Emma Martin and Andrew Hamilton create an intense and mesmerising performance, ‘Dancehall’. Owen Steinberger reviews the experience.
Dance and live music come together to form something haunting, something atmospheric and dark and something utterly uncanny. Each component of Dancehall, from the lighting to the costume design, serves to intensify the experience: the feeling is akin to having been dropped down a deep well, only to land safely, and looking around, you notice that indeterminate shapes are moving in the darkness: Both horror and curiosity.
The three musicians appear first. A set of instruments waiting for then in a back corner of the stage, including an electric keyboard, a grand piano, a cello and a heavy bass drum. On percussion, Alex Petcu beats out a steady rhythm over-top of a thin, pulsing drone as the dancers come into view. The cast slowly strips to their undergarments, abandoning casual gym clothes for dress shirts, suits and suit pants. Oona Doherty, the lead, begins to dance. She sways and pivots, stopping and starting with sudden, jerking motions, puppet-like. As the rest of the dancers join her, slowly, one by one, they take up the same style of dance, defined by rough movements that are somehow graceful despite their awkward appearance. The dancers come together, as the piano and the cello join the drum, with building intensity, eventually joining hands in what appears to be a communal celebration.
That beating drum hammers on, like a cold, emotionless heartbeat, underpinning the unnatural experience.
Appearances are deceiving in Dancehall. Although the dancers are clearly human, the impression that they are automatons, or the shambling dead, is unavoidable. The on stage lighting is oriented directly overhead the dancers, so while their movements are completely visible, their faces are left in shadow. When the cast moves in unison, they seem to become one massive skittering spider, having crawled up from the depths of hell, trying to find its footing on Earth’s surface. The uncanny nature of the performance is impossible to overstate. That beating drum hammers on, like a cold, emotionless heartbeat, underpinning the unnatural experience. And then the music stops.
Although the dancers are clearly human – they must be – the impression that they are automatons, or the shambling dead, is unavoidable.
Doherty begins a solo routine, accompanied only by an ambient hum, dancing like a woman possessed. She moves like some sort of spectral force, the background noise penetrating, yet just quiet enough that her footwork and breathing can be heard. These sounds are the only hint of humanity present. The program claims that the “beauty and virtuosity” of the “uninhibited body” was an inspiration for the play, and that influence is palpable; it is a haunting sort of beauty, however.
The rest of the dancers rejoin Doherty, splitting off into different groups, some left to watch the others while they dance together, some choosing to dance alone. That sense of uncanny reemerges in a different form, as the dancers seem to be mimicking social dynamics; some are cast out of the group only to return later, some favour particular dance partners and gravitate towards them. The shambling dancing style continues, but with greater fluidity, less like puppets and more like creatures with too many joints, flailing about. And it continues to be fascinating. A yellow curtain begins to unfurl behind the stage, slowly curling around it until the whole set is encased in a yellow glow, as the music unfurls into a gorgeous piano ballad. The dancers, having already shed their suits, change back into their casual dress, laughing and talking, although it is impossible to hear any definite speech. They seem to be getting better at impersonating humans, or perhaps they are becoming human, familiarising themselves with social behaviours and conversation. It is fascinating to see this change unfold.
As a “dance concert”, Dancehall succeeds completely, becoming something greater than the sum of its parts, speaking of something dark and mysterious in humanity.