Julie Cunningham & Company’s ‘Sarah Kane’s Crave’ at The Pit theatre, Barbican Centre

Julie Cunningham & Company’s ‘Sarah Kane’s Crave’ both revises and celebrates the late British playwright’s work in an affective fusion of dance, drama and sound.

Choreographer Julie Cunningham’s and co-director Joyce Henderson’s reimagining of playwright Sarah Kane’s Crave is a gripping, powerful and stark portrayal of female existence, that constantly pivots between life and death, remembering and forgetting, sanity and madness. Kane’s play is a lyrical exploration of rape, pedophilia, mental illness, anorexia, alcoholism, love, death, sex, childhood, motherhood, addiction and chain smoking. There are moments of levity and bravery within the darkness, glimpses of hope where the light gets in. At one point this hope is literalised with a narrow shaft of light cutting across the stage and illuminating Cunningham, her dance company and the four phenomenal actors who speak for, with and against the dancers and their movements.

Originally conceived as a one-act piece for four people, Kane’s play is a poetic exploration of trauma between four  voices, which are indeterminately male or female, young or old. First performed in 1998, a year before her death, the cast included two women and two men as characters, C, M, B and A. The play has been twice reimagined and fused into other forms of art: Björk’s ‘An Echo, A Stain’ was inspired by and incorporates lines from the play, and now Cunningham’s choreographic response offers us layers of movement, doubling the female bodies, creative capacities, and art forms on stage. With this casting Cunningham and Henderson deliberately examine Kane’s work in a feminine context, all the while allowing for a spectrum of gender identifications or considerations within the text and in the performances, spoken and danced. The production positions androgyny’s stripping away of the performative flourishes of gender as coextensive with Kane’s brutal language (albeit a pared-down version) and plotless, setless project and Cunningham’s choreography, rooted as it is in the abrupt articulations of tense or difficult movement. It is this style that defines contemporary dance and its influential figures like Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark (within whose companies Cunningham began her career).

But Cunningham’s piece, though responding to and working with Kane and influenced by earlier dance artists, is not derivative; it is gorgeously and strenuously collaborative, staging the best possibilities of feminist and/or queer art. Cunningham’s casting is intersectional and the production is deliberately interdisciplinary, fusing forms of performative art in drama, poetry, speech and dance, but also suggesting ways we can engage further in what could be designated as the ‘literary’ through acts of reading, not just metaphorically as we read the movements, expressions and voices on the stage.

To write this review, I read the play wanting to better remember and better understand what had happened onstage. This piece elicited such a strong emotional response that my memory (and my note-taking) failed in some ways, but I wanted to attempt to reproduce the brilliant language as much as possible in sharing this with others. This reading then became an(other) experiential replication of the kinds of work we do in relation to trauma or memory, the main thrust of this work’s words. What we forget in the emotional moment is reconsidered, revived, ‘relived’ in the research into the piece, and the audience can turn to the words of Kane, as Cunningham has done in creating and melding Kane’s work with her own art. Reading Cunningham’s and Henderson’s programme notes is another literary encounter with the piece, one which contiguously explores how the third person of individual, divided subjectivities can become collective. This is seen when Cunningham and Henderson move from the third person of the formal constraints of the theatrical programme into – for a moment – the first person plural to describe how they created and directed movement from Kane’s words:

We are both fascinated by the full array of human movement, from the everyday, the basis of Joyce’s work, to the extraordinary forms that dance can reach. We worked with the cast to map this range onto Kane’s emotional spectrum. The four voices emerged strongly for us, growing in distinctiveness and clarity.

Cunningham has mapped these four voices onto eight bodies: four ‘speakers’ (the ‘characters’ of the original) and their counterparts in movement, the choreographer’s recently-formed company. Though we must remember that even as the speakers and dancers seem to move in some sort of concert, they are often (even while ‘inhabiting’ the same voice) struggling with or against each other, their uniqueness ‘Assimilated but not obliterated.’[1]

In casting all women, Cunningham and Henderson, beyond the more celebratory or at least neutral, androgynously disruptive possibilities, also ask us to confront the potential of and for violence – including sexual violence – in female or nonbinary voices. This is not an exclusively celebratory linguistic work; Kane and Cunningham challenge and cause discomfort in the words and in the expressions of rage, and in the contortionist and difficult movements as the dancers emphasise the work of trying to maintain or find balance. This is a play about obsession and repetitiveness, a continuousness of pain and sadness that can grate and discomfit, slicing into the spectator experience; it may be stimulating and electrifying, but it’s certainly not pleasant to hear (and deeply identify with) sentiments such as ‘I am much fucking angrier than you think.’[2]

In this, both Kane, Cunningham and Henderson are critical of their own positions and privilege within these spaces of words, performance, movement and bodies, as they jolt us from a passive viewing state. All of the performances were strong, but both Anna Martine Freeman and Julie Cunningham as ‘A’ were particularly poignant. For power, Freeman’s soliloquy of sexual and romantic need, beautiful and transcendent, violent and ugly, punctuated by the other voices and accompanied by Cunningham’s intense physical interventions, stood out. Though I must admit that the language, and the enormous power and presence of the actresses speaking it, somewhat distracted my attention from the dancers – perhaps revealing more about what matters to or draws me in than as a reflection on the performance as a whole. In the opening   dancers and actresses (the distinction is unfortunately necessary in attempting to describe the performance) lay on the stage, slowly moving an arm, a hand, or turning a head until sound was audible. These sounds were reminiscent of childhood and appeared ominous with the increasingly contortionist poses. In the closing moments when only the dancers remain on stage, the voices were silent and movement was communicated without words, with only music and the sound of bare feet across the floor taking our focus. Here Cunningham’s choreography extends and overcomes the statements made within the script, as when A tells us: ‘I don’t have music, Christ I wish I had music but all I have is words’ and exhorts us from within this spoken form:

And don’t forget that poetry is language for its own sake

Don’t forget when different words are sanctioned, other attitudes required.

Don’t forget decorum.

Don’t forget decorum.

By choreographing this language for its own sake, Cunningham forces us to ask what happens when it’s not ‘just’ the poetry – when movement is the complementary / competing attitude and how this can or should change our perspective of art forms and discursive experience. In fully understanding and appreciating this, I regret that I was unable to see the performance twice, as an expression of praise for the work and all it asks of us. I also regret not joining in the one-man standing ovation at the end, but I couldn’t move from my seat, perhaps from identifying with many of the ugliest, the sexiest or the most incendiary thoughts and images expressed by the women on stage and by the woman who brought these feelings to shocking life. The breath had been knocked out of me by a convulsive dance experience, one that combined the deliberate and muscular tenuousness and tension of Cunningham’s choreography and the power of Sarah Kane’s traumatic and dark poetics.

Julie Cunningham and Company’s Sarah Kane’s Crave was performed from 10th to 13th May at The Pit theatre, Barbican Centre. Visit Julie Cunningham & Company for more information on Crave and other performances. See also the Barbican Centre for videos of Cunningham & Company’s premiere performance Double Bill.

If you’re 14-25, why not take full advantage of the Young Barbican scheme which offers over 50, 000 tickets at cheaper rates and no booking fees. Click on the link to join for free: https://www.barbican.org.uk/join-support/young-barbican 

[1] Crave, Sarah Kane Complete Plays: London, Methuen Drama, 2001, p. 197.

[2]  Kane, p. 189.

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