Pre-coronavirus, one of this month’s most intriguing premieres was set to be Project XO, a dance installation inviting the audience to wear a robotic exoskeleton and be choreographed by its movements. Masterminded by New Movement Collective, a group of superlative contemporary dancers who come together to make ambitious happenings, we’ll have to bookmark that one for the future. But in the meantime, the company has made full-length films of its previous works available for free online.
It’s an interesting proposition since the majority of NMC’s work is immersive performance, the very opposite of watching a static screen. Even in well-shot pieces such as these, there’s a question about whether the film stands alone as a piece of art, or merely a record of what took place. The live-ness of the experience is flattened, and rather than experiencing the serendipities of an improvised journey, the camera decides your view.
Yet, as anyone who’s wandered confused around an immersive show will know, enforced focus can be a good thing. In Collapse (2016), one of the simplest scenes is made the strongest by the camera’s framing. Four dancers run on the spot, side by side, with detached determination, variously overtaking and dropping back in an interminable race with each other that has no destination. A perfect physical metaphor for modern life.
One signature of the company is closely handled duets, often stripped of traditional gender roles. Another is their appetite for collaboration with technology, design and architecture. Casting Traces (2012) involved navigating a paper maze designed by architect Elin Eyborg. Inspired by Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, it’s a piece full of mysterious strangers and doppelgangers, silhouettes and clever shadow play, and also a sense of cautious weariness that permeates a lot of NMC’s work.
Nest (2013), took over the former Welsh Chapel (and ex-Limelight nightclub) in the West End of London to create a journey based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. Architects Studio Weave designed huge, grid-like steel frames for the dancers to move in and around (at one point a boat cleverly appears inside them), and stunning lighting projections from Marshmallow Laser Feast make it look as if the floor is buckling in waves under the dancers’ feet. The flashing lights in the darkness, the clubby music mixed with Monteverdi – it was all pulse-raising when seen live and it’s still impressive on screen.
But NMC’s architectural attention to space loses potency when you’re not experiencing it in three dimensions. And the things that make for curious surprise when you’re exploring an atmospheric building – discovering someone wedged up into the ceiling or two dancers wearing pig masks – just feel random on film. Yet there are also small moments, easily missed, that shine through, such as a snippet of a duet from Jonathan Goddard and Gemma Nixon, two dancers with rare affinity, moving with absolute seamlessness (the bit where Goddard rubs his temple along Nixon’s calf I rewound to savour again).
On film, there’s no doubt that narrative is an easier sell than thematic or abstract dance, which demands a commitment from the viewer that we’re not in the habit of giving to the small screen. Without the excitement of being at a live event, weaknesses of choreography or concept are more exposed – you can sometimes feel the lack of a single, driving vision in the collective nature of NMC’s work. But whether it’s a document or a standalone work (jury’s out), there are still rewards to be found by delving into the archive. At least until the chance to be choreographed by robots comes around.
• New Movement Collective’s previous works are available online.
Source: The Guardian