Pros: Masterful technique from the dancers.
Cons: Kate Tempest’s powerful delivery sometimes threatens to put the choreography in the shadows.
Julie Cunningham is the kind of dancer that makes you catch your breath. Tall and very slender, she is extremely flexible and strong. Couple that with intelligence and musicality, and you have an unmissable performer. Unsurprisingly, she enjoyed long stints with contemporary dance heavy-weights Merce Cunningham (no relation) and Michael Clark, before forming Julie Cunningham & Company in 2017. At its helm, she is exploring issues of self, identity and gender with her characteristically generous and personal touch.
New solo m/e is inspired by the radical French novel The Lesbian Body (1973). Echoing its themes of dissecting the self as an act of love, the solo had three sections. Dressed in white T-shirt and baggy blue trousers, Cunningham slouched and sneered – eyeballing the audience. Accompanied by a Fever Ray track (the first of several musical nods to gender-fluid artists) she became a raver in the spotlight, mimicking skittish beats with lightning fast footwork that propelled her all over the stage. She was twitchy but precise, as light as a water boatman on the surface of a pond.
Ideas of surface and substance seemed present when Cunningham touched her hands to an invisible screen, and gazed out reproachfully at us. This performer has a gift for making contact with the audience, gently but persistently reminding them that they’re watching a real person dancing.
Shifting from one knee to the opposite shin, extending a leg while leaning back on an elbow, she struck angular poses, then queried us with an eyebrow. At times it seemed she was marking and testing the boundaries of her identity. The second section (to a Shostakovich piano concerto) saw her crouched on a piano stool, cutting an isolated, introspective figure. She folded in half with all the smoothness of a hydraulic lever, then sat softly to arc backwards, drawing a beautiful line with her spine and arm.
In the final section she was fleet-footed once again. Her whole body seemed open to the space around her, and she looked by turns like a child running through a field, or a footballer tackling an opponent. The lights faded on Cunningham shifting from foot to foot, articulating her joints and looking out at us questioningly. There was a sense that this search for a new language of desire will go on and on.
To Be Me is for a quartet (including Cunningham) and is set to spoken word artist Kate Tempest’s interpretation of the myth of Tiresias, titled Hold Your Own. Fitting for Cunningham’s themes, Tiresias is both male and female, and eventually loses his sight. Dressed in black and red, the quartet were physically commanding and technically superb. For the most part they succeeded in what felt like a democratic collaboration with Tempest’s words, which they brought to life with vivid pictures. Bodies mirrored one another with languid fascination, couples circled menacingly.
Dance set to spoken word is an unusual choice, and there were strong moments when the rhythm of voice and movement synchronised. There were times, however, when Tempest’s commanding delivery had the effect of drowning out the choreography. It may have been a mark of a slight lack of confidence to give such a strong platform to another artist’s voice. It seemed a shame when Cunningham clearly has enough ideas of her own.
As with m/e, lights faded on the dancers still in motion, stepping smoothly backwards. Walking towards the future with one eye on the past, they smiled and guided one another trustingly by the hand. Led by the sublimely gifted Cunningham, this is a company to watch.
Performed and Choreographed by: Julie Cunningham
Dramaturg: Joyce Henderson
Sound Design: Neil Catchpole
Lighting: Hannah Firth
To Be Me
Choreography: Julie Cunningham
Performed by: the company
Text: Kate Tempest
Sound Design: Helen Atkinson
Lighting: Richard Godin/Hannah Firth
Costumes: Stevie Stuart and Julie Cunningham
Producer: Kat Bridge
Booking Until: This show has now finished its run