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Motherland, The Place London

By Luke Jennings

The Observer, 18 November 2012

There’s a sequence in Vincent Dance Theatre’s Motherland that’s repeated at intervals throughout the two-hour piece. Aurora Lubos enters with a bottle of blood-red dye, slops a great gob of it on the all-white backdrop and, hitching her skirt up to her waist, leans back against it so that it seems to be welling from inside her, then fixes us with a sad, abject gaze. Then Andrea Catania comes on, flicks a hopeless glance at the audience and collapses, apparently lifeless, on to a pile of soil. Finally, Patrycja Kujawska saunters diagonally across the stage, playing a lyrical air on a violin.

Choreographer-director Charlotte Vincent founded her company in Sheffield in 1994 and since that date has undertaken a series of explorations of the human condition and of the nature of performance itself. Lubos’s actions remind us of the ineluctable nature of the female cycle, while simultaneously informing us of her physical preoccupations as a dancer who is also a mother. Catania’s collapse suggests a different realm of female experience: a sense of her own invisibility. An apprehension that she could, at any moment, be obliterated from the consciousness of those about her. “I’m here,” she calls out at intervals. “I’m still here.” Kujawska, meanwhile, seems to provide a commentary on the way that the raw stuff of women’s lives is aestheticised and made poignant. The eternal, after all, does not have to be acted on.

The work’s title is brutally literal. Vincent constantly draws parallels between the fertility of women and that of the land. As the land is raped by corporate interests, so are our lives degraded. At intervals, Lubos appears on stage swollen-bellied and bloody-thighed, before delivering herself of a swag of soil, spilling it symbolically on the stage. If the cast’s women are simultaneously bruised by fate and in thrall to their biology, Vincent does not lay the blame at the door of men. They’re feckless and inattentive – Greig Cooke’s blithe lack of self-awareness is particularly well pitched – and they’re spendthrift in their lust, but the issues that Vincent is exploring are existential ones. The piece’s most searching questions are voiced by 12-year-old Leah Yeger, who in a performance of exceptional poise, quietly but insistently demands explanations of the actions of the adults around her.

Music and folk-song thread through the piece, not as an ironic counterpoint, but as a simple and often touching commentary on the action. Many of the 10-strong cast are accomplished instrumentalists and this elision of musical and narrative performance – the sense that the soundtrack comes “from within” the piece, rather than being overlaid from the sidelines – adds greatly to its cohesion and power. Another great strength of Vincent’s work is its continuity. She has committed herself to a team of performers who, over the years, have become familiar figures to her audience. One of her concerns is the way that female dancers are “lost” to motherhood, so when Lubos had a child, Vincent set in place a series of extraordinary supportive measures, recalibrating her company’s professional practice to accommodate her dancer’s new needs. Failure to encourage mature female performers back to work in this way, Vincent says, will create a UK dance ecology “dominated by men and younger female artists whose work is valid, but perhaps lacks emotional depth”.

The truth of this is self-evident; former ballerina Darcey Bussell is one of many dancers who has told of the liberating new perspective on their work that motherhood brought. But there are costs, too, which Vincent has explored in Look at Me Now, Mummy, a solo piece for Lubos that saw the dancer presenting a series of mind-numbing domestic tasks as bravura performances, interspersed with jags of weeping. Long-term Vincent-watchers will be aware of this backstory, as they will of a devastating episode in the choreographer’s own life, when her husband left her for another woman, an experience transmuted by Vincent into a dance work named Broken Chords.

But Motherland works fine without this foreknowledge. Vincent has clearly watched a lot of Pina Bausch and while the debt is apparent in the piece’s fast-cut and often drolly surreal tableaux, the impetus and inspiration are Vincent’s own. She can bang on a bit: a shouted statement of the virgin/whore dichotomy is otiose and the piece could be shorter. But what gives Vincent’s work its power is that it is born not of hothoused theory but of lived experience. It comes from the heart and that’s not always a pretty place.