Cath Barton reviews the dance My People, produced and choreographed by Gwyn Emberton based on the short stories by Welsh write Caradoc Evans.
Welsh dancer and choreographer Gwyn Emberton has been working outside the country for many years. In his recent work back in Wales he has immersed himself in emblematic aspects of Welsh culture. CAITLIN, his collaboration with Deborah Light and Eddie Ladd which was voted Best Dance Production at the Wales Theatre Awards 2015, was a searing and revelatory work about the relationship between Caitlin Macnamara and Dylan Thomas. CAITLIN is a piece with a very clear narrative, and I was interested to see how Gwyn Emberton would tackle a very different narrative in My People, the début piece which he has created for his own dance company, first performed in 2014, also nominated for the aforementioned award, and presented in Abergavenny as part of a short Spring tour this year.
My People is based on the short stories published under that title by David Caradoc Evans in 1915. Unlike CAITLIN, it does not have a linear form, but takes elements of some of Caradoc Evans’s stories and highlights interactions between the types of characters portrayed in them. Caradoc Evans was reviled in his day for his satire of characters in the strict non-conformist society of rural West Wales, shocking readers at a time when patriotism was deemed all-important. His medium was heightened language. Gwyn Evans uses no words in his piece, but his dance theatre language is also heightened. He has developed a vocabulary of movement which conveys powerfully themes of madness, temptation, sacrifice and abuse drawn from Caradoc Evans’s stories.
At the opening of the piece the six dancers are all present on stage, at first as forms waiting in near-darkness, brought into the light one by one, as the musical score composed by Tic Ashfield and Benjie Talbot (who also worked together on the score for the TV drama Hinterland) opens as a susurration, a part of their soundscape which returns to punctuate the piece, ominously suggesting that transgression will follow. The sounds swell as movement fills the space, the timbre of violins being followed by richer cello sounds as one after another the dancers emerge and the ensemble is revealed in full light, with no shadows to hide the starkness of one of them tied and tethered, like an animal. This, in Caradoc Evans’s story ‘A Father in Sion’ is Achsah, wife of Sadrach, who is considered mad and is taken out by her husband at night on a cow’s harness. The image of the woman constrained is stark and biblical like the names of Caradoc Evans’s characters.
The tension is released into the space as the ‘mad’ woman struggles on the end of a rope, winding it in and out, but unable to free herself, in strong contrast to the free movement of first one counterpoised dancer and then the full ensemble. But bodies fall still, are dragged, placed in a line and in the residual light the tethered woman caresses one and then another as the music keens. These now are her dead children. Finally she too is dragged away and the action moves on to another scene.
This is a complex piece of dance drama, beautifully choreographed by Gwyn Emberton to run one scene seamlessly into the next for a fast-paced and enthralling hour. A recurring image is of one body apparently out of control within the whole, the community. Just once there is a sustained stillness, the more powerful for its contrast with the whirl of movement during much of the piece. At one point the music unfurls a gentle song about death and then we move back into life, the music reviving the heartbeat as a solo dancer takes up the drama.
The piece shows individuals downcast, outcast by a judgemental community as portrayed by the ensemble. At the end all are brought to earth and a single body flails in the last of the light, like a dying moth. And falls. And there is darkness.
It is wonderful that Gwyn Emberton has taken inspiration from something reviled in one creative field and transformed it in another. Without Caradoc Evans’s creation of the fictional village of Manteg, Dylan Thomas may never have conceived of Llareggub and its inhabitants. Under Milk Wood has inspired affection where Caradoc Evans’s stories did not; Gwyn Emberton’s work has gone in another direction and extrapolated beauty from stories of religious repression. As well as deserving attention in its own right, My People also brings an important element of Wales’s literary heritage to the attention of a wider audience.
Both My People and CAITLIN will be at the Edinburgh Festival fringe 2015, excellent ambassadors for the best of dance theatre from Wales.
(photo credit: Roy Campbell Moore)
Gwyn Emberton Dance
Choreography/Artistic Direction: Gwyn Emberton
Dancers: Albert Garcia, Anaïs Michelin, Federica Esposito, Gwyn Emberton, Ryan O’Neill and Rachele Rapisardi
Composers: Tic Ashfield and Benjie Talbott
Abergavenny Borough Theatre, 29th April 2015
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.