Review: Darren Johnston in Underdrome at Roundhouse

Performance: 22-24 May 09
Reviewed by Libby Costello - Thursday 28 May 2009

The Roundhouse, a former railway terminus, has many impressive qualities as a venue, but its also a formidable challenge for anyone to take on. With the seats removed for new artist-in-residence, Darren Johnston’s début show Underdrome, the vast circular space was dominated by a central stage hosting this celebration of the building. Johnston cannot be criticized for falling into a predictable trap of train inspired choreography; instead Japan was the theme and butoh the genre of choice.

Entering the auditorium was a mesmerizing experience. The stage gave way to a transparent Japanese tree made of individual sections like small floating clouds. A flock of origami birds circled the stage adding a sense of dramatic movement to the peaceful setting. The spell was broken once the performance commenced. With a mass of dancers, singers and musicians it seemed implausible that the performance could not be anything other than a spectacular event. Unfortunately it was 70 minutes of missed opportunity.

The dancers dressed in white kimonos huddled in four areas of the stage reacting to four female soloists at the parameter. The movement, whether frantic or sedate, lost all dynamics due to the overpowering sound score, vocals and live musicians. The senses were given no relief as images flickered behind the audience on vast screens, encapsulating the viewers in the Japanese garden.

Underdrome remained true to butoh with a slowly developing scenario, with no fixed concept. Rather than being a celebratory work it was draining to absorb.

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