Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; September 12, 2014

David Mead

Mats Ek and Ana Laguna in 'Memory'. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Mats Ek and Ana Laguna in ‘Memory’.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

Celebrating creativity in later life, Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir Festival was four days filled with performances, workshops and films, plus a conference and exhibition. At its centre was this main stage programme of works created and performed by older artists, some very well-known, some less so.

It goes without saying that some bodies age better than others, but that mattered little to the vast majority of the warm and approving audience. KnowBody was an evening for wallowing in memories, especially when it came to pretty much everyone’s favourite item on the programme, Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion’s “The Elders Project”. A witty piece featuring eleven well-known dancers, now all retired, some long retired, it was a winner from start to finish.

To make them feel at home, wings were flown in to reduce the stage to the size of the previous Sadler’s Wells Theatre – and that means roughly 5m narrower than now. Solos by the nine invited dancers, to short ditties sung by Fargion, and during which we learned a little about each, were interspersed with ensemble moments.

Most mentioned where they first danced, in a studio up a long flight of stairs, above the ABC shoe store in Glasgow, a village hall with chairs against the walls, and so on. Reflecting on the fact that while the mind may be willing, the body may now be less so, many referred to ailments. Not that you could tell, but we learned that Betsy Gregory used to have cancer but doesn’t have it any more; that Chris Bannerman has a bad back that comes and goes; and that Brian Bertscher has recently had a hernia.

There was plenty of humour too. Bertscher remembered how he was once told that he should continue dancing until his teeth fall out, and in a moment that had everyone in stitches of laughter, Bannerman opined that he was a genius dancer – just one trapped in the wrong body! Among the more serious remembrances were some from Kenneth Tharp, who recalled Robert Cohan saying you should only teach what you know and do it with love. How true that is.

And among it all, you just couldn’t help thinking how great some of them still look, and how easily some still move, most notably Tharp in a dance full of light as air jumps and smooth turns. Add to that his dazzling pink and purple shirt, and it’s no wonder he stood out. There was plenty of stage presence too, including from Namron, Gregory, and Lizie Saunderson. Some things may diminish with time, but some definitely do not.

Stage presence is something a lot of those in Sadler’s Wells’ Company of Elders also have in spades. They certainly gave the ex-pros a run for their money in Hofesh Shechter’s restaging for them of excerpts from his “In Your Rooms”. Although there was some shaking of fists, it didn’t have the angry aggression so typical of his choreography. But those of mature age bring other qualities, and there was no doubt this was still Shechter. As the drummers and strings perched above produced the usual wall of sound, the performers filled the stage with their presence. It was hugely effective reminded me in part of Pina Bausch’s version of Kontakthof for older people.

The evening was bookended by two classic Mats Ek duets danced by the choreographer and his wife, Ana Laguna. The quirky “Potato” really does feature a bag of potatoes. There are moments of humour as when Laguna takes several potatoes, placing one on her partner’s head, one in his mouth, and one under each arm, and at the end as she takes the bag and tips the contents over him. His response? To eat one. But what really stuck in the memory is how easy the pair dance, and how comfortable they are together. As the programme note says, a potato is basic and nutritious, and so is this short dance.

Like “Potato”, “Memory” zooms in close on a relationship. It’s a poignant, heartfelt and again humorous piece about growing old together. It is quite unsentimental, but in a way, it’s very ordinary-ness – it seems we are looking in on two ordinary people – is what makes it special.

The other works were a little harder going. Pascal Merighi’s “That Paper Boy” is a solo for Dominique Mercy, until recently joint Artistic Director of Tanztheater Wuppertal. It opens with him standing still, his face in particular lit by a small strip light lying on the stage floor. But what grabs the attention is a projection of his face on the backcloth. Every line is etched with memories. There is a sense of a maelstrom of thoughts, again memories, swirling around in his head. It is silent and near still, yet speaks volumes. As the spoken words of the soundtrack say, “The dream is to reach the silence. Silence is the ultimate sharing.” But as interesting as the play of light and shadow is, it all goes on for too long, and you itch for something else to happen. When it does, and Mercy gets to move, we see just how good he can still be.

Most difficult, though, was Sonia Uribe’s “Lo Que el Aqua Me Dio”, danced by Carmen Aros and Uribe herself, members of Generación del Ayer, a group of Latin American dancers, all aged 50 plus, formed in 1996. A tribute to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and particularly inspired by her painting “Las dos Fridas”, it was all a bit too worthy, and struggled to slot into the vibe of the evening. The dualities of Mexican and European, and weakness and strength, referred to in the programme rarely came across.