Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre's latest work is a vibrant essay on silence, exploring humanity's misfires in the age of mass communication
As we file into the studio at the MAC for Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre’s TOST, the two performers are already on stage, already performing. A man and a woman in utility clothing (Quinn and dancer Jenny Ecke) square off against each other, separated by twelve feet of floorboards but joined at the mouth by a piece of string.
The stage is decorated with torn and muddy pieces of linen, kept in motion by the large propeller hanging from the ceiling and turning ominously, achingly slowly. The back wall, painted black, is decorated with spongey designs, like dandelion spores on the breeze. Is this the panspermia of human interaction? Language, as we know, is a virus. We’re here to find out how communicable it is.
The soundtrack, by regular collaborator Andy Garbi, is a series of reverberating drones. The two figures take tiny, incremental steps toward one another and the string goes slack. As one or other of them backs away it tightens, but gradually it becomes clear that the string is being eaten, and they slowly moving together. By the time they are at arm’s length they are chewing in earnest, the distance between them falling away.
They are so close now that they could kiss, but instead of the anticipated Lady and the Tramp flourish, she spits the string into his hand and goes off to dip a football into a bucket of whitewash. The white marks on the wall, then, are points in this ongoing cold war – and she has won this skirmish.
This is dance as physical sculpture – the movements are heavy and slow, displaying the extraordinary machinery of the dancer’s bodies. They are strong and beautiful as they jack-knife and collapse, their muscles straining, veins popping. And yet they never seem to lose the fluidity of line, every movement is exact, measured, and faultless.
The music changes as the narrative, or anti-narrative, changes. This is an essay on silence, of misfired communication, on the empty space between people, after all. The music is now that of crunching gears, of recoiling firearms, the springing mechanism of the cash-till. It brings exaggerated poses, prolonged extensions; the muscles judder, rock hard, locked into the performance.
Ecke employs particularly troubling imagery, repeatedly forcing her head down into her chest, jarringly, until she collapses. These are zoo animals driven mad by their isolation, endlessly replaying the same stuttering tics.
There are two stacks of paper, contained within a box. Quinn sits by the pages, lit by a single bulb. Ecke sits across from him (even their names sound like Beckett characters) and they stare, before producing microphones. Both make faltering attempts at speech, neither quiet managing it. The music has stopped and the only sound, the only movement is that of the live microphones twisting in their hands.
The silence is broken, finally, by Quinn intoning the first line of 'Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub'. It’s a splendidly bathetic moment and I laugh. But nobody else does. So I stop, quite quickly. Ecke responds with the next line and they continue in turn until the poem is over. At which point Quinn gets up to mark his victory on the wall with the white-washed football. He’s won that one.
'We are still incapable of understanding,' Quinn is now rambling, not quite incoherently, about his inability to communicate. It’s is an obsessive, Beckettian noise, pedantic, hesitant, forever qualifying, never quite meaningless. It is a halting, often derailing approach towards meaning, but it is nudging slowly towards its message. He eventually runs out of steam however and sits back down glumly in a chair, defeated.
The drones return until there is the sound of a shot or perhaps that of a great weight hitting the stage and Ecke collapses. Quinn struggles to right her but the life has utterly left her body, the strength in her muscles gone.
There is a comedy of manners here. As the pair roll around, him bereft and increasingly panicked, she lifeless, he is still at pains to make sure her skirt and sweater don’t ride up. Her modesty must be preserved – there are still some forms of codes and conduct that exist even in this silent world.
TOST is a vibrant and playful exploration of the gap between message and meaning in the age of mass communication. As the world opens up we imagine that cultural shibboleths are beaten down, that homogeneity and sort of natural equilibrium will have us all 'singing from the same hymn sheet' – though no one can agree which hymns to sing.
But there is still room for misfires and miscues, between races, between countries, between people. TOST explores this brilliantly.
TOST performs at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh on Wednesday, March 23 at 8pm. For tickets visit www.struleartscentre.co.uk or call 028 8224 7831.