Review: The Pneûma Project

The Pneûma Project is a multimedia exploration of the titular Greek word, meaning ‘wind’, ‘breath’, or ‘spirit’, influenced by the many myths and folktales in which breath plays a central role. The work is a collaboration between visual artist David Ward, musician Sylvia Hallett, and choreographer Miranda Tufnell. The performance reviewed here, given at St. John the Evangelist’s Church, also featured musician Jonah Brody and a trio of dance artists: Eeva-Maria Mutka, Tim Rubidge, and Cai Tomos.

The set employed was extremely minimal. Hung between three of the church’s pillars were a pair of translucent drapes, billowing gently, onto which David Ward’s audovisual work RINK was projected. The work began on a similarly pared-back note, with all three dancers initially absent. Instead, the two musicians wandered about the empty stage, accompanying themselves only with the breathy opening and closing of accordion bellows, and quiet, pitchless key clicks. While this opening was decidedly lacking in movement, this restraint was effective, leaving time seemingly hanging in a suspended state. Is this Genesis, the movement of wind over water? During the moments that the work approached silence, one could, appropriately, hear the gentle exhalations of fellow audience members.

As the percussive activity increased, and as the accordion tone clusters swelled and gave way to occasional, lush major seventh chords, a climax seemed imminent. Instead, the music calmed once more, as a man slowly entered, a large branch balanced on his shoulder. This marked the first of a series of what might loosely be called vignettes, or movements, each of which seemed mythical or folkloric in content. Another saw the trio of dancers, a light held in each hand, following the whizzing orbit of atoms – or were these the spirits of the work’s title? These movements were, for the most part, subdued, with the exception of the work’s real climax, a whooping, hollering call and response between the musicians and the dancers, within which an approximation of a sneeze became the primary sonic building block. The close of the performance came with uncertainty, giving the impression that the works’ fifty-minute duration could have been a little more extensive.

Hallett’s score consisted of a mixture of pre-recorded electronics and live acoustic instruments, principally those related to the folk tradition: accordion, fiddle, and mouth harp. The music not only complemented the visuals, but played a large role in communicating their meaning. On a basic note, the bellows and nonverbal interjections reminded the audience of Pneûma’s etymology, and created different textural soundworlds to match the visuals onstage. One scene, simple but containing the most beautiful imagery of the work, saw Mutka, the sole female dancer, captured in a veil-like net by her male counterparts, aided by the musical evocation of a restless sea and Hallett’s uncomplicated fiddle grace notes.

Minimalistic and refined by nature, the finer details of RINK, David Ward’s visual work, were unfortunately lost due to the faint projection. Only during certain, sharper images did RINK come to the fore; in one early movement, for example, the winding of abstracted lines and shapes was reminiscent of cave paintings. Here, for perhaps the only time during the performance, the dance and video elements could be clearly interpreted as corresponding directly, as the dancers’ tentative, wordless whispering hinted at the beginnings of language.

A half-hour excerpt of Pneûma was given during October’s Breath Festival, in the Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall. On that occasion, the performers’ actions were interpreted within the framework of surrounding skeletons, with this set ‘design’ intensifying the dialogue between dancers and physical space. The core thematic elements of breath, life, and death were made all the more palpable, and audiences’ interpretations of the work were guided without seeming restricted.

Having had the opportunity to see the work in this skeletal setting, I was left wondering how effectively the piece would transfer to a sparser venue. St. John the Evangelist’s Church was, regrettably, not used to its full potential. The logistics of projection, free movement, and seating meant that the performance was confined to the plainest side of the church. The pillars acted as little more than a blank structure upon which to hang the drapes, marking out the boundaries of the stage where a more expansive, fluid approach would have been welcome. The physical limitations of the performance space meant that, even when movement reached its extremes, there was little sight of the SJE’s more ornate architectural details. Despite exhibiting a mystical potency, and containing moments of beauty, one couldn’t help but feel that Pneûma would have benefitted from being given more room – both temporally and spatially – to breathe.

J. Wadsworth

The Pneûma Project was the first of many events held as part of Dancin’ Oxford, a dance festival running until Monday 9th March. For further information, please visit www.dancinoxford.co.uk

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