Friday 23 February 2024

CUDDLE: Dance Review

WHAT: Cuddle
WHEN: 20 - 25 February 2024
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Harrison Ritchie-Jones
COMPOSITION BY: Max Dowling and Nick Roder
LIGHTING BY: Ashley Buchanan
PERFORMED BY: Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff

Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff - photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

cud·dle - VERB - to hold close in one's arms as a way of showing love or affection OR to lie or sit close OR to ingratiate oneself with - NOUN - a prolonged and affectionate hug.

The word cuddle is one of those curious words which sounds so innocent and so intimate and therefore it has a natural connotation which references love and affection. It sounds sweet. It sounds cute. It sounds loving. For the most part, this is true. But you can be in a cuddle without consent. You can be in a cuddle without love. You can be in a cuddle to lie and be cuddled as victim of a deceit. To cuddle is to be close to someone and cuddling is about only two people which makes it personal. A cuddle is two. Any more than that is a huddle. In the dance performance Cuddle now playing at Arts House Harrison Ritchie-Jones explores the intimacy of just two people being close together in various forms, digging below the assumptions to find some truths about the pas des deux of life.

Cuddle is a non-narrative exploration of a word which sounds and feels so innocuous and loving, and places us in a combat zone to investigate its connotations. Ritchie-Jones and dance partner Michaela Tancheff layer into the dialectic the sounds of squeaky toys embedded into the costumes so that every time they move (and squeak) we are taken back to a time when we played with a baby or perhaps our dog. Watching two wrestlers in a boxing ring style fight venue squeaking away sets up a cognitive dissonance which is disarming and alarming at the same time. One second, it's cute, next it is funny as a long fart sound emerges, and the next it is terrifying as the brain reads danger and harm for something we normally associate with vulnerability being in this dark dance of doom.

The external conceit of Cuddle is framed around the concept of fight as dance. Perhaps not so true in boxing, it is public knowledge now that those big televised wrestling franchises are fake and the fights are most definitely more of a dance duet than actual combat. A white dance floor swatch replicates the boundaries of a boxing ring, the lighting (Ashley Buchanan) is cold, white fluresence, and whilst there is some seating for the audience, there are also barriers for people to stand behind, as well as two large screens for closeups as it true for all mega sporting events these days. They even have a referee microphone hanging from the grid, ready to be pulled down for commentary.

Videography (Alex Walton) features strongly in this show, with various levels of efficacy. We are somewhat obsessed with screen images these days and Cuddle allows a lot of exploration of that dialectice between the presented (film) and the represented (live performance), and also the intimate (close ups) and the distant (mid and long shots). All of these concepts are legitimate conversations to have around the concept of cuddling. The videography is live and switches between long, mid and close up across the entire hour. The audience gets to decide how they view this coupling at each moment of the performance. 

For me, the video is at its most powerful on the extreme close ups. In those moments we get to see the kind of detail you can only see when you are locked deep in a cuddle with somebody. The detailed bulge of musculature, the minutest flick of a finger in partner grooming, the gleam of light reflecting on drops of sweat. Perhaps the main point of the longer shots is to remind us that to watch a cuddle from the outside is to have no understanding of the experience or relationship of the two people doing the cuddling?

The start of the show is intriguing as a concept but probably has little more than wow value. The stage space is empty but on the screen we see the two performers emerge from a car wearing balaclavas and carrying a boltcutter. They approach a fence and cut the chain whilst also suddenly being caught up in a hot and heavy pash session. We recognise the rear entrance to Arts House and they slowly work their way towards the foyer, never leaving this passionate embrace. Is this pre-record? It is intriguing and amusing and it sets the mood for the rest of the show. I think the audience loved how it resolved. 

Once in the space, the dancers square off and size each other up, circling warily and squeaking outrageously. They come together for short, sharp skirmishes as they test each other. The dance takes place in 'rounds' and at intervals the dancers stop sparring and sit at opposite sides, slowly doffing parts of their attire as the show progresses. Do not fear though, the composers (Nick Roder and Max Dowling) have not done anything as crass as including tedious referential sounds such as bells to end a bout. The entire sound design is sophisticated, powerful, and full of all of the complexities of the performance.

We often hear sword fights described as being a dance of death, and people talking about the beauty and grace of boxing, and the art of war. In Cuddle Ritchie-Jones places these conflicts directly within the paradigm of these art forms commentators and combatants often reference. The genius is he does it with humour as well as the brute strength of professional dancer bodies. At one point he asks Tancheff is she wants KFC or the Kitchen? As she ponders the question, and after we've had a bit of a chuckle, it takes us a while to understand the context. It brings to mind martial arts training and the use of AB forms to learn technique. If you have ever studied Tai Chi or Karate or Kung Fu you understand innately this linkage between dance and combat. When you see Cuddle you will know it regardless.

There is no narrative arc to Cuddle. It is pure investigation and exploration of the many ways we pair up as human beings, as dancers, as fighters. The choreography includes dance and fight moves from a multitude of genre including ballet, line dancing, boxing, clowning, and human coupling. The intimacy of partner grooming is contrasted by a full body flip and pin to the ground. They say all is fair in love and war. What they don't tell you is that it all takes place in a cuddle.

4.5 Stars

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