When I first saw Jo Strømgren’s Sunday Again a few years ago, I came away with more of the humorous moments he intersperses throughout the work. They’re still there, but on this second viewing it’s the discord that hangs with me. I was struck by the brutality of the male/female interaction—Strømgren’s programme note mentions some focus on couples facing their incompatibilities, but it’s small preparation for the intensity we see onstage. Hulking Jason Kittelberger dwarfs Acacia Schachte, whose character, for the most part, seems conciliatory to Kittelberger’s impatient bullying, though she does, on occasion, send him reeling, too.
I was eager to see another work from Jacopo Godani after being bowled over by his Symptoms of Development, also performed by Cedar Lake a few years back. UNIT IN REACTION, however, is a very different animal. While the sections of Symptoms are varied, UNIT is much more homogeneous. Stark lighting scenarios by Godani create a grim environment. The characters are strong yet tortured—gnarled hands and hyperextended rib cages suggest they’re under duress of some kind, yet the arcing limbs move with a power that connotes fighting back rather than defensive flailing. It’s a driving, enervating piece for the audience—one can only imagine it’s doubly so for the performers as they spend most of the work engaged in battle against formidable forces.
The evening’s highlight was Alexander Ekman’s Hubbub. This wry ballet is a meta-dance, a dance about dancing—at least that’s what it initially appears to be. We see dancers on stage, preparing themselves to be seen by arranging small tables, applying makeup and taking positions just in time for specific phrases in the music. We see rehearsal scenes, dancers muttering and practising, and then, on someone’s “hup!”, they launch into a series of fast steps and gestures, after which they resume their assessing and practising. Later, the house lights come up and everyone breaks character, dancers fall together into small groups to chat, with some even leaving the stage to lie down in the aisles, groaning with exhaustion and resting. This meta-dance approach is effected with humour, and while it is something that’s been done before, it sets up Ekman to add an unexpected layer on top, one that takes a dig at so-called dance academicians who are less interested in analysis than they are in self aggrandisement.
As the lights first come up, this layer of Ekman’s concept is manifested by a typewriter, which hangs high up in the space, suspended by what looks like a long scroll of paper descending from the flies. Then comes the sound of someone pecking at this typewriter, and a low, distorted voice repeating, “hubbub”. It’s a bit puzzling at first, but once we hear the pompous narrator describing the events onstage, and expounding on dance in general, we understand the “hubbub” to be a warning that these verbal treatises are rubbish. The emptiness of the narrator’s words is well disguised: his diction is impressive, his sentences are well crafted and he speaks with confidence. What gives him away is that he speaks too quickly, challenging the listener to keep up with his supposed brilliance, and there is a self-importance that paints his remarks not as educational but as egotistical. He cautions that experienced dance audiences might grasp some things but novice watchers of dance might be fooled by a particular theatrical illusion. “Do not be fooled!” he admonishes more than once. There is no generosity in his sharing of knowledge, just a need to appear more knowledgeable than his audience.
Near the end of the work, the dancers disrobe—ending up in brief, tan undergarments—and stand downstage in a line, laid bare for our inspection. What becomes a long pause is broken by the narrator’s “How long can this pause work?” There are a lot of comic bits like this throughout the piece, particularly the duet (Nickemil Concepcion and Harumi Terayama) where we hear a recording of the two dancers talking themselves through the steps: “Here comes that slide” and “Now we do that head thing”, “Okay, but be careful with my neck”—this followed by one dancer brusquely tossing the other’s head in a way that looked anything but careful. Meanwhile, in the background, a man crosses the stage holding on his shoulder a large boom box from which music softly emanates —and he holds a sign which puns “background music.”
As a final jab at those who talk a lot about dance just to hear themselves talk, Ekman brings the level of conversation down to that of tabloid gossip. The narrator begins to reveal secrets about each of dancers. In my paraphrasing, the numbers have been changed to protect the identities of the dancers mentioned (a joke, my humble homage to Ekman’s comedic sense)—“Participant number 18,” as one dancer’s hand goes up, “saw participants 23 and 7”, two more hands go up, “touching each other before the show.” And so on, as other supposed personal secrets are revealed about the people we’re seeing. It’s funny, but it’s also an appropriately ugly portrayal of petty commentators. It will be interesting to discover what other biting insights Ekman has to share.