In Dundee Rep’s latest offering for digital audiences, Rep Studios has presented The Life And Times – a Scottish Dance Theatre production.
Conceived and choregraphed by Scottish Dance Theatre’s artistic director Joan Clevillé, The Life And Times is a live hour-long dance performance, shot in one continuous take, which unfolds on-screen in real time as the camera is threaded into the choreography.
It follows a Hansel-and-Gretel-like pair of sprites through a series of Baroque classical music pieces, as they uncover objects and interact with other dancers on a journey to get the things they need and “seize the day”.
But if you think this sounds staid or trite, you’d be wrong. With a stripped-down set and minimalist costuming, it is almost frustratingly modern.
The journey is described by Clevillé as a hybrid of silent film and music video which feels like “going down the rabbit hole”.
But though the direction is sophisticated, the music lush and the dancers undeniably incredible as they twist and jitter their bodies across the ever-shifting stage, there is something needlessly humble about the show’s aesthetic.
It’s clear that it’s all intentional – the pared-back, plain costumes, the empty stage, the simple props, the warm, soft lighting. Clevillé is concerned with processes, improvisation, movement. Above all else, he is concerned with time, and the sensation of it passing both quickly and slowly. The show delivers on all those promises.
It doesn’t need fancy costumes distracting from the raw emotion, the beautiful, bizarre and sometimes unsettling movements of the bodies on the stage. It doesn’t need polish to make it look veneered, instead of reactive, fluid, and responsive.
It just might have been nice to have some anyway. As it is, it feels almost like watching a perfect rehearsal of the production you might be going to see.
No substitute for theatre – so a success
Then again, perhaps this divorce from the conventions of theatre and film are wise. This way, the production really is incomparable to anything it might be compared to.
Clevillé states on the performance’s accompanying Show Notes podcast episode that he was “really keen not to give our audience a substitute” for the theatre, instead making the show with a digital-only viewership in mind.
The Life And Times certainly achieves that. There are proper gasp-out-loud-on-your-couch, magic moments when the music and the bodies on the stage sync up in unexpected ways, or when the camera is swung round to reveal a sudden slew of people where there were none moments ago.
The sequences of the two sprites (Kieran Brown and Jessie Roberts-Smith) playing are particularly dynamic, with their silent-era slapstick bringing narrative and whimsy to what threatens, sometimes, to become a very abstract performance.
And the lovely thing about digital artist Tao-Anas Le Thanh’s choreographed camera is that as virtual viewers, we get to see the expressions on the dancer’s faces, and all the emotion – and humour – they put into them.
That’s something you don’t always get at the theatre.
Overall, The Life And Times, though maybe not for everyone, is a success at what it sets out to do.
Though it’s not a Covid story, it uses pace and contrasting movements to meditate on the way our society’s perception of time has changed over the past year. Its unique camerawork provides a new and dynamic digital experience which is separate to, but not subordinate to, live theatre. And on a technical level, the stream was simple to access and steady throughout the performance.
It’s certainly a show worth taking an hour out for, and I’m excited by the prospect of what more could be done in future using the innovative techniques it has established.
The Life and Times is running on June 18 at 7.30pm and tickets can be purchased here.