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Fascinating No Body at Sadler’s Wells – Review

No Body at Sadler's WellsIn the opening moments of No Body, so named because it emphasises absolutely everything about a dance performance at Sadler’s Wells except live and in-the-flesh dancers, I was reminded of the Tate Modern exhibit called “Work 227: The lights going on and off”, which did what it said – and, incidentally, won the Turner Prize in 2001. So much for the Turner Prize. It is true, though, that lighting plays such a key part in modern theatre – consider, for example, the newer set of Les Miserables, currently on Broadway, with its lighting design, against the original still on Shaftesbury Avenue. The former is more nuanced and sophisticated.

I think I was as entertained by others gawping at lightbulbs as I was by the ‘Lightspace’ installation itself. It did, however, become quite underwhelming after a few minutes, and while the music went well with the changes of light and atmosphere, it came across as a tad too repetitive. As a spotlight shines bright from the ceiling, it rather reminded me of the motion picture “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” during the spaceship landing scene, as the audience looks up towards the light, wondering what was about to happen next.

I suppose I’m too used to relentlessly action-filled performances, and in the slowness of the light sequences, the famous quote attributed to the Welsh poet William Henry Davies came to mind: “A poor life this if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare”. Now, whether certain members of the audience’s lights emanating from their mobile phones added or took away from ‘Lightspace’ depends on one’s definition of immersive theatre. I personally still maintain that nobody came to watch lights from phones. I fully appreciate others may take a more lenient view in a promenade performance, where there is substantially more freedom to behave as one wishes.

This was the only properly timed-to-the-minute section of the performance – everything else was to be enjoyed at the audience’s leisure. It’s certainly very different to the usual bells and announcements in the bar just before the show and again before the end of the interval, admonishing the audience to get a move on and take their seats. Here, the announcement over the Tannoy system as we poured out of the main auditorium was to state emphatically that “there is no rush”, though the cynic in me did wonder if this was a ploy to maximise bar takings.

In ‘Indelible’, headphones are required, with the foyer spaces on each level taking the audience through various stages of Sadler’s Wells’ illustrious history, stretching as far back as the eighteenth century (though the theatre itself dates back as far as 1683), right the way through to 2015’s The Car Man, most notable for what happened off-stage when principal dancer Jonathan Ollivier died in a road traffic collision en route to Sadler’s Wells. As the history of Sadler’s Wells is documented very extensively elsewhere, even if not in such an expressive multimedia format as it is presented here, I will only point out a most entertaining finale to this section of the performance, which, because of the level of the audience participation, amused the Sadler’s Wells staff as much as it did myself and others present. Without giving too much away, the programme is right to call it a space where “past, present and future meet in a simple binding revelation”.

‘The Running Tongue’ was merely explained to me as “a film that doesn’t end”. I am not, fortunately or unfortunately, old enough to recall the days when people went into a cinema auditorium, sat down, and watched a film from whatever point in the proceedings the film had reached, and then stayed on after the film had ended to discover what happened to begin with. But my initial assumption of this work was somewhat misguided. I am unable to improve on the programme’s own summary of how it actually works: “Defying the usual conventions of cinematic form, the film is edited live in real time by a custom-programmed computer which makes its own decisions about how to order the narrative. This means that the work can run forever and never quite play the same way twice. The changing order of events and different juxtapositions of sound and picture continuously offer up new ways to read the images and stories.”

Though in practice, as the day preceding the evening I attended was quite warm, the indoor temperature was uncomfortably hot, and thus it was, for me, more of an opportunity, at least initially, merely to sit down in an air conditioned room and enjoy a film. The editing and picture quality is up to what modern audiences expect. My only reservation is that it’s not exactly family viewing.

‘Hidden’ was probably my favourite section in the overall performance. While the final part of it, the (un)imaginatively named ‘Part Three’, was explained as being “by Lucy Carter”, it transpired that Parts One and Two were also designed by her. ‘Light Store’ was, I regret, too dazzling in places for me to fully appreciate. Imagine driving from A to B at night and every vehicle – every single one – travelling in the opposite direction did so without having dipped their lights. That is what ‘Light Store’ was like. The other parts were fascinating, exploring an actual dressing room, albeit one arranged with as much on display as possible as though this were a National Trust site, and then the sound and lighting desks and all their various bits of equipment and controls that boggled my mind but I’m sure will have interested others. To see all that up close, though, made me ponder and appreciate how key the role of technical crews are to the live theatrical experience. The tradition of the cast making a point of acknowledging them at curtain call, however briefly, has been retained, and with good reason.

Taken together, it is a worthwhile experience for anyone who would like more than a typical backstage tour. It’s quite a bold move by Sadler’s Wells to commission something of this nature, and it’s so varied and strangely intriguing. I am all the more appreciative of the efforts made by those we don’t see taking a bow at curtain call, and I commend this work as an innovative way of raising the profile of the many off-stage personnel without whom the theatre shows we enjoy simply couldn’t happen. A very different but nonetheless fascinating performance.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

No Body is a first for Sadler’s Wells. A fully immersive multi-installation experience that combines all the elements of a successful dance performance – lighting, design, sound and projection, but without the physical presence of dancers. This is a unique opportunity for audiences to experience parts of the building not usually open to the public.

The installation starts with LightSpace, Michael Hulls’ installation which takes the audience on stage, bathing them in light and giving them an idea of what it feels like to be a performer. Created in collaboration with video designer Jan Urbanowski and composers Andy Cowton and Mukul, it pays homage to the humble tungsten bulb and explores the psychotropic way that light affects our mood.

Audiences will then go on a music, sound and animation trail wearing headphones in the foyer spaces. Indelible features Nitin Sawhney’s specially commissioned recordings and compositions and Yeast Culture’s Nick Hillel’s visual projections to create a sense of the indelible mark left by past vistors and performers.

Lucy Carter / Michael Hulls / Nitin Sawhney – No Body (Sadler’s Soundbites)

7th to 12th June 2016


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