Friday night marked a brief return to the world of Dance! Theater! Art!, all three of which I packed into one night at the Barbican. My new job is near Old Street, and, wow! The Barbican is just ten minutes walk from my front door! I decided to take advantage of the early start time of the new Slung Low piece (Visions: They Only Come at Night) and relative late start time of the new Michael Clark piece to see two shows in one night. I’d really enjoyed the previous Slung Low piece I’d seen (“Helium“), and, well, a dance piece inspired by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed! How could I not go!
I started off the evening by a brief visit to the Barbican’s Curve gallery to see Robert Kusmirowski’s “Bunker.” It’s basically a recreation of a WWII era underground war operations area, with a train track following the curve of the wall and little rooms built inside, such as a toliet area and a command office. Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of these in real life since moving to England and I didn’t find this very interesting; maybe in America it would have been more “ooh ah.” Possibly worth 5 minutes and free so if you’ve got time to kill before a show, why not, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend a special trip.
Next up was “They Only Come At Night,” which is apparently supposed to be a spooky promenade show that takes advantage of the Barbican’s underground parking area. I can definitely see where their parking garage would be creepy but this show wasn’t. The Slung Low penchant for having participants put on headphones to hear dialogue/monologue was relied upon to the point that it pretty well killed the show for me – it was just too damned wordy – and listening to the “evil doctor” (or whatever he was) go on about his plans for taking over the world (or whatever it was) just kind of put me in a hypnotic trance that set me free from the droning in my ears and let me take in the atmosphere that was surrounding me. The whole thing was remarkably actorless (I think I saw 5 in total – no, 6, as there was also a creeping horror in one room), and the one to one interaction I did have made me think they all need just a bit more work with improv (and possibly more research on vampires in popular culture) to make it all seem more realistic.
Let’s see: short, spoilerless description? You are taken in a group of three to the parking garage, where you are occasionally split up and frequently made to stand inside a circle of salt and put on headphones. The headphones thing happens once before you go in and five times after. Once you will be split up and each have a one on one moment with an actor; if you are lucky, you might get the actor who gives you potato chips. If you get them, feel free to eat them, as you will not need them during the story. There is one actor who is a bit scary if he touches you and you don’t see him coming. Um … it all takes around 40 minutes. There are projections, which are sometimes okay and once fairly good.
Overall, though, this would have been more effective if we had been split up more, if more had been going on inside the car park, if the things we were given somehow came into play later, if the actors interacted with us more, if there had been more reliance on creating atmosphere via something besides listening endlessly to people talking through the headphones, if the last actress had had something bad happen to her on the way out. But they didn’t and it wasn’t and while it wasn’t the worst 40 minutes I’ve spent, it was also skippable. It’s sold out now, but the good thing is you’re not really missing anything. Go see some puppet shows at the Suspense Festival instead, that looks really good.
Unfortunately because the show had run over, we couldn’t go out to Pho Cafe (a bit of a long shot but really yummy) or to Sedap but were instead forced to throw ourselves on the mercy of the food offerings at the Barbican, which were pretty consistently overpriced and underinspiring. That said, for 4 quid I got a bowl of salad topped with two cold salads, one potato and ham, the other quinoa and rice, and it was filling – the quinoa was even enjoyable, though the excess mayonnaise on the potato salad grossed me out and I gave up on it.
Anyway, 7:45 and a drink order later (at least the bar was cheap!), we were in our nice stalls seats in the space-age Barbican Theater for the Michael Clark company’s latest. The breakdown was “Swamp” (music by Wire, then music by Bruce Gilbert), followed by “come, been, gone” (first half Velvet Underground, then, strangely, an interval, then music by David Bowie). “Warm Leatherette” was playing overhead, and I was excited about the evening.
