A dark and hazy stage is enough to set the scene of any new work, and Alexander Whitley’s Noumena was no exception. A variety of audience members filed into the Clore Studio for the 25 minute performance. For some, it was a fitting appetiser to the production of Sylvia, which was taking place on the main stage. For others, just something to lighten the commute home.
Live, on-stage music was provided by the 12 Ensemble; a young and exciting group of London-based string musicians. The group of 12 musicians filled the back of the stage, and tuned their instruments in the pre-performance darkness. The only set, a large suspended ring hung from the ceiling like a mirror, but was in fact a light installation by Children of the Light , the work of two Dutch visual artists.
The piece began with a solitary dancer, lying centre stage, under the ring. The music was surprisingly tonal, and made use of the quiet, wispy harmonic notes that only stringed instruments can produce. As the strings stretched and contorted themselves around the chords, so too did the dancer.
After a few moments, the dancer seemed to become aware of the ring behind her, as though it was a mirror, and the dancer on the other side, as her reflection. The mirrored dancing was very effective and displayed an excellent synchronicity between the dancers. As the dancers broke out of their mirrored mould, they echoed the change in music, by dancing in canon. The protagonist led the movement, and the mirrored dancer followed, but there was a sense of equality, and of two women working together.
Then the men entered and the mood changed. The movement of the circle signalled the shift in music and dynamic, as it changed colour and rotated with the dancers. It is at this point that the link to the 1952 ballet, Sylvia, became apparent. At first, it appeared that the women were fighting amongst themselves in the presence of the men. However, as with the protagonists in Sylvia, it seemed that all four were locked in battle, support and love for one another. This had been cleverly choreographed to take place through a series of interlinked passages in which all four dancers took it in turns to manipulate and support each other’s bodies.
The movement was seamless, as though the unit was one body.
It was hard to tell whether it was the music, lighting or movement that caused the dynamic changes; their noumena seemed to work harmoniously together. The music grew in tension and the flashing red lights of the circle signalled danger. The movement too broke down with some passages in unison and others in canon. Order was then restored by a re-awareness of the mirror, through which one couple passed through and disappeared. One couple remained, until the male partner passed back through the mirror, and the lone woman remained.
As the programme suggests, this work does indeed explore the role of the female in all her contexts; alone, working with other women and battling them. We see the inspiration of Sylvia in the mannerisms of both Sylvia the huntress and Diana the nymph in the movement, but we, as the women of the audience could also see ourselves. Noumena, being “a thing as it is knowable through phenomenal attributes”, is a difficult thing to display in words, let alone movement. But what can be taken from this performance is that it is possible to display the idea of “woman” in all her forms, even through the medium of “dancer”.
Image: ROH, 2017. Photographed by Helen Maybanks