I blame Mikhail Fokine. Ever since the twelve princesses first lobbed ‘apples’ at each other in his 1910 The Firebird and ever since they dropped them, dance observers have warily eyed such activities. Fast forward to 2019 and here is Spring from Gandini Juggling, very much a contemporary ensemble of throwers and catchers, in collaboration with Alexander Whitley, a choreographer, and a few of his dancers. The premise behind this fusion is interesting enough – the use of rhythm and music to engender an hour-long mixed-media show – but in reality, despite the best efforts of lithe and supple jugglers, some of whom have gymnastic and acrobatic training, the two genres make uneasy bedfellows.
It is the dance which suffers, as Gandini and Whitley try to integrate it into what are juggling riffs. The jugglers themselves respond magnificently, and incorporate choreographed movement into their already complicated sets, and the dancers gamely handle balls, rings and clubs, sometimes even throwing and catching them, which always induces not a little Firebird angst. But the dance is subservient to what is a very specific skill and only once or twice is it allowed to exist independently. Alas, Whitley, once hailed as a talent to watch, seems to have sunk beneath the choreographic waves, here producing fluent, capable ‘modern’ movement by the yard, devoid of individuality, just one more of hundreds choreographers churning it out for thousands dancers the world over.
I must confess that juggling in itself does not quicken the pulse, and I am often guilty of thinking “twenty tea cups…now do it with teapots”; in juggling, less is almost never more. Except that Gandini Juggling can and do make arresting spectacle with simplicity, and while Wes Peden sporadically struts his virtuoso stuff with throws and catches of dazzling precision, it is the less showy episodes which elevate the juggling at times to something approaching the poetic. Collectively whispered words like ‘change’ or the different colours of the rings (‘white, blue, yellow, red’) that are being thrown in the air lend a ritualistic air to proceedings, while the carefully choreographed flicks of the wrist which make six rings turn from white to, say, red, is simply delightful. Indeed, this ‘scene’ near the end of the show, with throws and colour switches in unison, breaking down into chaos only for it to be restored, is a true highlight of the sixty minutes. Production standards are impressively high, from the ever-changing and ever-inventive lighting to the simple costumes in a symphony of grey shades, while the score by Gabriel Prokofiev and played with thrilling attack by Camerata Alma Viva is quite superb. Prokofiev favours heavy rhythm and jagged lines, which are melded at times with electronic sound to produce a varied and always interesting composition.
Spring is a largely enjoyable hour in the theatre, cool and at times purposefully opaque, even surreal, but at times attaining a higher level of entertainment than might have been expected. Despite their best efforts, however, dance and throwing objects remain a somewhat strange amalgam – but then we knew that from Fokine.