Review: DANCE ON ENSEMBLE, Sadler's Wells

Hooray for Cunningham’s ongoing, powerful and individual impact on dance

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Review: DANCE ON ENSEMBLE, Sadler's Wells
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Review: DANCE ON ENSEMBLE, Sadler's Wells “When are we old? How can experience and embodied knowledge be brought into creative play? And what is the role of dance in questioning the idealisation of youth in our culture?”

Quite the mission statement from Berlin-based Dance On Ensemble, a troupe that “celebrates the artistic excellence of dancers over 40”, and where a more suitable platform for them to present than Sadler’s Wells Elixir Festival.

Dance On share a double bill, with both works taking inspiration from Merce Cunningham’s seminal 1963 work, Story.

Opening the programme is a present day staging: London Story, overseen by Daniel Squire, a choreographer in his own right, and former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The work, or rather the underpinning theory, is undeniably Cunningham. It features content “whose order is changeable. A basic order, determined by chance.” So the question is perhaps more what have Squire and Dance On brought to Cunningham’s existing, indeterminate piece.

To me they've confirmed that Cunningham is alive, as it's not often one gets to actually experience a happening, and that's absolutely what I found to be the case.

The whole event is one of unpredictability, which in turn defines how the work is executed and experienced.

Content wise, Cunningham aficionados won't be let down: line, tilts, contractions, high releases, hops, lilting travelling steps…it's all there and then some. More important is the spirit of the environment. The dancers so alive due to the nature of the work; reactive and engaged, never resting even when in momentary repose.

I witnessed connections throughout. Human ones of fellow dancers catching each other in their element, and theoretical ones as moments of harmony arise when chance encounters appear from nowhere and (potentially) change the course of the work.

The soundscape by Toshi Ichiyanagi (played by Mattef Kuhlmey) is randomly atmospheric, giving the dancers a constant but never evasive backdrop. And the set: the height of purposeful nowness; three huge hanging charts full of verbs and timeframes, and neon tape artworks created in the moment (by Christopher Matthews) suggesting stick people in appropriate, minimalist Cunningham style form.

Hooray for Story, London Story, and Cunningham’s consistently powerful, individual impact on dance. Where we're encouraged, forced even, to see the dance, and everything else is a secondary benefit.

After the interval we engage with Mathilde Monnier’s never ending (Story), which also acknowledges Cunningham’s 1963 work and a poem (1989) improvised by the American poet and art critic David Antin about Cunningham and the musician John Cage (his partner and long term collaborator). Within all of this, Monnier is aiming to deal with the relationship between movement and thought, and how they come together.

The most interesting aspect of the piece is Antin's prose, spoken by the dancers, and how it allows for deeper understanding of Cunningham’s work, and Story itself. Though even this feels a tad relentless towards the end of the piece.

Elsewhere the movement ranges from postmodern Irish dance to minimal arm circles and expressive ‘getting down’, all executed with constant chat.

Monnier undoubtedly offers originality and absurdity, but I couldn't quite grasp her agenda or take on the movement/thought relationship. Dance is of course cognitive, so we can't take this as a premise in its own right. And she doesn't go down the music (or rather rhythm) visualisation route, so there's no literal hooks on offer either. Consequently things start to feel disconnected, abstract, which the blurb suggests is the absolute opposite of what she intended.

The cast do the work proud, moving between deadpan stares and subtle comedy with ease, but this doesn't make the understanding of the piece any more fathomable. Maybe that's the point - less comprehension more question. Regardless I was intrigued, entertained and in awe of the experienced, relevant dancers.

Elixir Festival continues at Sadler's Wells until 20 April.

Photo credit: Jubal Battisti.


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