Unsurprisingly, it all turned out a little mixed. The first bit, with dancers in space-age blue or white costumes, seemed relaxed. I found myself focusing on the dancers bodies, noticing that three of the women were almost interchangeably petite, while the third seemed just generally more solid and adult. The men were very bulky, rugby-looking types. Does Clark go for a hyper masculine/feminine look in his dancers? To be sure, they were pleasant to look at, and left me feeling fat and out of shape, but … just trying to figure out what was on his mind. The movement was pleasant and graceful, but not memorable. Ah well, on to the bar and some rock and roll boozing prior to the Velvet Underground section.
This half of “come, been, gone” was, I think, fairly successful, with background images that called to mind the various movies of their live shows. “Venus in Furs” went for some really obvious yet fun SM-y costuming (though the sparkly Zentai suit was much cheerier than scary); “White Light/White Heat” was all about the boogieing. “Heroin” had the single worst costume I’ve ever seen in a dance piece, up there with Bjork’s Academy Awards swan outfit: painfully ugly and obvious. However, the dance itself ended with a little gay silver-trousered sprite perking around on stage in a way that I thought actually captured the joy of getting high that was very much a part of this song, and darned nice after all of the heavy-handed “I stick needles in my body” ick that preceded it. Amd, hey, let’s hear it for dancers in low-rise, skin tight silver pants; the feel was very Andy Warhol’s Factory and I think hit the era pretty well. (“Ocean” was a nap, by the way, but it’s a really slow song so no surprise there.)
The final section was, I think, going to be the most challenging, as Bowie has creating a really solid visual image to accompany his music. Would Mr. Clark be able to rise to the challenge, and maybe go beyond it? Well … the answer was, I’m afraid, no. The worse failure was “Heroes,” where he not only clad the dancers in mini-leather jackets that echoed Bowie’s video, but then insisted on accompanying the performance by having the video itself projected on the back screen, which proved totally distracting, overwhelming the rather modest movement. I find the music really soaring and gorgeous, but the movement was very much on the floor. Bah. This was, however, the worse of the series; “Mass Production” (by Iggy Pop), with its bizarre, two toned (actually three toned but kind of like a bird’s coloring) costumes and exaggerated movement (the dancers leaning sharply backwards and moving very slowly) nicely captured the whole space-age yet still very 70s weirdness that I think represents some of the best of that era’s Glam Rock sound.
Fortunately for the last two songs, “Aladdin Sane” and “Jean Genie,” Clark really got into the story telling and joy of the music. I can’t tell you how much I loved “Aladdin Sane.” It’s a great song with amazing piano in it, and Clark both went for showing the story in the lyrics but also having solo work that played out the riffs of the music – something I’ve tried to do myself in my living room many times but enjoyed seeing a real dancer and a real choreographer tackle on stage. In addition, the throbbing baseline played out as a sort of group march, which suddenly brought to mind the “March of the Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Rah! The garish orange flame costumes were also really appropriate to the music, carrying across a lot of the weight of the Bowie imagery, perhaps more successful due to the lack of overshadowing video. This all transitioned rather nicely into “Jean Genie,” which had the dancers adding checkered jackets over their orange bodysuits and just really going for the joy of the song.
I have to mention that in the middle of this section, Mr. Clark himself came out and did a strange little dance that just reminded me of Hitchcock making a cameo in one of his movies. Very, very odd; was it for a costume change or were the dancers just incredibly beat?
Anyway, overall I’d consider this a fun night, in part because I really like seeing dance that actually engages a vernacular that means something to me. Abstract music is all really nice, but this music is the music of me (as well as Mr Clark and a lot of the audience), and seeing it danced was great. I wish there’d been more partnering and more leaps and such, though – the movement just generally seemed very atomistic, like it almost didn’t matter that there were so many people dancing on stage, and the random “girl on pointe” moments made me sad for what could have been – if he’d wanted it. Still, it was a lot better than the last thing I saw by Clark, and generally enjoyable. I expect it will be a very popular evening.
(Michael Clark continues through November 7th, 2009. Slung Low continues through November 15th, 2009 but is sold out for the run; return seats may be available. Bunker continues through January, 2010.)