The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs: Dancing On Your Grave @ Shunt Vaults, London

choreographed by
Lea Anderson
Lea Anderson created the Cholmondeleys, an all female dance group, and the Featherstonehaughs, an all male group, over twenty years ago.

The two companies don’t always collaborate together, though they did so for her last piece Yippeee!!! (2006), and they are reunited again here for her new piece Dancing on Your Grave, which has toured to the Glastonbury and Latitude festivals and is currently playing at the atmospheric Shunt Vaults beneath London Bridge Station before heading up to Edinburgh.

Working with long time collaborator Steve Blake and member of the Flea-Pit Orchestra, Nigel Burch, Anderson’s latest show is structured around 14 songs linked by the themes of death, disassociation and brutality. For most of the time it has the atmosphere of a Victorian music-hall skit gone sour, but despite the violent themes, I haven’t enjoyed a dance piece so much in years.

Crammed on to a very small, red stage the five performers – three dancers and two musicians vie for space and attention. The songs, all original creations by Burch and Blake, who both also perform live on stage, are full of the themes of death, with fast paced and funny lyrics that all serve to remind the audience that you’re a long time dead, so you may as well milk life dry. The songs suggest that there will be no more drinking when you’re dead and you should ‘get out of your box’ now, as death sans beating heart and functioning liver will be no fun at all.

The three dancers, (one Featherstonehaugh and two Cholmondeleys) Gabrielle McNaighton, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and Maho Ihara, could not be more different, each adds an individual element of strangeness and disquiet to the piece. Ihara has an odd doll-like quality, which is often subverted, in particular when miming various methods of suicide including leaping from a tall building and gassing herself in an oven. McNaighton at times appears to be channeling a particularly dangerous music-hall diva, with her wild hair, high boots and corsets, while Perkins-Gangnes is tall and gangly with a gentle Pierrot look which at times develops into something much more creepy, no where more so than when performing a duet with an apparently dead Ihara.

Anderson has continued to develop her unique gestural dance style which was so prominent in her past pieces. There are running motifs which include the pointing of a finger, the wringing or washing of hands and, of course, limp, dead bodies. The movement, while constricted by the space, is complex and engaging. The dancers at times bump into each other or spill off the stage but never at any time does it feel like the five performers are not in complete control of the space.

There is a genuine sense of danger and darkness to the piece which is enhanced by complex lighting which makes the performers look dead-eyed and treacherous. This effect is complimented by the make-up which robs all them of their real, human expressions.

Dancing On Your Grave is a macabre yet accessible show, one that tackles death head on and pokes fun at it as well. Her performers appear stuck in some kind of endless, time-locked music-hall act, a show that not even death can stop. If this is Anderson’s idea of purgatory, then sign me up.

Dancing On Your Grave is at Shunt Vaults until 26 July and then at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, from 1-25 August 2008

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