Scottish Dance Theatre in YAMA by Damien Jalet Photo Brian Hartley

Scottish Dance Theatre in YAMA by Damien Jalet
Photo Brian Hartley

Patrick Centre, Birmimgham
November 26, 2015

David Mead

Damien Jalet’s YAMA (Japanese for mountain) was inspired by rituals practiced by the Yamabushi, a group of ascetic monks, among the mountains of Tohoku, Japan. His exploration of the mythology and ceremony is certainly original. The dance is visceral, and at times compelling, but it’s also baffling with some parts so extended that they struggle to hold the attention.

All the action takes place on a raised polygonal white platform, with a yawning hole in the centre created by American designer Jim Hodges. To a rumbling electronic score (at first sounding like a motor bike being gently revved, but later more like factory machinery) by Winter Family, the dancers slowly emerge from the opening into this place of gathering. Legs appear, one at a time, reaching and feeling uncertainly, there’s a sense of giving
birth. It is different and it is striking.

The amorphous bodies tangle as they slither and slide over one another. Jean-Paul Lespagnard’s nude costumes and horse-hair facial stockings that completely cover faces add to the sense that whatever we are watching, the multi-limbed forms are not human. Every now and these beings come together and shapes appear that bring images to mind: a fourteen-legged octopus perhaps, or fronds of seaweed gently wafting in the swell. Individually they sometimes looked like weird arachnids. It does draw you in – for a while – but it does also rather go on.

A change (for all the organic nature of the dance with sections, transitions often jar a little and are rather obvious) sees much swinging and shaking of heads. The dancers dip into the hole then toss their heads backwards, their hair flying like lava or plumes of ash spewing from an erupting volcano.

As things become more upright, the movement is full of angular elbows. Monochrome stripy clothes are donned, and finally the hair is ritualistically removed and we see the dancers’ faces. The dance – or ritual – or both – continues to gather energy. The score starts to include voice. One gets the impression that what is being said is important, but since it’s impossible to hear it clearly, who knows.

Although the dance becomes faster, it retains a ceremonial flavour and ritualistic quality, almost trance-like at times. Having started slowly at base camp, it feels like the summit is approaching (appropriately, ‘yama’ can also mean climax). Then, without warning, our time with these strange beings is over and the set reclaims what it had given birth to, the cast of eight being  sucked back through the hole one by one.

YAMA is certainly unusual; weird even. At times the imagery is beautiful. The dancers, all of whom are in view pretty much throughout are fabulous, but I need a little more connection, a little more emotional engagement, a little more sense of meaning. Or maybe I just need to ‘let go’.