A corridor. Four dancers and a violinist enter it, inhabit it, and then leave. Over and over again. Brocade by Roberta Jean happens in a very definite time and space, but at the same time has an ephemeral, vaporous nature. It speaks of rhythm, bodies, and intimacy with poignant physicality.
The starting movement is a quick skipping with a stomping quality, which is initially also the only sound accompanying the dance. It’s exhausting to watch (let alone to perform) and it feels performed deliberately in a dragging, repeated way. What one is encouraged (and has all the time) to admire is the very distinctive way in which each dancer jumps, as well as of course their stamina.
After setting this fast and galloping cadence, the pace counterintuitively decreases. Not only do we get the addition of improvised music by Angharad Davies, which slows things down, but also the rest of the show operates in a more controlled manner. One thing that was fun to do throughout was to spot the oxymora that kept cropping up: soft rigidity, quiet speed, and crescendos when the music is in calando are all part of the beautiful complexity of Brocade.
On a different note, this is possibly the first show where I was able to jot down my notes in a nice and tidy manner. This is because during the performance the studio is almost in plain light, which allows the audience to see the dancers and the rest of the audience’s faces with inescapable clarity. While somewhat unusual, this openness fits in well with the agenda of the performance, and its power to lay bare, even imperfections, rather than enclose.
As well as patently visible, the audience’s focus feels nicely guided. Somehow, we always know where we are meant to watch. The metaphor of the loom, with the dancers constituting threads weaving in and out of it, is quite powerful. Our attention is inevitably drawn to this back-and-forth motion, making us more aware of the here and now, and of what is happening at this specific point in time.
With all of the above, the fabric of the show is in principle very sophisticated, and yet I found that the execution failed to be overwhelmingly arresting or revelatory. This might be partly due to the fact that the dancers seem to be having an experience among them, and not necessarily to be communicating with the audience. Their faces range from deeply focused, to intent, to a bit disdainful, and at times even almost pitiful for the audience. They look at us, but they don’t seem to have much to tell us – what they are experiencing seems to be enough for them.
Even in the post-show talk it emerged that self-awareness is central to the dancers’ experience, and they themselves want to be fully in the moment. Sometimes, this heightened awareness of one’s self translates into self-absorption, which in turn fails to shine through to reach the audience. “Before you can understand [the show], you have already experienced it” is how the show gets described. I really agree with this, but one is still left to wonder what is left from this experience.
All in all, the show stirs up and sets to motion some energy, from running at top speed to turning arms in sharp angles, to softening down in silky pirouettes. And the main strength of Brocade are precisely these little sparks of unpredictability and originality.
Brocade played at Sadler’s Wells (Lilian Baylis Studio) on 31 May and 1 June
Photo: Sadler’s Wells Website