about happiness. There are skits where the four dancers show individual takes on what might be happiness – such as owning luxury branded products, but the ideas don’t seem to get developed into anything coherent. Instead they mooch off in good-looking seemingly abstract dance. All through The Happiness Project‘s 65 minutes I kept thinking “wonderful movement, but don’t understand what it’s saying”. By the end I’d had my fill of good-looking, polite, movement and vague insights.
Veldman sure knows how to pick all the right ingredients for a dance show – but they really need presenting in a less cryptic way than they are here. But do go to see great contemporary dancers and a great violinist strut their stuff and enjoy it for that… and see anything you might divine about happiness as a bonus.