Royal Opera House, London International Mime Festival; 14th January 2015
Earlier this week a friend introduced me to the scientific concepts of order and disorder. Highly apt, it transpires, when it comes to viewing Gandini Juggling‘s latest production. 4 X 4 is a collaboration with The Royal Ballet, taking its base from the mathematical structures which underly both ballet and juggling.
What could initially be seen as disjointed and randomly connected activity is in fact tailored and purposeful. Like particles that appear to do their own thing individually, the eight performers are essential programmed elements of a larger object, the show. I’ve been reading lately about quantum mechanics, and I can’t help but watch the movement in front of me through a philosophical lens.
In scientific terms, disorder is a state of perfect equilibrium, with no variation. Conversely, the confusion of dance and juggling figures presented onstage is a system of perfect order. Dressed in dark grey rehearsal style wear, four ballet dancers (Joe Bishop, Erin O’Toole, Kate Byrne, Kieran Stoneley) mingle with four jugglers (Kim Huynh, Sakari Männistö, Owen Reynolds, Kati Ylä-Hokkala) across the wide expanse of black stage. The perceived interference as the dancers interject themselves between the jugglers and their props is necessary to the overall functioning of a beautiful, complex organism.
In fact, although the initial framing of the performers as two groups never fully dissipates – despite increased cross-over between the roles as the evening progresses – it’s no great stretch of the intellect to see how the terms ‘juggler’ and ‘ballerina’ could be applied equally to all onstage. The commonalities of precise internal rhythm, scored sequences of physical action, and the strive for lift unite the practises.
A string quintet are seated upstage, and provide a further element of mathematical harmony to the proceedings, transmitting waves of Nimrod Borenstein‘s Suspended Opus 69 to our open ears. A sort of music also comes from the contact of objects and bodies, interspersed with vocal repetitions of physical scoring elements (‘up’, ‘over’, ‘green’ etc) that at times complement and at others contrast their enacted counterparts. These staccato interjections lend much of the piece’s lightness and humour. As the words evolve to encompass tossed ball height, balletic foot positioning, proximity, position on stage, they are crowned with a final ‘why?’. We laugh, because it seems so incongruous – like the red flashed knickers of the dancing girls – but purpose must be an important consideration for the whole here too.
The use of text stops me from becoming hypnotically absorbed in the visual patterning of limbs and thrown things, ensuring more cognitive parts of my brain engage with the presentation. Remembering extensions to the game of patting your head and rubbing your stomach, I am aware of how unnatural it feels to say one thing whilst doing another.
For a time I become engrossed in the shadow patterns that tossed rings cast upon each other as they cascade under a hazy golden glow, and then the scene changes again. There are movements to 4 X 4, marked by short blackouts, as in a classical ballet presentation. As the rings are wafted and fluttered now in duets between juggler and dancer (‘Releasing the demons’, as Director Sean Gandini likes to call the motifs), my cosmic thoughts drift along the accompanying strings to the music of the spheres. All of nature can be boiled down to scientific processes, and all scientific processes can be boiled down to mathematics. This is a show of serenity and purity.
In a post-show discussion, dance critic Donald Hutera hosts Gandini and Ludovic Ondiviela, who choreographed the show. Interestingly, the effervescent and excitable Gandini echoes more closely the flirtatious dancers of the production, while Ondiviela’s considered composure matches more the inwards focus of the juggling quartet.
Tonight is only the second audience this show has ever seen, and Gandini is happy to announce that he is still ‘tinkering’. The initial idea for the performance was the very simple one of combining ballet and juggling, and both men admit they naively thought they knew something of the other’s artform until rehearsal proved otherwise. Ondiviela mentions being particularly surprised at how much physical awareness Gandini’s team had, and how well they moved. The jugglers had also received a year of ballet classes, and the dancers were instructed in the art of juggling.
Approaching the project with very different working methods allowed for a true collaboration and learning on both sides. Gandini explains, ‘One of the ways we had to learn to work together is, from a juggling and contemporary world, we sketch. The ballet world is more economical, linear, a formal construction.’
Ondiviela agrees, ‘Sean taught me that it is ok to go into the studio and try stuff for hours and see what works rather than starting with an outcome in mind.
The narrative threads, or ‘little stories, that can be read into the various movements were a surprise to Gandini, coming from the choreographer. ‘Sean wanted me to start with classical ballet technique,’ Ondiviela elaborates, ‘Which is what I’ve been wanting to move away from, so between us, it became this.’
When asked how the production went from concept to actualisation, however, the two are on the same page. ‘Both ballet and juggling are space/time artforms’ says Gandini, ‘When you take away the cultural expectations of setting and place, they aren’t different things.’
As a choreographer, Ondiviela is used to starting from the music but, as he puts it, ‘With juggling there’s only so much you can do tempo wise’, and so Borenstein’s original composition became more of a soundtrack. There were areas of material that were already established in a way that was impossible to communicate fully to the composer within the time frame, but these came to create their own sound space by themselves.
The director is beaming all over, as he should be. ‘The bits that satisfy me the most are where one art form leaves a trace on the other.’ He won’t be resting on his laurels though: ‘For me, there’s a lot more to be done with that.’