As the lights of the Purcell Room fade an electro-synth soundtrack begins to echo around the auditorium. A shadowy figure emerges from the darkness; a mountain of a man (Joseph Quimby) carrying the comparably tiny torso of Ione Kewney. The music swells as he lays her on the ground and she begins to quiver – her body comes to life in fits of convulsions that only the body of an impeccably trained performer could withstand. Quimby takes his place at the altar-slash-keyboard-slash-mixing desk, from which he scores Black Regent with haunting melodies and techno rhythms. This cryptic duo create a scenario that is a fascinating interaction between a futuristic language and pagan rituals, unfortunately their vision is somewhat impenetrable to us mere modern-day mortals.
As audience members we often look for themes, stories, fragments of logic or sensation through which we are able to frame and understand the events before us; Black Regent does not offer these systems of understanding in a way that feels accessible to audiences uninitiated into the world of contemporary dance. I heard fellow audience members piecing together interpretations similar to my own – was it a life cycle? The tension between servant and master? A cocktail of desperation, desire and despair? There is no clear or consistent answer. Now, don’t worry that I am about to argue that all performances must spell out their method and meaning in blazing neon letters, it’s just so incredibly frustrating to feel excluded from the performance in front of you, a performance that by its nature should be an invitation to an experience or understanding.
Particularly frustrating moments arrive when Kewney’s performance jumps suddenly from one moment to another, in response to a seemingly invisible and inevident stimulus that we audience members are denied access to. Her interaction with the props (that also served as some semblance of a set) is at times underwhelming, as there appears to be no aesthetic clarity to their design or presence. There are plain cardboard boxes that are wildly flung about or investigated, a wooden board suspended from the ceiling and adorned with silks that is only briefly used as an aerial tool, and a floor-to-ceiling sheet of polythene that hangs limply awaiting its moment of interaction.
None of this erases the fact there are enjoyable and enticing moments throughout the piece. Kewney is a performer of incredible skill, frenetically contorting herself into positions of grotesque beauty with dizzying strength and incomprehensible stamina. She is insatiable, possessed by her conviction and passion, which makes it all the more frustrating to feel excluded from the inner life and truth of the performance. Quimby makes for an imposing presence as the omniscient conductor of this techno opera, meanwhile his vocal range soars into stratospheric realms. It was a pity that the compositions thrice led us to false endings, eliciting confusion and frustration from an audience that may already be struggling to connect with the show.
Black Regent is certainly a class for the advanced, rather than beginner, spectators of dance and physical theatre. If you are in possession of certain niche knowledge then I imagine this show will unlock a world of wondrous emotions and insights. For those out of the loop however, it is a display of empty pyrotechnics, dazzling to behold but too far out of reach and ephemeral in its substance.
The London International Mime Festival is taking place across the city until 31 January. For more information see the London International Mime Festival website. Photo by Michel Nicolas.