Julie Cunningham & Company: m/y kovsky | fire bird – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographer: Jules Cunningham

Jules Cunningham brings two relatively new works to Sadler’s Wells in the smaller studio space exploring the relatability of specific classical music pieces and their meaning for queer identity and expression. m/y kovsky | fire bird puts Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky in the spotlight but contrasts the grandiosity of their work with contemporary movement, although meaning is often lost in the technical detail of the dance.

m/y-kovsky, first performed in 2019, begins as a queer love story staged as a pre-dance scene in which two people in identical costumes appear to fall in love. But there is no dance here as such and instead, rolls of paper are Cunningham’s tools which the characters lay on, rip, lie under like bed sheets and write notes on, presumably to each other. It is playfully seductive if rather innocent, but it is less clear how this scene relates to the energetic dance that follows.

The meat of m/y-kovsky is a 20-minute piece for four dancers dressed exactly as the previous scene in loose pleather dungarees and white t-shirts. The choreographic style is equally loose and modern with a ballet base and a casual frame. The dancers hop and skip in formation, sometimes they perform in unison, at others they divide into gender opposite pairs. Sometimes one performer will lead and the rest replicate the movement.

There are lots of tones here, fast and slow, serious and silly with activities phased in waves across the dance. At one point, a fifth dancer (Jules Cunningham) joins, exhibiting the same frisson with their partner from the first story, but what it all means and what Cunningham wants the audience to feel is less certain.

In Part Two, the choreographer takes on the most famous pieces of dance music and turns it on its head. In this choreographer’s fire bird, Stravinsky’s composition becomes instead a small, intimate piece about identity formation and internal angst. Cunningham’s work here is again very detailed, with lots of tight technically controlled movement as the firebird character explores the confines of its world slashed with ropes that it must crawl beneath and through.

It results in plenty of back bends, extensions and stretches as the dancer moves in tightly defined spaces but it means the piece is never expansive, it barely travels around the floor and doesn’t always respond to the insistent demands of Stravinsky’s ranging score. That makes it quite difficult to grasp the meaning behind these decisions and, with the difference between fear, melancholy or just pure concentration unclear, it feels like an emotionless performance.

Imogen Clarke’s lighting is evocative, experimenting with spotlight and shadow as well as moving light around the stage but without a sense of what the passages of this dance mean, this too lacks significance within the story of fire bird. At over 40-minutes it starts to feel self-indulgent, a deliberate refusal to respond to the music and even to taunt it in a pre-recorded video of performer JD Samson actively mocking Stravinsky’s sound.

Cunningham’s show sets out to offer a queer reading of classical composers and tries to disrupt their received meaning. That’s not something that this show obviously achieves and while the dance skill on display is clear, that next level of comprehension is missing.

Runs until 11 November 2022

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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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