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  • Chris O'Rourke

Alternatively Terrific & Gentle

Justine Cooper, Jenny Roche, and Liz Roche. Image by José Miguel Jiménez.

You can make an audio recording of a concert, play, or book. Audio recording dance really isn't an option. Dance is primarily a visual medium, which has further restricted its creative options under Covid. With necessity being the mother of invention, Liz Roche Company re-invented their latest work, Alternatively Terrific & Gentle in response to social distancing. A work in which choreographers and performers Jodi Melnick (New York), Liz Roche (Dublin) and Jenny Roche (Limerick), with Justine Cooper substituting for Melnick in performance, set out to remake the idea of performance in an effort to explore the relationship between living beings and the natural world. Seeing the body and nature as sites of constant change, and of creation and destruction, they set out to create an initial dance piece to serve as a starting point for collaborative responses from a number of choreographers and performers from across the globe. Inspiration arising from an array of texts, music, letters and visual art, the title taken from a love letter from composer John Cage to choreographer Merce Cunningham where he describes the intensity of rain one afternoon as “alternately terrific and gentle.”

So much for the blurb. The reality being, as T.S. Eliot once remarked, a case of there being more to the poem than the poet knows themselves. Begun in 2019 and intended for a live audience, Alternatively Terrific & Gentle was completed during lockdown, and its nine short films frequently find the medium itself becoming the message. A work whose visual framing, particularly by José Miguel Jiménez, often dominates what's being framed. Including some terrific soundscapes by Robert Boston.

Paul Whyte. Image uncredited.

Featuring one trio, along with a selection of duos and solos, its possible to jump into Alternatively Terrific & Gentle at any given point. Sequentially, however, the series begins with dancers Justine Cooper, Jenny Roche, and Liz Roche establishing the initial movement sequence which informs all that follows. As the dancers prepare, silence is warmed by laughter creating a sense of rehearsal and discovery that permeates many sequences that follow. Yet from the get-go the dancing body is made subservient to the gaze of the camera which seems more intent on its own processes. As a result, the sheer gorgeousness of Jiménez cinematography ends up suggesting a high end, teaser trailer for a production you really should go and see. Close to the four minute mark things become far more interesting as Boston's sublime score kicks in and the dancers begin in earnest. Patterns emerge and are shared, and with no contact taking place between dancers the sense of distance is reinforced. Making the most poignant space the distance between dancers who never meet. Gently subverted during a wonderfully flowing mirrored sequence in which a momentary synchronicity is achieved. It might only be temporary, but it's a moment infused with hope and memory.

Colin Dunne. Image by José Miguel Jiménez

Throughout, Jiménez's camerawork doesn't so much frame the experience as interpret it, focusing the eye where the camera wants it to go when it may want to linger elsewhere. As a result the camera becomes too much an interpretive spectator to constitute a fourth collaborator, like a person watching a movie and explaining to you what it's about. A far more effective synergy is achieved when movement converses with Boston's minimalist score, which harmonises beautifully with the dancers movements. Even so, when it's all over, you come away feeling you've seen only part of it. The rest lying just beyond the periphery of vision. Or the camera lens. An attempt later on to suggest what the live installation might have been like had it gone ahead falls short under Jiménez music video sensibility. Fractured, fragmented, using split screens and often shot at distance, the sense of three dancers occupying the same space is lost to the camerawork. Even if Jude Foley's haunting vocals add another level of engagement.

The template now established, the second sequence sees dancer Paul Whyte responding in a corner. Here Pippa Samaya's camera takes a fixed position, for the most part, and leaves Whyte free rein to do his thing. Moving in beams of light which craft birdlike shadows, later deepening into an inky dark, a sense of nature is wonderfully established. Boston's agitated score, channelling the spirit of Evan Parker in places, haunts with a synth like drone as Whyte's body shifts in and out of shadows; momentarily here, partially there, then disappeared; the unsettling agitation of music and movement softened by their directness, crafting a simple yet intriguing piece.

Mufutau Yusuf. Image uncredited.

