Posted on September 23, 2010
Sense of Self
At the opening of Sense of Self, the new duet from Mélanie Demers and Laïla Diallo, one of the performers, dressed in a red velvet evening frock, her face obscured by a guerrilla mask, smashes a pile of plates into a large cardboard box. Such frustration at having to do the dishes is something to which I can well relate, but its presence as the first of a series of tableaux, investigating (so the programme informs us) “delicate questions linked to identity”, is harder to fathom. That Diallo was, until her departure in 2005, a dancer with Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance might offer a certain clue. Those ultra-intellectual musings that so befuddle much of McGregor’s oeuvre have sneaked into this show: “as skin is always renewing itself, is identity not also in a constant state of becoming?” asks the hand-out, but as with McGregor, beneath Sense of Self’s perplexingly tough exterior (even unto plate smashing) lies an intriguing work that fascinates long after the lights have gone out.
Demers (long-haired and of voluptuous physique) and Diallo (close-cropped and of more wiry musculature) are old friends from their native Canada and have devised Sense of Self over a two-year period. Arriving in Leeds to a packed and appreciative audience at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s Riley Theatre (Diallo is to choreograph for the school’s graduate dance company, Verve, next year), it had the sheen of a work meticulously crafted, whose every incident had been considered in detail. The stage appears as a wasteland, the boxes – containing black balloons – are variously strewn; the lighting, by David Perreault Ninacs, shifts around, glimmering and casting long shadows that dissolve into the air.
An opening duet for Demers and Diallo, an undulation of limbs entwined upon the floor, appears as if it could be foreplay, or the birth pangs of a mother’s body. One performer lies, seemingly dead, upon the floor, onto whom is taped a human silhouette, which writhes in lissom tics of movement. A further duet, faster and more intricate, sets the dancers back and forth along the diagonal in a game of tag, which unfolds as a fugue. A dancer hides beneath a rug and transforms herself into a comic grizzly bear, to the sounds of the wind and of aeroplanes. Chopin piano music briefly drifts in (one of the Nocturnes, I would venture) before dissipating into a crescendo of French and English voices. Another duet seems to consider the manipulation of movement (from where does it emanate, from whence is its impulse?) in phrases of rhythmic pushing and tugging. The music stops. Demers stands upon a red square pulling faces at the audience that are comic and grotesque. She draws out a note pad, upon each page is written an obiter dictum: “in disgust”, “in despair”, “in disarray”, “in decay”, “in dust”…and so it proceeds. The balloons are released.
These tableaux charm in their quirky way, each delightfully crafted and beautifully performed; yet of their meaning and of the nature of “identity” I gathered little sense. The work, though imaginative and inventive, felt too piecemeal, too lacking in coherence and seemed rather like over-hearing two university professors discussing the finer points of atomic theory. Diallo and Demers have created a piece of undoubted worth, whose images haunt the mind, but Sense of Self seemed too much of an intellectual exertion for it truly to engage.