Julie Cunningham cuts a highly distinctive figure. Hair shorn in the severest of crew cuts, an intense expression on her unadorned face, her sparse body strong and sinewy, she is in many ways a dancer’s contemporary dancer.
Her technique is solid, precise and rigourous. She performed for many years with such key figures of contemporary dance as the American Merce Cunningham and, in Britain, the maverick Michael Clark. It’s not surprising then, that the most gripping section of this new programme comes deep into the second part and is a Cunningham solo.
The point of the evening, though, is to showcase Julie Cunningham’s new foray into dance-making, boosted by a Choreography Fellowship awarded by Rambert Leverhulme. The Double Bill currently showing at, and co-commissioned by the Barbican is her first full-length production.
The two pieces that make up the programme, Returning and To Be Me are intended as complementary explorations of gender and identity.
In Returning, the four dancers that make up the company - Harry Alexander, Hanna Burfield, Alexander Williams and Julie Cunningham herself - move to music by Björk and Anohni (Antony and the Johnsons). Antony provides a long spoken mediation on the moon and femininity, and at one point intones, “what’s great about being transgender is that you’re born with an alternative religion.”
The choreography is not meant to translate the words literally. Rather, the two barefoot pairs in unisex mint green tops and dark metallic leggings execute their grounded contemporary movements almost as if in a trance: slow developés, held arabesques, arms forming circles or reaching out, hands hiding faces; sometimes individually, sometimes as interchangeable pairs, occasionally as a quartet.
In keeping with the tone of the evening - an exploration of gender and identity - none of the dancers falls into a traditional male/female role. On the contrary, all the dancing is performed on a strictly equalitarian basis. No heavy lifting for the men. No dainty poses for the women.
After the interval, To Be Me is danced to the extraordinary poetry of Kate Tempest, declaimed by the poet herself.
Julie Cunningham Company, To Be Me
Its inspiration is the ancient Greek myth of Tiresias, whom the gods turned from male to female for seven years. The price of returning to his original form is the loss of sight. He ends his days as a blind prophet (and as such makes an appearance in the tragedy of Oedipus).
The force of Tempest’s words and the sheer intensity of her declamation hold us in thrall; and here it is clear that the male/female pairs now dressed in red and black illustrate the duality present us all. Tiresias stands, then, as a symbol of humanity in its infinite gender permutations, and that is also the drift of the choreography in To Be Me.
Although Cunningham said she was intent on creating two contrasting pieces, her choreographic language is not yet rich or distinctive enough to allow her to do so, and the two pieces are fairly similar in tone and movement.
Taken as a whole, this programme shows a budding choreographer struggling to shed the almost overwhelming influence of Merce Cunningham, and to a lesser extent Michael Clark. It is, of course, always exciting to be there at the beginning of something that holds so much promise; we can only hope that Julie Cunningham, already a remarkable dancer, will evolve into an equally impressive choreographer.
Age Guidance: 14+
|What||Julie Cunningham and Company|
|Where||Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
08 Mar 17 – 11 Mar 17, 19:45 performance lasts 1 hour 20 mins w/ one interval
|Price||££18 + booking fee|
|Website||Click here to book through the Barbican website|