views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Still in the City
The Cockpit
16th August 2015


Publicity image for Still in the City

Photography provided by Ensemble Dance Company

For a group of people who like reacting to noise, the Ensemble Dance Company have unfortunately chosen one of the Camden Fringe venues with the least amount of soundbleed. There's no dribbling air con unit or sirens from the road outside, The Cockpit is completely silent. Ordinarily, that's one of this theatre's selling points. As Still in the City starts, the audience struggle not to fidget, acutely aware that their slightest movement may cause a sound, and draw attention away from the stage. Where no one is really moving. Still, motionless, the dancers simply stare.

It feels like a long time, but it's actually only a matter of minutes. The truth is, eye contact is so intimate that strangers locking eyes for more than a fraction of a second is uncomfortable to watch. It's just not very British. Depending on where you sit, you may even be one of the people who the company choose to gaze at. Hayley Matthews helms the ensemble, with the other London members Jack Hurst, Anais Lalange, Hung-Wen Chen and Emily Tanaka. Although the show is travelling, the people in it are not - Matthews invites local dancers to join her wherever she goes. It's typical of our wonderfully multicultural London that out of the four performers who have joined Matthews for the London dates, only one has actually grown up here.

Although Matthews clearly feels the state of being is more honest than the state of doing, the result feels more like performance art than contemporary dance. That's not a criticism, just an observation. Parts are predetermined - the use of lighting at the beginning and the score for Hurst's piano and Lalange's violin. However, it is an improvised dance piece created around the audience, so the more they attempt to be quiet and not move, the less interesting the company's endeavours. It's a shame, because the people watching are trying to be respectful by keeping their distance, when really, they should be interacting with the dancers.

The mission behind Still in the City is explained in the leaflets handed out beforehand, however if Matthews does intend for it to be interactive, she needs to reinforce the point somehow. The challenge is doing so without compromising her artistic vision. As fantastic as The Cockpit is as a dance space, I think a large black box theatre simply isn't the right fit for this work. Ideally, a pop up venue would have worked much better, alternatively, any black box theatre not bang in the middle of a well-behaved residential area. A quirkier, smaller setting would also perhaps encourage the spectators to join in.

It's an intriguing concept, but I suspect this stop on the tour will be one of the less memorable for the company. For the audience, who haven't seen this elsewhere, it's a thought-provoking performance nonetheless which does make us feel hyper-aware of all the movements and noises around us. Nothing is still in this bustling city for long.

Still in the City ran on 16th August 2015 at The Cockpit, as part of the Camden Fringe.

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