Dance / Rules, riddles and absurdity: Judith Mackrell on Yolande Snaith's Diction at The Place

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The Independent Culture
The invented worlds of Yolande Snaith are rich with plunderings from fairy tale, history, philosophy and art. They are worlds, too, that rarely obey daytime logic. Her dancers enact rituals that are bound by strange commands, topsy-turvy motives, magic or dreams.

They wear extraordinary costumes, inhabit surreal sets. Yet, in Snaith's best work, they sustain an oblique relation to the conflicts and comedy of real life. It's often been said that Snaith creates the choreographic equivalent of Carroll's Looking Glass vision.

In her new work, Diction, that parallel seems deliberately drawn. The stage is set as a giant chessboard, which the six dancers navigate according to pre-ordained, if crazy, moves. Calling out instructions are two 'umpires' seated on towering leggy chairs. One (performed with virtuoso relish by Andrzej M Borkowski) looks like a character straight from Alice. A violently jocular sadist, he roars commands to the dancers in a kind of middle-European gibberish, his walrus moustache bristling threateningly from his face. Like his sister umpire, he wears a bowler hat and Victorian greatcoat, and with childish, brutal joy they blow whistles and wield football rattles whenever their victims infringe the rigid but unfathomable rules of the match.

The games that the (consistently excellent) dancers play are defined partly through movement, partly through the various objects that compose Robert Innes-Hopkins's set. At the beginning, the cast race around the board, stepping only on its black squares.

They freeze, backtrack and leap out of each others' paths in frantic but exquisitely timed obedience to the umpires' calls. Later, they cross the board in couples, slicing at full dangerous stretch across its surface, careering around each others' bodies in flying balances and lifts.

These activities gloriously disrupt the chequerboard squares, which are marked out by heaps of parchment scraps. Paper flies everywhere, whipped into a greater storm by the huge cloaks with which the dancers beat the air. Ecstatically, confusedly, the players are left to wander through a temporary world of miraculous spiralling particles.

Ingenious use is also made of several striped poles that are variously employed as javelins, giant 'pick-up-sticks' and instruments with which the dancers prod their partners through a series of twitchily acrobatic manoeuvres. There are sinister games of blind man's buff into which the two umpires are also drawn, red scarves tied Elephant Man-style over their faces. Two men engage in a meticulously choreographed wrestling bout, while two women supplant the umpires' perch on the giant chairs and enact an elaborate and soulful dialogue of gesture before collapsing into a juddering stupor.

As in all of Snaith's work, this apparently disparate material is rigorously and arrestingly dovetailed into a rich stream of consciousness. The simple moves required to manipulate a prop blossom satisfyingly into full- blown choreography, the goalposts shift deftly so that the meaning of an object or the boundaries of an image transfers before your eyes.

Diction is, though, one of Snaith's most economical pieces. Less jammed with references than some of her past choreography, its ideas move with unusual suppleness, touching pointedly on quirks and passions of human nature. We see the silliness, the deadliness, the sublimity of people obsessed by competition and the treacherous power of those, like the umpires, who divide their victims and rule. We glimpse, in passing, the ruthless arbitrariness of fate and the universal predicament of the blind leading the blind. It's also typically paradoxical of Snaith that these base rules of human experience should be so lucidly present in a work whose greatest pleasures lie in its riddles, its absurdities and its vagrant imagination.