The opening scene of The North, a new dance theatre work from Dundee-based troupe Joan Clevillé Dance, starts with a scene plucked straight from a Scandi noir: two young women in braids and Nordic sweaters dragging a body bag through the woods. They glance around furtively, brace themselves against the blustery landscape and slowly unsheathe the bag’s contents.
From here the thriller angle dissipates and something resembling a farce springs up in its place. Turns out it’s company founder Joan Clevillé (played by dancer John Kendall) hiding in the plastic, very much alive, and he’s ended up in this foreign place – simply referred to as “north of the rest” – with no idea how he got here or where he’s come from. The women don’t offer any clarity; instead they don reindeer antlers and bombard him with kisses and puzzling bon mots, orchestrating the music with their hands as they go.
The hour-long piece rambles in this topsy-turvy fashion for its duration, veering between frothy and serious, playful and earnest, never quite approaching comprehensibility. It’s heavier on the theatre than the dance, and oddball theatre at that. There are splendid flashes of spirit and vulnerability amid the cast’s antics, but a fair bit of laboured wittering too.
Clevillé’s vision for The North stems from his years living in Scotland and working in Scandinavia, and mingles impressions of the region’s people (warm, honest, hardworking) and its terrain (harsh, tempestuous, striking). We see a lone pine tree transform from a snow-covered branch to a warmly lit Christmas tree, natives morph from cutesy creatures to no-nonsense strangers. These sketches coalesce to form a wistful portrait of displacement, culled from Clevillé’s experience as a Spaniard raised abroad. Desperate for signs of familiarity, his character clings to a radio for sounds of home and lashes out at his comrades’ nonsensical jabbering. It’s only when he stops resisting the otherness, donning his own antlers, that his distress subsides – a syrupy nod towards cultural assimilation.
The three dancers are skilled performers, Solène Weinachter especially, reprising the penchant for sound effects that made her so charming in the troupe’s 2017 work Plan B for Utopia. Eve Ganneau shines during a free-flowing duet with Kendall, waltzing away deftly, while Kendall is at his most convincing during a fraught solo of wild slides and crawls, his despondency ringing clear.
There’s a great deal of wit and tenderness sprinkled across The North, but its winding structure casts these qualities adrift, diluting their impact. Its themes could likewise use some anchoring – longer dance sequences, especially emotive ones like the solo above, would give them more traction.