Dance Umbrella brings to The Place an unusually thoughtful and touching work. In Use My Body While It’s Still Young, Norwegian choreographer Hege Haagenrud takes a cool and unflinching look at the unfashionable subject of ageing, and society’s dismissive or embarrassed attitudes to older people’s appetites and longings, including sexual ones. She is extraordinary well served by a cast of veteran dancers whose ages range from 65 to 79, who can imbue simple gestures with a freight of meaning and make a simple turn of the head full of sadness. It’s a simple, stripped down production that packs a lot of food for thought and poignant reflection into 50 minutes.
Voiceovers by the elderly in Norwegian reflect on aches and pains, fear of death, mellowing of the spirit, the need for help in everyday things like going for a shower, and longing for cuddles and intimacy. An English translation is supplied on the screen. A soundscape and musical accompaniment is provided by the composer Rebekka Karijord with support from Jacob Snavelly playing live at a corner of the stage.
There are three performers here. Siv Ander was born in 1939 and danced with Cullberg Ballet and still teaches. Possessing defiantly bright red hair and a flinty stare, she is the original inspiration of the work, appearing in a video for the composer in the title song. Aase With is a little younger, and trained at the London Contemporary Dance School, before teaching dance in Norway. Nicholas Minns trained at Rambert school and subsequently danced with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. There is one empty chair. A fourth dancer was planned as part of the scheme but is absent through illness and appears only on screen. This is Gerard Lemaitre, born 1936 whose career included dancing for Roland Petit and then Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). He was also a member of the much loved and lamented (now sadly defunct) NDT III for older dancers.
Each performer gets their own solo in response to a particular voiceover. Haagenruud tailors the vocabulary nicely for each individual. For Minns the language is brisk and business like as if recalling the world of work, organising, filing, marking out territory. For Aase With it is more rueful. She starts face down on the floor and slowly gets up, nudging and coaxing limbs into place. Ander is more fidgety, as if worried and forgetful. The movement is simple and restricted but their dance experience is evident still in the eloquent carriage of the arms and the emotion they bring to the performance. .
The absence of Lemaitre, which might have been a handicap, is turned to advantage. The empty chair possesses its own resonance, reminding us all of those no longer with us. Film is used to compelling effect. We see a film clip of Le Maitre as a young man, dancing nude for NDT. On film, the older Lemaitre takes off his clothes and sits down on a chair to watch his younger, naked, self exuberantly leap and turn. His presence remains a powerful one with craggy looks topped by a luxuriant head of white hair and the ability to connect with an audience.
The most potent section of the work was a combination of film and dance. On the screen we see Ander and Lemaitre in a gentle, restrained duet. He holds her, supports and seems to comfort her and guide her along. But on the stage, Ander is alone, watching the film of her and her partner together. Here she mimics her own moments on the screen, reaching out to embrace someone who is no longer physically there for her. It’s deeply affecting.
The work doesn’t leave you thinking of Ander as a poor lost soul though. After a voiceover reminding us that older people have sexual feelings that we might not want to acknowledge, she strips down to her bra and pants and advances down the stage to hold the audience in an unflinching and fearless stare. Exposing your body in your late seventies is a much more provocative act than exposing the body of a twenty year old.