The Watching and The Watched: Casting Traces at Guildhall, Winchester. Reviewed by Rebecca JS Nice on 23rd October 2014
Inspired by Paul Auster’s series of post-modern detective novels The New York Trilogy, Casting Traces invites viewers to share the space of six dancers and a violinist and travel constantly from beginning to end. Refreshingly exciting and unsettling, New Movement Collective’s promenade production turns heads every which way by breaking down the fourth wall entirely and blurring the boundaries between public and performer, the watching and the watched.
Audience members, instructed to hang our jackets up and replace them with white coats, are left in a narrow space before three archways filled with large sheets of paper. The show itself is slow to start, beginning with a silhouetted scene with dancers lit from behind and their shadows darting across the paper surfaces. The piece becomes more interesting as they pour a strange clear liquid from a test tube around their shadow, and then pull the paper away in the shape of a figure to reveal their real selves and a new area behind them. The space is now larger but divided into planes and sections by paper walls at various heights. Views are blocked and opened, compositions cropped and ever-changing.
Much of Casting Traces is busy and disorienting due to the shifting use of space, projected images, moving musicians and people everywhere. It’s hard to decide where to look and how to navigate. The wandering white coat brigade explores the performance environment, peering and searching, ducking out of dancers’ paths, crouching below or tiptoeing above the paper. Our white jackets make us anonymous and, at the same time, turn us into an extension of the paper walls as the projections hit our bodies. The jackets heighten the sense of voyeurism, but they also continually alter our roles between that of silent interrogator and observant performer; as spectators we’re somehow both active and yet inactive. But the complex, often jarring relationships between performer, viewer and space compete with one another. It therefore takes longer than usual to become accustomed to the setting, and take control of how to interact with and view the show.
Having created an exercise in the demarcation, navigation and dislocation of space, NMC can only be critiqued in attempting too much. The relationships between the dancers themselves aren’t always clear; perhaps a simpler theme related to the playing of space would’ve been enough without any additional narrative content. However, when Casting Traces works it really works. I take a step back to the far wall and watch two trios constantly embracing and swapping places in the foreground, staying put as they travel through the paper to the next picture plane. Glimpses of tender facial expressions and gestures are much more poignant when framed between a body and torn paper. As the music becomes more emotive the dancers progress further and further back as the areas they leave are plunged into darkness. Duets and solos, delivered in fits and blasts in pockets and corners of the space, develop into an ensemble energy that builds as tension and dislocation subside.
Casting Traces is a must-see for the risks it takes and the immersive atmosphere it creates. Unusual, beautiful and full of mysteries to investigate, the viewing experience is entirely dependent on the individual and therefore entirely different for everyone willing to become involved.
Casting Traces: The Paper Maze is at Guildhall, Winchester until Saturday October 25. Book tickets here
As a longtime professional dance critic for The Times and many other publications and websites, I’m a firm fan of Goddard. He’s currently touring the UK as popular culture’s most celebrated bloodsucker in choreographer Mark Bruce’s shivery take on Dracula (a production that won a South Bank Sky Arts Award for dance). I’m also keen on New Movement Collective, especially after having seen them in action in Nest. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, and staged as a multi-media promenade performance in a converted church on Shaftesbury Avenue in London, this dance-based NMC production was a cultural highlight of 2013. That year the company brought a film installation performance to The Discovery Centre, Winchester. Conceived by visual artist Graham Gussin and featuring six dancers, Close Protection was a three-screen work using the same night vision technology employed by combat camera teams.
Now, this very month and next, NMC is back in Winchester with two productions. The first is a remounting of ‘Casting Traces‘, a 50-minute site-specific performance first seen in a former London dairy in 2012. Presented at Winchester’s historic Guildhall (October 23-25 at 7.30pm, with additional shows at 5.30pm Friday and 2.30pm Saturday), the piece melds movement, film, light and music all in a paper maze environment. ‘Casting Traces‘ could serve as a valuable sort of prelude to NMC’s newest work ‘Please Be Seated’ (November 8, 8.30pm at Theatre Royal Winchester), an ambitious one-off that transfers to London’s Southbank Centre a few days later. But then ambitious – as well as inventive and innovative – could be deemed among NMC’s top creative watchwords.
Donald Hutera: How is New Movement Collective run, meaning how does a many-talented-headed beast like this actually operate?
Jonathan Goddard: The collective is set up as a co-operative of eleven individual choreographers who come together in different formations and groupings to work on projects with exciting collaborators from other creative disciplines. On a day-to-day level there’s a core team of members that keep the company engine running in-between projects. Many of us double up and take on other roles apart from that of performers and choreographers. We’ve worked to acquire other skills such as producing, marketing or graphic design, trying to understand all aspects of what we’re creating to see if there are any ways we can do things differently.
DH: What role do you think NMC fills in either the UK or wider, global dance ecology?
JG: NMC is trying to explore and develop how dance can be experienced, challenging some of the existing structures for presentation and creation. We work collaboratively and take collective responsibility for our work, allowing us to function more like a design house or architectural practice than a traditional repertory company or choreographer-led ensemble. An entrepreneurial approach means we can shift and change, working with the right people to give the best result for each individual project.
DH: What are the risks and/or rewards of presenting work outside of London?
