Thursday, January 18, 2007

REVIEW: Desert Island Dances (Project, Dublin)

The BBC’s long running radio show, Desert Island Discs, invites the tribal elders of British society to pick some records to take with them to the eponymous island. Despite all the guests’ chirpiness and happy memories, there is never any missing the fact that the island, that place to which each guests is going alone, and from which none will return, represents death.

Wendy Houstoun’s Desert Island Dances was inspired by the BBC’s program, but seems slightly less coy about the real impact of remembering a few of your favourite things. From the opening, during which the British performer and choreographer attempts to capture for us in words the essence of a nice desert island, things seem to reveal a grim, even frightening side that simply cannot be suppressed.

Instead of selecting a few jolly choons, Houstoun, as a dancer and choreographer, decides to pick some of her favourite movements – gestures and postures, picked up from other dancers, or just from neighbours. It might be a certain way of folding her arms, or stamping across the floor. Or it could be a strange frozen splayed pose she adopts as she slides across the theatre floor.

Most of the time Houston chats away as she moves, offering a running commentary on her movements, even at one point, withdrawing to her huge chalkboard backdrop to draw us a graph of charting how we felt about the show so far – and getting even that spookily spot on. In Houston’s assessment, the early part of the performance sees us in a very rapid cycle of elation and disappointment, which as the show progresses, gradually settles into a kind of tense uncertainty.

It might be slightly facile to say that Desert Island Dances is too clever for its own good. But with her clear sense of how an audience might be reacting to a show that seems so initial welcoming, it is hard to know why Houstoun seems happy enough, finally, to wave at us from a distance.

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