It’s a busy time of year at National Dance Company Wales. Currently, their collaboration with Music Theatre Wales on a rare UK outing for iconic French composer Pascale Dusapin’s Passion is on tour around the country. It’s a complex, intense, technically challenging dance-opera, and Caroline Finn, NDCWales’s former artistic director and current choreographer in residence, has predictably risen to the challenge of what Passion requires. Here NDCWales is championing cutting edge performance art, and although Dusapin’s work may be more commonly recognised on the continent, the propulsive influence of MTW’s Michael McCarthy (who insitagted that production) and the dedication of Finn means that NDCWales has another string to its bow. Roots, this year’s leg of their annual touring showcase, allows audiences to see another thing that they do so well, giving voices to international choreographers and bringing sharp innovative work to Welsh audiences.
Finn also has a major role here, resurrecting her solo show Bernadette, this time teaching the part to NDCWales veteran Camille Giraudeau. But the other pieces are also comebacks from Finn’s period as Artistic Director, and the whole evening has the atmosphere of a curtain call for one leader’s creative preoccupations. New AD Feargus Ó Conchúir, who leads here audience discussions on the works on show, will now have a clean marker in 2019 to set out his own stall. What that will look like is anyone’s guess, but anyone familiar with The Casement Project, from where he came, will be excited to see what he has in store.
That said, the anticipation of a new era doesn’t mean many won’t be sorry to see Finn move on – she has imbued NDCWales with a boundless energy tied up into a distinctive creative outlook. The work has been collaborative and open-armed, and yet has all felt like part of Finn’s world. There are many individual productions from her three years in charge that would be ripe for picking as an example – Folk won over all who saw it, Green House showed a remarkable ability to match satire and pathos – but the three pieces contained in Roots are as good as any.
We have here Matteo Marfoglia’s Omertà, a powerful and dynamic four-way elegy for the women of the mafia universe, which forms a fascinating bookend with Mario Bermudez Gil’s Atalaÿ. There are several crossovers between these two pieces – they share an appreciation of earnest movement, for instance, and a predeliction for shadowplay – although they are narratively quite far apart. Omertà and Atalaÿ sit either side of Bernadette, like a drooping dying rose between two cacti.
Omertà establishes a theme of womanhood that unfortunately doesn’t quite carry through to the end of the evening. It concerns itself with the role of women in the south Italian Mafia, and most pointedly their relationship with freedom. Dancers Kat Collins, Camille Giraudeau, Aisha Naamani and Elena Sgarbi are excellent, particularly in the central section when they are unleashed from their spotlit prisons. Marfoglia uses some solid imagery – particularly with the main props – each dancer begins by wrestling with their own circumstances in the form of water pails. We see here the buckets as symbols of community, of familial responsibility, but also as an ancient tool of female work. Without them, the four are free to express themselves, but we are unsure whether they return to the buckets out of necessity, responsibility or choice. It’s a strong opener, if a little conceptually simplistic.
Bernadette is the missing character from Finn’s Green House – perhaps she is a neighbour, or a distant aunt. The same themes are played out as in Omertà, though in markedly different ways. Bernadette is a solo for a start, and is a notably intense experience for the magnificent Camille Giraudeau, who here shows what an excellent actor, as well as dancer, she is. The suburban housewife is perhaps, in many ways, the enduring symbol of western middle-class womanhood of the twentieth century, and it is no accident that Finn keeps returning to this image to explore her own thoughts about identity. Bernadette disintergrates before us, she comes apart with every slip of the cake-baking process she is failing to execute on stage. It is a powerful idea, one that requires the solo performer to bring all they have to the table – technical ability as well as heart and soul. Luckily Giraudeau has an abundance of both.
Atalaÿ is a complex, kinetic evocation of a particular landscape. Another four-way (helping with the symmetry of the evening), each dancer representing one of the four watchtowers at a point in southern Spain where Gil and his wife often go walking, it is a gruelling piece. It seems to have a very different sensuality to either Omertà or Bernadette, and is certainly less concerned with people than those two pieces. The dancers fight to simultaneously break away from the sands and rocks of the landscape whilst also seeing something of their own story in the dirt and the dust. That story is brutal, the landscape unforgiving, the choreography a mixture of sweeping brilliance and a jagged acquired taste. It is too long, which lessens the impact, but before it begins to sag in the final quarter, it is an exhilarating performance by Collings, Mathew Prichard, Sgarbi and Tim Volleman. Some of the choreography is repetitive where it could have been cut altogether, and yet some moments would have benefited from repetition. But the ambition of the vision cannot be faulted. Gil swoops across the burnt umber of the open plains of southern Spain, an area perhaps many would forget has a bloody tumultuous past, and we feel the violent human history of the landscape carved over centuries of limpieza de sangre. All that comes up through the relentlessness of Atalaÿ.
Roots manages to dazzle through all that shadow, manages to burn through all that black and terracotta. It is a showcase that holds up much of what made NDCWales so exciting to watch under Caroline Finn’s creative stewardship – the dark seriousness of Omertà, the hot-bloodedness of Atalaÿ, and the sheer singular bloody brilliance of Bernadette.