Motionhouse’s recent production Charge electrifies the stage with its eclectic fusion of dance, circus and ‘crackling’ digital imagery, but will it leave our contributor Calum Cockburn energised?
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
(From I Sing the Body Electric, Walt Whitman)
Charge arrives at a significant moment in Motionhouse’s history, as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. Founded in 1988 by Louise Richards and artistic director Kevin Finnan, the company produces touring dance-circus shows that aim to integrate athleticism, acrobatics, vivid storytelling, and digital technology, overlaid with emotive musical scores. These productions are multi-media spectacles, ‘living films’ (in Finnan’s words), creating an immersive experience, both on the stage and in outdoor non-theatre spaces. Motionhouse’s work has tended to focus on the commonalities of human experience, particularly our perception of the world around us and our place within it. Perfect (2005), for example, examined the nature and pressures of time, ‘how it shapes us, draws us together and ultimately tears us apart’. Scattered (2009) explored our relationship with water, creating an ethereal, otherworldly space, in which dancers performed on a sloping, curved wall, slipping, diving through waves, and seemingly swimming underwater. Broken (2013), meanwhile, looked to our precarious relationship with the earth, its performers negotiating the cracks and fissures of an apocalyptic landscape, and visions of a collapsing city torn apart by an earthquake. These shows have all continued to tour the UK and the rest of the world, such has been their enduring popularity.
In a continuation of this environmental theme, Charge (2018) explores our relationship with electrical energy in an ambitious production where ‘art and science collide’. The show does not have a conventional linear narrative; it’s far more expressive than that. It comprises a series of sequences that all interpret the idea of the ‘body electric’ in a different way and which overlap with each other. The opening focuses on the discovery and scientific exploration of electrical energy, depicting the experiments of the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, whose work on frogs uncovered the electrical currents that stimulate the contraction of muscles in the body. This is followed by a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein and her story of a young scientist and his grotesque creation, ‘a mass of electrified clay’, brought to life in an unorthodox experiment. Then we’re thrust into an urban environment, overwhelmed by the frenetic energy of a city at work. Then a club, where a man and woman meet and flirt and dance together, before going to their apartment to have sex. Then into the human body itself, following the beating of the human heart, the working of the brain and the eventual loss of memory through a degenerative neurological disease. All these performed by just six dancers (three men and three women). These sequences are not presented as necessarily linear or chronological, but instead as analogous to each other. Finnan sees the idea of electricity and energy as a continuum. His production seeks to illustrate the ubiquity of these electrical currents in all aspects of our lives, and how fundamental they are to human existence and experience, ‘to our ability to love, to remember, to empathise’.
In this regard, Charge is undone by its own ambition. The sequences are danced beautifully; the movement is at times athletic, bold, and physical, at others soft, delicate, and emotive (particularly at its climax). The choreography is highly complex, with inexplicable lifts and jumps, aerial work and intricate interchanges timed perfectly. The integration of digital technology into the dancing is in many ways ground-breaking. And like many Motionhouse productions before it, the staging is elaborate too, constructed across multiple levels on a set that reaches a height of over five metres, and which the dancers incorporate into their performance in surprising and inventive ways. Nevertheless, the storytelling at the heart of this production is underwhelming. Most notably, the inexplicable movement from sequence to sequence and scene to scene often causes jarring shifts in tone and undermines the piece’s more poignant moments. Can we truly appreciate the production’s moving representation of dementia at its climax – the aching struggle to hold on to the last fingers of memory and love and empathy – when not fifteen minutes before we’ve seen the dancers in nude skin-tight clothes pretending to be sperm cells, diving around the stage looking for an ovum? How can we move from Frankenstein’s Monster lumbering around the stage in the fashion of a 1980s Hammer Horror film, or lab coat-wearing dancers imitating the action of electrocuted frogs, to the anxiety-driven hustle and bustle of a modern cityscape? The juxtaposition is too stark, and watching these flickering tableaux, the audience loses any sense of emotional resonance, empathy, or development. Instead, we can’t help but be exhausted by the spectacle of it all, by the physical feats and acrobatic ability of dancers suspended from the ceiling; by the flashes of crackling digital imagery canvassing the stage; and by a booming musical score that lacks much of the nuance of the movement of its performers. The audience leaves Charge undoubtedly impressed and dazzled by the technical skill of the production and its dancers, but fundamentally unmoved and unchanged by the story we have watched.
Motionhouse’s production of Charge was performed at the Peacock Theatre on 21st to 24th March.