Delighted to welcome Nicholas Minns, whose thoughtful blog writingaboutdance is a must-read for those interested in current dance performance of all kinds, as a guest reviewer for Oxford Dance Writers during this year’s Dancin’ Oxford Festival.  Here is his take on Ad Infinitum’s Translunar Paradise at the North Wall last week.

As part of its tenth anniversary celebrations, Bristol-based Theatre Ad Infinitum is touring two works, Odyssey (2009) and Translunar Paradise (2011). Each show takes up a full evening slot, so it was only the latter work we saw on the second night at The North Wall in Oxford. It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to see a Lecoq-trained mime company though a little unexpected in a line-up of the Spring Dance Festival programmed by Dancin’ Oxford, ‘the leading dance organization in Oxfordshire’ that ‘significantly raises the profile and visibility of dance in the city’. Hmmm.

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s co-artistic director George Mann wrote and directed Translunar Paradise and he also plays the role of William, a widower who finds it hard to let go of the memories of his late wife, Rose (Deborah Pugh). It is clearly something close to his heart, for the playing out of the story is infused with a sense of detail and empathy that come from close observation. The structure is complex, involving a present in which loss conjures up memories of the past and a past through flashbacks that has the immediacy of the present. Francesco Gorni’s set design is a masterful display of multi-functional furniture and the structural glue of Translunar Paradise is in the role of actor-musician Sophie Crawford, who sings, plays accordion, handles the props and even manages to convey the dry, ghostly passage of time. Where time and structure meet is in Victoria Beaton’s two greyish, hand-held masks that transform the young couple into their older selves in the whispered inhalation of a moment. Such is the vital effect of these masks — and of the way William and Rose use them — that one could almost say that Translunar Paradise is a quartet for two people.

Mime is such a powerful medium because of its silent exhortation of imagery from gestures; our imagination is called out from the moment we enter the theatre to transfer understanding to our eyes (perhaps Crawford’s role is so reassuring because hers is the only aural input we have). We see a weary, distracted William sitting at a table, his mask an unfathomable reservoir of his memories. Nearby is the figure of Rose, the subject of those memories, standing quite still, her eyes resting gently on him, neither young nor old. Crawford interrupts her playing to tap on a single key like the insistent ticking of a clock; performance time begins to flow as William taps his finger on the table. Through a blackout we move back to a recent past when Rose is still alive but in failing health; she clutches a small pre-war suitcase that she won’t let William touch. It is only after Rose’s death that William opens the suitcase to find in its contents potent triggers to their shared past — a letter, a photograph, a dress — that prompt him to play out in successive flashbacks their first meeting, their wedding, a stillbirth, their rows, William’s wounding in the war and Rose’s job as an air hostess.

On a narrative level, Mann succeeds in telling his story clearly and effectively with a minimum of means but there are two weaknesses in the production. The similarity in the rhythmic pattern of the flashback gives the device a weight that renders the phenomenon of memories formulaic, while in terms of choreographic invention the motion and emotion of the dancing are less well matched than in the use of gesture. While it makes perfect sense to open up the expression of memory to a less defined vocabulary than mimetic gesture, the exploration of dance doesn’t go far enough in making the contrast qualitatively different. It is perhaps worth mentioning that this year’s London International Mime Festival included Mother (Moeder) by the Belgian company, Peeping Tom, in which choreographic invention was used as an integral extension of its narrative.

If Translunar Paradise has its weaknesses, its strength is in the empathetic treatment of its subject. William is trapped in his past and won’t let go; by looking back he finds it impossible to move forward. Returning into his life from the other side, Rose’s mission is to persuade him to give up each material memory in turn, allowing him to adjust to his new life with equanimity. Life and death are poignantly expressed as an uplifting unity that allows William to visit her grave at the end without remorse.

Nicholas Minns

5th March 2018

 

 

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