The challenges of creative discovery are made visible in Colin Dunne's sensitive response. Once again, Jiménez's camera attempts to play with the space between spectator and collaborator only to reinforce it. If the camera takes a more fixed position at times, the meta-use of half screens and split screens often distract from Dunne who appears to struggle with the creative process, his isolation and vulnerability captured with an almost documentary style beauty. For those for whom the creative process itself constitutes work, there is much to relate to here. For those more interested in the work arising out of that process, there's a sense of being teased with fragments from a work in development that still remains unfinished.

None of which is to be found in Mufutau Yusuf's superb solo where the discovered looms larger than the process of discovery without ever eclipsing it. A fluid body rendered almost insignificant by vast swathes of impersonal concrete, Yusuf is the only living soul with nowhere or nothing to connect to. A last man on earth speaking superbly to the loneliness and isolation of social distancing with a simplicity that is never simplistic. Easy, repeated gestures executed against a lifeless concrete landscape; the emptied space becomes Yusuf's partner and competitor. As does Boston's excellent, piano driven score. Davide Belotti's camera and editing is always informed by Yusuf's presence and movements, offering an extremely satisfying sense of collaborative effort in which medium clearly serves both message and messenger without sacrificing its own presence.

Malcolm Low and Jodi Melnick. Image uncredited.

Just past the half way mark and a series of brief duets featuring Jodi Melnick find her playing against stark landscapes. In Church & Salt dancer Colin Dunne appears to extend his solo piece into a duet in which he dances alone in a church whilst Melnick dances alone before a mountain of salt. Ever upright and erect, feet shuffling and sliding dominate both sequences, with both dancers eventually juxtaposed by a split screen. Quarry, featuring Melnick and Malcolm Low, takes place, aptly enough, in a quarry. In which Jiménez edits camera work by Dean Villarini and Art Becofsky into a dissonant series of contrasting images where the immensity of the space often smudges the dancers into blurs in the distance. Dissonance mirrored by Boston's uncharacteristically overbearing score that plays with, and against, movement. At times resembling an avant garde music video, at others looking like the latest upload on Tik Tok, a sense of the dwarfed body battling an immense landscape permeates both works.

Two text driven pieces round out Alternatively Terrific & Gentle on something of whimper. Rachel Donnelly might claim to think more in images than words when it comes to memory and emotion, but it's imagery that tips its hat a little too neatly at Krapp's Last Tape. Nor is the irony escaped that despite Donoghue's assertion, Liv O’Donoghue frequently finds Donnelly's words drowning out the images. Efforts to force the observer to create their own images feel contrived, as does the horror movie style ending.

Maïa Nunes. Image uncredited

A soundscape and performance by Maïa Nunes opens like a soulful dirge or poetic incantation. Yet it soon becomes dull for proving visually uninteresting, resembling stills from the live action version of Jungle Book. Full of Disney friendly, hip hop meditations on rain and ancestors, its erotically breathy soundscape deserves far better. Trying too hard to not try too hard, it doesn't try hard enough in places where it should. Spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on Nunes' back, it almost seems as if she's trying to shun the audience. Less art installation so much as the artist as installation, Nunes is often far more interesting than her words and lyrics, as a short, close-up sequence evidences, suggesting what might have been.

Alternatively Terrific & Gentle speaks to spaces, music, and to movement dominated by a sense of discovery and process. And to art being shaped more than captured by the camera lens. As for the benefits of collaboration, viewed sequentially, Alternatively Terrific & Gentle begins with a dance piece and ends with a glorified music video with lots of posing and very little movement. Along the way it finds some interesting compliments and contrasts, and some not so interesting ones. Seeking multiple responses and a plurality of viewpoints, it's bound together by a featherweight chain not nearly robust enough to unite into a collective whole, and so never achieves that something greater than its individual parts. A testament, perhaps, to the importance of live performance, which might well have brought everything together. As it stands, Alternatively Terrific & Gentle might seek a new way of creating a performance, but it's a way wherein dance and movement often become its victims, looking like the poor relations of performance art and the camera. Even so, Alternatively Terrific & Gentle speaks poignantly to the isolation of artists under Covid. Reason enough for those who bought tickets to the cancelled live installation to hopefully not request refunds.

Alternatively Terrific & Gentle by Liz Roche Company was streamed online Sunday, December 14.

For more information visit Liz Roche Company


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