Company: C-12 Dance Theatre
Music: Jamie Salisbury
Reviewer: Elise Nuding
Described as a story of love, flying overdue library books, and a dancing librarian, Shhh! celebrates the humble local library. A narrative work with twelve scenes and five performers, C-12 Dance Theatre’s production also employs original music, immersive projection work and movable bookcases to tell a story set in a closing-down library. Telling stories seems a particularly apt choice for a work about libraries, and it soon becomes clear that the library is a space for more than just books. Personal and fictional stories play out as the library is revealed as a space for encounters of both the social and imaginative kind.
The impressive score, composed and produced by Jamie Salisbury, drives both the narrative of the work and the emotional trajectories of the characters. The music was developed in conjunction with choreography and storyline: a collaboration which contributes to the score’s effectiveness, and makes for a more integrated work. The downside is that at times, the correlation between the characters’ actions and the music seems a little simplistic, but perhaps this is an inevitable outcome of the choice to relate these two elements in this way.
Parts of this production really work. As the eclectic assortment of characters queue up at the librarian’s desk, a book to be returned becomes the object of a game. It is passed back and forth, kept just out of the exasperated librarian’s reach. This escalates into a full-blown game of catch, and the performers throw the book (and themselves) around the stage, tucking it under their chins, between their feet, or grabbing it mid-somersault. The performers – not just the characters they portray – are clearly having fun. Their sense of play and being-in-the-moment is real; not every wild leap succeeds and the book gets dropped on several occasions, keeping both the audience and the performers on their toes. Later, characters leap and roll across the top of the bookcases as the other performers move them around the stage. In both of these sections the genuine sense of play and risk is compelling to watch.
These moments are offset by more affected representations of character. At several points this feels a little false, but there are also times when it works. In one such section, a voiceover narrates excerpts from Alice in Wonderland. Here, the over-theatricality works to the scene’s advantage as it conjures associations of pantomime, childlike wonder and playfulness: a pertinent reminder of the imaginative potential of books and, by association, the libraries in which they reside.
Less enchanting is the emphasis on a romantic storyline where a formulaic boy-meets-girl scenario plays out through the course of the work. Both are shy, sweet, and ultimately a little boring. Maybe I’ve just had my fill of fairy tale romances and gender stereotypes through (over?)exposure to Disney movies and various ballets. Or maybe, despite its simplistic nature, this fairy tale aspect of the narrative is actually quite fitting for a work that includes excerpts of well-loved children’s stories. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that ending the work with the focus on the love story takes something away from the other themes that Shhh! explores, and that, frankly, are more interesting.
Although some of Shhh! does not work for me, a lot of it does. It is an engaging reminder of the way in which libraries can be more than just spaces for books, and the choreographic workshops offered in libraries near the performance venues allow these extended possibilities of library spaces to be realised in a very tangible way. The production is an ambitious undertaking, and although parts of the work may miss their mark, the playful intention behind them makes this matter less. Ultimately, Shhh! succeeds in what it sets out to do and, when all is said and done, is really quite charming.
Photo: Arnim Friess