As you would probably expect from a double bill, the two distinct works forming Cold Rolling /Tir are contrasting. Despite these contrasts of both style and content there is a clear thematic connection. These pieces tell a story of Wales, and the resilience and ingenuity of her people. This is compelling and original dance from a company prepared to take risks, integrating dance, video, and live music (from Wales’ very own Cerys Matthews).
For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the steel making process, the title Cold Rolling is a description of a mechanical process that takes place when making sheet steel. Originally a site-specific investigation of a closed steel works in Ebbw Vale, Cold Rolling combines minimalist choreography with a stark industrial soundtrack and looped grainy video recordings of the heavy industrial work that took place in the now abandoned steel plant. Despite seeming at first heroic, in an old Soviet sense, the repetition of the video soon becomes tedious in a most compelling way, as the dangerous yet mundane and dehumanising nature of daily life inside ‘infernal’ steel mills becomes apparent.
The sole narrative is that of production and the exploitation of labour. Cranked up against a soundtrack of mechanical noise, part-harmonized with a male voice choir, the demandingly minimal choreography increases in intensity, the overall impression becoming a juxtaposition of the dancers’ dignity with the cruel indignity of the world captured in the video footage. The live and mediated elements combine to leave the audience saddened and somewhat shell shocked. Cold Rolling explores the industrial roots, and economic injustice, that feeds Welsh socialism and devolution. With no margin for error the minimalist simplicity of the choreography demands supreme concentration and commitment from the dancers, which they deliver.
Tir (Welsh for Land) is a warmer affair, offering more textured and complex dance sequences exploring similar themes, but this time from the inside out. Inspired by the Cerys Matthews’ album of the same name, Tir is really a collection of Welsh folk songs, going back some 300 years, set to dance. Welsh culture has been subject to revision, and often oppression and erasure over the centuries, and these songs are vivid portals to a culture defined and transformed through the industrial revolution. Often humorous, sometimes bi-lingual, Tir demonstrates how music becomes a resource for social survival and connection. The dancers’ movements tell the songs’ stories, both to compliment them, but also translating the songs to the non-Welsh-speakers in the audience. When combined with Cerys Matthews’ gregariousness and warmth as a performer the effect becomes intimate and celebratory. Perhaps never more so than when the audience is encouraged unexpectedly but successfully to participate and sing along in Welsh.
In placing such contrasting pieces on the same bill, Ballet Cymru use the legacy of Wales’ industrial architecture, and popular culture, to tell in part the story of Wales. It is a sad story, one of harsh economic exploitation and social immobility, but a story made hopeful because of a resilient and inclusive Welsh culture that speaks its own languages, to invent and re-invent itself. Wales can be thankful that in Ballet Cymru we have a company both sufficiently prepared and skilful to tell this complex story from diverse sources, with such moving and creative conviction.