Genesis Collective are in rehearsal for a new production, A Lost Opera, choreographed by Deborah Hay, directed by Jason Byrne, produced by Lara Hickey and adapted and performed by Julie Lockett, Ella Clarke and Cindy Cummings. I’m fortunate enough to be allowed to sit in and watch Ella, Cindy and Julie rehearse with Jason in a light, airy space in DanceHouse on Foley Street in Dublin.
Deborah Hay is renowned for her cutting-edge choreography, which some people can find inaccessible, so I’m here to get a feel for the show and see whether I can actually divine some kind of meaning in a dance performance that has no music and no explicit narrative, or whether it is in fact completely baffling and consists entirely of some women twitching in a room. I admit, I was a little nervous.
The thing is, it’s almost impossible to write about dance. If what these dancers were trying to convey were expressible in words, it wouldn’t really be dance. I can’t imagine what the script looks like. I’ve been promised an opportunity to glimpse the script for a different production, but the group are playing their cards close to their chest with this one, partly because it’s still evolving but mainly because my experience of the show would be irrevocably altered if I based my expectations and interpretations of their movements on my reading of the text. If there’s one thing Genesis Collective are fixed on, it’s surprising the audience. As Jason keeps saying, it’s about staying unpredictable.
So what does it look like? When I come in, all three women are ‘onstage’, facing different directions, in sporadic motion. Their bodies make apparently spasmodic movements – a torso buckles, a shoulder shrugs – similar but out of sync. They remind me of splashing raindrops. Automatically I look for some sort of causal relationship. Does one cue the other? Occasionally they make sounds, gasps. They flinch, look defensive, but in an unemotional, instinctive sort of way, like blinking at a sharp movement.
Now the movements seem more purposeful, explorative, as if mapping a dark room. It’s pointedly happening in three dimensions: they each seem to use their entire body to explore all the space they can reach. A leg extends like a tree branch, a wrist flaps somewhere near the ceiling and a kneecap is off somewhere on its own adventure. Gradually the women seem to grow in confidence, or at least in expression: their movements seem deliberately active more than reactive. Again I’m curious about their relationships in this dance; are they playing off one another? Responding to one another’s minute discoveries? The room is silent but in my head I’m hearing jazz riffs. Some movements seem to repeat, with slight but striking differences, like Bach’s Goldberg variations.
Suddenly two of the women have gone and one (Ella) is left alone. I feel oddly bereft on her behalf. Then I gradually start to feel that my sympathy is misplaced: she’s doing fine on her own, she seems totally self-absorbed, autonomous. She’s still making strange sounds that don’t resemble words and don’t even carry any particular onomatopoeic resonance but I’m still trying to decipher them. They sound reflective to me, for reasons I can’t explain – like she’s considering her position. Then Ella vanishes and Julie appears. She’s making many of the same gestures, but the effect is different. Even the sibilant sounds she makes seem more plaintive – closer to weeping. When it’s Cindy’s turn, her gutteral noises and jerking movements are bitter, decisive. Am I imagining all this? I’m struck by how infinitely more effective these odd, animal cries are than actual speech could ever be.
When they all leave the floor I suddenly feel an ineffable sadness, as if they were the only bright, living things in a dark forest. If they can have that effect in a luminous white rehearsal space I can only imagine the impact it will have in a darkened theatre.
When they all return, there’s a new busy-ness to the atmosphere; something’s changed. I don’t know what. Are they convening to share new information? Are they simply drawn together unconsciously by a shared experience? They don’t seem to interact directly so far, they never seem to catch each other’s eye. I hadn’t noticed at first, but now I realise it’s making me tense. Later Ella and Cindy re-emerge together, obviously together, conscious of one another, close but not quite making contact. I find it a relief and incredibly touching, for some reason. They seem clumsy as penguins that can’t quite embrace.
At one point they’re sprawled on the floor, like turtles, or babies that haven’t yet learned to crawl. Feet that moments ago seemed so muscular and sinewy as they twisted and ricocheted across the floor now hover like waterlilies as Julie kicks her legs softly in what looks like a gentle tantrum. Gradually her movements slow, like a toy winding down.
So what’s the point of all this?
I suppose as a viewer, you’re meant to take whatever you can. Whatever you instinctively read into what you’re seeing, it’s the right reaction. So far are the group from wanting to elicit a specific reaction with any single sequence that they even try to stop themselves getting too fixed on any particular emotion or pattern of behaviour. Examples of Jason’s direction include “be sharp about noticing predictability” and “you have to keep confounding meaning” and “even nothing happening for a really long time [pause]… is deadly.” He’s smiling but he’s not joking. The dancers seem to worry constantly about spontaneity, about the authenticity of their responses. Because if it ever becomes apparent what a dancer is about to do, then rather than actually living in the moment and witnessing that movement unfold, the audience is simply waiting for it to be over. As Jason puts it “if you’ve found it, then we’ve found it and we’re like: get on with it.”
Even the business of getting on and off the stage is fraught with peril. The dancers must disguise their intent, concealing the fact that they’re about to exit until they’re all but gone. That isn’t easy. “It’s a great game, though” says Jason. It’s an interesting point: I realise that if I can tell when one of the women is angling for the door, I lose all focus on her performance. I’m waiting for some future event and I’ve lost that connection that had me hanging on every visual ‘word’. The most effective exits are the ones when, as the dancer writhes out the door, it seems merely a happy coincidence that there was a doorway there at all, as if she might have bounced off the wall otherwise. This is not to suggest that they ever seem unconscious of their surroundings: they’re not pinballing randomly around the room. The relationships to the space and to each other are always thoughtful, the composition always considered. And in fact, the various appearances and disappearances are what makes the show, because as the performers evaporate and re-appear from nowhere, it feels as though the whole building is teeming with these madwomen, flickering in doorways, wailing in distant corridors.
It seems an incredibly difficult thing to do, to keep one’s body in motion for a sustained period, without following a pre-determined pattern of movement, without ever being predictable.
You know when you see a kid running full tilt, just a tumble of limbs, shrieking and flailing? And it’s undignified and probably a really inefficient way to get from A to B but it’s beautiful because it’s so free? Well imagine trying to get to that state of total freedom, but from completely the opposite direction. Unlike a kid, who is barely even aware of having a body, a dancer has to use incredible self-control to even approach the same effect.
The dancers in the Genesis Collective not only grew up, as we all have to, and learned to be self-conscious and afraid of seeming awkward or ridiculous, but on top of that, years of dance experience has given them an unusually acute awareness of their own bodies – all of which they have to variously suppress or channel or harness, considering not only their own intuitive feelings about what movement to make, but how that movement will be interpreted by an audience.
If I still haven’t convinced you, if you’re still worried that a dance performance like this might be dry or obtuse or alienating, then I’m sorry, I’ve failed. It is in fact a totally fascinating and hilarious and joyous experience that requires nothing more of you than your presence and your own instincts. What I’ve seen of the show is like standing in front of a painting that truly moves you: you feel about 7 different things at the same time and even if the subject matter is actually gruesome you feel that somehow you’re in the presence of transcendent beauty.
A Lost Opera is happening at Project Arts Centre from Tuesday 2oth – Saturday 24th September. For more information on tickets and booking, check the ABSOLUT Fringe website here.