Gaining admission to a dance show has never before seemed like boarding a plane. But in the most recent New Movement Collective performance, Please Be Seated at the Southbank Centre, the theatrical experience began outside when a man with a megaphone insisted upon an orderly queue. Two performers barked further orders as a ticket in the style of an old-fashioned identity card was stamped, in splodgy red ink, with the title of the show.
Entering the theatre revealed other dancers already in situ but this did not necessarily mean they were on stage. Both of New Movement Collective’s previous works – Casting Traces, originally for TestBed1 in Battersea, and Nest, in the Welsh Chapel on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue – have been installations: shows designed to fit a particular space with an audience that moves around the performers. This is NMC’s first work for a theatre but it has still been engineered to fit the whole space. The Purcell – with its wooden-clad feel of a reading room at the Athenaeum Club – provided the perfect hybrid venue for this mixed transition from installation to stage.
The entire theatre was translated into a performance area by a bridge of wooden platforms zig-zagging diagonally over the seating to connect the stage to the back of the auditorium. When I arrived, Navala Chaudhari was already out on the bridge, running, stretching or sitting. Initial thoughts that the audience was sparse were revised when the man with the megaphone called for order and around 25 audience members (clearly segregated at the entry desk) entered the stage from a doorway at the back. The work then proceeded for several minutes with this promenading group assembled as a backdrop. They behaved as non-performers are wont to do, ambling around obediently as if being shepherded by a gallery guide.
It was hardly surprising that the key props for Please Be Seated were stackable, high-backed chairs, made from a mix of wood and Perspex, utilised as props and surfaces or joined together to form towers or long benches. These were designed by innovative furniture designer, Jutta Friedrichs. From the outset, the 11-strong dancer-based NMC has linked their design of movement with a strong brand of collaboration with architects and other designers of things.
A setting of mid-20th century Eastern Europe was evident in drab, utilitarian clothing, a theme further emphasised when audience members were each handed a piece of white paper on which was printed “WHAT WOULD YOU STAND FOR?” while at around the same time, a dancer atop a tower of chairs tore papers into “confetti”, suggesting that it really didn’t matter what we stood for.
NMC projects come along infrequently but so far they have achieved the distinction of being the only dance company to have as many nominations for National Dance Awards as they have had productions. With seven of the very best contemporary dancers in the cast, the quality of movement and athleticism was magnificent, but with NMC it is the overall theatrical package – always innovative, always different – that counts. Their productions are fascinating – and unforgettable – experiences, even when being yelled at through a megaphone!
Graham Watts is the CEO of The Construction Industry Council (CIC). He is a Board member of several Trusts and Committees in the Construction and Built Environment sectors and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria. Graham received an OBE in the New Years Honours in 2008 for his services to the construction industry. Outside of CIC, he is an established dance writer and critic. He is a member of The Critics’ Circle, the UNESCO Dance Council and the Society of Dance Research. He has been Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle since 2009 and of the National Dance Awards since 2010. Author of Daria Klimentová’s Autobiography “Agony and Ecstasy: My Life in Dance”.