Firsts
, now in its eighth year, throws the doors of the Royal Opera House open to selected groups of talented performers across a variety of mediums, allowing them to demonstrate their work to a wider audience. The Lindbury Studio Theatre provides sufficient scope and scale for these companies to display their skill, and more importantly their potential, with the possibility of developing an ongoing relationship with the prestigious venue. The programme which I viewed offered four diverse and mature pieces which showcased the considerable talents of the teams involved.

Milkwood Rodeo, by Sugar Beats Circus, strips the Big Top down to its most elemental properties, in a genuinely unsettling reflection on the strange magic it invokes. As the narrator describes her experiences travelling with an Indian Circus, the stage is flooded with fractured video recordings, abstract shapes and unsettling visions, as a lone performer swings mournfully from a rope. It is the circus as imagined by Angela Carter, where mysticism meets reality, and the painted faces of clowns conceal bitterness and cruelty. Circus performance is raised to the heights of celestial importance, as the dancer’s movements on the rope call whole constellations into life, and to the depths of depravity as the narrator describes the fate of Frank, the midget clown who was swallowed by its secrets. A disturbing work which will not soon be forgotten, Sugar Beats Circus create a spectacular fantasy which is as frightening as it is compelling.

After the sensory assault of Milkwood Rodeo, Spiltmilk say Dance provide a dramatic change of pace, with an exploration of social dance crazes which conceals greater depth than its slight presentation would suggest. The three performers address the audience like enthusiastic nursery teachers, and transform what is superficially a light-hearted lecture into a nuanced deconstruction of dance itself. Beginning with themes such as ‘Hand Jive’ and ‘Disco’, their performance breaks down these cultural icons into their barest component parts. Their ruthless disassembling of the Twist, in which each step and gesture is performed in isolation, would pass for aggressive were it not for the breeziness of its presentation. There is considerable wit in Spiltmilk’s performance, from their incongruous musical choices to their sharply satirical choreography; however, they seem strangely out of place on the bare stage. Their work has been performed in locations as varied as a pier and a park bench, and it is impossible to escape the feeling that within these locations, where the faux-spontaneity of their delivery is more appropriate, their piece would be doubly effective.

Amy Bell and Valentine Golfieri’s That Was the Time I Stopped, a super-cool duet which showcases their talent as choreographers as well as performers, is both bleak and hilarious. With sequined shorts and hipster haircuts, they move through combat, competition, emulation, adoration and hatred in a series of exchanges which are over as quickly as they began. The piece draws much of its allure from the glimmers of sex and death which constantly emerge from Bell and Golifieri’s movements. Their grappling is always one movement away from lust, and their dance is punctuated by sudden, repetitive deaths, as they fall to the floor like rag dolls. The fractured nature of the piece, its constant stops and starts, give it a hallucinatory undertone, but it is the image of death in sex, of la petite mort, which is repeatedly invoked. It is an uncanny piece of contemporary dance, and one which it is near impossible to digest in one viewing.

The evening closes with what could be considered the most conventional piece of all, yet it may also be the strongest. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Genius Sweatshop explore the mental frailty of age, through the daydreams of an old man, Albert, whose mind is ravished by dementia. The action of the piece takes place within Albert’s home as he prepares to move, where he sits surrounded by boxes of his possessions, barely able to comprehend his situation. As he confusedly sifts through his memories, he finds himself drifting into the past, and his room becomes the deck of a ship, and he a young captain again. Albert himself is puppeteered by Svetlana Biba, and it is a sensitive and emotionally wrenching performance. Biba captures the humour of dementia sufferers as well as the tragedy: the disparate moments of confusion and recognition which become the patterns of their lives. The Man Who Wasn’t There intelligently explores the dual nature of memories, which are both the consolations and perils of age.

Firsts 10 feels particularly urgent in this political climate, and it can only be hoped that the Royal Opera House will continue to expand its support of talented groups whose work requires patience and investment to grow and flourish. The work which this year’s festival displays is easily the equal of much of that which finds its way into the main house, and an exhilarating evening’s entertainment.

This is a review of the programme presented on Tuesday 16th and Wednesday 17th of November. To find more about Firsts, see the Royal Opera House website.