On repeat

As children we crave it, begging for a well-loved story or song to be told or sung again and again. As grown-ups, a repetitive groove can keep us glued to the dancefloor or bobbing our heads at a gig. But what about as audience members during a dance festival – is repetition the gift that keeps on giving or a nightmare that never ends?

Spring Forward is a wonderful opportunity to discover new artists from across Europe, but with early starts and late finishes (especially for the Springback Academy writers), plus all that walking between venues, tiredness can start to creep in. Which is fine if the action on stage re-energises us and makes constant grabs for our attention. Repetition, on the other hand, can be a little soporific…

But even the most well-rested of audience members can still struggle with a movement phrase or musical motif that outstays its welcome. At this year’s Spring Forward, a few shows pushed my tolerance levels to the limit, much as I tried to embrace the intent behind them.

Twenty minutes into Pas de deux by Cie AMA/Anna-Marija Adomaityte, I would have happily sold my own mother to make them stop. What initially looked like a couple about to deliver a partner dance soon became an agonising exploration of relationships. Delivering the same short phrase over and over (and over!) again, performers Mélissa Guex and Victor Poltier reached the kind of exhaustion reminiscent of US Depression-era dance marathons. Perhaps if you somehow manage to lock into their pain, the discomfort of your own experience watching them is lessened? But for me, the alienation was too great, the movement alterations too infrequent and the emotional connection between audience and performer too fragile to go the distance.

At first, Esercizi per un manifesto poetico by Collettivo MINE looked set to have a similar impact. For minutes on end, they repeated the same weight transfer from foot to foot, like attendees at a particularly boring exercise class. After a while, I began to close my eyes for short periods – opening them every ten seconds or so to reassure myself that ‘yes, they’re still doing the same thing’. But then it all began to change, new rhythms emerged and my attention was secured for the remainder of the show.

A similar sensation ran through my body at the beginning of Jesús Rubio Gamo’s Gran Bolero (because, as we all know, extreme boredom is most definitely a bodily sensation). The constant one-note droning that accompanied the dancers walking around and around began to crawl under my skin, and not in a good way. Sensing the ennui of those around me (especially in this particular audience, which was drawn not just from contemporary dance regulars attending Spring Forward, but people from the local community) also added to my discomfort. Then, once the music kicked in, energy levels exploded, the excitement mounted, and everyone came along for the wild ride.

My question is, is the payoff worth the journey? When we arrive at an amazing view, we quickly forget the long walk or arduous climb that got us there. When a thunderstorm breaks, the oppressive heat that preceded it is at once a distant memory. But is it fair to make audiences sit through the agony (and I don’t use that word lightly) of endless repetition just to make the outcome sweeter when it eventually stops?

If we are to attract new audiences into the contemporary dance fold, and make the artform accessible for all, shouldn’t the journey be peppered with vantage points that are just as enjoyable as the destination? At times, endless repetition can feel perilously close to unimaginative padding. The best dance works provoke thought, create a meaningful connection between audience and performer and leave a lasting impression – but they also entertain. And a wandering mind, desperate for stimulation in the face of endless on-stage repetition, is not being entertained.

Kelly Apter