Joss Arnott’s company may have started back in 2010 but they have not generally been much covered by specialist writers such as the national critics (aka “the heavy hitters”). That’s not particularly unusual: as the recently ended Place Resolution season shows, very many are called to create work or their own company, but there are just not enough hours in the day to see it all. So what intrigued me to see Arnott’s company? Quality PR material – words, images, website – all looked impressive and persuasive. The show’s programme I was given also had a polish that you rarely see at this level. But of course, great PR is no guarantee of great art… or great cars, or anything for that matter. You have to see the actuality for yourself.
The short night was composed of 3 works totalling 61 minutes (plus an interval) but before that got going there was a curtain-raiser performed by Berkshire County Dance Company Youth. This was for ten younger dancers (BCDCY’s age range is 13-23) and simply choreographed on them by Arnott during the company’s visit to their base at South Hill Park. BCDCY is part-time, sits between school and vocational training, and as each member had their solo section you could see their enjoyment at being on a professional stage. There was a real mix of abilities but well done all, and I hope that some bounce on into full-time dance training.
The 18-minute-long A Movement in 3 opened the evening proper and introduced Arnott’s style which the company describe as “cutting edge, classical contemporary”. Whenever I see classical mentioned I usually assume that there are some partially ballet-trained dancers around and/or ballet-derived steps but that’s not the case here, I think, and the movement is beefily contemporary and for the most part earth-bound. Movement in 3 is a music-led piece based on a moodily modern score by Quinta which varies between Max Richter-style soulful strings and darkly stark piano sections. The stage is smokily gloomy, gorgeously lit at first in green, the leotard costumes neatly cut and the 3 dancers snappily strong. Arnott knows how to select his ingredients but the steps often have the feel of a fitness class designed to show muscle definition and strength. Lots of body parts move but for me not in a particularly satisfying and harmonious way or an astoundingly inharmonious way. And, my goodness, there seemed an awful lot of lunges this way and that. But one dancer, the compactly powerful Lisa Rowley made the most of what there was. For all its considered artfulness of presentation, Movement in 3‘s’ movement ideas rather ran out ahead of the music.
V is also music-led and this time the music was played live on stage by Fra Rustumji. James Keane’s (10 minute) score, for viola, is often driven and insistent and as Rustumji prowls the stage, the solo dancer (Emily Pottage) animatedly struts and writhes before a brief silent pause and the process repeats and repeats. The music was interesting in its variety and I often found myself following the musician rather than the dancer’s movement, which seems busily fiddly. Pottage looks technically good but the choreography does not seem so connected to the music as one hoped from the inspirational programme notes. Again lighting (Fabiana Piccioli) and costumes (Elizabeth Baker-King) were excellent.
The recently minted Rush, at 33 minutes, was the big statement piece of the night – 5 dancers this time, quality free-flowing costumes, overt lighting from a huge rig at the back of the stage and pointing at the audience and a densely frenetic drum-based score all set off with more smoke. The opening is certainly a spectacle with the tall Emilie Karlsen intimidating all she surveyed – from Norway and a terrific find for UK stages. As Rush unfolded, there were more squats and lunges and despite the powerful women metaphors of working in unison I tired of the “move lots of limbs at once” blitzkrieg and longed to see more open movement, jumps (there are some but they are grudgingly short and unimpressive), and serious duets – more choreographic variety I suppose. It was only then that I actually twigged that Joss Arnott Dance is an all-female company and that cuts you off from a lot of the movement crunch you get from having both sexes perform and interact together. Viewed in some lights Rush is a ‘Girl Power’ piece, but as we all question why things are as they are in dance and ballet, most notably why there are so few female choreographers getting commissions etc., it seems a company set-up rather out of kilter with current concerns of men always being in charge. Just where we are has been rapidly rammed home by this month’s brouhaha surrounding Les Grands Ballets Canadiens idea of presenting a triple bill about women (called Femmes) with all the works created by male choreographers – see Luke Jennings’ article for more about it and the subsequent row-back by some involved and the company. Strangely neither the Arnott website or the programme highlight or say much about why the company is all female. I’m not against single-sex companies and the BalletBoyz show how effective it can be when significant and diverse choreographic visions are involved, but it seems too restrictive a vision here.
As I drove home, I was wondering if this was a 2-star night or 3 stars? On this showing choreographically it seemed too limited and repetitive, but I’ve gone with 3 because of the quality of the other creatives and the dancers involved. Arnott deserves credit for ambition and bringing them together – that’s a skilful thing to do. But I also couldn’t shake off the feeling that it would have been nice to see what other choreographers could do with such excellent dancers.