Echo Echo Pick 'n' Mix Double Bill

Derry dance company's short, sweet show of two halves will live long in the memory

The Pick’n’Mix Mini Festival at Belfast’s Old Museum Arts Centre is mainly about showcasing new work by established and emerging Northern theatre companies. But this year dance also features prominently on the programme, with contrasting performances from two influential companies - Ponydance and Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company.

Echo Echo is one of Ireland’s leading dance companies. Founded in 1991 in Amsterdam by Steve Batts and Ursula Laubli, it relocated to Derry in 1997 and has been based there ever since.

The company works on a number of levels, producing and promoting popular interest, participation and education in dance and movement, as well as presenting audiences with a far-reaching, sometimes challenging slate of influences, from inside and outside the mainstream dance traditions.

Saturday’s performance at Pick’n’Mix is all about bridging the generation gap with Under Current, a colourful piece that invites children and their parents or adult companions into a madcap world of fairytales and nursery rhymes, inhabited by strange creatures and colourful toys. The company takes delight in breaking the rules and having a laugh and the joy on the emerging audience’s faces after the production speaks volumes for what they have just experienced.

Sunday’s double bill sees a dramatic change of mood, as the company enters the world of abstract movement and experimentation, combined with voice, music and poetry.

A Poetic Phrase of Turns, as the witty title suggests, is a deliberate inversion, a quiet, contemplative piece set not to music but to the persistent beat of a metronome.  

Before launching into a stealthy, carefully crafted series of interconnected sequences, Batts explains that the metronome is set to 55 beats per minute, the resting pace of a healthy human heart. Hence, everything that is to follow will move with a normal human pulse and meter, examining the seemingly limitless combinations of physical movement, facial expressions and emotion that naturally flow through the five chakras of the body.  

In this at once instinctive yet hugely disciplined solo piece, Batts invites the audience to bring their own imaginations and inner feelings into the equation of body, mind and spirit. There is something completely mesmerising about the way in which he navigates a path through a maze of poses and counterpoints, each tiny energy point sparking off new, carefully controlled movements - some large and expansive, others minute yet distinctive.

This minimalist, technical piece is not designed to be a crowd pleaser, yet the thrill is in witnessing something infinite and constantly evolving - A Poetic Phrase of Turns will be different each time. It is designed to question and subvert our notion of what it is that constitutes dance; that it can be something amorphous, mysterious, even when stripped of narrative and sound  - except, here, for the relentlessly ticking metronome.  

In Free Flight Batts is joined by Lorna McLaughlin of The Henry Girls, a group with whom the company has worked on previous collaborations. The piece was commissioned for the Cuirt Festival in Galway and inspired by the humorous poem of the same title by the black American poet, the late June Jordan.

Free Flight ticks off the minutiae in life, which preoccupy us – lists, priorities, people, places, food, tasks, pets. McLaughlin’s deep-throated singing creates a cacophony of sounds, some sweet, some funny, some downright weird. Beside her, Batts clicks into overdrive, his expressive movements and subtle facial expressions bringing to manic life the astute and passionate stream of consciousness that drives the poetry.

Echo Echo’s short, sweet show of two halves will live long in this year’s Pick’n’Mix memories.

Jane Coyle