The last time I encountered this enigmatic dance company, I had to walk around every level of Sadler’s Wells to see their work (An Anatomie in Four Quarters, 2011), which was a promenade piece required to be seen from different viewing platforms. Clod Ensemble has been going since 1995 under the joint artistic leadership of Suzy Willson (choreography) and Paul Clark (music) and the name it has made derives from its catalogue of work being as unusual as having a dance company called Clod. As well as the promenade piece, I recall installation work (Red Ladies, featuring countless identically dressed women) and who could ever forget the naked dancers performing within giant glass jars (Under Glass). So, the surprise of Zero is that it takes place as a conventional piece of theatre, presented end-on to the audience through the fourth wall. That this is unusual in their agenda but the norm for everyone else sums up Clod Ensemble very well.
And, true to form, this new work is compulsively confusing with a visual appeal that rarely flags. Numbers continue to be key with the four quarters of the last work being increased to five acts in Zero. Nothing peculiar about acts in theatrical work, I hear you say, but in this case the number of acts is announced at the outset and then the beginning of each one is identified on a screen (there are no pauses or intervals between them). Each act is given a meteorological theme, stated simply onscreen above the stage, like a weather forecast on Ceefax. Merce Cunningham’s Ocean has a digital clock counting down the length of the piece so that the audience knows – at any moment – how long there is until the end; Clod Ensemble’s device is similar but packages the work into chunks of time rather than by the second.
The movement varies from extraordinary to everyday and the mood of the piece changes dramatically in each of the five segments, like the weather it represents, from balmy calm to violent storm. It is driven by an eclectic score (composed by Clark, assisted with lyrics by Peggy Shaw) that runs a wide gamut, including melodic blues, cool jazz, electronic buzz and a raucous punk rock finale. It has everything from classical elements to R&B; from melodic harmony to discordant clang. If one objective was to link associations of the weather with music and movement then it worked well. The band – onstage throughout – was excellent with great vocals from Johnny Mars and Hazel Holder.
The harmonisation of dance rhythms amongst the ten dancers was often like drawing the thinnest thread through the tiniest eye of a needle. Dancers, either singly or in pairs, took very different trajectories with their movement and then suddenly merged on a single beat into the same group patterns, like a giant kaleidoscope of interlinked rhythms, having lives of their own but also always inter-dependent. Sometimes the dance could be a compilation of very ordinary repetitive movements, as if performers were unveiling their favourite party trick at the church social: an image emphasised by the fact that some performers randomly sat out dances in chairs at the side (exactly as if they were in the village hall). What I particularly loved about the ensemble was that they resembled a group of ordinary people, in all shapes, sizes and ages. They could have been a group of friends or relatives at any church social and yet it would have to be an extraordinary village to have ten people who could dance with such pinpoint precision and musicality. The range of movement styles equalled the diversity of music and the group coped arrestingly in every style from the sexy, sinuous, slinky blues to the angry, spiky, clothes-ripping stormy end. Antonia Grove was especially notable at either end of that spectrum.
The only element that failed to capture my enthusiasm was the continual snippets of conversational audio, which seemed to be themed around relationships. Thus, we had isolated snatches of people talking about their siblings (including the unmistakeable voice of David Miliband declaring pride in his brother) and then, later, another group speaking about parental relationships. I felt as if we should know who all the speakers were (I heard Piers Morgan and Lorraine Kelly in there somewhere) and it felt like one of those radio quizzes where you have to guess a mix of voices. It seemed that this was throwing another set of quick-fire allusions into an already complex mix of references and, especially in the quantum of different voices, it all seemed a device too far.
But, this quibble aside, Zero provides yet more evidence of Willson and Clark continually pushing the boundaries of Clod Ensemble’s work into adventurous explorations. There is a solid core integrity to their catalogue of work that probably derives from the joint leadership of a choreographer and a musician; but there’s also an ongoing enquiry that reaches out into the far corners of our imaginations, even when the performance comes conventionally from under the proscenium arch.