Alive & Kicking: A road trip to live dance again!

On Tuesday (1 June), The Lowry finally presented a live show again in the Lyric Theatre: Northern Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons. This was the first ensemble piece in the theatre after lockdown.

The Lowry opened its building with Paris Opera Ballet, so it was probably only apt to re-open after such long period of closure with a ballet. This was of course a smaller and intimate experience than the Parisian grandeur.  But it showed the resilience and inventiveness of companies to adapt to current conditions: a chamber ballet with a reduced number of dancer and musicians and a modest set made its both COVID-safe as well as possible to tour.

In a chandelier-filled room the 12 dancers finally brought their skill back to an audience – and what a thrill it was. While I was watching it became so apparent to me what makes live work so special. I have seen brilliant and powerful creations on-screen over the last year. Dance working with technology and digital manipulations can be as creative as live work. There should not be a hierarchy between the live and the digital. But what Dangerous Liaisons – and the other live performances that I witnessed over the past couple of weeks – brought back to me was the embrace of risk.

When a dancer performs live – even when they execute their steps and movement perfectly – there is risk. There is always the potential that something may not work, that something unplanned may happen. And seeing performers adjust to this ‘danger’ in real time is one of the subtle but incredible strong appeals of watching live performance.

There is no room for editing, erasing, second takes or manipulation. Performing is a lived moment – both for the audience and the performer. It is a hugely satisfactory metaphorical ‘dangerous liaison’ between performer and audience.

I have been lucky to go on a short road trip and re-engage with live dance – and the good news is: dance is alive and kicking again and in all its forms, styles, scales and approaches. In this short blog I will take you through some of the stories of artists and productions that are working live again and are connected to our programme.

Alexander Whitley’s Overflow was one of our most dramatic ‘casualties’ of the lockdown. It should have premiered at The Lowry on 18 March 2020. The work was rehearsed, costumed, lit, filmed and completed its final dress rehearsal. But as we had to close our doors two days earlier, the dancer could never share with an audience what was by then so engraved into their bodies.

A second premiere last autumn at Sadler’s Wells had to be cancelled at short notice again, as London fell into Tier 4 regulations and theatres were shut again. But it finally saw the light of day on 21 May 2021. And what a triumph it was: a sumptuous experience of exquisite lighting, beautiful ensemble dancing and a haunting sound score.

Conceived well before the pandemic its interest in data and how the human is consumed by digital technology could not have been more relevant. The audience greeted this long-awaited arrival with generous and long applause and the faces of the performers spoke of such a sense of relief and bliss that Overflow had finally found its physical form.

When I spoke to Alexander, he told me that the past year despite the setbacks had been productive and he could use the year to revisit his ideas and make some significant changes. We will have to wait for a year until Overflow comes to The Lowry, but it is scheduled for 2022.

Outdoor dance is also receiving a boost again. Circuit 2 brought three circus and dance works to The Lowry last weekend – and once again for many performers this was the first time they performed live for months.

Jamaal O’Driscoll’s One% was a strong duet of two men going through different emotional states in a tense breaking duet. Jamaal and his co-dancer b-boy Marius Mates are relatively new on the touring circuit. They are of the generation where a year of lost work shot right through the start of their career. As a programmer it gave me much satisfaction to give opportunity to such young and emerging dancers in our first week of performances again alongside the much more established companies like Northern Ballet.

Also outdoors, Future Cargo by Requardt & Rosenberg has hit the road and is heading to Salford. Watch out for a full-scale truck arriving on The Lowry Plaza on 19 & 20 June. The trailer has been turned into a stage and features the arrival of wonderfully strange aliens that have been delivered by some galactic Amazon-like service to our planet. Figures appear on a conveyor belt in a never-ending series of images: a simple idea but with amazing effects. Future Cargo now tours nationally to major outdoor festivals and locations.

Back indoors and at Sadler’s Wells I watched last night the premiere of Draw From Within by Wim Wandekeybus and performed by Rambert – a work that comes to us in the autumn this year.

Wim Wandekeybus is one of Europe’s leading choreographer with a track record on 30 years of creating visceral, extremely physical and powerful work. He was commissioned by Rambert to create a new work back in 2019. When the company was unable to tour last year, they decided to turn their building into a stage and created a first version of Draw From Within as a live streamed performance.

For many, it was one of the most imaginative and unusual dance works of the past year. Filmed directly from their headquarters on London’s South Bank, it captured the risk of the live, even when we watched it on our screen. The work has now been re-imagined for the stage: 14 dancers giving their most in a raw and expressive work. There is always a sense of danger in this choreographer’s work.

The live flames, gestural drawing and live dialogue bring an urgency to every moment. Set to a wonderful sound score including Eastern European music, Motown and Gospel – this is a work with emotional punch. After having already presented to digital livestream we can’t wait to bring to live to The Lyric in September.

My brief whistle-stop tour of live performance has been so rewarding. We are as an audience still more ‘managed’ than before. Having to arrive at specific times, wearing masks, not being able to mix and mingle before or after a show, is of course still with us at this time. But the power of the live and sharing the ‘risk of the moment’ has given me emotional and aesthetic nourishment that was much needed. I cannot wait for more to come – and for more to present again.

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