For almost 30 years, Kevin Finnan has been making bold, highly physical dance theatre for Motionhouse, the company he formed, with Louise Richards, in 1988. No-one makes work even vaguely similar to Finnan’s exciting, absorbing blend of dance theatre, circus and technology. Often produced on a grand scale, it is suited to a repertoire that includes spectacular outside events, such as a show for dancers and JCBs; and another featuring the facsimile of a full-size ocean liner. These expansive skills led to Finnan’s appointment as choreographer for the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
Motionhouse visits to London are sporadic. After an absence of four years, the company showed Broken (2013), at the Peacock Theatre, in 2016, and I hope that this relatively quick return visit indicates a greater regularity of London seasons for one of the most under-rated of British companies. We often marvel at circus-based dance brought from as far afield as Canada and Australia; but we have a remarkable company making dance-based circus right here, in Leamington Spa!
Broken is the second part of Finnan’s Earth trilogy, which began with Scattered, in 2009; so, in that sense – in 16/17- the two shows arrived in London in their reverse order. By the way, the third part of the trilogy, Charge, is due to premiere at the Warwick Arts Centre, in October 2017. Given the complexity of Motionhouse works, it is no surprise that each piece takes four years to make.
Charge will take its inspiration from energy; Broken examined the human relationship with the Earth; and Scattered is all about our relationship with water. Its main feature is a vertiginous, sloping wall, which initially provides the optical illusion of being a sheer drop; a trick of the eye, shockingly exposed – early into the work – when one of the dancers leaps from the five-metre-high edifice. There is an audible collective, sharp intake of breath, but the dancer’s airborne fall is quickly arrested by an unseen slope in the wall. It is, in fact, one great big slide; ingeniously designed by Motionhouse’s long-term collaborator, Simon Dormon.
For the next 70 minutes’ the wall is the centrepiece of the work. It provides a projection screen for the digital imagery, designed by the filmmakers from Logela Multimedia. The (magnificent) seven dancers frequently run up the wall, especially effective when “stepping up” on the motion graphics of an escalator; they dig their hands into the cracks of a dried-out water basin; they freeze in an arctic wasteland; or throw themselves headlong into a perfectly synchronised graphical splash.
They run along the parapet at the top of the wall and jump and slide down with all the enthusiasm of three-year olds in the local playground. It is all, of course, connected to water: in our imaginations, they are riding over a waterfall; diving into the ocean; sliding with an avalanche. As if the slope itself isn’t enough fun, it is supplemented with clever aerial work to provide an extra dimension with both the stage and the wall providing performance platforms at a right-angle to one another. Another optical illusion.
While the synchrony of motion graphics and live action is impressive, an even greater impact comes from the powerful dynamism of the dancers. It is no accident that the jolting impression of the first dancer to leap from the wall’s summit is pre-empted by a magnificent, appropriately liquid, dance solo by Chris Knight.
Weaker choreography might easily be overshadowed by the monumental capacity of the set and motion graphics, but Finnan’s work is equally imposing; seamlessly transitioning from punishing floor-based movement to dizzying spins and sudden, tightly-controlled balances. It is high-energy, non-stop action with lifts, spins and dives into those perfectly synched splashes on the screen. This is a hugely talented, athletic and acrobatic septet of dancers, only one of whom (Junior Cunningham) is a survivor from the original 2009 cast.
The work benefits from an eclectic score, designed by Finnan, together with Sophy Smith who composed the original music with Tim Dickinson. It has a round-the-world feel with memorable influences from Europe, India, the middle east and Africa; but it is all hummable, danceable music, providing an effective aural envelope for a full house of magical interactive creative contributions, which gel together to provide arresting entertainment.
Unfortunately, Scattered is nearing the end of its evangelical journey, articulating the preciousness of water to the earth, as Motionhouse’s longest running show, to date. These Peacock showings bring to an end the show’s fifth UK tour and it has also visited the USA, twice, plus regular trips to mainland Europe, China, Macau, Hong Kong and Japan. No wonder we haven’t seen much of them in London! I’m eagerly awaiting the next highly-charged instalment, coming in October. It might even tempt me to Warwick!