Julie Cunningham & Company: how did we get here? – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Graham Williams

Choreographer: Jules Cunningham

Stars. That’s perhaps the answer to the question posed in this work’s title. Jules Cunningham formed their Company in 2017 to explore the clarity of form and attention to detail around ideas of gender identity, the body, emotional states and mental health. Within these aims they had been getting lost watching and re-watching Nina Simone’s song Stars on YouTube during and after lockdown, reflecting on their own mental health in the feeling and lyrics of the song.

From there Cunningham had the desire to choreograph the song, calling in her close and long time dance partner and friend, Harry Alexander and raising the proposition to Melanie Chisholm (Mel C from the Spice Girls), a fellow working class Liverpudlian, and pitched to Alistair Spalding, the Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, who both took a leap of faith and agreed, starting a long and dedicated creative collaborative process.

Appropriately then, the hour long performance starts with a moving and melancholic dance to the 1976 live performance of the song. Unusually for modern dance there is no pretentiousness in this piece. It purposefully grabs the audience by the heart strings and draws them in, a closeness accentuated by this being the first large scale performance in the round at Sadler’s Wells, making the space feel intimate, offering the audience an experience from the performer’s perspective, and many, even Cunningham, have tears in their eyes toward the end of this piece. Just wonderful.

Throughout the performance the collaborative nature can be seen. It moves from raw emotion to a study of people’s interactions, how people inhabit their bodies in relation to themselves, others, time, place, space and what may be going through their minds . The performance feels gentle and loving. The fondness, knowledge and understanding for each other are natural, real, unforced and thoughtful.

However it is not all heart on the sleeve stuff as there is clear fun, joy and jokes in the performance including Mel C’s characteristic high kicks, and Cunningham and Mel C singing notes to each other. Cunningham ensures there is a balance between the performers in the choreography as well as in stage time and presence into which they emotionally submerge and lose themselves, really delivering on the themes of the show’s desired aims.

Chisholm gives an effortless performance, the age difference merely another part of the queerness of Cunningham’s work and the slow dance with Harry Alexander is beautifully appropriate. There are gasps during the question and answer section of this premiere, when Chisholm is asked about performing this demanding choreography at 49 as her age doesn’t even enter the audience’s heads.

This superb emotional rollercoaster ends at peace with itself and with the performers under the stars. If this is a show you were planning on skipping, feeling it may be merely a pop star’s indulgence, you will sorely miss out.

Runs until 29 January 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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