Rosie Kay Dance Company – Rosie Kay’s Fantasia – Birmingham

Harriet Ellis, Carina Howard and Shanelle Clemenson in part 1 of <I>Rosie Kay's Fantasia</I>.<br />© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Harriet Ellis, Carina Howard and Shanelle Clemenson in part 1 of Rosie Kay’s Fantasia.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

Rosie Kay Dance Company
Rosie Kay’s Fantasia

★★★★✰ (or ★★★✰✰ if unprepared)
Birmingham, Hippodrome Patrick Studio
25 September 2019

Rosie Kay is mainly known for her narrative and commentary works, where her intelligence and theatrical nous takes the audience on a journey that works on lots of levels. Rosie Kay’s Fantasia is a different beast and while nominally a return to a love of movement and music, it’s in no way an abstract piece, if its points are sophisticated and nuanced, though occasionally delivered with all the subtlety of a flying mallet. If that leads you to believe it’s an unusual and mixed-up work with a lot going on then you’d be absolutely right.

For three dancers, the hour-long Fantasia is split into three sections. Part 1 takes inspiration from the sun and Baroque music, and what goes on behind sunny veneers. Part 2 is concerned with the moon, (female) emotions and death and part 3, the earth, is inspired by a journey from a romantic to a material world. That sounds quite clear, but we are talking vague colourwashes of ideas here – don’t look for readily discernible clarity, but connect with the flow and see where it takes you.

Overlying the inspirational ‘narrative’ is the choreographic means of telling, and part 1 uses ballet, part 2 contemporary movement and part 3 old-school melodramatic expressionism which Kay, in a post-show talk, likened to Martha Graham. But these are all hazy terms for what Rosie Kay does with them – which is where the “Fantasia” of the title comes in. A fantasia is a work that roves, unrestrained, by normal forms – a wild letting go. In the ballet section it’s like what ballerinas might do in a crazy abandoned dream or at a very drunk party – pushed limbs, odd repetitions, the three sometimes together or dancing in rapid canon. It’s interestingly offbeat but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it would be sharper and make its crazy points better if danced by full-on ballet dancers. But then they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do such good justice to the next two sections, and this is about three dancers (Shanelle Clemenson, Harriet Ellis and Carina Howard, all strong performers) going through the full arc of a piece and giving their collective and individual all.

Carina Howard, Shanelle Clemenson and Harriet Ellis in part 2 of Rosie Kay's Fantasia.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Carina Howard, Shanelle Clemenson and Harriet Ellis in part 2 of Rosie Kay’s Fantasia.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

Each of the dancers has a long solo, that Kay says is derived from her own life experience, but doesn’t really say more. That’s a shame. Harriet Ellis’ solo in the last section, danced in a black chiffon negligee, is a particularly angsty and visually memorable affair. You feel the oppressive weight of a problem, the constant turning to find a way out, and the lack of effective resolution. Because you don’t know any more you are robbed of all subtlety of portrayal and left with bare OTT emotion. It almost feels comical, but Ellis holds the line and keeps it serious, if bizarre to our 21st century theatrically-tuned eyes. But here is another element that Kay fed in to her Fantasia – the results of neurological research she took part in on how audiences perceive dance and music and how they might be manipulated in various ways. The musical selections, with much Vivaldi and Bach, are certainly accessible and effortlessly stitched together by composer Annie Mahtani. They are also augmented by the choreographed grunts and panting of the dancers, emphasising important sections. Louis Price’s unusual costumes are also worthy of note, particularly the fringed affairs for the contemporary section.

Rosie Kay’s Fantasia is intriguing and if you do your homework and read the programme (I’ve only really scratched the surface here) it’s a 4 star work. But if you walk in cold I think it’s a harder piece to fathom and hence 3 stars. If you are looking for something with the ease and sense of fun of Disney’s Fantasia, you are in the wrong place – this is the advanced course in fantasy dance-making and ups the ante in taking you to unexpected places or just leaving you amazed that three dancers can do so much with such abandon. A bravo to the dancers for such feats of endurance. And a bravo to Rosie Kay, who does it yet again, delivering thought provoking dance in a very smartly designed package.

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