Scottish Dance Theatre
The Life and Times
Streamed live from Dundee Rep on 17 June 2021
will also be streamed on Fri 18 Jun 2021
Streamed live from the stage of Scottish Dance Theatre’s home at the Dundee Rep, The Life and Times provided an immersive and visceral hybrid of dance theatre, music video, art installation and silent cinema; all rolled-up in an aural environment of baroque music, which had a surprising contemporary feel in this setting.
Joan Clevillé’s cinematic and surreal journey appeared to focus on issues of human fragility and making sourdough in a remarkably intimate online experience with the camera getting close up and personal with the performers. When Jessie Roberts-Smith and Kieran Brown greedily devoured a tiger loaf in the opening moments, one could imagine the smell and taste of that springy, fresh bread. The speed of transition and the versatility of camera angles in Tao-Anas Le Tanh’s digital direction were occasionally very surprising, especially when considering the risks entailed in real-time transmission. A duet between Solène Weinachter and João Castro, swapping places on a wheeled platform, must have been especially challenging to film. The digital version of the fourth wall (maybe it’s the fifth or the sixth wall) was deliberately breached when a camera operator was brought into view.
Roberts-Smith, playing the central character, was uniquely costumed; wearing an elaborate green period dress that contrasted with the everyday contemporary clothes of her colleagues. She took notes while other dancers passed her on their independent journeys, some scurrying across the floor like sprinter crabs, carried face down on small, square, wheeled boards. Brief dislocated solos from Glenda Gheller and Luigi Nardone broke up the group sequences. Two female dancers carried a double-sided mirror held close to their faces so that it gave the illusion of a double duet of cheek-to-cheek dancing and then as the baroque music concluded, a tumbril of apparently dead bodies was wheeled across the stage leading to silence and the reappearance of Roberts-Smith (with a bucket on her head). She carried a toolbox and (bucket removed) started to unscrew and open a platform in the floor. These first few minutes evidenced the surreal explosion of ideas that constituted The Life and Times with a strength that lay in the mystery of expectation.
Fast-paced momentum was expertly punctuated by substantial periods of silence and occasional stillness but these were merely pauses prior to the next onslaught of frenetic movement, often punctuated by dislocated and sometimes disorientated dance. The stage space was broken up from time-to-time by moveable wooden panels (the set and costumes were the work of Matthias Strahm), which also served as a mechanism to transition scenes. Almost half-an-hour into the work, seven dancers appeared on stage together, stretched out and moving in unison to the Sileant Zephyri aria from Vivaldi’s sacred work, Filae Maestae Jerusalem, as the camera weaved around them. The stage space opened up in more long shots and after a long male solo the illusory power began to wane and my interest levels briefly dipped during a long silent duet.
That illusive mystery returned when five dancers were wheeled across the stage dropping packages like stepping stones for Roberts-Smith, still carrying her bucket and toolbox. A quick close-up on her expressive face and clapped hands reintroduced her puckish companion squatting in the mimed act of fishing before she tempted him seductively with a bread roll, making notes on her pad as she did so!
Food is a leitmotif through the work as the bread-devourers later returned to mix some kind of watery concoction, not very successfully judging by their unenthusiastic response to a tasting. Later, the same pair played around with flour, oil and Saxa salt to make sourdough although most of the ingredients ended up all over Roberts-Smith even though she still managed to make a little non-binary doughperson. Roberts-Smith then fished a high-vis jacket from her hollow inside the stage and, using neon batons, directed imaginary aeroplanes to their docking bays to the rousing sound of Zadok The Priest (the anthem that introduces the Champions League)!
The transmission included announcements about the audience taking its seats at the Scottish Dance Theatre’s home theatre in Dundee, which gave a realistic sense of watching a live performance without leaving home although the opening camera shot panning down through an empty auditorium to a close-up of that loaf of bread gave a palpable demonstration of the absence of an audience.
The concept of live digital transmissions is in its infancy as an invention that has arrived out of necessity: as live audiences return to theatres, I wonder how long this pandemic-initiated alternative will survive. It must reduce theatre’s carbon footprint but my viewing experience had to contend with a two-minute internet outage, a dog barking to go out and the arrival of a delayed takeaway delivery. True, theatre audiences have their annoying irritations but not on this scale! Such domestic disturbances and connectivity issues will always prick the bubble of theatrical illusion when delivered digitally.