I described my previous encounter with the enchanting work of London-based, Lithuanian choreographer, Ieva Kuniskis, as a ‘remarkable solo of impactful serenity and softness’. He Lived Next Door was given extra strength by the special combination of venue – the intimate, eerie atmosphere of Wilton’s Music Hall – and performer, another Lithuanian, Darius Stankevicius; a lithe, charismatic dancer in his 50s, who was returning to dance after a decade in retirement.
All of the above is relevant, since Kuniskis has returned with another slice of her highly physical brand of dance theatre, after an absence of three years, with They Live Next Door; a compelling drama for another pair of mature, male performers; and, once again, the intimacy of the black box space in Camberwell’s 50-seat Blue Elephant Theatre was a perfect setting to experience their tumultuous journey.
The meandering arc of their relationship is conveyed through a series of brief episodes, which are full of contrasts. There is tenderness and aggression, purposefulness and neglect; games are played that start whimsically but end in serious competition. There is love between the men, but it is experienced amongst contrasting emotions of frustration and anger.
We are first introduced to Nicholas Minns, at the outset, engaged in some quiet needlepoint (or crochet, or embroidery – I’m no expert). Though always authoritative, Minns appears to be the gentlest of the pair, ostentatiously offering his partner, Mark Boldin, a mannered invitation to a social dance, one arm extended high in an exaggerated Matador’s pose. When Bolding first enters the room, Minns puts down his embroidery and roughly clasps his hand over Boldin’s mouth, one assumes, to prevent speech. These actions, amongst many others, return (as memories?), later in the piece. Boldin appears to fluctuate in his responses to Minns; occasionally, flirtatious, often boorish and sometimes confrontational. At one juncture, Minns appears to lose consciousness – to the sounds of heavy rain – and there is a sudden tenderness in Boldin’s concern, as he holds and manipulates the inert body.
Both performers have a long background in ballet and it shows through the discipline of pointed feet, extended arms and frequent returns to classical positions. Boldin’s long career encompassed a decade as a soloist with the Croatian National Ballet; and, before returning home to Britain, Minns worked with Gradimir Pankov at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, in Montreal (and, prior to that, with US companies). Both have a strong sense of stagecraft and Minns – who IMHO, bears a strong theatrical resemblance to John Malkovich – has an engaging, expressive theatrical presence that quickly delineates a wide range of emotions.
There are no particular clues as to the manner or status of the relationship between these two men unless we take They Live Next Door as a literal clue; although it seems clear that they are much more than neighbours having the occasional chat over the garden fence. It’s probably fanciful but I clung to the idea of The Odd Couple as a reference, albeit one that is most likely, illusory. Neil Simon’s ‘swinging sixties’ play has spun-off two TV series (30 years’ apart) and a well-known film (1968), starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. In my fantasy casting, I saw Minns very much in the Lemmon role, as the orderly, clean-and-tidy Felix Ungar – who most likely also crocheted – with Boldin as the more slipshod Oscar Maddison.
Kuniskis has a fine-tuned directorial skill, maintaining an arresting momentum across these brief vignettes, without any loss of her audience’s palpable fascination. She came to a professional dance career by way of photography and there is significant compositional expertise in the way in which she assembles the images we see. For a two-handed work in a small venue, Kuniskis and her performers make an hour disappear remarkably quickly. Another key contribution is an impactful score by Dougie Evans that embraces the familiar sounds of traditional folk melodies, perhaps as an indication that some of the action is a reflection of past memories. The set consists of two kitchen chairs and countless glasses placed haphazardly along the back wall of the theatre; a leit motif without any obvious explanation.
Lithuania punches well above its weight as a propagator of modern dance and it is a pleasure and a privilege to have one of its leading cultural exports based here in the UK. We see far too little of the complex, arresting work of Ieva Kuniskis; and far too little dance theatre at the exciting fringe outpost that is the Blue Elephant. I am making it my aim to see more of both.