Like a flock of birds, five female dancers circle, gather and glide across the tarmac of a rooftop car park. Their steps draw together every genre of movement. Sharply articulated isolations of the rib and hip twist effortlessly into arcing swoops of the hand; pirouettes are followed by pops and locks; thrown contemporary kicks and tiny jazz flicks are accompanied by unstoppably repeating pogo jumps. Yet nothing jars. Each step is smooth, neat and easy, flowing into a sequence which is as mesmerising as it is surprising.
‘Of Riders and Running Horses’, a performance devised by Still House’s Dan Canham and presented by mac Birmingham and Fierce Festival, begins with a haunting melody sung a capella by musician Sam Halmarack. Resounding across the rooftops, his lyrics describe the holding of a stranger’s gaze. This call for trust, community and risk frames what is to come. Halmarack’s words are soon layered with Luke Harney’s live electronic and acoustic sound. Rhythms build and soar and syncopations become impossibly complex, variously evoking anticipation, delight and other emotions much too fragile to pin down. The dancers make music too. In one sequence, a series of infectious percussive beats made by smacking thighs and chests and clapping hands, and joyous cries from the dancers themselves, assemble to form new musical scores that filter across this unlikely dancefloor. Seamless exchanges between the musicians and the dancers make it difficult to know where one ends and another begins.
Canham and his performers have created a space so intimate that every smile, glance and breath can be felt by the audience. There is no hierarchy here and no division between watcher and performer either. The five dancers frequently emerge and disappear back into the audience that encircles the edges of the dancefloor, for Canham’s performance is designed to tap into what he describes as a ‘new kind of old dance’, one in which a community might gather in celebration or in sadness. Though many steps feel improvised, danced freely and with clear emotion, these are contrasted with other steps in unison with intricate and formal patterning. The tempo is slowed in other moments, allowing more contemplative, lyrical movements to be teased out, as all eyes are focussed on the electric intensity of a single, vulnerable performer.
This extraordinary and stirringly emotional performance is presented within a programme designed to celebrate the launch of a major new shopping and rail hub within the city of Birmingham. But with change comes loss, which is why Canham’s performance, sited on top of a Brutalist car park close to the city centre, feels particularly charged. Far away from the gloss of the new, the performers and audience occupy a much more marginal space of community and possibility where art, dance, music and performance are reclaimed and brought to life.
There is one final, vital element. The performance begins during daylight, and as an hour passes by in a whirl of sound and step, darkness falls across the rooftops of the city. The dancers have come together, to thrill and to move, ‘to dance in the face of an ending’ in more ways than one and as the performance winds up, they pull audience members across the invisible barrier. They share the floor with us, for now it is our time to dance.