Live Music + Gig Reviews

Tomorrow, In A Year – feat. Hotel Pro Forma and music by The Knife @ Barbican Theatre, London

27 July 2010

Hotel Pro Forma

Hotel Pro Forma

One way of promoting access to performance art is to commission a hip electropop duo to compose the music. The sharply dressed youths with meticulously constructed hair in the audience, presumably in attendance to hear the music of The Knife, may have found themselves in an unfamiliar world. It’s probably fair to assume that this would have been their first encounter with the international group Hotel Pro Forma, who promise to deliver ‘performance art as an investigation of the world’. Charles Darwin would seem like the perfect subject matter for such endeavour.

Tomorrow, In A Year is described, not entirely inaccurately, as an ‘electro-opera’ about the life and discoveries of Darwin. Whilst it was performed complete with a surtitled libretto, to contextualise it in terms of the lineage of opera would be both misleading and futile. This is very much a hybrid form, incorporating acting, contemporary dance, lighting, visual effects, stage design and the cutting edge score composed by The Knife, Mt Sims and Planningtorock. It’s a multimedia experience very much of its time but with some elements with the potential to transcend the rise and fall of specific trends.

There was something peculiarly moving and elevating in hearing transcripts from Darwin’s diaries and published works delivered in song. The music successfully exploits three stylistically contrasting voices, before eventually integrating them. Mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin was magisterial and graceful, strikingly dressed in scarlet red, brandishing a staff, and singing with an experienced combination of authority and empathy. Jonathan Johansson evoked Darwin’s precision, his determination and his natural sense of wonder. Laerke Winther, a singer and actor, had a gentler, more wistful presence that offered affecting, compassionate balance.

Jesper Kongshaug’s magnificent lighting design bathed the stage in deep shades of red and blue, over which piercing green lasers and projected images of Darwin’s discoveries are imposed. Ralf Richard Strobech’s stage design, constructed around an illuminated brick wall, initially seemed minimal but later proved surprisingly adaptable. An atmosphere of scientific adventure was quickly established and brilliantly sustained.

Dramatically and musically, the first part of the show was challenging. The Knife’s music felt abrasive and confrontational, dominated by frequencies at either extreme of the sonic spectrum which had palpable physical impact. The dancers were elegant and poised, but the choreography appeared tentative. There were odd, jarring moments, such as when Johansson walked across the stage with a surfboard to illustrate the waves of Galapagos – an isolated incident of offbeat humour.

The section focusing on the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie at the age of 10 (delivered tenderly by Winther) was delicate and moving, providing necessary respite from the more explosive tendencies of the preceding section. This also gave the audience an important glimpse of Darwin as a human being, his family struggling with loss and grief.

The timbre and spirit of the music transformed radically in the show’s second half, during which the stage appeared to become Darwin’s disco. The percussive Colouring Of Pigeons, full of displaced rhythms and nimble interaction between the vocalists (reminiscent of another great contemporary ‘opera’ recently performed at the Barbican, the Dirty Projectors‘ Getty Address) altered the tone and created a sense of celebration. The dances became frenetic and energised and, during the pulsating Seeds, it may well have been tempting for the audience to join in. Whilst the impressive Wahlin’s role became less prominent, the show achieved a more satisfying cohesion during this home straight. The impact of the theories, not just on science, but on Darwin’s own world view, were conveyed clearly without veering into a presentation of the science vs. religion dichotomy. The concluding Height of Summer was a melancholy, wistful piece which, in another context, could be every bit as glorious a pop moment as Heartbeats.

Tomorrow, In A Year had many of the elements of classic opera – tragedy, narrative and excitement, but it left these parts curiously understated. It arguably lacked a sense of drama as a result, appearing more as a series of vignettes than as a story. Nevertheless, it was a compelling spectacle driven by some supremely inventive music and an at least partially successful ambition to find common ground between different artistic disciplines. This is worth celebrating along with Darwin’s achievements.

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