Arts prizes clearly have a function beyond making obscure artists more visible and a little less poor. In the case of The Place Prize for choreography, now in its fifth edition, it also enables the making of the work in the first place. While a visual artist or a novelist can shut themselves away and simply get on with it, putative dance-makers are caught in a bind.
Your future Russell Maliphants and Hofesh Shechters struggle to find the funds to light, design and soundtrack a public performance, not to mention persuading their hard-up friends to rehearse for weeks on the prospect of no pay. Thanks to sponsorship by Bloomberg, however, the biennial Place Prize can select entries at the ideas stage and put up the resources to make them happen. Last summer 208 skeleton ideas were whittled down to 16, which were put into development, as they say in business, and then narrowed down to four.
Those finalists are now in the throes of a run of 10 public performances (all four each night) culminating in Saturday night’s decision by a panel of judges as to who should land the £25,000 jackpot. But that’s not all. There’s also a nightly Audience Prize of £1000 to be played for. In theory, with changing audiences, this should mean every finalist getting a look in. Instead, though, it has been the comedy turn that has repeatedly topped the audience vote (as happened in the Final of 2011.) Does this signal a desperate hunger for belly laughs in contemporary dance, or a general perplexity at what else is on offer? Jokes, even bad jokes, may extend a hand to a drowning man.
H2 dance, the comedy duo whose bank balance is already looking healthier, are unfortunately not very funny at all. In Duet, they present a partnership in crisis, both on and off stage, a kind of Saunders and French in Lycra. Graceless in their pink and silver outfits, they go through the motions of a very basic dance routine, delivered with all the panache of a Keep Fit class for duffers. As they lunge and twirl in synch, barbed observations of each other’s shortcomings emerge. Hanna Lindgren (the short, bossy one), talks about their recent experience of couples therapy. ”You and I, we’re like cheese and onion, fruit n’ fibre, Barbie and Ken” she says to big, put-upon Heidi Rustgaard. Heidi’s main function is to take the flak and douse the scene in dry ice at significant moments. A sequence describing her nervous breakdown as she lies on the floor doing abdominal crunches is memorably banal.
Autobiography is a clear theme this year, as is the spoken word. Rick Nodine’s Dead Gig harks back to his nerdy teenage fandom of the Grateful Dead, hardly a fashionable band even in the 1980s. Nodine begins by imparting some Deadhead lore, launching into a call-and-response with the band’s late frontman Jerry Garcia using a plimsoll as a microphone. It’s an engaging performance, honest and well-judged in its effects, until the point when Nodine describes a major, LSD-fuelled concert in America when everyone in the audience was dancing in the aisles. His gambit is simply to walk off stage, leaving us to imagine the scene as the music plays on, which seems a cop-out. Nonetheless, Dead Gig scores points for originality, as well as a great soundtrack.
The Wishing Well by Eva Recacha (who has been a Place Prize finalist before) is if anything even more personal, though the choreographer has hired someone else to dance it. Martha Pasakopoulou, tiny, bullet-fast, and with a face as sunny as a Greek holiday, is indeed a talent to treasure. It’s her force of personality, sharp timing and sheer technique that carry this intricate, layered piece about memory and the hopes and desires of childhood, and the way they are tempered and transformed in later life. Child-sized herself, Pasakopoulou bombs about the space, a fizzing conduit between urgency and dreaming. She has a body that can do anything, and you find yourself drawn inexorably into her physical world. This was the piece I most wanted to see again, the one that seemed to have more to reveal.
Almost as good in my view, a view not shared by the audience that night, was Athletes, by Riccardo Buscarini, another finalist who has been here before. Under ice-blue light, in silence, three figures in white bodysuits, their eyes sooty holes in snow-white faces, disport themselves like futuristic Three Graces, or an eerie car-crash of Japanese Butoh and Frederick Ashton’s Gymnopedies. After about 10 minutes of silence (a long time in dance), the lush swell of Bernard Hermann’s movie score for Vertigo crashes in, and you notice the lines of travel begin to resemble those psychedelic spirals that punctuate the film. I was gripped by the underpinning of eroticism in this piece. You never quite see what happens, but one of the three icy mavens appears to be killing off her rivals by kissing them. Again, it’s a piece that would repay further viewings. It was performed with immaculate, verging on yogic, calm control by its trio of dancers.
Tomorrow night’s final at The Place will be streamed online, live, from 7.45pm. www.theplaceprize.com/live