Saturday, May 31, 2014

Pan Pan and Irish Modern Dance Company, 'Quad': Crunching the Numbers

According to Beckett, Quad can't work onstage. Regardless, Pan Pan and Irish Modern Dance Company do the math on this mysterious square dance. 

Project Arts Centre, Dublin Dance Festival 
May 30-31

My review of Quad by Samuel Beckett coming up after the jump ...

"Extraordinary how mathematics helps you to know yourself", writes Beckett in the novel Molloy, after the title character takes it upon himself to count the number of times he farts ("three hundred and fifteen in nineteen hours"). While fascinated by this feat of flatulence, you might consider a greater recourse: how reality is ordered by mathematical reasoning. 

Since its first broadcast in 1981, artists and theorists have been discussing the numerical sequence of the televisual movement play Quad, a work of pure formalism; the piece involves little more than four performers moving in fixed patterns on a square stage. When Alan Schneider, the director of the US premiere of Waiting for Godot, wanted to take a stab at bringing it to the stage, Beckett replied: "Quad can't work onstage".

However, Pan Pan director Gavin Quinn has been determined to realise Beckett's non-stage works (specifically the radio plays All That Fall and Embers), and seems to be aware of the need for a dance sensibility here, hence a co-production with John Scott's Irish Modern Dance Company. There a few hats involved: theatre director and professor Nicolas Johnson gives us background on Beckett's plans for a geometrical mime dating from as far back as the 1960s, and mathematical neuroscientist Conor Houghton crunches the numbers.

Normally you'd be dubious of a performance event strung up by academic rhetoric. Thankfully, Houghton has a sense of humour, and while drawing on the above mentioned instance from Molloy, he elaborates: if mathematics give order to meaning, they also map out where meaning is absent. 

Then we enter Quad. One-by-one the dancers, clad in blue, white, yellow and red, enter a quadrangle outlined onstage, moving briskly in diagonal patterns. We can't really see their faces. Rather, the design gives them their individuality. The lighting was too difficult to pull off in the 1981 premiere but designer Aedín Cosgrove richly blends it according to the colours of the dancers as they enter and exit, leaving the stage ice white, hellishly red, and several states in between. Each performer is also assigned a percussion instrument, which sound designer Jimmy Eadie introduces as they come and go. At the heart of Quad's calculations is a negative space at the centre of the square, which always steers the dancers away from each other, never meeting in the middle.

It's followed by Quad II, a somewhat second act which sees the sequence slowed way down. The dancers now are abandoned by all colour and music. Wearing white hoodies, they pace slowly across the stage, a monochrome meditation on desolation. 

But did Beckett get the maths wrong? As Houghton scribbles on his blackboard, the sequence in Quad is flawed in that there isn't an even distribution of dancing pairs; the order has to repeat itself eventually. His conclusion: the only way to get the numbers right would be to perform it with five players as opposed to four. 

Hence, the unveiling of Quin, a new experiment to see what happens when the numbers line up. A fifth dancer enters the fray and the quadrangle is re-taped to make a pentagon. Electro music buzzes as the performers in motorcycle helmets (less a homage to Daft Punk, we learn, than to Quinn and Cosgrove's costumed dancing days in the 1990s) breeze from corner to corner, their trajectories uninterrupted. 

Yet in admiring the geometric elegance of Quin, you'd probably miss the near encounters in Beckett's square dance. While they continuously miss each other in Quad, they seem even further apart when the maths do work out. It makes you wonder if the playwright got the numbers wrong on purpose, to create that anti-space in the centre of the quadrangle, where lonely lives are just inches away from colliding. You'd nearly long that they would. 

What did everybody else think?

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