Posted on March 15, 2018
By Barbara Newman
When is it dance and when is it theatre? Before Pina Bausch turned up in the early 1980s, the term dance-theatre wasn’t bandied about as often as it is now. The defining lines were still quite firmly drawn, so when you booked a performance, you knew what to expect.
Mark Bruce has built an enviable reputation on his talent for mixing the two, with his new Macbeth as the latest assured example of this gift. Pushing further into the vicious impulses that characterised his award-winning Dracula, he has distilled Shakespeare’s nightmare of ambition and madness into roughly 90 minutes. His nine dancers, powerfully led by Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval, tear into the gruesome tale’s brutality with the single-minded ambition that propels the plot.
Brilliantly lit by Guy Hoare so the characters can vanish like ghosts and the scenes can shift without interruption, the high-voltage result is easy to follow dramatically, yet each stark tableau and menacing image stands on its own as if deliberately independent. Overall it reminded me of Matthew Bourne’s productions minus their humour and streak of affectionate satire. Though Bruce favours darker subjects, his work tends to be swifly paced, cleverly designed and choreographically weak.
Mark Bruce Company in Macbeth. Photographs: First four Nicole Guarino. Last two Mark Bruce.
In Macbeth, he again relies on the same sleek, angular vocabulary for nearly every occasion, rearranging it to depict violence, mental anguish and sexual passion in the most general terms. For intimate detail, he changes track, employing mimetic gesture to supply the dramatic nuances. So dancing and heightened naturalistic acting take turns, each yielding the stage to the other, until finally the choreography seems incidental, almost a by-product of the narrative.
It was my mistake to anticipate more dancing – that’s not Bruce’s main interest, despite his use of strong, focused dancers. Though I had never seen Moscow’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, the ensemble’s reputation drew me to a performance so thoroughy suffused with movement that when the surtitles failed on opening night, the English audience lost only the play’s dialogue; each characters’ personality, emotions and viewpoints remained perfectly clear.
Adapted from two Lithuanian novels, Smile Upon Us, Lord follows three elderly Jews who, for separate reasons, leave their shetl before the outbreak of World War I to travel to Vilnius. At that time, the director Rimus Tuminas has explained, “Lithuanian and Jewish communities [were] historically joint,” and the play explores the intertwined aspects of the life these friends share: families, religious observances, national customs, and prejudice.
Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia in Smile upon Us, Lord. Photographs: Valeriy Miasnikov
Anything can happen on such a journey. Having constructed their wagon out of planks, benches and suitcases, the men confront madness and truth-telling; the threat of attack, by soldiers or wolves or nature or anti-Semites; a dead gypsy who was not dead but a wooden log. They adopt a stranger carrying a violin case who can stand, unharmed, on the burning stones in the bathhouse, and they light candles to observe the Sabbath as they travel, arguing with God about which actions are permitted on that holy day.
No one would mistake this for dancing, yet their bodies, faces, hands, posture and gestures revealed their relationships and feelings as eloquently as words. When they actually danced, briefly linked in a simple chain, or trudged in step, resigned but determined, we could see the spirit of ordinary men perpetually besieged by poverty and injustice.
Why insist on arbitrary distinctions between dance and theatre when the more they mingle, the more they free our imagination?
Main photograph: Nicole Guarino.