The marvellous thing about work evolved between artist performers is that nuances and subtleties can be retained throughout the creative process from conception to execution. The intuitions of a collaborative response are unmediated by the blunt words of explanation: rather they flow in endless synergy between the participants, refined by repetition and honed by the urge to communicate in that special medium which is best known to each.

And this, I suspect, is what lay behind Two old instruments, a collaboration between Jonathan Rees on his old-fashioned gamba and Susie Crow with her experienced body. And the result was frankly extraordinary: in its range, its variety and its sustained exploration – through thirteen movements – of manuscript ideas by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787). The manuscript fragments are themselves described in the programme as ‘essentially a set of written out improvisations, formally very free in most cases, with no clues in the manuscript as to a “correct” order for the pieces to be played in, or indeed as to the mood of many of them’.

So what did Rees and Crow improvise around another’s improvisations that made them so peculiarly their own?

We all have a tendency to frame narratives – to impose them on abstractions and to perceive them in other people’s spaces – and so I do not know if I imposed a narrative on Susie’s performance… or if she evolved one while sharing and developing Jonathan’s reading of these pieces… or if Jonathan had perceived a narrative in Abel. But what I write below was done before I read the programme notes – and this is what I thought I saw.

The initial contact of bow on strings call up the Spirit of the viola da gamba. She comes into its presence in a flood of warm light, her skirt a flourish of baroque excess but satin stiff and formally defined, her costumed body the rich colour of the gamba’s wood and marked with its identifying scrollwork. And like an attendant spirit, she seeks instruction from the instrument – attunes herself to its command, takes pleasure in the regularities of danced manoeuvres that it formally requires. The fuller figure of a mature woman complements the rich curves of the gamba. The instrument’s range – its warm tones – encompass the living of a fully experienced life story. They grow together to a fuller expression of affinities. The movements gain in confidence and definition – they move beyond the formal to the exposition of a shared vocabulary.

And with the third movement – to which she listens a little before moving – he sets her free. The Spirit of the viol seems able now to dance in her own right – no longer working in obedience to the instrument but taking an independent and exuberant physical pleasure in her dancing. It is a pleasure that, starting at the dancer’s core, flows outward to her fingers’ ends. She revels in what this instrument, her body, is able to do – set free by, set free from the music that once owned her. Her arms, her hands are wonderfully expressive vehicles of intensely personal emotion. And he, in growing appreciation of this new companion, keeps pace with her – yet watchfully as in anticipation. Now established in her own identity as dancer, not as instrument, she plays his own fingering of the instrument’s neck back to him in teasing recognition of new mutuality.

By the fourth movement she has become a thing apart – looks round the room for options – poses like a Degas mute in mood of preparation – casual, detached – and waiting for we know not what. The lighting shifts to cooler blues, no longer is it active and emotional. And with that change the dancer seems to shifts to memories of a younger self – a young girl seeking, then as now, to find a lost identity, is tracing her own steps to where she stands today – and moves. She runs expectantly about the space – is looking for a lover or a love. She sees the world anew once more – a wealth of possibilities.

But then the gamba reasserts itself, exerts its power over the older woman she has become. Like the rhythms of society it controls her back to a more convergent expression of herself, at once sweeping and processional. Forced in maturity to operate within a larger whole, she once more moves predictably within the expectations of that living whole, and with a stately grandeur and solemnity. Although she now conforms, it is as one acknowledging and deploying her own share in that control – over the determining mechanisms and directions amid which she and the gamba dance. There is a confidence – of self determination within participation, a something formal and matriarchal by Tiepolo – helping the viewer enter the frame and the place.

She detaches herself in the next movement, steps back a little, leans against a pillar to look at the gamba fondly for a moment as if it were her son grown – to whom she might transfer her burdens and retire. A reprise remembers the opening and how it all began. She takes a pause and fans herself. But then she knows she cannot cede control. Perhaps it has already gone. She plunges into a series of dramatic attitudes designed to state her point of view. Her values and her emphases are now embodied in each thrust. The lights blast up to show – reveal – the principles by which she has lived. The principles at least were sound – her confident assertion knows it – but will they last and will he listen?

She begins again – her feet in fifth position – the last position. It is both absolute and inherently unstable. She is failing, ageing, falling – and all this more than once.   Her hand lies lightly on her back to aid her balance, ease a pain. Her body, her life’s instrument, is bowed – again she falls, feels aching in her bones. Her head both hurts and is not clear. Yet she revives, asserts herself anew, exhibits symptoms of past confidence. The dancer’s back is slick and glistening. The sweat of this performance, now nearly an hour long, stains her dress beneath her breasts. I know it’s sweat. It reads like blood.

Now when she falls, she lies out prone. She seems to die. It is a fatal fall. Amazing she recovers to shadow something of her former self – a self sustained on memories to dance again. But now it is too late. It’s all too late. So formally, and with tremendous dignity, the woman now withdraws, takes her last bow.

And yet finally, stirringly, through the memories stored in the gamba and through our memories of the Spirit she has been, her life revives. In this performance on this night – in the music of that past here restored to life – and in the possible lives of those who danced to that music, we have been given (we are told) a chance to meet with her again. We see that memory danced as a reminder for us all.

And we are glad.

Barbara Berrington

29th April  2014