JG: We’re always looking for architecturally interesting or unusual places to conceive or develop work. It’s exciting to feel as if we’re exposing hidden corners of a city or town, and liberating as creators to use architecture as a stimulus or catalyst. We often present work internationally with events developed during our involvement with the Architectural Association. The challenges of touring our larger NMC work are the costs involved, and the difficulty of being able to develop an audience without regular yearly visits.
DH: Where is NMC’s home base or headquarters, and where do the works tend to get created at least initially?
JG: Our members are quite spread out across the UK and Europe so we don’t actually really have any set company base. In the past, productions have been created in London because of our links with Rambert Dance Company and the opportunity to use their studio spaces when not occupied, but our most recent work ‘Please Be Seated’ was made in Valencia, Spain as this was the easiest and cheapest for the most amount of people to be in one place at one time.
DH: How is the work created? Obviously with the core team plus guest performers and collaborators, but who leads or steers a project?
JG: It’s an interesting question. We never considered making work collectively until we began developing ideas as tutors at the Architectural Association on their Interprofessional Studio. There we research, create and design a series of yearly spatial project-events that aim to defy categorisation and stimulate debate. This ongoing academic practice leads us to different ways of thinking about creation, and through it we’ve found ways of developing ideas together and creating successful networks across creative disciplines to develop the content for each show. In practical terms at any given time one person steers or leads the group or how the group makes decisions, but who occupies this role isn’t set and this can organically change very quickly. We’ve found a high level of concentration and stamina is needed to work in this way, but the filter the group provides during the creative process is always challenging and invigorating.
DH: How much of a time commitment can be made to NMC when many of you seem to have a lot else going on?
JG: Commitment between members fluctuates. We try to schedule time and look ahead for the big projects but it’s definitely challenging with our busy schedules. Outside projects are vital to allow us to work together and not feel stifled. The company also benefits from the exposure and experiences members bring back from outside commitments. It is, however, challenging to get us all in one place at the same time! I’ve no idea how this’ll evolve in the future, but it’s good that we aren’t trying to fit into any idea of existing company structure. Instead we’re creating something that works for all of us as artists and friends and best serves the type of work we choose to make together.
DH: I don’t know Paul Auster’s trilogy. How much of a springboard was that book, and why did you choose it as source matieral? Also, what did you learn from making that debut piece?
JG: Generally with our creative processes we work with lots of different disciplines and collaborators, so there’s a need for a strong structure or map that everyone can hold onto to guide us through. For our debut piece ‘Casting Traces’ we settled on Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and, more specifically, the first book of the trilogy City of Glass. The idea for the show initially came from the venue. We were commissioned by the architect Will Alsop to propose a show for an ex-dairy factory event space he helped co-run and curate in Battersea called TestBed1. Our first thoughts were to create a paper maze in the space to alter and explore the perspectives of the audience. From this came the idea that the observer would have to play detective, which in turn led us to the noir meta-fiction of Auster’s fantastic novel.
In doing this piece we learnt that total audience freedom can be a dividing concept. We originally allowed viewers to explore a space and watch the show from whatever perspective they chose. From feedback we gathered that roughly 50% of our audience loved the opportunity to create their own experience, and the other half wanted to be presented set frames of action un-obscured by fellow moving observers. We’ve since sought to create a theatrical structure that uses the physical architecture created by the maze itself to make an experience which seeks to get the best of both worlds.
DH: If Casting Traces had a smell, touch and taste (and you can pluralise these) what would it/they be?
JG: If Casting Traces had a smell I think it would be that of the perfume of someone who’s just left, or it would be something you couldn’t quite grasp like steam rising from a vent. If I had to give it a taste it would maybe be something clean like a gin martini served in an unusual glass late at night, and somewhere you wouldn’t expect to be drinking it.
DH: How is the piece being adapted for or tailored to The Guildhall in Winchester?
Casting Traces is re-imaginged and re-designed for each venue on a tour. We work alongside architect Elin Eyborg to design the maze each time to best suit the space and its characteristics. Staging the show in The Guildhall in Winchester will be quite an intimate and concentrated experience. It’ll be interesting to see how the history of the building affects the tone of the work. We also have some fantastic new dancers joining the cast, so it’ll be exciting to see how they develop and adapt the work with their take on the material.
DH: Please tell me more about ‘Please Be Seated’: the concept behind the production, and how these aims and intentions are going to be realised…
JG:‘Please be Seated’ is our new work for 2014. It’s the first piece we’ve made as a collective for a traditional theatre space. We’re working on the project with the furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs, sound artist Ben Houge and lighting designer Yaron Abulfia. We took as our starting point the absurdity in group organisations, and the challenges of political and architectural structures. We previewed the piece earlier this year in Valencia, Spain where it went down well. We’re showing a brand-new version of the work tailored to the Theatre Royal Winchester before taking it to the Southbank’s Purcell Room in London. Having set ourselves up as group of creators working outside the theatre space, we’re quite excited to try and subvert that by seeing what happens if we explore traditional venues in unconventional ways. The dancing as always will be athletic and intriguing, and again we have some great performers new to NMC who’ll bring their own unique stamp to the work.
The arts & culture guide for the city of Winchester in Hampshire.
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