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Wilkie Branson: TOM- Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographer: Wilkie Branson

Dance on screen is something we’ve all become increasingly used to in the last couple of months, so it feels appropriate that the latest premiere from the Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage is a 60-minute animated film. Choreographed, directed by and starring Wilkie Branson, this unexpectedly soulful creation sits at the intersection of movement and film in an exploration of loneliness, longing and the search for meaning in the mundanity of everyday life.

Each morning a reticent young man boards a series of trains from his beautiful island home into the city where he joins the throng in the mass migration of bodies through the underground network. He arrives at a brick warehouse where he dances before returning home, only to repeat the same routine the next day. But one day something changes and as he begins to connect with the world around him, he finds a happier path.

Branson’s film is entirely unexpected and, unless you caught an earlier version of this work back in 2018, entirely unlike anything else you will see at Sadler’s Wells. The dance content is limited which will divide audiences, with a few sequences of breakdance and martial-arts-like shaping that focuses on elbow and wrist bends with wrapped arms. As the music builds in its more upbeat fourth section, Branson skilfully cuts between different parts of the commute as the suddenly enlivened population – all played by director – begin to dance along in unison, or emerge from within the protagonist showing several versions of the central character a few seconds apart.

Branson is interested in choreography in its broadest sense, and throughout the film the coordinating movements not just of people, but of various forms of transport, birds and elemental effects feels deliberately woven into the layered effect of TOM. The way the camera moves through the space, capturing the detail of the changing landscapes is often beautiful but also designed with particular care to create the effect of isolation and hopeless routine.

Most notable perhaps are the many cultural influences that come largely from the world of cinema and computer graphics. The video-game nature of some of the early sequences borrows much from the blockbuster fantasy movies like Harry Potter and Jurassic Park with long, sweeping tracker shots that pan across rocky cliff faces or follow a flock of birds at rapidly changing altitudes. Assassin’s Creed features here as well, following a single bird around the landscape as well as the inclusion of a ‘leap of faith’ move as the character switches between reality and dreams.

Branson also applies the rotating 360-degree visualiser technique within the breakdancing sequences as though taking the audience on a virtual tour of the movement. Later in the film, worlds and characters start to disintegrate which may put you in mind of the opening credits of Casino Royale in which a baddie shatters into playing card suits, while landscapes contort and buildings crumble like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Whether any or all of these references are intended, there is so much detail in TOM that the dance aspect is sometimes the last thing on your mind.

Branson’s work concludes with a notion of all the lives the protagonist could have lived and how his loneliness is ultimately rewarded with a more hopeful future. Whether or not this can really be considered a dance piece is a judgement call, but TOM is certainly a fascinating experience that offers new avenues for choreographed movement and the cinematic interpretation of dance.

Streaming here until 29 May 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Unexpectedly soulful

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.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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