Eliot Smith Dance review – the Trojan wars complete with fetishwear and catwalk

Lyndsey Winship
·3 min read

Many small dance companies are clinging on by a thread after this year of cancelled performances. Newcastle-based Eliot Smith Dance has been determined to keep creating work. In the summer, Smith was behind a hybrid documentary-dance film about the nurses Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, and he now presents a short virtual triple bill of new work that, in a parallel world, would have been premiered in-the-round at Wylam Brewery’s Palace of Arts. This recording is the result of making-do: the low ceiling, the visible radiators, the vinyl dance floor taped to the ground are all things we’ve got used to in this time of ad hoc stagings. You have to applaud the spirit.

The setting gives an informal feel to the opening short solos. First is Jake Vincent’s five-minute Onward, danced by Smith. There’s something of the Mark Morris school about its gently paced stepping and skipping to Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 2; a touch of folk and courtly socials, and Smith has the poise of someone just rising above it all.

A minor coup for the company is Messiah, a premiere from Mark Baldwin, longtime artistic director of Rambert, now choreographer, teacher and painter – as evidenced here by the backdrop, Baldwin’s “cave painting” of a rhino, its connection to Christ not entirely clear. The dance, performed to the “He was despised” aria from Handel’s oratorio, is elegant, elastic and often sculptural. Yamit Salazar performs a solo of clear, stark angles and poses and off-kilter balances, in what feels as if it’s probably a sketch for a bigger work to come.

The main event is Smith’s own Troy, inspired by the story of Helen of Troy, but told with a cast of four men – Smith plays a gender-swapped Helen. That the epic myth is stripped back goes without saying, but Smith does manage to develop relationships between characters. Classicists dispute whether Helen was seduced or abducted by the Trojan Paris. Here there’s ambiguity in Helen and Paris’s first dance, both ownership and acquiescence (on both parts). Paris crawls over Helen’s standing body, scaling a mountain, then falls into her/his arms. There’s tenderness in the choreography even when the mood is cool and Helen is aloof.

Adam Johnson’s music dominates in an effective way, rich melodies swimming through murkier waters, different cultural influences merging in sound. Throughout the programme Jason Thompson’s camerawork moves with the dancers and provides moments of narrative emphasis or shifts in perspective: aiming his lens down the length of an outstretched arm, or injecting emotion by zooming in on two hands touching.

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You’re just wondering how Smith will tackle the Trojan wars when surprisingly, the three combatants launch into a vogueing catwalk sequence – another kind of fierce battle. It’s an example of the varying references at play. For example, the men wear fetish-y leather gauntlets but Hector (Adam Davies) is also sporting what looks like a comfy pair of striped pyjama bottoms (you’re probably supposed to think “high fashion resort collection”, but PJs are what comes to mind). Smith’s Helen has ultra-groomed facial hair and striking eye makeup. These clashes and uncertainties are intriguing and you can see Smith’s ambition to layer and reflect on different worlds. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to stage the work properly and expand on some interesting ideas.