Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, UK; November 11, 2014
New Movement Collective (NMC) has built a high reputation in the two years since the company was founded. With dancers of the finest quality, a collective and collaborative approach to working with designers and architects and a desire to push back boundaries, they have earned nominations for Best Independent Company in last year’s National Dance Awards and again in the recently announced list for 2014.
My first sighting of NMC was only a month ago in “Casting Traces”. It was one of my most exhilarating dance experiences for some time and was followed two weeks later by an intriguing, short showing for a work in preparation. Like these earlier pieces, “Please Be Seated” breaks new ground and in particular strives to break down the barriers between performers and audience, but for the first time in a conventional theatre.
When summoned from the foyer to the Purcell Room we found ourselves in a near stationary mass of people. I realised that only a few at a time were being allowed into the theatre. Some tried to push by, perhaps they thought we were waiting for a train, until it was pointed out we were headed to the show as well. When we reached the front of the queue, we presented our tickets, were given a certificate which was duly stamped and allowed to pass. Another group was asked to stand at one side…more later. So, we sat down as the rest of the audience dribbled in. The dancers stood or sat around the stage and an extension: a series of polished boards in a zigzag extended the stage out into the audience about half way back in the theatre, where a lone artist performed a dance full of anxiety as if she was trapped on this extension. Eventually everyone was in the auditorium, but I’m sure many felt frustrated at this slow start and I wonder if some found it hard to overcome initial negative feelings. Message to NMC: strongly suggest you speed up the entry process for future performances while still projecting the message of the ways that bureaucracy hampers and constrains our lives.
The performance proper opens with a megaphone voice giving instructions, repeated later, to a visitor about fire exits and the need to “stay away from the edge”. Around the stage, designed by Jutta Friedrichs are some ten chairs, and two chairs some 10 feet tall that also serve as tables. Much of the action involves these objects as the superb dancers sit, spin and manoeuvre them. Some ten minutes into the show, the segregated group appears on-stage from the back and wander around the edges. And then they move into the centre and are herded around by dancers acting like guards using the long tables/chairs as buffers. And finally the group are allowed to take their seats in the auditorium. With dancers trapped on the tall chairs, a range of patterns with the other chairs, dynamic choreography, both on-stage and the zig-zag extension, credited as always to NMC, there is always something to catch and hold our attention. But the whole is less than the sum of the parts and the theme of bureaucracy and control loses its focus.
At the start we are told that this is a promenade performance, but everyone remained in their seats. I could see all the action clearly from my place, so there was little incentive to move and I was worried that I might block the view of others if I walked around. Maybe we were permitted to echo the segregated group and go on the stage, but if so this invitation, readily taken up at NMC’s earlier site-specific works was never accepted in a traditional theatre setting. This company is always daring and risk-taking and I’m confident that NMC will take away insights learned from “Please Be Seated” to apply to future theatre-based works alongside their site-specific performances.