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Experimental feature

The Bard Music Festival features a different composer each year. This year, as part of its comprehensive arts festival that runs through August, “Elgar and His World” is a full-scale endeavour that includes two commissioned dance works by contemporary choreographers, Doug Varone and Susan Marshall.

The ultimate embodiment in dance of the great Edwardian composer’s music was perfectly caught years ago in Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations for the Royal Ballet. One wouldn’t expect it to turn up here, even in modern guise or totally different style. Nor does it. But how one longed to see Enigma again after viewing Victorious, Varone’s new piece, set to the sad and beautiful Cello Concerto in E Minor played in a reduction version by pianist Robert Koenig and cellist Zuill Bailey. (Placed on opposite sides of the stage, their music was unhappily artificially amplified.)

In spite of his classical music connections, primarily with opera, Varone’s dance vernacular is not well suited to this piece. The work comes across as a jumble of flailing figures – tangled webs of choreography weighted to the ground, with pairs and groups thrashing in skirmishes that erupt suddenly and end quickly, the dancers rolling or scurrying four-legged into the wings.

Two female soloists, Stephanie Liapis and Natalie Desch costumed in Liz Prince’s frumpy white frocks, give as good as they get, clutching, pushing and crashing floorwards with or without partners. Daniel Charon, Ryan Corriston and Eddie Taketa in cream suits (complete with waistcoats and neckties) at first look untethered but their whirling encounters devolve into floor fights too.

The piece opens with Desch, kneeling, a lonely figure who tosses and fiercely shakes her head, rises to fling about as the music soars in throbbing intensity, haunted by the others in successive mêlée.

Varone’s technical expertise is never in doubt but as this work unfolds its relationship to Elgar looks tenuous until the final moments when Desch moves exultantly, framed by lighting designer Jane Cox’s golden backdrop, to suggest victory following conflict.
Yet one wonders, watching Varone’s wonderful preceding work, the supercharged yet lyrical 2004 Castles set to Prokofiev’s Waltz Suite from his Cinderella and War and Peace scores danced with joyous élan, one can only ponder how he could choreograph a piece called Victorious that ends up neither happy or glorious.

Susan Marshall’s Sawdust Palace brings a humorous touch to Elgar’s matinee pieces. The “featured acts” sprinkled through this cabaret performed in Bard’s handsome Spiegeltent are at times wittily sophisticated, at others raunchily absurd, the versatile acrobat-dancers going through their routines deliberately deadpan.

Salut d’Amour has Petra van Noort insinuating herself into pianist Stephen Gosling’s lap while he unconcernedly continues to play with her draped in various odd ways over or around him. In Page Turner, to Elgar’s Echo Dance, Kristen Hollinsworth manages to get the music pasted to her backside so that Gosling is obliged to sight-read through her thighs. Chicken Flicker, set to an exuberant Zorba The Greek, features Hollinsworth as a slinky stripper whose feather-festooned leotard is plucked bare by Joseph Poulson, feathers flying everywhere. One could describe it as “high tea” performance art, a party where the women are again subservient to the men, who use their twisted bodies as tables and cup stands.

It could be offensive, but Marshall makes oblique pro-feminist points. Music from Dominic Frasca to Perez Prado spurs performers suspended in harness to be whirled about: one towels the stage clean, another is fed grapes and drinks of water while circling upside down. All is enhanced by Kasia Walicka Maimone’s flighty costumes, Jane Shaw’s sound design and Mark Stanley’s lighting. Marshall choreographed the piece in collaboration with her performers including, besides van Noort, Hollinsworth and Poulson, Luke Miller, Darrin M. Wright and the imperturbable pianist Gosling.

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