Review: P O O Lside – exploring the geometry of community space through movement and voice

Erin Harrington reviews contemporary dance work P O O Lside at Waltham Pool, at the 4pm showing on Saturday 19 June 2021.

It’s close to dusk on what’s nearly the shortest day of the year, and it’s bloody cold. We’re sitting at picnic tables and deck chairs, wrapped in blankets and clutching hot water bottles, at the shallow end of Waltham Pool. It’s drained for the winter and stickered with dead leaves. At the far end of the pool there’s a dismantled hydroslide, jaunty in its yellows and blues. The trees at the park over the fence are skeletal, and the clouded sky is fast approaching a gunmetal grey. We can hear distant traffic. Geese honk overhead, flying towards the Ōpāwaho Heathcote river over the road.

This is the harsh setting for a fascinating site-specific contemporary dance and choral piece, P O O Lside, presented by Movement Art Practice and featuring choreography from Julia Harvie and music for voices composed by Olivia Webb. The approximately 30-minute work features 11 dancers of varying ages, body types and abilities wearing beige thermal leggings and tops. It responds to the harsh angles of the empty pool and its surrounding structures. Stuart Lloyd-Harris’s lighting design makes use of of vertical LED tubes, which are evenly spaced along the walls of the deep end of the pool, and cool blue and white lights that line the pool’s edges. In this cold light, the performers explore and trace the space’s lines, angles and acoustic capacities with their bodies and voices. They move as individuals and come in and out of phase as a collective, exploring the capacities and limits of communal action.

The piece opens as one dancer moves to the centre of the pool, and the others stand far off on the grandstand seating that lines the wall at the other end of the complex. The solo performer sings, holding long melancholy phrases that recall plainsong. The dancers at the rear slowly begin to offer singular claps in their own time, building up a sequence that first sounds like individual drops of rain, the noise bouncing around the space. It’s the first instance of a series of sequences that build out of looping and fragmenting repetitive patterns, such that the work is made up of an acoustic and embodied polyrhythmic exploration of striation and intersection.

The dancers’ bodies move up and down the steps of the grandstand, creating patterns based on overlapping counts. Once they move down into the pool proper they trace the lane markings, slumping and falling, placing their ears to the ground. These gestures highlight rigidity in a space that would normally be abundant and fluid.

Over the course of the work, they move closer to us, and increasingly incorporate vocalisations and chant, sometimes playing with the resonance of polyphony in the echoing space. The movements shift from the linear and perpendicular to the elliptical. The dancers jog in circles round another. They form small groups, clasping wrists, counting in what seems to (but cannot) be vocalised counts of each other’s pulses that recall count-based vocal warmups. Closer still, standing in a clutch, their ragged breaths and gasps remind us of the circularity of our own breathing, and its vulnerability to constriction.

P O O Lside ends as the dancers roll towards us, as if coming up on the tide, followed or perhaps shepherded by the dancer who opens the piece with her voice. They file off, task or journey or cycle complete.

It’s a really engrossing and satisfying work that appeals to my love of geometry, even though my hands are numb by the end. I find the whole thing like the music of Philip Glass by way of the aesthetic of vintage sci fi film THX1138.

This is the first of two showings – one at 4pm and one at 6pm, with a talk in the middle about ecology and sustainability that I’m too cold to stay for (sorry – I was dressed to go to this). I’m curious about how different the after-dark showing will appear given how considerably the visuals will shift.

This work wouldn’t work in a more comfortable setting though. The chill and the thin grey light, and the dampness that curls the edges of the bouncing sound, all feel integral to the experience, requiring us to huddle together in our own temporary collective.   

Waltham Pool, post-show.

POOLSIDE ran twice on Saturday 19 June 2021.

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