Royal Ballet-trained Whitley is one of the most cerebral choreographers working today, and is fascinated by science. In fact, his 2017 work 8 Minutes was developed in collaboration with solar scientists at Oxford.
For Overflow Whitley sought inspiration in the transformational impact of omnipresent and fast-evolving technology on human beings; a theme which, he says, has been placed in stark relief by our increased reliance on digital technology during lockdown. This, Whitley says, has redefined the human condition.
Visually, Overflow is a play of light and shadow, primarily shadow, with the stage plunged in a dense, hazy penumbra where exiguous light designed by Guy Hoare and featuring an installation by Children of Light, in turn obscures, part-reveals and sculpts the bodies of six black-clad and sometimes masked dancers.
Structurally, it’s fragmentary, made up of short tableaux separated by brief blackouts. And its themes are to be intuited rather than graphically described.
To a loud, thumping, head-banging synthesiser sound score by Rival Consoles the dancers at first stand in line staring at the audience through a haze of smoke. Above them is a thin horizontal bar of light, which will slowly move, tilt, and provide effects akin to shooting stars or tracer bullets throughout the performance.
Slowly the dancers, three men and three women, start nodding their heads, and eventually the rest of their bodies break into robotic movement. Because both bodies and masked faces blend entirely with the dark stage, all that’s visible are their naked arms, in their serpentine movements, folding and unfolding, protecting the bodies or reaching out and upwards.
The overall tone of Whitley’s earthbound movement is one of anguish, agitation, searching, mired in impermanence. A woman’s arms reach out to hug a man, only to be left cradling empty air as he moves away, a gesture that gains intensity with each repetition. Duets are short, interrupted.
The lighting alternates between the horizontal bar and dim shafts of light projected from spotlights in the wings, which at times acquire a disturbing reddish tinge.
At one point a beam of light in the colours of the rainbow slowly asserts itself on the backcloth and you dare hope that light has finally prevailed over the insistent gloom; but no such luck – it soon fades away.
Because there isn’t a logical evolution to the work and its choreographic language is repetitive (perhaps deliberately?), Overflow doesn’t quite sustain attention for its near-80 minutes. If he’s interested in ideas and themes rather than abstract dancing, Whitley must perhaps find clearer ways of communicating his intentions. We are daunted by his cleverness, but never emotionally engaged.
Oh, and the sooner the current fashion for stages plunged in Stygian gloom is over, the better.
|What||Alexander Whitley, Overflow review|
|Where||Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Angel (underground)|
21 May 21 – 30 May 21, 19:30 Sun, 30 May at 14:00. Mats Thu 27, Sat 29 at 14:30. Dur.: 1 hour 20 mins approx
|Website||Click here to book|