Presented by Damien Jalet and Kohei Nawa
Reviewed Saturday 26 October
Vessel seems to operate in an entirely different medium to the often frenetic world of contemporary dance. It’s a work that requires patience to appreciate, but the rewards are ample.
The set itself is a work of art, a lunar crater filled with slowly bubbling ooze surrounded by inky black water. When the curtain comes up, we see three tangles of bodies so still that they’re reflected perfectly, as is every detail in this stark, monochromatic world.
The components of the bodies are recognisable, but the way they’re composed looks entirely alien. As they slowly begin to move, individual limbs become discernible surrounding rippling flesh but no heads are visible and the clusters are so densely entwined that it’s hard to tell how many dancers each contains. The largest writhes until it births a single performer who undulates across the flooded stage in a reverse worm and eventually six other individuals isolate themselves from these clumps and emerge from the primordial soup.
The repertoire of movement is minimal, but each dancer displays extraordinary body control to keep their heads hidden as they crawl around. As they explore the space, they intermittently find each other and merge once again, bodies intertwining as limbs stretch out like crabs’ legs to explore the space around the soft core of their torsos. At other times they shackle their own legs, limiting their range of movement even further. When they bounce up and down like frogs and turn into a newton’s cradle, it creates a moment of humour that’s startling in this stark, beautiful world.
The dancers’ headlessness is disconcerting, and combined with the slow pace of the performance it means there’s ample opportunity to explore the odd shapes into which each body is folded. Over the course of the performance the contorted forms resemble a range of creatures, from cuttlefish to extraterrestrials, but they remain defiantly non-human until the climax.
A rumbling industrial soundtrack turns to gasps and hisses as the dancers reach the crater and cover themselves in ooze. The thick non-Newtonian fluid moves as slowly as they do, sliding down their bodies in what feels like it should be a triumphant ritual. But in truth the simple beauty of the earlier action is more engrossing than this apex of the evolutionary process.
Vessel lasts for an hour, and at times the action is so slow that it’s uncomfortable. It’s a sensation enhanced by the disorienting lack of heads on the figures, which are sometimes grotesquely contorted. But it’s a stunningly beautiful work, one that is as much installation as dance and whose imagery lingers long after the ripples have ceased.
Reviewed by Alexis Buxton-Collins
Rating out of 5: 3.5