Tuesday 14 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Autobiography at the Festival Theatre, or, And the Connection with the Human Genome?

In advance of this show I had high hopes after the powerful experience of McGregor's Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet last year. Unfortunately this new commission is not in the same league.

According to Uzma Hameed's programme note "a library of movement material has been generated...to reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome - refracted and abstracted through McGregor's choreographic processing". What this in practice means is a sequence of 23 movements - I think, they are not performed chronologically and I didn't bother to check them all off - with short titles starting with "avatar" and including such things as "sleep", "nurture" and "scenes from nature".

There were various problems with this. Firstly, the relationship between the movements was never sufficiently clear to me - the programme note quotes McGregor as telling dancers in rehearsal "The meaning of each section constructs itself in relation to what comes before and after it and the way the context affects the quality you bring to it." I'm afraid as far as I was concerned it just never coalesced into a coherent whole. Secondly, it never became clear to me what the relationship between the choreography and the human genome was supposed to be - I couldn't make out who was being represented, I don't think I came out with any greater understanding of genetics than I went in with. Finally, there's the question of the title - again it was not clear to me what the piece was saying about the concept of autobiography or, indeed, whose autobiography this was supposed to be.

Leaving aside the burden of the intentions behind the piece, it might have been a stronger 80 minutes if the choreography in and of itself had consistently gripped. But I'm afraid despite the evident talent of the dancers, I felt inspiration ran thin fairly quickly. The most satisfying individual movement for me was the opening. Elsewhere there were sections that re-engaged me, but I often found myself glancing at my watch.

There is also some irritating use of lighting (Lucy Carter) and set (Ben Cullen Williams). The ceiling of metallic triangles and strip lights periodically ascends and descends but, as with the titles of the movements, it was not clear to me to what end - though there is a visually arresting moment in the "sleep" movement where dancers seemed in peril of being pinioned by the ceiling. There is an intriguing lighting effect with strips of light fired out into the audience which, in the moments when they aren't landing directly in the eyes, has a striking beauty. The trouble is they do keep flashing in the eyes which is not a pleasant sensation and made it pretty difficult to follow what the dancers were doing. The musical accompaniment also became something of a trial, largely provided by Jlin, an electronic musician with whom this was my first encounter. The nearly continuous thudding beats felt increasingly battering. The occasional interlude of nature sounds or a softer musical world (Corelli features at one point) are very welcome but too brief.

About midway through the performance thoughts drifted into my mind of the year of Jonathan Mills's arts and technology theme - not a happy festival memory. This is better than many of that year's shows, but it's still overall a disappointing, overlong show.

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