Inevitably, a fair number of observers will be left wondering if what they have just seen is some kind of impromptu outdoor performance, or choreographed fashion show, or whacky promotional event for Saab. It is, in fact, all these things rolled into one: a dance roadshow, entitled CAR, organised as three, self-contained, 15-minute episodes. The work of 36 year-old choreographer, Lea Anderson, CAR is for her all-female dance company, the Cholmondeleys, who are zipped and buttoned into Sandy Powell's exotic costumed couture, while the Saab not only functions as a mobile stage set, but as fixed prop and highly-desirable wheels.
Metalcholica, Anderson's last project for the Cholmondeleys, featured two customised Honda motor bikes. But throughout, dancers and Hondas were frustratingly confined to the stage. Metalcholica was an improbable road movie: a mental construct trapped within the heavy metal reality of its physical setting and going nowhere fast. Conversely, CAR is a show which steers clear of theatres. Anderson has devised a touring production which doesn't just go on the road, but actually stays on it from now until the end of August, the idea being to stop at specific locations in Britain, France and the Netherlands, give a performance or two and drive off again.
Anderson has never attempted anything like this before, but for some time she has been eager to escape the theatres into which the Cholmondeleys have graduated. For a group of women who, a decade ago were dancing in smoky pubs and the Greenwich foot tunnel, the Cholmondeleys can rightly claim the accolade they received back in 1989 when they were labelled "one of the success stories of British new dance." That success was due to the beguilingly-effective economy of Anderson's choreography which, with its emphasis on small, intricate gestures, wrought from the unconscious movements visible in familiar human action and habit, and in its dual concern for precision and rhythm, seemed entirely new and fresh next to some of the more turgid improvisatory dance work of that era.
As a student at St. Martin's School of Art and, subsequently, at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (from 1981 to 1984), Anderson saw numerous performances of what she (and the other two original Cholmondeleys - Teresa Barker and Gaynor Coward) termed "vegetable dancing" - because of the predilection for bovine inertia and inexpressiveness displayed by many of its practitioners. "I'd often be at Riverside Studios, watching a silent piece while my stomach rumbled like some kind of backing track." By 1987, just three years after the Cholmondeleys (pronounced Chumlees) finished their studies at the Laban Centre, they found themselves at the forefront of a burgeoning, independent dance scene, along with other ex- Labanites such as Matthew Bourne and Jacob Marley. The critical acclaim heaped on the company in its early years was, says Anderson, "a fantastic boost at a time when we'd been around for a while and I'd had time to make lots of rubbish."
In 1988, Anderson formed an all-male group called The Featherstonehaughs (pronounced Fanshaws) which, like the Cholmondeleys, rapidly acquired a cult following and enough positive press coverage for Anderson to believe that she could do no wrong. However, the past couple of years have not been so rosy. Anderson can still fill middle-scale theatres with her separate -- and joint - shows for the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs. But the critical acclaim has withered and the days of uniformly handsome notices are probably gone forever, not that negative reviews are likely to cause her sleepless nights. Take the response to Anderson's recent Featherstonehaughs Go Las Vegas show at Sadler's Wells. Clement Crisp, of the Financial Times, wrote of "a glum evening... [of] dull, repetitive routines (the word was never more apt) performed by a septet of non-too- limber chaps [who] seem lobotomised."
Anderson laughs it off with good grace, points out that Crisp is the only critic she enjoys reading, and adds one of her favourite quotes to our conversation. "When he reviewed Precious [the third work - created in 1993 - in which the Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs joined forces], he said something like 'I'd rather sit at home and watch a tap drip than see another show by Miss Anderson.'"
What continues to irrirate her is the public perception that her work presents few challenges for her dancers. "People don't realise how complicated it is. It's much harder to take lots of tiny, inorganic movements and place them together in a framework of rigid counts. Dancers aren't trained to string small, quick movements together: the big movements that you learn in class are much easier to remember because dancers are trained that way. But we (the Cholmondeleys) don't do any of the virtuoso stuff that is so obviously hard.
"After Precious, so many people talked about how we were still standing and waving our arms around and hadn't deviated from that. It was as if they'd completely missed the first part of the work which was incredibly difficult stamina-wise."
In the years leading up to full-length creations such as Flag and Flesh and Blood (both 1989), Birthday (1992), and Precious, Anderson built an extensive repertoire of short pieces in which limited locomotion, contracted gestures and unison work became Cholmondeley trademarks as much through necessity as choice: "We usually performed in restricted spaces. One way to magnify movement was to use unison (which happened to be an obsession I had in those days); the other was to concentrate on detail and pattern."
Her early works are packed with precarious tilts, nervous allusions to stillness, nuzzling heads, and truncated pathways carved out by a single finger, a cupped hand or flattened palm. The beginning of the 1990s saw her choreographic strokes become larger and more sustained, but as the dance scene shifted into its next fashionable phase - the high energy, aeriel-bound athleticism demonstrated by Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, and for a shorter period, Lloyd Newson's DV8 Physical Theatre - Anderson and many other dancemakers were no longer toasted as enthusiastically. Nowadays, operating at the cutting edge seems less important to Anderson than it did in the Eighties, when aided by the friends who have become her regular collaborators - like costume designer Sandy Powell (then associated with Derek Jarman) and composers/muscians Steve Blake and Drostan Madden - she succeeded in attracting a trendy young audience.
Like her genuine unaffectedness and her disarmingly matey patter, Anderson's sense of humour detracts from the sapience and curiosity that generate and fuel her dances and enable her to nurture and direct two busy companies. "The important thing is to keep feeling interested in what you do and not to sink into a pattern. The CAR project was the result of a big decision to move away from theatre spaces and to stop churning out a middle-scale show each year- which is extremely difficult when everything is structured around trying to make you do that."
In order to get CAR up and running, Anderson wrote to every car manufacturer in the country. Saab GB, based in Marlow, was one of the few to show an interest in her plans. That this is Saab's first foray into dance sponsorship may account for the company's easy-going patronage. "We have to dare to be different, without being too worried," declares Saab's public affairs manager, John Brewer, whose view that "if it [CAR] was done with a Ford Fiesta, it wouldn't have the same impact," is, no doubt, whole-heartedly endorsed by Anderson and her team. According to Brewer, the Cholmondeleys requested "a large, robust car with attitude". The company actually needed a trio of identical vehicles - one for performing in; one for technical equipment; the third as back-up - and Saab has provided them.
Anderson may neither know nor care that Richard Dunwoody, Jasmyn le Bon, Peter Ustinov and Des Lynam are Saab drivers. In the second section of the performance, she introduces her own shrine to famous personalities - Ayrton Senna, Marc Bolan, Isadora Duncan - who came to rest in their cars. Although it was the hackneyed and blatantly sexist images which are so prevalent in television, billboard and magazine advertisements for cars, which, long ago, triggered Anderson's interest in the project, CAR is as apolitical as the rest of her work. "I'm interested in ambiguity, freedom of interpretation and, especially, the simultaneous illustration of two opposing views," she explains, clearly delighted with her Saabs, but still pondering over why most car manufacturers are under impression that women drivers want to take to the road in "a shocking pink hatch- back called something like Capuccino with a squiggle down the side and a place to put your handbag."
At Warrington Shopping Centre, today, 3 p.m.; then touring until August 27. Special information hot line: 0171 383 3231 between 10 a.m. and 12 noon.Reuse content