First steps

Dance novice Alex Simpson describes his first time at DanceXchange.

Arthur Pita & HeadSpaceDance
The Patrick Centre(17/2/17)

Well, I never….

I never realised I was attending a World Première here in Birmingham.

I will come clean, I have never (knowingly) attended a professional dance performance in my life; I will come even cleaner, I have never reviewed anything artistic and high-brow before.

Now, if you will indulge me – the novice – to draw on a metaphor from the world of football: This was a performance of two halves. The first half was intoxicating, the second half was better still, and the overall impression one was left with was beguiling.

The reason for the two halves was that award-winning director and choreographer Arthur Pita was revisiting his well-received Stepfather piece – inspired by a song from cult American band Violent Femmes – and coupling it with a brand-new piece Stepmother to form an eclectic ensemble show.

To run with the football analogy, anyone who has attended a ground regularly will be aware of the concept of the bloke behind me (and even if you haven’t you’ll get the drift of an opinionated someone sounding off to all-and-sundry), well I was that albeit higher-brow (!) bloke, and if the man alongside me in the Gents (obviously, opinions cannot be voiced during a performance!) was representative of the audience as a whole, then we had all indeed been blown away.

The performance was flagged as a menacing world of dark dance, and we were met with black-clad dancers formally seated on a darkened stage for the debut of Stepmother, save for a brightly dressed ‘child’ contained in a glass-case.

All six ‘macabre’ dancers – three men, three women – were dressed to represent the figure of the stepmother of fairytale and legend, as they proceeded to contort and torture the child – domatrix style – through a variety of routines which referenced the classics: Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella (ironic given the ballet was showing on the big stage) and Rapunzel. The choreography was anything but classical, given that the males were gyrating on high-heels, to the accompaniment of a (superb) ethereal score of church and choral music reminiscent of the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning Italian film La Grande Bellezza.

The visual darkness of the first half continued into the emotional punch of Stepfather for the second act, based on the cult American band’s country-punk tale of incest and death, with the staging hinting at redemption. Here the soundtrack began with the searing Violent Femmes number to set the scene before proceeding to reference Americana via song, dance and backdrop presenting the backstory, morality and denouement of this twisted family situation.

Credit should go not only to Pita’s direction and choreography, but particularly the sound, prop and costume design, all of which combine sublimely to enable even a novice to walk away with a clear understanding of what Stepmother | Stepfather purported to represent. Anguish might well have been present throughout the two pieces, and the spectator was left with a haunting feeling, but in an uplifting way.