The only other time I’ve sat in an empty auditorium and watched a show was in 1985 with a companion in Notting Hill watching the film The Shooting Party. Entering a ghostly cinema, at first we were the only couple there, after a while another couple entered, then another and we all cheered when numbers finally reached double figures. It was a surreal experience.
Similarly as we approached Hertford Theatre last Friday, the foyer looked suspiciously quiet compared to the bustling crowds we’d shared a magic show with only 2 weeks previously. Buoyed by the luck of finding a parking space as a couple returned to their car with their Chinese takeaway from the same restaurant that we also used 40 years ago, I had thought it amazing that A had managed to secure us front row seats. Never sure whether they are the best or worst seats in the house, our tickets sat us next to the only other 2 people in the whole front row, and looking behind us we saw rows and rows of empty seats and a total of around 60 people in an auditorium built for 400. Was there something that everyone else knew about the performance that we didn’t? Uh oh….
I spent most of the first of the four pieces feeling bad for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance troop of 11 about the shamefully small audience size, and my uncomfortable feelings were only magnified by their unfortunate bandage headwear making them look like they all had severe toothache. The piece seemed to convey the oppressiveness of a 1984-style society, and the constantly thwarted attempts of individuals to escape that conformity, male and female dressed in identical flowing skirts and corset tops, bobbing up and down to a dull uniform beat.
Frustrated for the poor dancers ultimately unable to break free and express their individual hopes and longings, I felt a bit down about the beautifully danced piece and the lack of audience, so I was relieved to move onto the second more upbeat piece featuring 6 dancers in shades of red, gold and black contemporary clothing as they recreated a wonderful social meeting, the circling of each other at first, the sly shy approach, and finally unable to resist each other, a wonderful coming together to a backdrop of exciting Cuban rhythms and alternating dance tracks and latin vibes. The dancing was amazing, the duets fluid and acrobatic transporting us away with seemingly effortless lifts, it was playful and fun, and we loved it.
We clapped enthusiastically and smiled widely trying to make us sound like a larger audience than we really were, and wondered why so few people had chosen to come out and pay good money for this delightful experience on a Friday night. We took advantage of the for-once small queue in the foyer grabbing coffee and chocolates and enjoyed the art retrospective in the circular seating area. Hertford Theatre (or Castle Hall as it was formerly known) is a previously monstrous 1960s building, transformed by a really good refurbishment in 2010 with modernist purple and gold decoration, circular foyer and rooms creating a lovely light and airy space.
Returning to our seats the third piece was for me the highlight of the show. A backdrop of looping recorded sounds which the performers gradually added to one by one front of stage, they built up to a swooshing, repetitive, soft, mechanical sound track. Continual repetitive movements suggested graceful pieces of machinery or automata, all working together but separately, gradually changing and interacting, swaying softly on the stage like sea-anenomes or corals pulled to and fro by the currents of an unseen ocean. The stage remained dark and softly lit, the dancers dark clothing and sunglasses only added to the beautiful atmospheric piece, and we were mesmerised by the rhythmic sway and pulse of Soft Power Generator.
The final piece involving the full troop clothed in black and flesh-tones, saw the dancers continuously trying to break through an elastic but strong wall of bodies. There were continual dives as the dancers attempted to escape, but were caught every time, with the wall elegantly flinging them back. The evocative scenes played out in front of and behind the wall involving duets and trios, deep longings and desires, freedom and togetherness had us transfixed. More upbeat than the first oppressive piece, the wall seemed infinitely more kindly this time but still unyielding.
We exited the theatre wondering why the obvious quality, ability and beauty of the performance was being appreciated by so few people. Maybe like us they had forgotten the sheer brilliance, magic and fun that good contemporary dance can offer, and we agreed that we would make much more effort to seek it out and enjoy it more often.