terra firma NDCW

Terra Firma (NDCW) | Dance

Gary Raymond casts a critical eye over Terra Firma the new production from National Dance Company Wales synthesising some of its past productions. 

It’s all change at National Dance Company Wales. At least insofar as 2018 sees an almost entirely new troupe on stage, and at the time of writing, they are still looking for a new Artistic Director. In terms of dancers, those who have gone on to meet other challenges will be difficult to replace – particularly the triumvirate of Camille Giraudeau, Elena Thomasi and Angela Boix-Duran – but for a national company dancers come and go, the spaces left by those leaving, in most cases, are there to be risen into. It’ll work itself out.

If there was rustiness in the cast on the opening night of this spring tour, there was nothing to suggest it was for lack of talent. NDCW have given themselves a huge task in getting the new cast up to speed on not one demanding piece, but four, and the major tell of this was the gradual seeping out of stamina as the night went on.

But as I say, these things are to be expected, and no doubt the overwhelming feeling in the company for the opening night was that of relief that it was out of the way, rather than triumph of elegance and wit. Lee Johnston, NDCW’s rehearsal director, has had her work cut out this year already, and that work will pay off more as the tour progresses rather more than it did on opening night.

Terra Firma, a rather ambivalent title for the four pieces (two in rotation – with only three presented per performance), may ultimately go down as a transitional offering, holding for all to see the glories of its immediate past (Folk), the peculiar challenges of its present (Tundra), and the possible disappointments awaiting its future (Atalaÿ).

As much as the passing of such a honed and charismatic bunch of dancers as the ones who have just moved on will take a bit of time to get over, the decision of Caroline Finn to step back from the Artistic Director’s chair is one that will surely have a more profound affect on the company. Finn proved over the last few years that she is one of the few world class artists operating in Wales today, and whatever her reasons for retreating, it is a blow to NDCW and to Wales.

Folk is a masterwork, one of several in Finn’s oeuvre, and with the adrenaline of the new troupe at its most focussed, it was performed with more than a little of required attitude. Folk is all about character, and Kat Collings, Elenn Sgarbi, and Julia Rieder in particular shone in their energetic interpretations. Finn’s modus operandi is to create choreographed space in which the individual dancer brings in his or her own personality, and you can see these new dancers have both a great deal to give as well as a lot to live up to.

Folk remains a dazzling slice of layered commentary on the building of relationships, the evolution of communities, and the isolationism of the modern experience. It is a modernist fable. Finn has created, in microcosm, a townspeople who splinter and realign in a perpetual loop, who present at us like renaissance paintings, who question at their own peril the environment in which they find themselves. It is in parts hilarious, but often it is extremely moving, and opens Terra Firma with a propulsive energising swagger. Folk is so good, you have to ask if wouldn’t be better as the final piece on the bill, rather than the opener.

These are the heights to which Finn has pushed NDCW during her tenure as Artistic Director, and nothing else here really comes close to it. Green House, not performed on the opening night, is equally provocative, funny, and thoughtful, with Finn flipping Folk’s coin and moving into the consumerist temple of the ‘fifties homestead, but her characteristic loops are still there, and her ability to bring a tear to your eye is there too. Characters come and go, and they live beyond the stage, beyond the moves. Finn is an artist with a lot of heart, a lot of passion, and it comes through her work as if she is dancing it herself through the pages of a novel.

In contrast Marcus Marou’s Tundra is not as electrifying as it was on its debut, in an odd partnership with one of NDCW’s only dud of recent years, P.A.R.A.D.E. At its best Tundra is spectacular, but such is its technical demand, a slip here and slip there and the whole daisy chain wilts. This will grow stronger as the new dancers rise to it. There will be a point on the tour where it clicks, there always is, and Tundra needs to operate in this space of fluent language, with not a second’s thought about the phrase book in the back pocket.

It is the new piece, however, Atalaÿ, choreographed by Mario Bermudez Gill, that seems to stunt the emotional momentum built up by Folk’s opening. As a four-piece, it is around ten minutes too long, and dominated by uneven diagonals and uneccessary repetition. Thematically it works very well as a companion to Folk and Tundra, sitting between them as it does on the bill. These are three pieces about community, about how groups of people endure, how the things in common triumph over the things that make us different. But Atalaÿ lays on one too many visual clichés, and whereas a piece like Folk glows in its vernacular honesty, Bermudez Gill’s choreography is just too damn earnest to be all that much fun.

We all wait to see what NDCW does next, as well as to see what Caroline Finn has in store. It’s just a damn shame these will very probably be different things.

To find out more about National Dance Company Wales visit their website

Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster. Gary Raymond’s latest book, written during lockdown, is a caustic, hilarious scene-by-scene response to Love Actually, a film the hatred for which he has been unable to shake off. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas is available from Parthian Books.