Ludo Lusi Lusum

Animals metamorphose and interact in Echo Echo's delightful new piece for children

The last known live performance in Derry~Londonderry’s historic Opera House on Carlisle Road was in May 1938, a ‘Matinée Dansante’ by the children of Kathleen Watson’s local Ballet School.

Watson’s ‘school’ was based in her own home in Clarendon Street, not so far from the superb new dance studios – hugging the city’s 17th century walls – recently renovated and now enjoyed by Steve Batts’ contemporary Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company.

One wonders what Watson’s classically trained young dancers would have made of Echo Echo's impressive dance facilities, to say nothing of the sheer vitality, exuberance and imagination of Ludo Lusi Lusum, the new children’s show which opens the company's second Festival of Dance and Movement on November 6.

This piece of physical theatre, a new production directed by Derry-born dancer Ayesha Mailey, brings the audience into a fantasy world where animals metamorphose and interact. Mailey's five barefoot female dancers begin with a game of charades in which each takes it in turn to mimic an animal for the others to guess: a duck, a penguin, a giraffe, a springbok, a praying mantis.

The audience is drawn into guessing which is which as the piece progresses. A dog, wonderfully brought to life by Zoe Ramsay, is put through its paces. A blue-bottle is swatted to earth, mourned, and then revived with a defibrillator. An owl gets married and goes off on a round-the-world tour – echoes of The Owl and the Pussycat here, and similar in its surrealism and humour.

 

The animals have fun together, fighting, chasing one another, playing games, in a way with which younger children, not to mention their elders, can readily empathize. Dance, dialogue, song and movement are fused together in a playful way – literally ludic – rather than imitating traditional pantomime or burlesque.

The intimacy of the studio space, which doubles up as a performance space, allows the audience to engage directly with the animals: to see and hear every smile, grimace, bark, growl and quack.

There is music, snatches of Chopin’s 'Funeral March' (sung) to Brahms’ 'Lullaby' (hummed), and a chorus line of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ in the style of the 1930s. The musical excerpts are cleverly integrated, blending imperceptibly into the action as the animals crawl, bend, twist and do acrobatics.

The sheer energy of these five dancers is infectious. Mailey’s show brings home to us the notion that movement and physical expression are limited neither by age nor physique. Four of the five performers are local, but Tonya Sheina, by contrast, began her professional career as an actress in the Malaya Bronnaya Repertory Theatre in Central Moscow.

The dancers exploit the entire studio space: at times peeking out from behind curtains, criss-crossing the floor, sometimes sitting on top of two large toy boxes, then vanishing behind a clothes rail – the sort of thing animals and small children delight in doing.

Simple props are used to evoke various locations throughout: France by a beret and baguette, Italy by spaghetti, the Arctic by a shower of ice-cubes, Mexico by a wide-brimmed sombrero.

Steve Batts, founder and artistic director of Echo Echo, describes the company’s ethos in terms of encouraging performers to find their own voices and meanings through movement. During a quick conversation after this full dress rehearsal, he explains: ‘We are more concerned with the underlying grammar and syntax of movement rather than the reproduction of particular styles or idioms’.

He aims to have his dancers ‘thinking poetically and narratively’, rather than adhering rigidly to the strictures of established dance genres. Although aimed primarily at children, Ludo Lusi Lusum embodies all these qualities in the characters of the animals.

The freedom of movement, humour and sheer joy of this production makes it a delight to see and hear, well worth its share of the Legacy funds from the City of Culture Year in 2013. Just as well, perhaps, when arts funding is being so brutally cut.

If there is a criticism of the piece it is that it slightly tails away at the end, rather than being rounded off by an ensemble song, dance or routine to bring the whole thing to a joyful conclusion. 

Isadora Duncan, the free-spirited American-born dancer who died so tragically in 1927, quoted some words of the philosopher Nietzsche as an epigraph to her autobiography, My Life: ‘Everything heavy shall become light, every body a dancer and every spirit a bird.'

This could have been written for Echo Echo's new production, the first for children since their highly successful The Chess Piece. For Ludo Lusi Lusum is a delightful extravaganza bursting with fun, energy, lightness, mimicry and excitement, with ‘every body a dancer and every spirit a bird’. Children will love it. Isadora might well have liked it too.

Echo Echo Festival of Dance & Movement runs in Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company studios, Derry~Londonderry from November 6 – 15.