Is everybody happy?

Donald Hutera checks out The Happiness Project, a new touring work from choreographer Didy Veldman that comes to Theatre Royal, Winchester November 10

‘Are you happy?’

It’s a key question, asked of the four dancers in Didy Veldman’s new production The Happiness Project – an approximately 70-minute show that comes to Theatre Royal, Winchester on November 10.

The Dutch-born choreographer was formerly a member of Rambert Dance, among other companies. She then went on to carve out a successful career as an international dance-maker based on the Continent. Having relocated to the UK for the past two and half years, Veldman is this month launching her company Umanoove with a piece that takes as its theme Western society’s search for fleeting pleasures and deeper fulfilment.

Speaking briefly at the opening performance of the production’s current tour, which occurred last week at the Jerwood Dance House in Ipswich, Veldman said she spent about six weeks developing the piece with a top-notch cast: Dane Hurst (winner of two Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards), Hannah Kidd (a nominee for the same awards, the current roster of which has just been announced), Mathieu Geffre and Estela Merlos. Between them this quartet has worked for and/or with Richard Alston, Phoenix Dance Theatre, National Dance Company Wales, Shobana Jeyasingh, Mark Bruce, New Movement Collective, Rambert and many other choreographers and companies in the UK and abroad.

Aural alert: the show’s score, an alternately brooding and urgent mix of live and recorded music, is by the Romanian-born violinist Alexander Balansecu. The man himself slips about among the dancers as a constant presence, instrument in hand and ready to fuel moods and actions. Balanescu’s ‘sound’ is proper contemporary-classical, so don’t attend expecting to bop along to Pharrell Williams’ popular upbeat anthem…

Working with the designer Kimie Nakano, and lighting expert Ben Ormerod, the joint pursuit of Veldman’s creative team was ultimately to devise a dance-based work that, in her words, tries to shed some light on what happiness is and how it manifests itself in human beings. Or, as she put it, ‘How do we deal with it? How do we achieve it, or crave it, or sometimes buy it?’

As a long-time dance-watcher I appreciate Veldman’s ambitions with the work – a chamber-sized series of shape-shifting vignettes that can seem by turns amusing, wondrous or, occasionally, shallow.  Perhaps inevitably, given such broad and elusive subject matter, The Happiness Project may not reveal anything definitive about what happiness is or means or the lengths we go to acquire it. There are also passages that are maybe too busy and vague, or facile and trivial, while over-all it possibly lacks some of the keen and sometimes messy complexities I associate with being alive.

But there are nevertheless felicities dotted throughout. These range from the sounds that Balanescu produces (as well as his genuinely interesting stage persona as a somewhat lumpen-looking middle-aged man in a jaunty hat), to the treasure chest-like boxes used as a main prop (along with a pretty expressively free-floating, ambiguous plastic sheet), to the confident and fresh unit formed by four truly fine movers. Each dancer has his or her moment and, in some cases, more than one. I was especially taken with Hurst’s intense, honest and self-questioning delivery of text and motion when replying to the show’s key question. Merlos, meanwhile, made virtually everything she did matter to me, whether swooping through the air while being held aloft by the two men, slinking closely round Balanescu as he plays, enjoying a delicate duet with a symbolically half-empty (or is it half-full?) glass of water or simply, and temporarily, placing a plastic bag with a smiley face on it over her head. Her sensitive intelligence continually shone through – qualities that at times glimmer in the performance as a whole.

So, did The Happiness Project make me happy? In part, yes. It might do the same for you. Catch it while you can.

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