Strike! Dance Festival
Ieva Kuniskis: He Lived Next Door
Jack Webb: Inside Opulence
London, Wilton’s Music Hall
25 September 2014
Wilton’s Strike! Dance Festival page
It must follow that more is sometimes less. Jack Webb’s Inside Opulence was billed to last ‘(approx.): 30 minutes’ and we should have taken more note of the ominousness of that innocent abbreviation enclosed within a parenthesis, since the actual running time appeared to be rather more.
The important point here is that Webb’s piece was both structurally fascinating and brilliantly and uninhibitedly enacted by the choreographer himself working with two charismatic dancers (Katie Armstrong and Jessica Whycherly). But it seems as if the work was subject to a tinkering that stretched it well beyond the tipping point of more becoming less. Webb has developed an innovative idea about a show within a show, starting with a kind of kitsch “end-of-the-pier” frivolity – complete with sparkly, shimmering curtains and shoulder pads – before gradually deconstructing and degrading through the mental and physical unravelling of the three performers so that they end up like primeval, grotesque creatures slavering away on the floor. It starts like an extract from an 80s “Top of the Pops” – an image conveyed by the deliberately poor lip-synching of the performers singing to recorded music – and ends in some subterranean cave with all the opulence having been shredded away like meat gnawed from the bare bones of the latest prey.
Webb is a performer who lays every emotion bare, investing phenomenal energy into his slow descent into frenzied derangement. I admired the intense commitment of a performer who leaves everything on the stage and his two partners are equally spent by the end. Inside Opulence is a concept that merits further development but one that requires editing rather than extension.
I took no persuasion to visit Wilton’s Music Hall, a simply amazing venue tucked away down an alley near the Tower of London, which is the oldest and last surviving Grand Music Hall in the world. It is a rare venue that seems to absorb the work being performed, a fact acknowledged by the maker of the opening piece in this new dance festival. Ieva Kuniskis – a London-based Lithuanian choreographer with a track record for making site-sensitive work – was clearly influenced by the venue in adapting her solo He Lived Next Door for this festival.
The overwhelming resonance of Wilton’s is of a building that has “lived”, a place that has aged with dignity, the architecture and structure bearing witness to all the signs of that maturity. On the wall in the corridor leading to the theatre space is a small framed extract from a long-defunct newspaper entitled The Era, which reports upon the trial (in 1863) of one, Peter Melloy, a “popular vocal performer” at Wilton’s who was subjected to such prolonged and offensive heckling by a drunk in the audience that he jumped from the stage and struck the man such a blow that he died. Found guilty of manslaughter, the jury recommended leniency due to gross provocation and the judge passed a sentence of just 14 days’ hard labour! The history of this gorgeously decaying place just oozes from the walls.
And it oozes into Kuniskis’s remarkable solo, made all the more tremendous by the performance of Darius Stankevicius, a Lithuanian dancer (and choreographer) of a certain age who brings an impactful serenity and softness to his 15-minute solo. In reality he does so little but his movement is richly expressive and so perfectly judged that it absorbs his audience completely. Here is a man of some maturity (physically a little reminiscent of Art Garfunkel) who seems to be giving away his worldly possessions. Stankevicius begins the piece by removing his outer clothing to perform in old-fashioned “long john”-style underclothes, re-enacting past memories, slowly with great deliberation and an all-pervasive, melancholy tenderness.
The work is enhanced not just by its surroundings but also by Dougie Evans’ haunting piano music –studded by samples from an ancient recording of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – and I loved the extra affectation of Evans joining Stankevicius for the curtain call, wearing similar ancient undergarments! Kuniskis has created a piece that bristles with the sentiment of memory and loss but steers well clear of becoming mawkish or maudlin; instead it had an uplifting effect, especially with this charismatic performer and in this wonderful place.
This was the first Strike! Dance Festival at Wilton’s, showcasing six works over three days. I am very hopeful that it will become a permanent feature on the London dance scene and that Wilton’s will continue to present more dance. I would like more excuses to go there!