United Kingdom Stravinsky/Meryl Tankard, The Oracle: Paul White (dancer), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Esa-Pekka Salonen (recorded), Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 31.5.2013. (JO’D)
Costume design & Choreography: Meryl Tankard
Régis Lansac: Set and Video Design
Lighting design: Damien Cooper and Matt Cox
Lighting adaptor: Ben Hughes
Lighting realizer: Christopher Paqe
Stage Manager: Eddi Goodfellow
Photographer: Regis Lansac
Producer: Performing Lines
‘Watching a man’s back as a painter would.’ That is how choreographer Meryl Tankard, in the post-show discussion, described what she was doing in the workshops that led to the creation of The Oracle. Paul White, who won Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer at the 2010 Australian Dance Awards for his work in this piece, has a back that is broad, muscular, short, and extremely flexible. Alone on the stage and sculpturally lit, the dancer uses this back, and the rest of his body, in ways that demonstrate both his strength and his vulnerability. ‘Meryl brought the movement out of me,’ White said during the discussion. This helps to explain the power of the work: a man’s body moved by a woman’s imagination.
At the start, it is a body made strange in the video images of visual artist Régis Lansac which are projected on to the back of the stage. Arms, back, torso and legs are seen as if reflected in a kaleidoscope. Recognisable as parts of a human body, they form sometimes disconcerting, sometimes beautifully flower-like patterns. It is only after this prologue, with its WW1-redolent soundtrack of birdsong, canon shot and church bells, that the bassoon of Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring is heard and the dancer is revealed on the stage floor. With a brown velvet cloak as a prop, White begins to dance the roles of sacrificial virgin, rival tribes, and priest. Although he rises on to his toes at times like a female ballet dancer, his movements are for the most part heavy and weighted. (‘I was trying to find a new vocabulary,’ Tankard said.) The dancer is constantly being pulled back to the earth. The environment around him is one in which he clearly feels unsafe and unsure (as does the audience, listening to the recording of Stravinsky’s still unsettling music); something in it forces him to struggle and to resist.
The video images, which continue intermittently but never intrusively, allow White to dance with, and against, his own silhouette, or to disappear suddenly from the stage to ‘appear’, one second later, as a dancing black figure on the screen. Later on, it is the lighting that acts, in a breath-taking way, as a partner: a cone of smoke-filled light gradually expands, giving the dancer new space for his body tentatively to explore. The ‘bonnet’ he wears as he does so (for which Meryl Tankard expressed great fondness) makes him look like a baby, but also like a WW1 airman, and even perhaps like Nijinsky in his Le Spectre de la Rose costume.
The sacrificial virgin in The Rite of Spring dances herself to death. In the final section of The Oracle Paul White jumps and turns with increasing urgency as the desire to be elevated, to resist gravity, becomes stronger. His complete nakedness, now, is a last, logical expression of vulnerability and defiance in a work that has been, all along, about the dancer’s body and about what he does with it. If his climactic leap towards the light was somehow not the most stunning moment of the work last night (which was received with a standing ovation by several members of the audience in a nearly sold out Queen Elizabeth Hall), it is an image of force and exhausted desperation that will linger in the memory.