Jonathan Goddard is held in the highest esteem by the profession and indeed was the first ever contemporary dancer to be crowned best male dancer of the year at the National Dance Awards; and when I asked my London-based writers which show they most wanted to see in the next 6 months it was this one – by a landslide of votes. And of course Natalia Osipova, one of the finest ballerinas in the world, is no fool and dances with Goddard in her (touring) Pure Dance programme – to enormous acclaim. What he chooses to do people take notice of, so it’s with a very heavy heart I have to say that While You Are Here is a disappointing flop despite using a cohort of the best contemporary dancers in the country, working with theatre director Lily McLeish and featuring fine design and lighting.
Ahead of the show Lyndsey Winship did an interview/feature that comprehensively covers the background of this play for dance in which spoken words and text projections punctuate the action. Winship’s piece starts “It seems like a ridiculously ambitious idea. A dance-theatre hybrid based not on a set of characters nor a plot, but a place. Where the star of the show is a few square metres of land somewhere in the east of England, and the action spans 8,000 years.” I admire the ambition – it’s how we move forward – but in this case it proves interminably perplexing as a hail of sketches fly by and projected dates flash up. Sometimes you see an argument, sometimes goose plucking, sometimes archaeologists digging, a birth, funny drunken sex and often the downright perplexing. “1750” flashed up and the dancers seemed all shook-up – twice. What was going on? Later I look up what happened in 1750 and it turns out there were two earthquakes in London that year. Full marks for historical accuracy but it didn’t really add anything to the night as a lone sketch and I felt that way about so much of what was going on – perhaps 75% of the sketches felt rather weak or ineffective.
The problem seems to be that there is no development of characters or narrative in this setup – the sum of the parts don’t build into some satisfying and coherent whole. Certainly all four dancers (Christopher Akrill, Hannah Kidd, Jonathan Savage and Clemmie Sveaas) are as excellent actors as they are dancers and they give their all in trying to sell each sketch. Occasionally things take off with a fine, expansive, duet, if overall the movement felt rather underwhelming. The open box set designs of Akhila Krishnan and Joe Walking, illuminated with strips and pools of light by Lucy Hansom, did impress in their own right.
But overall this just felt too frustrating as fine dance constituents, capable of thrilling, gut-wrenching work, rather wasted time on small stuff. A bit like if Willian Shakespeare was asked to write jokes for Christmas crackers instead of writing plays. All involved will bounce back but this was a real reminder that great ingredients don’t guarantee success and trying new things doesn’t always work out. Onwards and upwards.