The Clod Ensemble’s recent work has tended to guide the audience’s gaze towards specific points in a space: the lecture theatre of Must, the glass jars containing the performers of Under Glass and the nomadic audience of 200 of an Anatomie in Four Quarters, with each quarter taking place in a different audience-performer configuration. In Zero, the audience’s relationship with the space will be familiar to most. We take our allocated seats in the auditorium and remain there throughout. The stage itself contains another stage at the back for the musicians. The live music and movement are as fused together as you might expect for a company founded by a choreographer and a composer (Suzy Wilson and Paul Clark).
Anatomie in Four Quarters was structured around four shifts in physical space and the musical score was essentially the same for each one played by different instruments at different speeds, so as to be almost unrecognisable. Zero, on the other hand, is divided into five acts with “quite different rhythmic structures and tonal priorities”, as Clark explains in the programme. The choreography of each act has a similarly distinct visual language, ranging from Cunningham-esque tableaus through catwalk-strutting to swing dance and everything in between. It’s often jagged, both unpredictable and inevitable, suggesting the storm systems that was another inspiration for the project. The process is also the end result and the Ensemble don’t attempt to sweep what has emerged from their lengthy research and development process aside in order to make a shiny, consumable crystalline product. They work with dancers and musicians from all kinds of different disciplines and backgrounds and each member of the company will bring something to the process. The diversity is celebrated rather than smoothed out.
Zero is described as a tragedy and emerged initially out of period of research the Ensemble did at the Royal Shakespeare Company around King Lear. Each act begins with a weather report, one of the few nods to Shakespeare’s play as it follows the general shape of Lear: the disruption of the status quo, the approach of the storm, the storm itself which represents the climax and then the bleak outlook of the fifth act.
In addition to the music and the movement, audio recordings are played: a mixture of voices, accents, time periods. These provide a sense of atmosphere but they also seem to tantalisingly suggest that the piece is grounded in a particular historical and cultural context. Every time you start to feel that you have your bearings though, another recording will undermine that. There are many references to the blues and the music works in and out of blues themes throughout. What is being described in the audio tracks sometimes sounds like the beginning of a cultural movement: blues or maybe ragtime. To go down any of these routes in assigning meaning to the piece becomes a frustrating and fruitless endeavour though. They appear instead to be connected by their evocation of the themes of power, abuse and hedonism, also reflected in much of the choreographic language that develops, especially the contact work. There’s a vagueness about this though. The themes are broad and we move from one to another without ever experiencing how the power relationships are connected politically.
Text also appears in the form of the song lyrics, co-written by Clark with Peggy Shaw, but these do not provide any further guidance in term’s of the piece’s meaning. It’s not that a piece of dance or a piece of music requires a meaning and Zero is a thrilling, hugely enjoyable theatrical experience in any case. Every element in isolation is exquisitely realised and live music and movement complement each other in a way that puts most other attempts to do similar to shame. My only concern is that, in calling it a tragedy, providing a five Act structure and using this much text, the production seems to be leading us in a search for meaning. As spectators, we are hard-wired to respond in this way to signifiers of this kind. To then be constantly thrown off course in a search for meaning adds an element of frustration to the evening that I found more distracting than anything else. This in itself prevented me from ever feeling as moved as I was by some of the company’s previous work. Nonetheless, if you have not seen the Clod Ensemble before, Zero contains much of what makes them such a wonderful company.