The sound of waves fills the main performance space in Belfast's Black Box. Blue light shines off metallic blocks scattered around the centre of the room that make up the 'stage' as a young woman enters, looks out towards an imaginary sea – then sits down and eats an apple.
It’s a slow start, but that, of course, is intentional. Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company artistic driector Steve Batts wants to draw the viewer’s eye to little details. So in the laborious opening section of The Cove you notice the curve of a back, the grace in dangling feet, the silhouette caused by backlighting, as what appears be a representation of a sunrise begins to form in the stage's epicentre.
The Black Box has been turned on its head for this production, which is performed in the round and is currently touring venues across Northern Ireland.
Huge metallic blocks create a landscape in the centre of the room, where the audience normally sit in rows. At this show, however, the audience is encouraged to walk around the performers to catch glimpses of other dancers and new angles, making the hour-long performance perhaps more akin to an art installation.
The Cove is the final stage of a project that started in 2011 when Batts, accompanied by climber and visual artist Dan Shipsides, relocated his company to a cove in County Donegal for two weeks.
During that time, a 5m x 5m silver platform was erected on the beach on which the dancers could explore nature and perform, an installation produced by Shipsides. That platform was modified along the way, and has inspired the blocks that Shipsides eventually built for the set of The Cove.
Led by Batts, the company slept at Port-a-Doris – swam, ate, meditated, danced and climbed up and down the rock faces. It was an unusual method dancing process in an attempt to take in something of the secluded beach as a starting point for a new performance piece.
The Cove features six dancers – half of them products of the University of Ulster’s dance degree. They move as a group, dancing as one, like some kind of weird underwater sea creature. Their hands wave in the air, marking out the contours of a landscape that can only be imagined by the audience.
One or two clunky lifts at the start bring smiles from the performers. Yet there is nothing too complex in the slow mo first section – Echo Echo breaks out and shines in the energetic duets that come later.
Hopping up and down the set’s many blocks, the dancers lift and turn effortlessly, and show themselves to be masters of technique. Their joy in dancing together is brilliant to behold, and their intense focus creates breathtaking moments of symmetry that catch the breath.
Once you brush aside some of the contemporary weirdness and settle in to it, watching The Cove really is like observing a seaside trip on a time-lapse camera.
In their duets you imagine the dancers leaping over rockpools and exploring hidden corners of a beach. Blue lighting and the sound of waves override the piece’s original musical score to evoke memories of coastal landscapes.
This piece is as shaped by the sea as the Donegal cove that inspired and informed it. And the more you relax into it, the more it becomes apparent that Echo Echo is not about fancy footwork and technique in the way that other contemporary dance companies are. They can do the footwork, of course, but they are not defined by it.
Their approach to their art, rather, is about working together to devise ‘poetic’ dance, according to Batts. It’s dance with heart. The Cove fits the bill and recalls in the viewer notions of childhood and outdoor adventure. Sadly, however, this production attracts a very small audience of little more than 30 people. Lets hope that future performances have more of an impact.
The Cove finishes its current run at the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry on Wednesday, October 17.