Julie Cunningham at Laban 9.11.18

Contemporary dance is like abstract expressionist art – both are pure forms of collaboration between creator and viewer.

This thought struck me midway through a performance at Laban theatre by Julie Cunningham because her work has all the restless energy and spiritual depth of a Jackson Pollack action painting yet only fulfils its mission when an audience makes its input.

What’s more, ten different audience members will likely have ten different interpretations of what the piece means. But that’s the joy of all modern art.

What’s not open to interpretation is that Cunningham’s grand theme is the human condition and the two works on show at Laban – m/e and To Be Me – were profoundly personal takes on that.

The first, performed solo on a bare stage, featured her in restless and repeating motion, as if contrasting the cyclical nature of life with the intellectual and emotional insights sparked by the creative process.

Cunningham, looking androgynous with cropped hair and shapeless costume, also seemed to be making a point about breaking free from the narrow limitations of gender.

And the sense of exploring contrasts was further underscored by soundtracking the piece with modern electronica counterpointed by a ravishing Shostakovich piano concerto and by peppering her choreography with allusions to her ballet training as well as to her time with contemporary dance legend Merce Cunningham (no relation).

Finally, she innately offered one other contrast – the ability to preserve an almost supernatural stillness while in the very act of moving.

The second part of the evening featured her with three other dancers – Hannah Burfield, Eleanor Perry and Seira Winning – who, dressed in startling mirror-image costumes of scarlet and black, plunged into the realms of gender divisions to the sound of performance poet Kate Tempest retelling the Greek myth of Tiresias whom the gods turned into a woman and later turned back into a man, albeit a blind one.

Tempest’s poetic cycle is a magnificent exploration of gender. But by the end of the show I was left feeling that Cunningham would prefer that gender was simply an irrelevance.

This was a stunning evening of thought-provoking art that challenged our most basic beliefs about what it is to be a human being. It’s a tribute to Trinity Laban and producer Kat Bridge that we were given the chance to see it.

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