Described as a ‘fusion of ballet, street, opera and butoh,’ Daniel Somerville’s Mad Scene was presented as part of a triple bill at The Place’s annual Resolution! season where, since 1990, emerging choreographers have presented their work – previous contributors include Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Shechter.
The Mad Scene in the title refers to the scene in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor; Lucia is tricked and forced into marrying wealthy Lord Arturo only for her lover Edgardo to return from his travels as the wedding guests assemble. When Edgardo rejects her, believing that she has deliberately betrayed him, Lucia descends into madness and murders Lord Arturo before emerging to the wedding guests in a blood stained wedding gown to die in front of them of a broken heart. Donizetti’s score accompanies the piece and provides a suitably dramatic partner to the performance.
The operatic melodrama is lovingly embraced by Daniel Somerville, as the scene is unveiled to the audience by a character in a blood stained shirt, drawing back a curtain to reveal a corpse-like bride making slow, faltering and increasingly distorted movements towards the audience.
Butoh is concerned with many of the themes represented in Mad Scene, and is used to great effect to convey the body as the physical container of the broken mind and soul. This avant-garde style of performance art emerged from Japan in the late 1950s in the work of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. It rejected Western dance and embraced an organic, improvised style where states of consciousness were explored to convey human experience resulting in work that was seen as rebellious for its exploration of violence, the taboo and the grotesque. Whilst Tatsumi Hijikata’s style was aggressive and shocking, his collaboration with Kazuo Ohno also brought spirituality and sensitivity to their performance. Butoh allowed the conventions of age, gender and the concept of the body beautiful to be rejected in favour of a free and expressive performance connecting humanity and spirituality, seen as highly controversial to their contemporary Japanese audiences.
Recognizable elements of butoh are employed in Mad Scene with the painted, mask-like white faces, the billowing white gowns of the dancers and the contorted movement of the arms and body. One particularly haunting moment is the entrance of Michelle Yim, hinging backwards as if physically broken in two, a bouquet clasped to her chest. The scene is introduced to us by a character through nuanced gestures and contortions of hands and feet – using his toes to form his feet into crude ballet positions to the delight of the audience. This use of small, seemingly controlled movements conveys introspection and is tinged with menace. The dancers explore the separation of the mental and physical aspects of the body, deconstructing the butoh theme of fluidity between these two elements. Hijikata was particularly interested in the broken body; here the bride’s legs are manipulated by another entity to make her walk – the bodies and clothing of the dancers gradually becoming intertwined as they try to escape the confines of the wedding dress,
their consciousness and their physical bodies. At times they move in unison as if displaying lucid moments within the madness, at other times separated and conflicting as the physical and mental struggles continue. Confetti is thrown as a dancer holds a break dance freeze as the bride pirouettes around him. Finally, the shattered mind releases the characters to run free.
Segments of street dance of fluctuating tempo punctuate the piece, with the moves timed precisely to the music bringing humour and a lighter note through their incongruous pairing. The combination of opera, butoh and ballet provides a potent merging of styles and Daniel Somerville has used them to create an engaging exploration of the music and the madness. However some of the street dance elements, although providing contrast in tone from the rest of the performance, distract lightly from the strange, dark beauty of the piece. The performers adapted well to the demanding combination of techniques and fluctuations of expressiveness and restraint, to produce a haunting and captivating performance.
You can read more about Mad Scene in Daniel Somerville’s essay here.