The Horniman Museum and Gardens contains eclectic collections of artefacts from around the world, including a huge overstuffed walrus much loved by generations of south London children. In the run-up to the Olympics it has been hosting a series of Brazilian-themed events. It proved a fascinating choice for a lively evening which included films, music and indoor and outdoor dance performances.
The centrepiece of this is Labirinto, which is a reworking by the British-Brazilian choreographer, Jean Abreu, of his work A Thread. The performances take place in different segments in the various galleries of the museum. There’s an enigmatic guide to what’s on in what sequence in the spaces, but it doesn’t give too much away. It’s up to you to decide how to find your path through the maze.
This is a completely different experience from viewing dance in a formal auditorium. It was a party atmosphere and Brazilian food stalls and bars were enthusiastically patronised. There was an additional bar inside one of the galleries, right by the main performance space, with the popping of corks adding to the soundtrack. It’s noisy, and photographs were being taken all the time. The audience moves around all the time, and there aren’t many places to sit. Depending on how you come upon each component you might not have a clear view.
Some people reading by now may be shaking their heads and thinking well, this one isn’t for me. But there were some amazing bonuses from the nature of the event. One is the proximity to the dancers and musicians. They are right there, inches in front of you and you can see every drop of sweat on the performers. Audience members occasionally chatted to them in pauses between sections. Another major plus is the startling juxtapositions that occur between dancers and surroundings. In the African Worlds gallery, a dancer confronts and moves around two almost life-size African wooden statues, figures of great poise and dignity. It could be a re-enactment of some ancient rite. A dancer leans against a glass case in the Natural History Gallery quizzically observing a stuffed dodo. Sometimes the crowd surges after the dancers but every now and then you may discover a dancer performing alone in a deserted space and enjoy a private moment.
The first section, “In the beginning”, is in the main gallery square and introduces four dancers, Joshua Smith, Rosana Ribeiro, Lewis Wilkins and Stephen Moynihan accompanied by musicians Andrew Maginly (assorted string instruments) and Orpheus Papafilippou (violin). The dancers slowly arrive from different parts of the building and on the floor is a large grey sphere. They move around it, both attracted and repelled, and unite to try to heave it along, movement rippling through them. In one of the moments of serendipity offered by the evening, I later found one of the dancers in a similar pose against one of the Horniman’s modern sculptures, a massive iron globe called Blue Earth. This is etched with the slave routes from Africa, and seeing the same push against its heaviness was a moment which carried a real charge.
Weight and balance is the theme of this dance strand. A later section sees the dancers balancing the big weights used to hold down the corners of the dance floors on their stomachs and backs, staggering under the load.
The environment does constrain what can be done, as there isn’t much room for jumping or for big lifts. Nevertheless, a small area in the natural history gallery was the site for a very engaging short duet with Riberiro leaping and balancing on her partner just opposite a display case of iridescent hummingbirds. Later, outside on the terrace, another group of dancers used long metal poles, balancing them on their heads and using the poles to take each other’s weight or hem each other in. The dancers are remarkably professional, retaining concentration and focus despite the crowds being so close. Ribeiro in particular has an intense, guarded quality.
It was a generously stuffed evening. It didn’t really seem possible to do justice to everything, including films and video installations, especially as there wasn’t a timetable supplied for each space. For example, the charming conservatory building staged duets by Fernanda Prata and Ben King, but sadly I just missed catching these by following another path. But that was perhaps the idea of Labirinto – to thread your own way through and trust that there is so much on offer you are bound to make a discovery that beguiles.
It would be interesting to see the dance in a more conventional context to see how it reads then. As A Thread it is on in Lincoln this October. If the Horniman has more immersive evenings like this then you should definitely go along to see both the collections and dance in a different light – and make your own discoveries.