“Motherland” by Vincent Dance Theatre

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 20th November 2012

I always feel the need to begin my reviews of dance pieces with a disclaimer that I know very little about the tropes, traditions, history and techniques of dance. It’s true that one can always have a connection with any piece of art regardless of prior knowledge, but then as a cultural commentator your job – to put it into some kind of context and discuss the ways it works etc. – may be made more difficult by ignorance. This is why I went armed toWarwick Arts Centre with a notepad last night (normally I just watch and listen, preferring to take notes afterwards): in an attempt to widen my limited knowledge of the genre.

The thing about Vincent Dance Theatre’s Motherland, however, is that it’s just as much theatre as it is dance. Structured as a series of vignettes, there are just as many mime, music and image-based sections as there are dance ones. Were we on the continent, Motherland may way be placed under the genre of “theatre”. As things stand on our text-obsessed island, however, we seem scared to talk about this as anything but “dance”.

The piece, directed and choreographed by Charlotte Vincent, is an unashamedly feminist show which attempts to blow open gender stereotypes by satirising our current views of gender, thus exposing the ridiculousness of our archaic perceptions. Some (conservative, reactionary, ridiculous) individuals may suggest that this debate is over (they are wrong) whilst others (who are slightly less ignorant) might oppose the rather overt message which this show exerts. My own opinion on the matter is that we cannot stop being clear about changing what remains a grossly sexist society, and that the subtleties and nuances in Motherland add to and extend the debate.

On a simple, bright white set, five women and five men create a series of repeated images throughout the show. The clearest sees performer Aurora Lubos walk to the back of the stage with a bottle of wine, which she then opens and jerks towards the clean white backdrop. A gloop of thick dark red liquid spurts out onto the wall and the bottle is put down. She then hitches up her skirt and sits against the wall with her legs apart, the red liquid visible between her legs. This is repeated five terms throughout the show, each with a slightly different soundtrack which becomes more discordant as the two-hour show progresses.

On the opposite side of the stage, down stage right, soil is dumped at regular intervals (normally after the image described above). Various performers interact with the dirt (standing, writhing, falling), and within the first fifteen minutes of the piece, a fertility ritual is performed on top of it by men and women, imbuing it with the hope of life to a rich folk song. It is not until the last fifteen minutes, however, that we really see life spring out of this dead earth, as mounds of grass begin to be brought onto stage, injecting bright colour into the previously black, brown, red and white palette.

A regular motif is that of falling – fallen women and fallen men spring to mind – and each section contains some kind of struggle (for life, for death, for love). Whilst many of the more theatrical sequences consider an intellectual, emotional struggle, dance is used to embody a physical struggle, which becomes more and more frequent as the piece continues. One of the best moments of dance sees two men attempting to stop the self-expression of another, followed by a dance verging in the sublime between a man and a woman, suggesting, perhaps, that with mutual respect, men and women can live together in harmony (I always feel when saying statements like this that I may be guilty of the sexism I purport to detest so much, so apologies if that is the case; I’m a little ignorant on these matters so please forgive me).

There are two stand-out moments which aren’t repeated at all and stand alone as rather beautiful pieces of theatre. My favourite is a simple song played by three of the female performers (and sung by the gorgeously dry Patrycja Kujawska) in their underwear about the hundreds of choices that women have to make on a daily basis. They have to seem like both “a virgin and a whore”, “easy but not too easy”, “keen but not too keen”. It’s a bleakly comic view of the modern world, and seems to pastiche – consciously or otherwise – Katy Perry’s Hot n Cold. In another, two musicians stand centre stage playing guitars, as the other performers run in circles, placing wooden boxes to form a ring around them. This race between men and women produces a girl, just shy of her teens, finding herself holding a pair of stilettos, which she proceeds to put on. She totters around the circle as the adults overtake her before two men lift her onto the boxes themselves, picking her up at intervals so she floats around the ‘O’. As quickly as the circle appeared, it has vanished.

If there’s any through-line of action it’s that of this girl. She is our window into this world, and her child-like vision allows the absurdity of the struggles we are watching to become clear. She sees older women looking at themselves in mirrors and copies them. She tries to dance like grown ups. She watches in horror as adults do unspeakable things to one another. If there’s one straightforward message in Motherland it’s this: “Look what we’re doing to our children! We’re fucking them up and it needs to stop”.

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