Gesundheit! by Van Huynh Company is a multi-discipline production that unfolds around three characters: a female and two males. The first (Dam Van Huynh – also the choreographer) is wiry, instigative, and at times visceral. The second (Dom Czapski) is tall. He moves with clean classical expression and a certain vulnerability when interacting. The female character (Elaine Mitchener) is magnetically automatic: she moves and speaks with instinctive tone and pace, often off-setting the men, whose steps seem much more thought through.
The action operates in a square central space, with the audience in the round. A microphone is placed in each corner. Over the course of an hour we see these characters play out relationships with each other. Motifs are deployed and developed in such a way that we see a full dynamic range of interactions in each relationship. This explores both fully-functioning cooperation and violent clashes, the latter often illustrated by a beautiful horn-locking image: one character holds their counterpart’s head in both hands, clasping their exposed neck in a strong embrace, before pounding said head into their chest – all the while the victim attacks their own stomach with their fists.
The opening of the piece made it very clear that sound would play a vital role throughout. At its most successful, composer Jamie Hamilton’s use of a variety of both musical and ambient soundscapes perfectly captures the tone of a moment on the floor, elevating our engagement and immersing us in some particularly touching or chaotic moment. To create these soundscapes, the performers spend time breathing, chanting and singing into their microphones. The utterances are then pieced together by Hamilton at the sound desk.
But even if the intention of the piece was for sound and vision to share equal billing, it was the visual spectacle that drew me in to Gesundheit!. The characters often moved with so much energy that they looked like they would burst out of the space, only to land, with geometric precision, entwined and balanced, together in a corner. The dance ranged from free-flowing nightclub grinding, to flashes of classical ballet – all fluidly intermeshed, creating imagery that was difficult to draw your attention away from.
I left the show knowing that I would write strong praise for it, but also that this would be in spite of my experience in the first ten minutes. To open, Hamilton steps into the space and begins to rhythmically tap against two cowbells. A delay effect is used to build what is arguably a simplistic soundscape that slowly builds to a cacophony of banging. It ended sharply, and the audience clapped, but I didn’t understand what achievement we were applauding. Though my initial response was to be unimpressed, my reaction writing now in hindsight is surprise at its inclusion. The contribution of Hamilton’s skills to the show proper was impressive, and I felt that this overture took away from it.
What mattered most to me at the time however was that – as someone who had deliberately kept myself ignorant of the show beforehand – I was now dreading what was to come. Only adding to this feeling was the lengthy period of casual fiddling with sound desk equipment, absent of haste, that followed. Why were the necessary alterations not pre-set to the push of a button pre-show?
Both moments were very problematic for me, and put the show in a position from which it had to win me back. But it is greatly to the company’s credit that by the end of the production I found myself having to take a few seconds before getting up to leave. The cloud that had descended over me in the first ten minutes had been consciously dissolved, painted over anew with visually and emotionally stunning work. I am someone who would not have considered parting with money for an hour’s worth of abstract dance work before, but I will certainly be keeping my ear to the ground for Van Huynh’s name in future.
Gesundheit! played at Rich Mix on 30 January. For more information, see the Rich Mix website.