Part of the ROH's programme, HeadSpace Dance present If Play Is Play, at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio. Following the success of their 2012 debut, HeadSpace Dance return to the ROH with a triple bill of comical and touching works – two new works from Johan Inger and Luca Silvestrini respectively, and a dance-drama piece by Matthew Dunster.

Sveaas and Goddard in Before The Interval © Urban Jören
Sveaas and Goddard in Before The Interval
© Urban Jören

Throughout the evening, the four strong performers challenge the audience-performer relationship repeatedly, framing a light-hearted, personal piece, in which they approach the audience head-on (Silvestrini’s Before The Interval), between a wistful, almost melancholy, pair of lovers (Inger’s Two) and the creation of a dark, dangerous yet sexy atmosphere in Dunster’s The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night.

Headspace co-artistic director Christopher Akrill opens Inger’s Two alone in a spotlight, dancing a smooth, low solo with momentary flaps of his arms. He fades into the background as Gemma Nixon jumps and shimmies, dancing her own angular, off-kilter solo. The pair overlap in the space, a gravitational pull forces their eyes and hands to meet – suddenly, their movements make sense together, their differences complementary. For a while, they are the only thing in the world that matters, and they embrace, together in a ballroom hold on their knees. The sadness that’s radiated from the music – Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song – throughout the piece brims over at the point when, looking confused, Akrill is left clutching empty space, alone on his knees. All that in just six minutes.

Sveaas and Akrill in The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night © Urban Jören
Sveaas and Akrill in The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night
© Urban Jören

Clemmie Sveaas begins Silvestrini’s Before The Interval in a wonderfully fluid solo – thoughtful, as if she’s sizing-up the space – as we listen to a voicemail from co-artistic director Charlotte Broom, announcing her decision not to perform in the show. Sveaas is moving slowly yet unfalteringly across the floor, as if dancing through treacle, when she begins a monologue about her hopes for taking on a larger role in the company. The audience laugh at her frank and pragmatic approach to sharing her hopes with the audience before she’s run it by the company’s artistic directors. Just as Akrill enters, she insinuates he’s getting too old to dance. Akrill and Sveaas chatter about the vastly experienced new dancer, Jonathan Goddard, as he joins them. The three engage in a competitive series of exercises, copying one another in canon while they throw questions out to the audience: “Do you think that stillness was a cop-out?” and “Is it really annoying when dancers deep-breathe like that?” Gradually, this turns into the repetitive rehearsal of a short sequence, Sveaas the focal point with Akrill and Goddard becoming her interchangeable male partner. Each rehash is more violent – and less like a love duet – than the last, and develops new ideas. The trio voice increasingly extravagant ideas for future production as they move through the same canon sequence, sharing ideas like dancing under a glass ceiling that shatters and turns into floating feathers, then butterflies. The movement matters less and less – it’s the relationship they build with the audience by breaking the fourth wall and letting us in. It’s a fun piece that the audience find hilarious, but it seems to stretch on for far too long. Eventually, their fantasy world of imaginary set design comes crashing down when Nixon appears saying: “Guys, it’s the interval. C’mon.”

Sveaas and Goddard in The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night © Urban Jören
Sveaas and Goddard in The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night
© Urban Jören

Dunster’s The Days The Nights The Wounds and The Night is the most dynamic and engaging of the three pieces shown. Hunched over, the four repeat a motif of typewriter hands, violently cinching in a belt, and knocking themselves on the chest as they crumble as if under a mallet. Sveaas, Goddard and Nixon quickly get tied up in a love-triangle. A dangerous, sexy duet ensues between Goddard and Nixon, her feet incredibly expressive, his hands gripping her in ever more intimate holds as they entwine under yellow light. There is a desperation in the way they throw their bodies together, which seems less sexy and more violent the second time around. Sveaas was marvellous, again full of character, but this time kicking and struggling against her unfaithful lover (Goddard) while trying to maintain professional decorum with Akrill. Ian Dickenson’s sound design aptly portrays the mood changes – my notes say “like bubblegum” for the upbeat beginning, and “scraping metal” for the whale song at the sorrowful end. My favourite piece by far.

HeadSpace Dance’s trio of works, If Play Is Play, was energetic, touching, funny and emotional. The four strong performers proved, to me at least, that a small ensemble is in no way a hindrance to a diverse and interesting programme of works, or to an excellent performance.