Dance is the Elixir of life…

Elixir Festival hits Sadler’s Wells kicking off with KnowBody II, a programme of 6 age-defying pieces that celebrates the contribution of older dancers.

With choreography from the acclaimed Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Robert Cohan CBE, performed by dancers legendary through to novices, students and professionals, it was a surprisingly entertaining evening. Here are our 3 highlights:

The Road Awaits (Annie-B Parson)

With a cast of ex-professional dancers with a collective age in the 100s, this sophisticated, quirky and brilliantly conceived piece of theatre almost stole the show. An absurdly narrated dinner party is deconstructed, relationships are explored, inner feelings revealed.

The Road Awaits Us Conceived, Adapted and Choreographed by Annie-B Parson Performers: Christopher Bannerman; Brian Bertscher; Anne Donnelly; Linda Gibbs; Betsy Gregory; Paul Lazar; Diana Payne Myers, Namron; Kenneth Tharp. Photos by Johan Persson

Is this dance? No. Does it matter? Absolutely not! Because the choreography of the characters – verbally, visually and physically – is absorbing. This successful piece becomes more interesting due to the age of the dancers. Through their lens you question life looking backwards, question the depth of marriage, the passage of time, the meaning in existence. It certainly proves that age is only a number, and that age should not stop you from dancing.

Catalogue (First Edition) (William Forsythe), performed by DANCE ON ENSEMBLE 

Two dancers on a blank stage stand side by side. Two halves – a woman, a man – without sound, dressed simply in jeans and tshirt, moving only their arms in continuous asymmetrical sequences for 18 minutes straight.

Dancers Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman command the vacant space, filling it with an electric connection, an intense dialogue of movement that at times seems like they are finishing each others’ physical sentences. They start connected, hand to hand, they then move individually, their arm movements infecting the other’s, passing physical words between them, they seem to pass back and forth as one’s movement becomes the other, interacting, responding, with affection, with humour, their conversation ends with the dancers reunited palm to palm.

Catalogue (First Edition) Choreographed by William Forsythe Performers Jill Johnson & Christopher Roman
Photo: Johan Persson

This is a challenging piece both for the dancers and the audience. It’s a lot to ask for two dancers to hold an audience in complete silence, with such minimal movement focussed mainly on the upper body. For the audience, you become acutely aware of your role. Transfixed on the performance, you don’t want to make a sound for fear of breaking the intimacy on stage. You feel a voyeur listening and watching a couple’s communication. A brilliantly executed performance by DANCE ON ENSEMBLE.

Axe (Mats Ek) performed by Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely

Mats Ek is a genius and this short piece, performed by his wife and muse legendary former ballerina Ana Laguna, is deeply poetic.

The stage wings are striped away, stage hands lay wood in piles, before Yvan Auzely enters with axe in hand and begins chopping wood. We appear to be outside a cabin in the woods, with husband and wife.

As Yvan continues to chop the wood with dedication, his wife enters, almost sidling up to her husband’s domain. With classic Ek choreography, Ana Laguna at the age of 62 jumps, folds, strikes in the physical language of Ek as she attempts to grab the attention of her life long husband, who ignores her presence and continues to violently chop wood.

Axe Choreographed by Mats Ek Performers Ana Laguna & Yvan Auzely
Photo by Johan Persson

This is a classic tale of an age old marriage where the husband focusses on the practical elements, the woman is alone on the periphery. Her ignored sensitivity, presented by Ana’s softer, creative movements, is contrast to his relentless chopping.

Finally, the wife takes matters in hand, she takes the axe, embraces the wood, her husband’s singular focus broken and he finally sees her. Together they move, they embrace, arms freely swinging with their bodies touching. He seems released, jumping, rolling, he joins his wife in dance.

The age of dance….

Former prima ballerina, Ana Laguna has had one of the most successful and long careers in the dance world, having danced with greats including Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Watching her perform, raises the complex question of why dancers stop performing just because they are no longer ‘perfect’. There are so many reasons why dancers end their stage careers, either they feel it’s time, physically it becomes too challenging, or they’re asked to step off the stage, making room for the next generation of younger dance stars.

And while there is a path to top of a dance career, there isn’t a clear road back. Perhaps companies need a wider repertoire with more works that provide a gradual descent, a less rigorous dance life with meaningful roles for dancers and opportunities for audiences to continue to see their stars on stage, albeit less often and in different works. Perhaps this is why so many dancers go on to personal projects, change their style of dance, guest and perform in other ways. The end of a dancer’s performance career shouldn’t be a cliff, but a gradual slope.

Dance stays with you, no matter how old you become and it’s so great to see Elixir giving opportunities to older dancers and celebrating their contribution to the dance world.

Elixir Festival 2017 at Sadler’s Wells 23 – 27 June.

You can find out about how dance is empowering people with dementia through the work of Arts4Dementia.