REVIEW: VERVE 2016, University of Chichester

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Contemporary dance which gathers laughs from the offset is no mean feat. The opening to Verve’s 2016 programme, Efrosini Protopapa’s Thank You for Coming, does just that.

Part improvised, part choreographed, it invites us - literally, with a spoken request propositioned by a lone balloon – to join the party, whatever the excuse.

Verve’s twelve dancers are all students of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s postgraduate programme. The line-up therefore changes year on year, bringing fresh talent to stages across the UK and Europe. And, as their first piece observes, their performance skills extend far beyond their dancing.

Dancers waddle, skulk, slither and slide their way through constant conversations with contradicting tongues. This is evidently a party, gowns and sparkles aplenty, but not as we know it. Before long, performers are taking to microphones to commentate on the action unfolding, with ‘guests’ erupting into gyrating duets, rushed Macarenas and sweaty chases through the maze of the ‘room’. Improvisation takes over as the dancers cluster closer and closer, mimicking the movements of their friends, and seamlessly pairing off into intimate couples as the lights fall. At the end of the night, breathless bodies blemish the floor.

Anton Lachky’s Almost Poetic takes a similarly idiosyncratic approach with another injection of humour, this time laughing in the face of virtuosity. Soloists showcase their unique talents, from acrobatics to pirouettes, with a desperation which draws their awed counterparts to laugh, clap and scream. Although staged with self-deprecation, there are tremendous talents on display. Rob Anderson has a touch of the Lee Evans about him as he examines the effects of age on his body, slapping his back and clenching his fists with an exacting rubber face.

When Verve does give us time to breathe, its imagery is starkly thought-provoking. Choreographer Athina Vahla is an interdisciplinary artist, working across dance, theatre and visual arts, and this meeting of mediums shines in A Soft Target. This is a more challenging, political work, at times uncomfortable to watch. A video camera on a tripod silently stares as Kai Tomioka (whom you may recognise: a BBC Young Dancer 2015 category finalist) tumbles from a stammer to an all-over body shake. Members of a gruelling aerobics class are soothed by bottled water, but in their desperate thirst, they flood their bodies until the liquid splatters across the floor. As they linger doubled-over, taking heavy breaths, the spillages resemble puddles of vomit. Men pull on black cables attached to female bodies, at one point assuming the form of reins in their mouths. The overall effect is one of a statement on contemporary vanity: sheer desperation for bodily perfection.

Maintaining a similar stance and mood is Renaud Wiser’s The Thin Veil, which questions the effect of social influence on individual identity. The opening is clinical, dancers donning white masks with eerie black holes for eyes and mouths. They manipulate one another, grabbing each other’s heads and yanking this way and that, a cold lack of communication between them. Yet, even with the masks removed, the piece feels just as sinister: dancers on the conveyor belt of monotonous lives. They kneel, they lie, they stand, they repeat.

Verve’s absurdly entertaining – and sometimes refreshingly absurd – mixed bill for 2016 achieves a rare thing. It hooks its audience from the start, and in a show just short of two hours in length, manages to hold its attention with boundless energy. Not merely an excellent platform for the versatility of its talented young performers, it has the fun and freshness to convert even the most reluctant of dance-goers. Bring your friends.

Charlotte Constable

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