Most of today’s live registrations are born out of necessity. With the theatres still closed, this is the only way to perform. But, the video format can offer added value. The two performances in Shadow’s Whispers by NDT1, – one courageously personal, the other defiantly British – seen online February 15, are a case in point.
Proximity has always been an issue in performances, especially performances on a proscenium stage. Even when you are sitting front row, details tend to get lost. The camera in Baby don’t hurt me, made by siblings Marne and Imre van Opstal, comes up close and personal. You can actually see the mascara on dancer Boston Gallagher’s eyelashes, Kyle Clarke’s small earrings, Lydia Bustinduy’s busted-up knees. This is probably as close as we’ve ever come to the dancers of NDT, both physically and emotionally.
These close-ups at the beginning are very apt considering the subject matter: former NDT-dancers Imre and Marne van Opstal delve into the personal experiences of the seven dancers. Chloe Albaret confesses how her aura of super confidence is actually just a cover for her enduring insecurity. There is the interesting juxtaposition of seeing the strong, muscular body of Scott Fowler, while he is talking about feeling vulnerable. Clarke talks about identifying with a different gender than the one she was born with (‘In the end, I just want to be free’), Gallagher isn’t so sure they identify with one specific gender (‘Maybe there isn’t a word for what I am’).
It is a brave and bold way to start the performance, both for the dancers and the choreographers themselves, who experienced firsthand what it is like growing up and being gay in a small town. Understandably, Imre and Marne van Opstal credit the seven dancers as co-creators of the piece. ‘Dancers aren’t normally asked to be their honest selves on stage,’ Imre van Opstal admits in a short interview shown afterwards. ‘We wanted to do justice to their generosity.’ Their personal stories make for an incredibly strong jumping-off point. Translating their honesty into dance proves a bit trickier, though. Most of the time the dancers remain inside their own bubbles, battling their own demons. Fowler performs a jittery solo reminiscent of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (‘Look into my fucking eyes!’). But how do you translate African-American dancer Donnie Duncan Jr.’s experience of being almost constantly in predominantly white spaces, besides putting him in yet another predominantly white space?
The strongest segment – after the introduction – is a monologue by Bustinduy, a ‘proud mother of three’.’ ‘Apparently, I’m old,’ she tells us in the prologue, after mentioning that she is twenty years older than her colleague Nicole Ishimaru. ‘Which is a problem, especially for women.’ In the next segment, while her colleagues keep dressing and undressing her, every sentence is at odds with the truth: ‘I am not Lydia. I am not a woman. I love my wrinkles, they make me feel powerful and attractive.’ It reminds us that real equality still has a long way to go.
One other component deserves special mention: the light installation by Tom Visser (made in collaboration with the choreographers). The installation, a tall mast made of strip lights and search lights, is like a tent pole. It evokes the feeling of being in a circus ring, all together, all of us circus freaks. ‘Imagine: a world, where everybody loves you for who you are.’ Yes, imagine that.
Where Baby don’t hurt me is achingly personal, From England with Love by Hofesh Schechter is its polar opposite. ‘I wanted to torture European audiences with British culture,’ the Israeli choreographer, who has been living in the UK for the past 18 years, quips in a short interview shown during the intermission. It starts with all ten dancers lined up as pinballs in a bowling alley. All are wearing the same school uniform, backpacks included. When the classical music starts, Nimrod by British composer Edward Elgar, the dancers begin to make a series of slow hand gestures: waving, praying, pointing, jeering. Not many choreographers can transform mundane, everyday gestures into a tantalizing dance performance. Schechter can. The choreography contains elements of Bollywood musicals and of a rave, and combines a hooligan making a gesture of slicing his throat with a royal wave. Schechter also has fun with the soundtrack. From British choir music to the sounds of tinkling teacups and pouring rain.
The piece offers a great example of how cameras can actually elevate a performance. It is something which was already apparent in Schechter’s film version of Clowns, the first piece he made for NDT – unsurprisingly, Schechter is also credited with ‘stage camera choreography’ for From England with Love. Sometimes the camera is more static, but the moments when the camera moves into the group, the result is really electrifying. The camera acts as one of the dancers on stage, weaving in and out of the group, with the dancers interacting with the camera. The fact that it is being done live, on the spot, makes it even more impressive. The dynamic between camera and dancers reminded me of the music video of Wannabe by the Spice Girls. It probably doesn’t get any more British than that.
*this article has been edited to rectify a quote from the show