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Particle Velocity

21 November 2013 Mary Howell

Unfamiliar with contemporary dance? Often appearing as intellectually exclusive, it’s common to fear that you just won’t ‘get it’. Gather in then fellow beginners, a new production may just change your mind...

Phoenix Dance’s Particle Velocity opened at The Royal Opera House on Tuesday. Comfortably settled in the contemporary bracket of dance, I was lucky enough to sneak into tense rehearsals just hours before the curtains opened. New to this field of dance myself; within the hour my preconceptions were upturned.

Artistic Director Sharon Watson encourages people unfamiliar with contemporary dance to come with an open mind and interpret their own experience and meanings. Emphasising that the show isn’t prescriptive to any audience member, Sharon suggested an alternative, unrestricted approach. “Some people choose not to read programme notes before they see a piece, then put the pieces together afterwards. I think it’s potentially quite a good way to look at contemporary dance; to see how it sits with you initially.”

Particle Velocity demonstrates Phoenix’s trademark variety by including four unique pieces. Instead of constricting the choreographers with an underlying theme, Sharon curated the pieces to complement one another. The Natural flow between dances climaxes with her own triumphant choreography, Repetition of Change. The piece, intertwined with a specially composed score by Kenneth Hesketh, draws upon science.

I wondered which came first, the music or the dance?

“In this case, the music came first. The ideas were there between us, but Kenneth was several steps ahead of me in the creative process. He sent me the music and I sat on it for a few days. I slept with it playing in my ears! The choice to use contemporary music wasn’t something I’d automatically go for, so I was set a challenge.”

Repetition of Change artistically expresses ideas behind DNA. For many people, science is an intangible, two-dimensional concept. How did she go about turning it into a visual, three-dimensional piece?

“By using visuals! I read the book DNA by James Watson and it gave me my subject headings; the beginning of life, stem cells, DNA, the proteins. It gave me that language. I also found an amazing piece of work through my internet research called the co-ordinates; it’s what DNA does, it has an action. There are 16 actions and they were absolutely dance language. When I look at buckle and shift and shear and repel, I’m like, that’s dance! There’s also some amazing imagery out there to do with DNA, and that’s really where I got my stimulus.”

Far from simply a dance piece, Repetition of Change’s contemporary score will be played live exclusively on the London leg of Particle Velocity’s national tour. This fusion of music, science and dance is injected with poetic metaphors. Lighting, projections, dresses and a parachute communicate diverse themes of fluidity, membranes and even the Petri dish.

Executive producer Lesley Jackson recalled a scientist’s experience of the opening in York as a proud moment. “I think his exact words were ‘I can see the membrane, that’s fantastic!’ But the thing is, they’re never meant to be factual representations. It’s about whatever people take from it. Some people can see the double helix, they can see what makes the molecules change, some people just see the dance and the technical that supports it. To them, it’s just a really lovely piece of performance.”

In a city saturated with dance, it’s a testament to Phoenix that tickets are almost sold out. As a northern dance company, they always bring something different to the London circuit. By pooling together creatives across the spectrum, from beginners to big figures in British dance, Lesley agreed that Phoenix is unique. “We’ve got Richard Alston who is quite classically based, very beautiful, very lyrical, then Sharon who is very complex, conceptual and scientific. The choreographers are attracted to Phoenix because the strength, talent and ability of the dancers is absolutely phenomenal. They’ve got some dancers that they can really work with and push.”

If you’re unfamiliar with contemporary dance, the calibre of writers, diversity of the pieces and encouragement of free thought in Particle Velocity makes it a great place to start.

Particle Velocity runs until 23rd November at The Royal Opera House. Tickets are selling fast, so head over here to get yours sharpish!

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