It's very dark and the music is very loud in Project Cube, so loud that the metal pipes of the lighting rig hum along with the bass from a free-standing speaker the size of a telephone box downstage left. The speaker is balanced - though balance isn't really the word - by a small pile of fake rocks upstage right. They're made of a foam substance, and have been partially sprayed with a granite effect. They look like they've been borrowed from a local am-dram society that's just wrapped on a production of Waiting for Godot. I brought my very articulate and intelligent theatre director friend along to the show, and he has a theory about the fake rocks that we will return to later.
It feels like being a spectator at an achingly cool and slightly intimidating club night. The music, all original to the show, is superb. I lack the vocabulary to properly taxonomize such dense and beautiful soundscapes, but they fall under the general rubric of house/electronica/drum and bass, interwoven with snatches of conversation that sound like they've been recorded on the fly in the kitchens of house parties, or in smoking sections of bars, or out on the streets of East London. The sentence fragments are mostly unintelligible, but then a clear voice breaks through; it's a girl at a house party, possibly Jamila herself, shouting, "White People! White people! Do something!" It's the kind of jokey provocation that would make you uncomfortable at a random gaff-party in Dalston at 5 am, and here in the Cube a trace of that anxiety lingers. Are we, the uniformly white Dublin audience, being called out for sitting motionless in our seats and complacently waiting for the (black) artist to entertain us? We are three minutes in, the music is now a force to be resisted, and as I haven't seen any performer yet perhaps we're being challenged to enter the empty space between the massive speaker and the fake rocks? Perhaps we are the show, if we have the courage to take the floor? But then Jamila Johnson-Small, aka Last Yearz Interesting Negro, slouches gracefully from the shadows into the low light.
Her long face is closed to us, and faintly mournful, framed by a black hoodie that's more like a shroud. Her limbs explore the vibrations like musical antennae, riding one line of the music and then dropping to another like a bird riding thermals. Ms Johnson-Small (he said like the New York Times) can channel the music even into her shoulder blades, and frequently does over the course of the performance, confining herself to 'the sensual pleasure of small dances', as it says in the programme notes. I don't mean that to sound dismissive in any way; she's a remarkable conduit for the music, a perpetual motion machine, and the musical frequencies travel at the speed of sound from her ankles to her neck to the tips of her fingers. During her initial foray into the room she seems uncommitted, like someone who's arrived at the club before all her friends, and she disappears for a spell behind the enormous speaker, returning to the obscurity of the shadows. But then she glides right in front of the speaker, and anchors herself like a sinuous plant in the river of sound. Her blog says that 'her choreographic interest is in framing,' and for the parts of the performance I found most vital she is literally framed by the square-eyed Easter Island head of the speaker. She dances. We watch her dance. It's surprisingly engaging.
Two blond, white girls then enter the space briefly, dancing in their own spots of light, but at the return of the "White people! Do something!" invocation they return to their seats in the audience. The intrusion and withdrawal of the white girls scans as neither provocation nor subversion of the provocation, so maybe I'm reading too much into the whole white-people-do-something line. Anyway, the music started getting dirtier and more industrial, and a strobe sliced the visual experience into a series of lurching snapshots. The speaker seemed to jolt across the space, threatening to crush or swallow Jamila, and I was pushed into a thoroughly enjoyable contact high for a few minutes. The druggy vibe was then supplanted by something more pastoral, with what sounded like cricket song providing the beat. After the pastoral interlude she curled up in a foetal position beside the fake rocks, and a video was projected onto the back wall. The video reminded me of a green-screen gimmick that Channel 4 shows used to use all the time in the nineties, where a presenter's head and legless torso would float on from one side of the screen and then his torso-less legs would run in from the other side of the screen. This went on for about seven minutes, but with Jamila's torso-less legs and legless torso.
My articulate and intelligent theatre director friend came up with a more sensitive explanation for both the video and the fake rocks than I could, so I'll hand the review over to him for the final stretch. Below are his condensed, edited, and partially fabricated considerations.
"I mean, she's an incredible dancer, and she exudes integrity, and her clothes are beautiful, the music was all approaching the sublime - so it's my feeling that the rubbishness of the rocks and the video are probably conscious artistic choices. It's a rubbishness that must be reckoned with. Why did this artist of taste include them? Because, unusually for contemporary dance, she let me into her world. Sometimes contemporary dance feels to me - at the level of form - like a language I don't understand. Whereas this show was connected more with street dance, with the kind of dance people do in clubs, and so I didn't feel like it was trying to introduce another level of abstraction into its language. There was a familiarity to it, a lived-in quality. Everything in the show is connected to the real: her look, the vibe, the sound, the voices - these are things you'd experience in Hackney or Homerton or Dalston or the other East London-y places that were namechecked in one of the voiceovers. And that soundscape, those voices, her clothing and movement I believe were all designed to recreate or evoke the feeling of being alive in a very specific time and place. My guess is that the fake rocks and the video popped up at some part of her process, and even though she probably knew they were both a bit bleh, she probably felt that there was something authentic about them, so she kept them, because that grubby authenticity is of a piece with a show that I think is about the experience of being Jamila Johnson-Small. I suppose that's what contemporary dance often aspires to: I'm giving you an experience and your consciousness is allowed bounce around inside it and around it. And at times it was a bit like being alive, including some of the slightly ersatz bits of being alive."
Simon (and Ben) for DRAFF