I have thoroughly enjoyed the work of Cape Town choreographer Nicola Elliott before and was sincerely looking forward to the premiere of her latest piece Bruising in Grahamstown. That day I had watched three shows before hers, I had probably not eaten enough and I had one of those jolly little headaches that are too subtle to substantiate a painkiller but present enough to make you mildly uncomfortable. The theatre was incredibly cold and I was disappointed to be so physically feeble for a show I had been looking forward to the whole week.
However, on my arrival someone handed me the most comforting piece of paper, which introduced the work I was going to watch. It was the first (and only) time I received some sort of programme or note for a production. Naturally the enormous festival guide offered information about each piece, but this weighty book was not easy to carry around from show to show.
Until this piece I had encountered no friendly pamphlet to read once you secured a seat. I love these pamphlets. Partly because they serve as excellent reflective doodling later on the train/bus/car home. And partly because my year in France consisted of going to endless theatres and shows completely alone and these pamphlets protected me from having nothing to do in between moments of arriving, watching and leaving.
What this piece of paper told me, in my exhausted and icy-cold state, I don’t quite remember. I think it said something along the lines of don’t worry, just relax. It might have suggested that I should be hydrated (I wasn’t) and that I should just go with whatever I was going to witness (I did). In any case, it comforted me greatly. I can honestly say, I would probably have disliked this dance if it weren’t for that piece of paper. A little bit of kindness to your audience can go a long way.
The piece begins with dramatic red material carefully strewn across
the stage. The four performers calmly arrive and play about oddly with the material, then politely place it at the back of the stage, ignoring it for the most part of the piece. I liked this and it immediately set the tone, you are thinking the work is going one direction and it wryly grins back at you and goes another direction.
A similar thing happened when the performers started peeling the stage up from off the floor. The floor was cleverly disguised as cut up sort of puzzle pieces that the performers unpeeled and played with, a great feature that allowed for many humorous half narratives and interactions between performers. This unlayering of the floor was possibly the best part of the piece (for me). It did such a strange thing to space, bringing attention to some sort of fifth wall – the ground. Floors are sacred and important things for dancers, much-discussed and central to choreography. But rarely noticed by audiences. This work managed to take something integral to ideas of dance, and deconstruct it completely in a beautifully aesthetic way.
After watching the floor disappearing and re-appearing, the curtain at the back of the stage suddenly dropped to the floor and our attention was immediately brought upwards and outwards. The stage left itself and went outside of itself. The curtain dropped dramatically, like a very obscure sort of strip show, to reveal a basketball hoop and the most enormous ball squatting peacefully in the corner. It was unexpected and a little bit perfect.
Curiouser and curiouser. It seemed to me that Nicola Elliott managed to choreograph a space, as opposed to a dance.
There was one incredible scene with just one lightbulb, the performers became quite physical with an almost violent edge. I found it beautiful but incongruous, I wanted to put it aside and let it exist on its own somehow. The piece had such a unique personality; the choreographic whole seemed like a very strange, interesting person and this brief section felt a little out of place, like an unnecessary limb. This being said, I do feel the nature of the work allowed for this type of digression so in the end I didn’t mind it. When the performers were “actually dancing” (scoff scoff), the movement vocabulary reminded me strongly (it almost felt like a reference) to de Keersmaeker’s Achterland. And it made me interested to find out more about Nicola Elliot’s influences at the moment.
My only real criticism would be that I felt it could have been tighter. At times it seemed somewhat under-rehearsed, possibly and probably rehearsing the final piece was a bit rushed, but this is something that will smooth itself out with more performances and I would love to watch the work again. It remained one of the more original pieces of the festival and one of my favourites. The work went about itself with a half-serious, nonsense sort of humour, paying homage to the stupidity and silliness that is art, that is the body, in the kindest and cleverest of ways.