The double bill of The Box and Thinking in the First Person is proof that you do not need any set, costumes or fancy props to create a profound, emotive piece of physical theatre. In fact, it shows that dance theatre can speak a thousand powerful words. Talking Heads reporter Rosalind Roux reviews The Box, a work in progress from emerging dance artist Julia James-Griffiths. You can also read her review of Thinking in the First Person.
Originally from London but now based in Scotland, James-Griffiths personally introduces the piece as an attempt to show “the struggle people have with depression and the feeling of being in confinement”. Humbly, she informs us that the seven scenes we are about to see are as yet unordered and unlinked, and to “bear with us” in the scene changes. It transpires that, although unfinished in the mind of the choreographer, the stark contrast between the black out scene changes and the powerful energy of each scene, present a juxtaposition and a disjointedness. My opinion is that this broken, stilted arrangement adds to the poignancy of the piece.
Whether preceded by unified movement, the intertwining of bodies and limbs, challenging floor work, frenzied tarantella filling the stage, heart breaking pas-de-deux or an escapology inspired chair dance, each scene ends with a blackout. Enveloped in pitch darkness, the audience is forced to face the raw emotions of what they have just seen unfold. In this moment, it would seem that James-Griffiths is forcing the audience to be in their own box, which enforces the feeling of being on an unpredictable rollercoaster. This is thought provoking and allows the viewer a moment to either, catch a relieved breath or dwell in the struggle they have just been witness to, whichever emotions have imprinted on them.
The ensemble is made up of three young women and one young man who have no defined characters. They dance as one unit, solo or each become barriers for the others, fighting, pummelling, straining against one another. This evokes, in me, the feeling of being unable to escape ones’ own thoughts in a state of depression. Additionally, the piece presents a kaleidoscopic range of emotions and states; emptiness, struggle, contempt, confinement, numbness, disorder, exhaustion, resistance and damage were all conveyed without speech but through pushing and pulling, twisting and wrenching and embodying cycles which felt unbreakable. Tucked amongst these are fleeting moments of tenderness, care, protection and unity, only to be cut off with representations of rejection and hopelessness.
Every now and again, we are reminded of reality, the sound of a shop door opening, a wrangling bell, and these few moments help to frame the actuality of what is being portrayed. There is one seemingly false moment. The scene between a patient and a counsellor is played for laughs and stuck out as the only scene with speech. The majority of the audience appeared to take refuge in laughter and so minimised their discomfort. Unfortunately, this comic, almost slapstick approach, detracts from the serious and damaging nature of what we are seeing. Stigma from mental health professionals is a large part of the problem facing people struggling with mental health issues and is hugely influential in stopping people seeking help from local services.
The Box is an excruciatingly raw depiction of inner turmoil and the struggles of the human psyche. Exploring a variety of phases of depression, including counselling, psychiatric medication and relationships, James-Griffiths’ work is undeniably evocative, whether you have suffered from depression yourself or not. A few audience members voiced in the Q&A that “there were moments I wanted it to stop”, which can be viewed as a gut reaction to experiencing serious discomfort from the plight they are experiencing, which is out of their control. In this context, to evoke such a strong response is the highest compliment to the choreography, as it would suggest these audience members have experienced a real insight into the uncontrollable and harrowing nature of depression. James-Griffiths and ensemble have created a beautifully raw, thought provoking and insightful performance, which I would urge everybody to go and see.
by Rosalind Roux
Click here for Rosalind’s review of Thinking in the First Person from SMHAFF Associate Artist Emma Jayne Park, the other half of the double bill at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.