Six people slither slowly across a sheepskin rug for seven minutes while Maria Callas belts out ‘Casta Diva’. It isn’t my usual choice of entertainment for a Saturday night but this was the centrepiece to a rich, challenging and engrossing dance piece by Peter Groom. Go Away Johnny takes its title from a line in a Marlene Dietrich film (The Foreign Affair) at a point when Marlene is forced to remember something, a decidedly apt choice as memory sits at the core of this work.
What we are presented with is a collection of fleeting moments – some obviously cemented in real situations, others more abstract and relating to feelings – based mainly around human interaction. Even in those moments with descriptive dialogue, such as the intermittent monologues about love and loneliness, it only feels as if we’re getting half the story. As Groom himself said in the post-show Q&A, the feeling he sought to translate was of grabbing hopelessly at those lost moments. They return not fully formed and perhaps not even in accordance with the reality of the past. This was expressed most clearly with a moment near the end where one dancer (Alys North) rushed madly around the space, seemingly trying to recreate a moment from near the start. Whether she succeeded was open to interpretation but there was something touching about seeing the other dancers help her so frantically.
The dancers – North alongside Jen Carss, Ian Garside, George Siena, Alex Rowland, Charlie Dearnley and Rosie Terry Toogood – are impeccable and their choreography strikingly beautiful. Their search for connection throughout the dreamlike conveyor belt of touches, conversations and emotion is palpably fragile and human. They should perhaps be called ‘performers’ as the piece was just as much theatre as dance (unsurprising given the name of the company); certain sections including one set in a radio studio and another featuring an elegant professional who seems to be involved in torturing several head-bagged prisoners were very humorous.
The set is simply the aforementioned large sheepskin rug, chosen by Groom to reflect two personal memories of comfort and also the idea that memories are tangible but useless. Similarly to memories, the rug envelopes the ensemble and they find themselves drawn to it time and time again.
Music – generally classical or operatic – fulfils the function of a narrative, or as Groom put it, ‘a thread with different colours’. This is because the vignettes themselves are presented quite randomly – except for the slug section which occurs in the middle – and herein is my only real criticism. Despite the echoing of certain images (four men in dresses rolling cigarettes for example), there is little to take us through from one image to the next. This left me feeling slightly unsatisfied by the ending and could have been avoided with some rearrangement of the sections. That however is a minor quibble and it is perhaps impossible to achieve a congruity throughout the show as each memory has a different feeling, taking you down a different path. Maybe the best way to look at Go Away Johnny is to reflect on the feelings it provokes as a whole rather than trying to make sense of its components. It certainly is masterful in evoking those dark caverns of the mind where nothing quite makes sense.
The piece has been developed over 18 months with the help of the Arts Council, Dance City and ARC Stockton but now fittingly is lost to time and memory. Whatever the group works on next should be closely followed by those interested in challenging and rewarding performance art.