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Gravity and Levity in Shift

Posted on April 21, 2008

Shift, by aerialist company Gravity and Levity, starts by explaining what it isn’t. “None of that new circus here,” says dancer Guy Adams, in tones of utter scorn. “No Lycra, no sequins, no unitards. This is high art.”

The high art in question is a mix of aerial and floor dancing, in and around Mish Weaver’s practical set of wires, pulleys and wooden planks. At the Linbury Studio Theatre, Shift was performed as a promenade performance, though in practice the audience tended to sit and watch rather than moving about. Three works by different choreographers are played without interval, becoming a single piece. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins, particularly since all three emphasise the background to aerial work. These dancers don’t fly, they’re pulled up by wires and counterweights.

The opening section, by Charlotte Vincent, works best. You can’t miss the practicalities of aerial work, because the dancers keep arguing over it. The quarrels are sharply observed, built into the movement, with dancers hauled up and down as they squabble. Adams jumps about, enthusiastically tugging on ropes or moving sandbags, until the others turn on him. “It’s expensive, that stuff,” complains artistic director Lindsey Butcher. “You know we don’t get much funding… and some of it’s borrowed from other companies. If you drop that, I’ll dock it from your wages.” Not much abashed, Adams scurries on.

Charles Linehan has a simpler, more lyrical approach. Hanging from a rope, Lindsey Butcher swings in circles around Scott Smith, her body held straight as she spins around him. Again, the dancers spend some time on the technical preparation of this dance, but it’s worth the wait.

I wish I could say the same of the last section, by Stomp co-creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas. The dancers arrange and rearrange the set, dropping planks and sandbags, stringing them up on wires. Finally, they’re in a position to drop and clunk the different weights, making rhythmic patterns. It takes so long to arrange the props that I’d lost interest before they’d got there, and there was little in the plodding rhythms to compensate.

Shift is an appealing but very uneven show, although the performances are fresh. The dancers look absorbed in their work, whether swinging through space or carefully setting up their flying gear. The quarrels are believably spontaneous. Even so, there’s too much preparation, slowing the work down. It’s a nice idea, but it wears thin.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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