writers on dancing


Song and Dance

"On the Town"
English National Opera
London Coliseum
From March 5, 2005

“Borrowed Light”
Tero Saarinen Company
& The Boston Camerata
Queen Elizabeth Hall
April 6, 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

Two song and dance shows have come our way—in very different proportions. English National Opera decided to give “On the Town” a rare London showing, and were slated by some critics both for choosing a non-opera and for (sensibly, I would have thought) bringing in some non-operatic actor-singers. Luckily for ENO, the public did not concur: bookings have been so good that extra performances had to be scheduled. I had never seen the work on stage, only the brilliant but much adapted film, and am glad to have rectified the omission, especially given the strong show-biz playing of Aaron Lazar, Adam Garcia and Tim Howar as the three sailors and Helen Anker, Caroline O’Connor and Lucy Schaufer as their lady-loves. However, the programme credit “based on an idea by Jerome Robbins” is a reminder of how important dance is in the show—the idea in question, you may remember, went by the name of “Fancy Free” and largely made the name of Leonard Bernstein as well as that of the choreographer. Jude Kelly, one of our leading theatre directors, assured the excellent production, but I can’t share her admiration for Stephen Mear as choreographer; his dances swung along but seemed to me too much a cheap imitation of the Robbins style. That apart, I much enjoyed the show.

Also highly enjoyable was “Borrowed Light”, which came for a one-night stand at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The production is a collaboration between the eight dancers of the Tero Saarinen Company and the eight singers of the Boston Camerata, directed respectively by the Finnish choreographer Saarinen and the American musician Joel Cohen. Their joint inspiration is the songs of the Shaker sect. The title “Borrowed Light” alludes to a Shaker habit of providing windows in internal walls so that a room can gain illumination from another, but it makes better sense as referring to the way Saarinen and Cohen have drawn inspiration from the music. The sixteen performers share the stage, all dressed in black and seen against a structure of platforms that form wide shallow steps; the cast often stand or sit on the lowest of these, and one or two will often climb and descend to pass behind the on-stage players. The dances imply a kind of invented folk art, and the singers are trusted with movement too. There is a kind of ritual going on, drawing on various forms of solo, duet or ensemble, but looking original and inevitable. Erika Turunen’s costumes doubtless draw on but certainly don’t imitate Shaker garments (the women dancers’ dresses, although chaste enough, are certainly sexier in detail than this devoted community would have worn); Mikki Kunttu’s lighting ideally complements the action. Saarinen cites community and devotion as his subject, and with his collaborators has achieved a result that constantly surprises and holds the attention.

Volume 3, No. 14
April 11, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival


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last updated on April 11, 2005