At first there’s a sound. Earthy. Like a rat scratching under the floorboards. Hooded figures emerge, sketched into the corner in the semi-dark, hinting of double, double, toil and trouble. From the outset, Tipperary based Iseli-Choidi Dance Company’s “Merlin” seems to be aligning itself with the fairytale and mythic. But only briefly. As figures move as one across the floor, Oscar Mascareñas’s problematic composition begins to emit a series of digitised bleeps, like an R2D2 convention. Still the figures move, slowly, resembling Tusken Raiders crossing the Star Wars sands, eventually disappearing behind a pair of movable flats that will shift periodically about the stage. In “Merlin,” a disharmony of opposites finds such dichotomised binaries searching for resolution. Yet in attempting to resolve too many at once, “Merlin” succeeds in resolving too few for trying to be all Merlins to all people. One whose choreographic ideas can often be intriguing, but whose magic can prove elusive, concealed beneath a ponderous passivity.
Things begin promising enough. A galloping duet flows dynamically as a semi-nude female dancer races about the stage, pursued and manipulated by a fully dressed male dancer who often captures her by the throat, the image becoming a recurring motif. Together they articulate some strong and evocative images, as does the duet that immediately follows. A painstakingly articulated beauty reacts with her native Americas beast, Pierre Canitrot’s costume suggesting a Buffalo skinned medicine man preparing for a Ghost Dance. If dynamics have begun strongly, energy soon begins to dissipate as a trio finds two propelling a third about the space and into a variety of shapes from which they prompt her to further movements. A device hinted at earlier that soon comes to dominate and overplay its effectiveness.
Throughout most of “Merlin” this sense of dancers bodies being acted upon rather than having agency becomes overwhelmingly prominent. Dancers are carried and dragged, pulled, pushed, prodded and propelled throughout various sequences, then piled and re-piled like lifeless corpse in a smoke swirled darkness under searchlights. Often without response or reaction.The effect is to make “Merlin” feel weighted and heavy, sapped of its own inherent vitality and energy. Indeed, by the time a beautiful, if prolonged, mirroring sequence arrives, often exquisitely synchronised, manipulation of the other already feels like a worn-out device. Undermining what would ordinarily have been a powerful visual sequence for having been overused.
If passivity poses problems, energy is not without its issues. Like an electric cable severed in a disaster movie, sparks often scatter as “Merlin” looks to flail about in places. A sequence of anxious and hurried tableaux, fleetingly landing before disappearing, doesn’t create images so much as fracture fragments already out of focus. With its frenetic pace scattering everything across the stage, it’s not that you don’t know where to look so much as try hard to look everywhere at once. Caught on the periphery of vision, many images fail to land in the minds eye. Like Mascareñas’s soundtrack, comprised of unimaginative found sounds from cowbells to dropping bombs, along with some interesting musical arrangements, visually there’s a dissonance at play that doesn’t fragment interpretation so much as corral it within too narrow a focus. Something Kevin Smith’s lighting design reinforces, working within too restrictive and shadowed a palette.
At its best “Merlin” offers a series of prolonged physical vignettes that deliver some visually impressive moments. But too often dancers Jazmin Choidi, Clara Protar, Kiko López, Sarah Ryan and Alexandre Iseli look like rag dolls being moved about the stage, lifeless puppets deprived of expression and agency. Movement commanded by their relative puppet master who manipulates them into shape. If this was the card “Merlin” intended to gamble on, it’s one that soon gets overplayed and doesn’t deliver that winning hand. Intriguing and ambitious, “Merlin” falls short of its own aspirations, hinted at in some wonderful moments and images.
“Merlin” by Iseli-Choidi Dance Company, runs at The Project Arts Centre before undertaking a national tour.