I should foreground my sense of ignorance when it comes to modern dance. I was twenty eight years old before I witnessed dance as performance. It was never on my radar. I feel like I don’t have the language to appreciate what I’m seeing. This insecurity has led me to dismiss the whole art-form as selective mutism, sometimes. Why can’t they just talk and stop running around? But you learn to see, ‘see better’, as Cordelia prompts her failing father, King Lear.
The depth of the Samuel Beckett Theatre provides an attractive potential that is mined by the minimal set and direction. These together with the subtle dynamic of the lighting design, and the moments of ambient sound design, combine to bestow a certain aura. The kind of thing you might spend hours trying to whip up in a Michael Chekhov workshop.
Valda Setterfield takes the stage. She is wearing a crown made of paper, she is in her eighties. It appears that she is a living legend of modern dance, she has worked with many greats of the American avant garde, for example ten years as a soloist with Merce Cunningham. She is present, standing before us. She reaches with her hands into space, they follow her intention and then the action is complete. There’s a lightness of touch about her, simultaneous with a gravitas. Dance teaches that the body can hold contradiction and paradox better than language.
Enter Kevin Coquelard, Ryan O’Neil and Mufutau Yusuf. They play Cordelia, Regan and Goneril respectively (also, they play the Fool). They start running back and forward in their own track. I like that, I recognise that. This establishes the generation gap. They are energetic, eager and hungry. Having the story of King Lear as a foundation guarantees that we’re all on the same page, even if we can’t find the right line. There are pages of words and quotes from the play plastered to the back wall. This announces an opposition between what we read and what we can’t read.
There was irony too, on occasion. This worked because it was light hearted and measured. There was quite a bit of text spoken in this piece, with varying clarity. This is worth mentioning only to highlight the smooth balancing of individual elements. There were times of long stillness but they never felt stilted. Any slight missteps were easily forgiven. There was something underneath everything. That’s a vague statement and might not help clarify things but maybe that’s ok, isn’t Shakespeare all about the ‘negative capability’? The casting and rhythm of the piece seemed inspired. The programme note gave the clearest clue to the heart of the piece: ‘Choreographed by John Scott with essential inspiration, input, feedback and collaboration with Valda Setterfied’.
As I walked home, along Dame Street, there was a man shouting across the road, in a sustained ranting rage. Everyone could see him and hear him. He directed his anger at people nearby but there was a boundary preserved. Being out of the theatre, back with the unhoused imagination in the Dublin night, brought the tenderness and grace of this production into sharper relief.
Martin for DRAFF
Lear by John Scott/Irish Modern Dance Theatre ran at the Samuel Beckett Theatre from the 22nd - 24th October. Image: Patrick Moore