The boy in the grey tracksuit stands to one side of a stage crowded with people. He is perhaps nine or ten years old. He stands as still as he can manage, a fidgety, self-conscious stillness – the kind of stillness you adopt when someone tells you to ‘stand still’. He is staring outwards and upwards, towards the same fixed point as everybody else, yet as he does so his eyes are drawn downwards, towards a small group of people towards the front of the pit. Each time his eyes flick downwards he hauls them back up again; down and up, down and up. The beginning of a smile ripples at the corners of his mouth. He stands there, captivating in his half-successful concentration, his eyes dancing, his body held awkwardly still.
The Record is 61 minutes in which 45 local people perform a series of choreographed movements on the vast empty stage of Bristol Old Vic. They are here because they responded to an open call for participants. None of them had met prior to arriving at the theatre for opening night.
In 1936 the German choreographer Rudolf von Laban was commissioned to create a new work for the opening of the Berlin Olympics. The piece was to involve thousands of dancers from across Germany, divided into twenty-two movement choirs, each learning Laban’s meticulous movements in isolation, to be brought together as a single unified whole only on the day itself. The piece was to be Laban’s greatest achievement, a mass of trained bodies moving with the precision of machinery, held together by the enormity of one man’s charisma and ambition. The event however never took place, cancelled after the dress rehearsal by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis believed in mass movement as a form of unity, obedience, a discarding of individual freedoms; for Laban it represented the opposite. His spectacular choreography failed, in their eyes at least, to adequately make clear the meaning of bringing so many strangers together to dance.
What is it the bodies in The Record mean? Who are these people? Why were they chosen from those who auditioned? Are they representative of Bristol? Are they supposed to be? Did they choose these clothes or were they given instruction? From out here in the darkness they all seem so healthy, so serene. Perhaps it is the lights, or perhaps it is the training. Perhaps it is the reflected radiance of so many eyes upon them, or the hum of the cello, or the way they all gaze together at a point somewhere above my head.
When they move they move slowly and deliberately. I like the carefulness with which these learnt gestures are performed, like some undecipherable semaphore. When they are not moving they stand facing us and stare resolutely outwards, like Roman Slaves or Dead Poets. A chorus of Spartaci and Captain my Captains. And when they are neither gesturing or standing they run shuttling Robert-Wilson runs from one side of the stage to the other. Together this kaleidoscope of figures and movements becomes as textural as the loops and layers of the live musical accompaniment. There is a hypnotising richness to it all, a hopeful-sounding noise machine-woven out of bodies and colours and concentrating faces.
And yet for all its obvious grandeur and its occasional moments of over-telegraphed tenderness, it is in the cracks in The Record that the light gets in. Those unrehearsable moments when these bodies fail to be anything more than themselves. There is the immaculately dressed older man who runs with a with the slow-motion gratefulness of a 1930s cartoon. The sudden glitch in rhythm as two dancers nearly collide. The woman slightly out of sync. The boy in the grey tracksuit and the smile he is only half concealing. There is such unexpected beauty in these moments of accidental self-expression, burnishing the collective spectacle with marvellous fragility and a healthy kind of uncertainty. I feel myself caught between collectivity and self-expression, fascinated by the faults and frailties that might bind them comfortably together.