Dance within a Downward Trajectory

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Clark/Willson, Zero: Clod Ensemble, Sadler’s Wells, London, 4.6.2013. (JO’D)

Zoe Bywater, Robert Ball, Sarah Cameron, Karima El Amrani, Antonia Grove, Maciej Kuzminski, Elizabeth Mischler, Ramona Nagabczynska, Uri Roodner, Alessandra Ruggieri.

Vocals and Harmonica: Johnny Mars
Vocals: Hazel Holder
Cello: Christopher Allan
Accordion: Ian Watson
Trombone: Annie Whitehead
Drums: Vanessa Domonique
Guitar: John Evans

Direction and Choreography: Suzy Willson
Music: Paul Clark
Lyrics: Peggy Shaw and Paul Clark
Design: Sarah Blenkinsop
Lighting: Hansjörg Schmidt

The movement that characterizes Clod Ensemble’s Zero is a falling away of the body from its vertical position. When they are upright, the ten, suited or evening-dressed dancers circle each other with enigmatic or wary looks (some of which are directed at the audience). Their uneasy security, the tone for which is set by harsh lighting, electronic buzzing, and the blues harmonica of Johnny Mars, is threatened when one or other of the dancers begins to lean or to bend, to extend an arm or a leg. To move off the vertical, here, is to take a risk, if only by attracting attention and therefore having to engage with another human being.

The work announces itself from the beginning, in flashed up words, as ‘a tragedy in five acts’. These words appear as a stooping figure slowly crosses the stage with the help of numerous walking sticks. The tragedy, it would seem, is not being able to hold yourself erect, but other kinds of descent are also presented. The relationships played out on the stage often ‘degenerate’ into sexual jealousy and violence. Dancing couples turn, in the blink of an eye, into fighting couples. Gestures are made on a hairline between love and hate: what seems at first to be an affectionate embrace becomes a clasp of imprisonment.

Recorded voices, American and British, speak in sound bites of tensions between siblings, between husbands and wives, of modern life, its degeneration, as perceived in the middle of the twentieth century. (This would explain the suits, the evening dresses, and the blues.) In the second act, however, too much use is made of these recordings. Their over-extended ‘alienation effect’ nearly alienates the audience altogether.

The lyrics to the songs performed by Mars and by Hazel Holder may be misanthropic, but with their voices, and the music that accompanies them, the piece seems to come alive again. Out of the group of dancers, one emerges to float sideways across the stage. Another, willowy figure briefly occupies a central position, making ‘Dying Swan’ movements with her arms. Two women, ironically thrust out their hips as they enjoy the rhythms of the music. Another woman balances on a man’s shoulders. To fall, in her case, would mean physical injury. These are only moments, though, of beauty, humour and daring within a generally downward trajectory. The fourth act sees all the dancers rolling slowly on the floor. In the fifth, the act of falling is complete.
Marred more than once on this first night by small but important mistakes in timing, and by an occasional lack of sharpness in the staging and in some of its movements, Zero is, nonetheless, a bravely pessimistic charting of the progression of a group of dancers from the vertical to its ultimate and inevitable opposite.

John O’Dwyer