BLOG Jake Oliver

NWR Issue 103

Caradoc Evans’ My People as Dance

It would be difficult to find many books that lend themselves less to the art-form of dance than Caradoc Evans’ My People, yet here it was, the bodies moving in lithe synchronicity, drenched in funereal gloom, Gwyn Emberton’s first full-length production after a long and circuitous journey from his roots in Wales and his love of dance. My People had a brooding, minimalist score by Benjamin Talbot and Victoria Ashfield (of Hinterland fame) and a brilliant ensemble effort by a collection of dancers who had never worked together prior to this production. Emberton’s inhabitation of Evans’ hellish Manteg was not without grace and beauty, devoid of any real joy as it may be. This was a very personal project for the choreographer, and you could feel the pull of his own journey as the scenes unfolded; the soot, the grime, the haunted shadows: all paralleled a difficult road for person and nation.

Emberton’s production, it should be noted, is based on Caradoc Evans’ collection of short stories, with the source material as a kind of jumping-off point, as opposed to a strict re-telling through the medium of dance. With no dialogue and only a few ghostly recorded voices drifting in from the score it would be an immense challenge to engage with the nuances of the stories’ plot points, but this certainly does not mean the dancers moved without nuance. Rachele Rapisardi, in particular, was magnetic, giving a pained yet lush performance as the minister’s wife. Often physically tethered to the stage, straining against confines both literal and figurative amidst crushing repression, Rapisardi commanded the audience’s attention as a woman emotionally torn, grappling with insanity and the death of her children.

Emberton’s vision of the book was to keep the tone as dark as possible without quite extinguishing all potential for beauty. With respect to both the score and the performance, the presence of beauty was less a glimmer through the misery, but rather an inhabitation of it. There was no life-affirming crescendo, a character breaking through the oppressive darkness to a summit of light. But there was gorgeousness in movement, subtlety in space, shadows cast as silhouettes doubling and complicating a sense of momentum.

One important issue of Emberton’s version of My People, is its conceptual frame-work. Emberton has stated that he wanted to avoid a heavy-handed approach to Evans’ prominent attacks on religion. In so doing, however, Emberton ran the risk of making only the broadest of themes (good versus evil, life versus death, light swallowed by darkness) apparent to those unfamiliar with the book. Indeed, even some audience members versed in Evans’ collection had difficulty discerning on stage the group of ministers or detecting more than traces of religion throughout the piece.

Emberton would have been better off re-titling his work, with a subtitle denoting that it was based on or influenced by My People. He apparently utilised only about a third of the stories, and acknowledged that even of those, perhaps only one simple moment or image may have led to a gesture or movement in the production. Emberton felt that Evans’ language lent itself perfectly to specific points within the piece, and usually took his cues directly from the source material. However, it is crucial to point out that these cues would typically spawn an outgrowth from the text. In this way, perhaps, the presentation of Emberton’s My People as My People is problematic. That said, issues of influence and faithfulness (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the text do not necessarily preclude enjoyment of the piece, as the music, choreography, and physical performances were brilliant, and were met with an exceedingly positive audience response.

Jake Oliver reviews and blogs for New Welsh Review online


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