Hell @ Barbican Theatre, London

Choosing a title for piece of theatre (or any other art form) is a hazardous business. Pick anything with vaguely negative connotations and there’s always the danger that a critic in need of a soundbite or a snappy intro will throw it back at you. Naming your new dance piece Hell is a case in point, especially if it’s a particularly challenging and difficult work that actively sets out to depict “contemporary dance at its most visceral.”

Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten’s new piece marks 10 years of their creative collaboration. The production attempts to break down the meaning of hell, in the process revealing the unpredictability of the body.

This Dante influenced piece saw the eight dancers act out eternal torment through a series of technically masterful dance sequences – twitching and shivering convulsively as if controlled by an evil and yet invisible force. Through eerie darkness and sharp strips of light, they present their own unified definition of hell.

The set was minimal; a black curtain draped around the stage and a lone branched stump of a Godot-esque tree created a landscape that was both stark and bleak. The dancers’ movements were fluid and impressive, sometimes slow and graceful, other times aggressive and energetic. In addition to this, the actual sounds that the dancers made were effectively incorporated into the whole piece; the quick wispy sounds of their feet upon the stage floor and the audible gusts of their breathing, as they moved along with the music, made what we were seeing all the more compelling.

In a lot of ways, it actually seemed to me to succeed more as a performance of light and sound than as dance-theatre. The lighting was impressively executed, dragging the haunting shadows of the dancers across the stage. It was strikingly atmospheric and, in parts, utterly mesmerizing.

Despite this, the piece – at over an hour and half without an interval – was far too long. It could have been cut in half and been much more effective. A few audience members walked out halfway through, which was a temptation when the dance began to simply repeat itself. The complete stripping off of clothes in the later stages was the only notable difference, making for a long and uncomfortable evening.

Where it works best is in Greco and Scholten’s selection of music: Ravel’s Bolero, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony music to get anyone’s pulse racing. It truly gets under your skin and is, along with creative use of sound and remarkable use of lighting, probably the main saving grace to an over-long and repetitive piece of dance theatre.

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