Actions: An Evening of Men in Motion

Photo: Art Widak

Photo: Art Widak

Action(s). It’s a word that can be taken several ways. It can mean something positive, in the sense of being proactive – to take action. Looked at in another way, it can be simply what someone has done – their actions. It can also mean the physical gestures made to accompany a song, or used in a piece of acting – as in, do you know the actions?

Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s four part show, Actions: An Evening of Men in Motion plays on this multi-faceted meaning with a series of performances that deconstruct sequential movement into isolated gestures. Totem, Ancestor, a solo piece made and performed in 1942 by titan of the avant-garde Merce Cunningham, is a brief series of precise, occasionally jarring, gestures and leaps executed along a diagonal line and accompanied live by an original John Cage score. Strikingly original at the time of its creation, the work pictures movement in a way that distances it from the body executing it. Ashley Chen’s performance on the night is appropriately calculated and controlled, the steps possessing a startling clarity that transfixes the attention of the viewer on each minute quiver and fully-extended gesture of the dancer’s body.

Following Chen’s performance, choreographer John Scott’s own piece The Bowing Dance, is equally deconstructed. A solo posing as a duet, this work similarly positions the doer of the movements at a remove from the movements themselves. Just prior to executing a step, Scott commands himself to do so – “I bow.” This creates an unnerving tension that undermines assumptions of free will. Scott also plays with the relationship of self to the other, acting out two parts in tandem. He alternately occupies two positions on the stage, convincingly implying the location of his (absent) partner with his eyeline and the direction of his speech. It’s funny too, Scott’s arch tone and occasional slapstick moments undoing the mathematical monotony of the bowing notation.

The Big Message, a new work jointly conceived by Scott and dancer Kevin Coquelard, is billed in the programme as a piece in which “…Kevin imagines the dreams and messages he would send out to the world moments before being hit by a meteorite,” a peculiarly specific blurb. Imminent obliteration by meteorite notwithstanding, this is a wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of choreography. Coquelard creates a sense of play with light, exploratory movement that at times transitions into something more unsettling. Alignment is pulled off-kilter unexpectedly in moments of suspension, or a slow motion backwards arch is crowned with an upside down, frozen grimace. There is a range of texture and colour in the choreography; one particularly striking section features a repeated loss of balance with windmilling limbs, as though the dancer is being rebuffed by a forcefield. As is characteristic of IMDT’s work, the tone treads a fine line between comedy and pathos; at one point, a repeated exclamation of “I’m lost” transitions from a desolate plea to a farcical bleat in seconds.

Actions itself, the title piece of the evening, is an adroitly-performed duet that is part satire, part experiment and part high-spirited jape. The momentum frequently unravels as the performers pre-empt their own movements with self-direction, or pause mid-step to correct or re-take a section. The overall tone is flippant. Performers Ashley Chen and Philip Connaughton embrace a straight-guy/funny-guy dichotomy, Connaughton camping it up while Chen regards him wryly. They are self-deprecating at some moments, self-aggrandising at others. At still others, sincerity breaks through and images of camaraderie emerge. There are glimpses of choreography that is meaty and satisfying, unison sections featuring weighty limbs that display the facility of the two performers in this regard. But steps are not the main focus. What is thrust into focus is the work and concepts that go into making a piece, satirical references to influences (“soft dancing – Trisha Brown”) and casual, conversational scenes from the studio taken out of context and presented as performance.

Compared to a staging last year in Project Arts Centre, this rendition of Actions on the Peacock stage does play safe, increasing the frequency of laughs in the work to a pitch intended to keep the audience with the performers all the way through. As a result, an element of depth is lost. Still, despite the overall joviality of the evening’s work, Scott always has one toe in the counterpoint to comedy and satire: pathos and sincerity. Actions: An Evening of Men in Motion lays bare the bones of constructed performance and scatters them, managing, as it does so, to strike a truthful chord that pictures the poignancy, farce and tenderness of life all at once.

Rachel Donnelly

  • Review
  • Theatre

Actions: An Evening of Men in Motion by Irish Modern Dance Theatre

28 Jan – 1 Feb 2014

Produced by Irish Modern Dance Theatre
In Abbey Theatre (on the Peacock Stage)

'Totem Ancestor'
Choreography: Merce Cunningham
Dancer: Ashley Chen
Repetiteur: Daniel Madoff
Pianist: Luk Vaes
Costume: Charlotte Trowbridge

'The Bowing Dance'
Choreography, text and performance: John Scott

'The Big Message'
Choreography: John Scott and Kevin Coquelard
Dancer: Kevin Coquelard
Music: John Scott

Choreography: John Scott (developed with Lorcan O'Neill, Marcus Bellamy and Marc Mann)
Dancers: Ashley Chen and Philip Connaughton

Lighting and design concept: Eric Wurtz