The Chelsea Hotel in New York has been mythologised by writers, lyricists, artists and journalists as an icon of bohemian living. Famous people and failures, drunks, drug addicts, rock stars, prostitutes and poets lived there for over a century until it closed in 2011, scheduled for redevelopment as a boutique hotel. A campaign to rescue it may yet be successful, though no-one doubts an era has ended.
Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, co-founders of the Welsh dance-theatre group Earthfall, set out to evoke the atmosphere of the louche hostelry, a run-down building where a murder, a suicide and a fire took place at frequent intervals. Not a hotel where you might choose to stay, though plenty of thrill-seeking tourists did. Earthfall specialises in exploring underground popular culture through live music, film, speech and dance. This year, it tours widely through Wales and England, performing for two weeks in west London at the Riverside Studios, which seem until now to have forgotten about dance.
The 70-minute show sets the scene by depicting a naïve small-town couple visiting the Chelsea in its heyday. They are seen on screen arriving in the seedy elevator ‘where anything could happen’. Their images are intercut with black-and-white footage of notorious residents, including Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sid Vicious and the girlfriend he killed, Nancy Spungen. Below the screen is an iron bedstead accommodating the cast of four dancers and three musicians. On the other side of the stage is a kitchen table and a battered fridge containing nothing but a cowboy boot.
As the musicians play an urgent throb and wail of sound on a multitude of instruments, the quartet of dancers combine and recombine in couples. A dark-haired girl (Jessica Haener) writes constantly as her boyfriend (Sebastian Langueneur) sleeps beside her, drunk or drugged. Ros Haf Brooks, surly and stroppy in a minidress, is subjected to violence by Alex Marshall Parsons. The women get together giggling on the bed, wearing sprigged Victorian dresses over modern underclothes. They’re ghosts from the past, uninhibited hippies in smocks.
The two men in jeans and T-shirts tumble and wrestle in erotic combat. Langueneur, the conflicted Mapplethorpe figure, is going to abandon his Patti Smith girlfriend for men, drugs and death. Some of this information is imparted through filmed or spoken text, the weakest element of the production. The words are unclear, the speakers self-conscious. Far more is communicated through eloquent movement, tough or tender, striking out in surges of rage or despair. At the conclusion, the no-longer-innocent couple return via the filmed lift to their real lives, disabused of the decadent glamour they sought in the Chelsea. It’s a powerful piece of theatre, driven by music that expresses the hard-living, drug-fuelled romanticism of the spirits who inhabited the hotel. Earthfall bravely maintains the high standards of physical theatre set by DV8 and Nigel Charnock, once regulars on the dance circuit in Britain and abroad.