Quartet for Fifteen Chairs

The kids love Maiden Voyage Dance's Chaplin-esque piece, marked by slapstick humour, enchanting choreography and a joyous score by Brian Irvine

Ten in the morning seems early for a contemporary dance performance, but when the audience is comprised of pre-schoolers then the hour is just perfect.

Then again, contemporary dance is not typically on most nursery schools’ radars – unless, that is, the dance company is Maiden Voyage Dance and the show is a riot of fun.

Quartet for Fifteen Chairs, a commission by the renowned Argentinian choreographer Enrique Cabrera, premiered at the 2014 Belfast Children’s Festival, although these current dates represent the first tour of a show that has already wowed audiences in Belfast, Limerick and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, where it was watched by over 2,000 people. Today's audience at the Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick is a little more modest.

The opening scenario sees the four dancers – David Ogle, Ryan O’Neill, Carmen Fuentes Guaza and Vasiliki Stasinaki – muttering in self-absorption behind newspapers as they glide around the stage. It is an undeniably adult-themed montage, yet Cabrera’s work speaks to all ages and it’s not long before the piece works its considerable charms on these County Down tots.

To the stirring soundtrack of Bach’s 'Goldberg Variations', a balletic dance unfolds with the newspapers central; peek-a-boo and Chaplin-esque shuffling provoke titters, while the precisely synchronized, flowing choreography seduces on another emotive level entirely. The sudden appearance of a small blue wooden chair unleashes an endlessly imaginative four-way battle of wits for possession, to beautifully metronomic music by Northern Irish composer – and current Belfast Music Laureate – Brian Irvine.

Irvine’s score not only mirrors the performers’ rhythmic vitality, but the joy inherent in their play. And play they do. So little modern dance these days thinks of younger audiences’ sensibilities but Cabrera’s wand enchants children and makes big kids of adults, both on and off the stage.

More identical chairs appear and a game of musical chairs of gymnastic design ensues, evolving into a dance that swirls gracefully around the stage. The lights die down and a torch illuminates four chairs that a dancer uses to traverse the platform, moving like a surrealist caterpillar.

Lights up, bums hit the stage at regular intervals as the dancers repeatedly steal a chair from under each other to the vivace strains of a Farinelli opera. It is a comic routine of universal humour, simple in concept maybe, but enhanced by the rigour of the choreography.

Synchronized stilt-chair walking of elephantine grace precedes the arrival of all 15 chairs; an extended piece of imaginative theatre then unfolds that combines ballet, juggling, balancing and left-field semaphore. For the finale, the chairs are stacked onto one of the dancers who, with wobbly knee syndrome, attempts to exit the stage with his strange cargo. Like Laurel and Hardy and the piano, it all ends with predictably calamitous results.

As the teachers gather the nursery kids, four-year olds William and Austin spontaneously mount their own ‘duo for two chairs’ routine, lifting the seats of their own chairs up and down, climbing over the backs and pirouetting. They may lack individual coordination, and their synchronicity goes to pot, but they command their little stage and score high marks for artistic imagination and mischievous pursuit of fun.

The surreal charm of Maiden Voyage Dance’s performance of Cabrera’s Quartet for Fifteen Chairs not only allows children a way into modern dance, but encourages them to reimagine the possibilities of everyday objects. It is also a welcoming invitation to the stimulating grooves of classical and contemporary music.

No doubt more than a few kitchen chairs will tumble at home and the newspapers may come in for a bit of rough treatment in the coming days, but if the kids’ giant imaginations are fired and their creativity unleashed, who knows how they will benefit in the long run?

Quartet for Fifteen Chairs finishes its current tour at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on February 27, with two productions at 10am and 7pm.