Site-specific performances can be frustrating: if they’re not well constructed or if they give audiences too many paths to navigate, they can leave us feeling like we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and are consequently missing out on the single best thing of the entire evening. But that is happily not the case with New Movement Collective’s NEST. The installation takes its audience by the hand (without being condescending) and guides them through an atmospheric and stunning evening.
Armed with a hip flask (filled with water – it was one hot night at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Welsh church!) and a map, I set off to explore in the footsteps of Homer’s Odyssey. The combination of ‘real’ performance – meaning dance that takes place on a space resembling a stage and is watched by a unified audience – and installation elements that we explore on our own was perfectly proportioned. The lovely ushers made sure that we knew exactly what our choices were and the clever team behind NEST had ensured that regardless of our initial choice, we wouldn’t miss out on anything – we were just in charge of the order in which we saw things.
The opening scene, which took place on the church’s main floor, set the mood of “embarking on an adventure” very effectively: energetic scenes with the dancers running across the floor, tumbling around inside enormous metal structures that were placed around the room, coming together in groups or in pairs – and the dancing was very well supported by the lighting created by Marshmallow Laser Feast, going from strobe-style lights that made the floor move almost aggressively, to much softer squares that seemed to enclose the dancers. It was quite the storm – the first of many, as we gathered from the Odyssey inspiration.
After this, we were led to the basement – described in the programme as Land of the Dead and a very accurate description… In the hazy, dimly-lit room the dancers mixed efficiently with the audience, and you could never be quite sure whether the person next to you would turn out to be a dancer, a zombie, or perhaps both.
Back on the main floor, we find some of the dancers still moving in the performance space, while others move up to the balconies, emerging in between the audience members to perform a beautifully atmospheric piece in front of and around a mirror – the program indicates this is the Cyclops’s single eye. My favourite part of this section was the dancer sitting on the opposite balcony, performing his own choreography purely with his hands, arms and upper body. Sometimes it seemed like he was mirroring the movements of the main female dancer, sometimes he was just mimicking the direction of her body – very clever and powerful.
Another scene made excellent use of the metal structures: red fragments, which had so far looked like random, decorative pieces inside the frames, come together to form Ulysses’s boat, controlled by the dancers, who against atmospheric lighting sail through storm. It was impressive to see how well the dancers controlled these structures (despite their considerable size) while the choreography just flowed, the two elements complementing each other. And when the scene ended with a shipwreck, it suddenly made perfect sense that we had been asked to stay behind the white lines on the floor. Perhaps somebody had opened Aeolus’ bag containing all the winds of the world?
Before reaching the finale, we were given time to explore on our own. I must have looked slightly bewildered at this prospect, and despite the usher’s reassurances (“You have a map, you’ll be fine…”) I managed to navigate towards a dead end. Putting myself back on track, I found all the different rooms created around the maze in the church: from a Penelope tied up in a web of white elastics that made her movements look almost angelic, to human-pigs, most certainly under the spell of Circe. Having chosen to start my journey in the basement, I then made my way up to the top of the church to find the “Lotus Eaters’ room”: perhaps the most soothing and comfortable I have ever encountered during a dance performance, flowers projected on the ceiling, beanbags on the floor, a selection of Odyssey-related music (think Monteverdi) and a bar on the corner!
The final scene brought us all back to the main floor, with the survivor from the shipwreck. Does Ulysses finally make it home? It looks like he does (and the metal structures now suggest the shape of a house), finding his Penelope in a pas de deux, perhaps the most gentle choreography of the evening. All in all, New Movement Collective have created a captivating journey that avoids all the pitfalls of site-specific work and uses the derelict church on Shaftesbury Avenue very resourcefully. It was a pleasure to experience such pure and raw dance in the middle of the glitz and glamour of Theatreland.
NEST continues at The Welsh Church, 136 Shaftesbury Avenue until July 24. For more information and booking visit New Movement Collective’s website.
About the Author:
Mette Windberg Baarup has a Master of Arts in Dance Studies and Communication & Arts Journalism from the University of Copenhagen. She is based in London where she works as a freelance writer and producer.