136 Shaftsbury Avenue, London, UK; July 20, 2013.
From the street, 136 Shaftsbury Avenue in London’s theatreland does not exactly stand out. But behind the red brick façade and sturdy wooden doors lies the most atmospheric of spaces: a disused Welsh chapel that has also seen life as a night club and an Australian-themed bar, sitting amidst a labyrinth of twisting stairways, narrow passages and small rooms. Every nook and cranny, every stripped back wall, even the few tiny snatches of decoration left by previous users seemed to be trying to tell a story. They were all to play their part in the audience’s journey through “Nest,” the latest production by the New Movement Collective, a group of dancers with a long history of making collaborative work as dancers and choreographers with some of Europe’s leading companies.
The Collective particularly seeks to develop work presented in, and in response to, different and unusual theatrical settings, bringing together dance, architecture, film and music, and finding what they describe as the “performance potential within the hidden pockets of our cities.” “Nest” certainly scored highly on all those counts.
The title refers partly to the idea of the group being akin to birds nesting in empty building, although the dance itself is inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey.” If you know the poems there are clearly recognisable episodes. For those not familiar with the Greek epic, the combination of dance, light, sound and the building itself was remarkable in itself.
The opening section takes place in what was the main chapel, a galleried domed space full of curved windows, elegant pillars and other beautiful architectural features. With the audience at ground level and in the gallery the drama of Odysseus’ voyage home played out against the dark and violent rolling and rumbling of Anna Meredith and Christopher Mayo’s score. Standing in the gallery it was like watching from the heavens as the dancers, who looked very small and insignificant against the steel-framed set designed by architects from Studio Weave, crashed and tumbled through the space as if being tossed by the sea, sometimes reaching to save their drowning fellows. They scrambled through and climbed over the huge metal towers that resembled a ship’s spars and rigging as Marshmallow Laser Feast’s lighting forked all around them.Moving to the gallery, the dance revolves around a large round one-way mirror, the eye of the Cyclops perhaps. Jonathan Goddard seemed to be hypnotised and trapped by the image of the alluring Gemma Nixon. Odysseus dreaming of the wife he left behind, or Odysseus trapped by Circe? Or just beautiful, mesmerising dance? Take your pick.
“Nest” is a true promenade performance. In the central section the audience are led down the narrow stairs and then left to explore the warren-like underworld, and particularly five small rooms, and where for those in the know, references to Homer come thick and fast. In one, a tender duet takes place on fine black sand to the sonorous sounds of a live harpist. In another, Clemmie Sveaas (Penelope, perhaps) is trapped in a cradle of webbing that she patiently and unendingly ravels and unravels. Directly beneath the main chapel, strange, mysterious, zombie-like figures emerge from the shadows and smoke, brush up against the audience and stare into the eyes; a reference surely to Odysseus’ encounters with the ghosts of lost souls and dead heroes. Most unsettling of all for many, though, were two dancers in very realistic pig’s heads sitting in a room tossing small stones towards those brave enough to watch. Circe, of course, turned many of the men into pigs.
Back upstairs in the main space, Goddard makes his way towards the structures, now pushed together to resemble a building, presumably Odysseus’ home on Ithaca. His progress suggests despair and loss. His final reunion duet with Nixon, matched by another between Renaud Wiser and Malgorzata Dzierzon is intimate and tender, and in stark contrast to the journey that everyone has just taken.
The quality of dance and choreography was simply outstanding. It’s not often that you walk away from a performance in animated conversation about what you have seen, and in this case, really experienced. But it happened here.
What now for the building? Stone Nest, a recently formed arts organisation that commissioned “Nest” as the first step in bringing the venue back to life, aim to redevelop it as a performance space. One only hopes they manage to retain its unique atmosphere and qualities. One thing is sure, the production added another wonderful story for those old walls to tell.
“Nest” runs to July 24, but is sold out. It will also be exhibited as an installation from September 10-20, 2013 at Testbed, 33 Parkgate Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4NP.