Stephen Shropshire’s CANTATA, part of CADANCE FESTIVAL at the Korzo in The Hague.

The dictionary defines Cantata as a medium-length narrative piece of music for voices with instrumental accompaniment, typically with solos, chorus, and orchestra. The definition implies harmony but Netherlands-based American choreographer Stephen Shropshire’s latest work is based on discord and change.

This is the third piece by Shropshire I have seen at the Korzo in the last year and I could almost describe myself as a fan. I really enjoyed  About Miss Julie as well as We Are Nowhere Else But Here. Cantata forms the final part of a loose trilogy along with Nowhere Else and My Everlasting.

Lit by only a line of neon tubes high above the stage the piece starts with the male dancer lying on his stomach, arms limp by his side. In the dim performance area the only décor is a large loud-speaker cone alongside the dancer in the far left corner and a smaller on in the opposite, downstage corner. The music, by Thom Willems, is very quiet and sounds like the strings of a piano being hit in a slow, hypnotic rhythm.

The dancer moves, agoniszingly pulling himself diagonally right across the stage using only his chin and shoulders, putting me in mind of the limbless Prince Randian in Tod Browning’s disturbing film 1932 Freaks.

He is joined by the female dancer – though they are not joined. Dressed in drab T-shirts, colourless socks and black saggy track-suit bottoms they dance separately, never touching and barely acknowledging each other.

Then things change. They are joined by a second male dancer, brightening up the occasion by wearing white socks. The lighting alters, though does not become much more revealing, and we hear the strains of J S Bach’s Cantata BWV 82 Ich habe genug. I say strains because straining is what we were having to do in order to hear the music which was played at an irritatingly low volume.

The second male dancer is manipulated by the first and gradually the three dancers come together in Shropshire’s trademark cat’s cradle choreography. Aimee Lagrange and Jussi Nousianian both danced well as the initial couple but for me it was Ivan Montis, as the white-socked interloper, who was the outstanding performer.

There is another definition of the word Cantata which I think applies well to this piece i.e. a commercial computer program for dynamic testing, specifically unit testing and integration testing, and code.

There was a lot of testing going on in Stephen Shropshire’s piece, specifically of the audience. There is a very fine line to draw between minimalism, being laid back and trendy, and being lazy, pretentious and dull. The dim lighting, dreary non-costumes and the frustratingly quiet sound began to jar after a while. I can understand that the piece was trying to describe desolation and isolation but emptiness in any art form must be metaphorical, not literal. The final sequence came close to crossing that line as the man in the white socks retreated to the gloom of the back wall while the woman and the first man knelt downstage-centre, arm’s-length apart within touching distance of the front row. The only movement was as they very slowly turned their heads, side to side. Apart from this, nothing happened for nearly ten minutes and I, for one, was not sure what I was supposed to feel, except perhaps that, following the excellent After Miss Julie, I was being short-changed. Ultimately disappointing, I’m afraid.    Michael Hasted   1st February 2019

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