If you are like me and have ever wondered how a crime story would be transposed into dance, Jasmin Vardimon’s Justitia is the show for you. Recipient of the 2013 International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in Dance, Vardimon, who was raised on an Israeli kibbutz, is one of the leading force in British dance theatre. Her Justitia, premièred in 2007 and currently playing at the Peacock Theatre, is a hybrid production, still cleverly cutting-edge. Through words, texts and movements, Vardimon manages to shift our perception of reality and addresses what is usually left unsaid. Taking another’s point of view can drastically make all the difference.

© Ben Harries
© Ben Harries

Set in a courtroom, Justitia is not for the Agatha-Christie-knitting-on-the-sofa crime fans, but is more of a William Faulkner-style intrigue. Presenting different perspectives and narrators simultaneously, it is a hard-boiled crime story that, with only a faint linear exposition of the events, asks for a deep questioning of our perception of reality as it ridicules such absolute categories as good and bad, pure and depraved. As one of the characters argues, in the corporate world one is prevented from living one’s life to the purest – she falls here into the myth of the golden past when everything was good and society just.

Vardimon does all this by having the same event, the unfortunate outcome of an evening of social drinking, narrated by all the characters. The story is at once simple and complicated: a man is found dead in a friend’s house and the only other person in the house is the friend’s wife. The husband had gone to get some beers, leaving the two alone. Few more details are given. The rest of the piece contains speculations and reconstructions on the part of the woman’s advocate, on stage, and the invisible attorney with the public as the jury. Several scenarios are given – all possible, but biased if taken by themselves: a love triangle, a bored, predatory wife, and so on. The characters involved are an obnoxious, zealous, tactless therapist (the dead man), a Japanese anaesthetist; the wife (loosely based on the case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in Britain), the tyrannical husband, an ex-soldier now security guard; the unreliable and ambiguous witness; the typist, who is unable to type everything that is said; and the advocate with a secret. Reality is more than the sum of its parts. Cleverly timed, the interval leaves us deliberating.

The piece starts with Jasmin Vardimon sitting at her desk and typing. She is backlit by beams of light that come from the openings in the wall behind her. Her hand is gesturing softly in the rhythm of her writing, and the scene quickly changes to another room. The scenery, three different interiors all connected through doors, rests on a rotating structure that allows for swift changes and simultaneity of action. There is the room just described, the therapy room/courtroom where chairs are stacked on the wall, giving a bird’s-eye perspective, and the couple’s living room with a green sofa, a lamp and a rug. A fourth space is outside the rotating platform, an area in which the advocate is usually standing. Cleverly conceived, the piece contains extremely physical sequences that show the skill of Vardimon’s dancers. They jump from chairs, balance on the upper edges of the structure and use the sofa as a trampoline. The action in the living room is constantly frozen and rewound, as if on tape.

There are plenty of references to pop culture, with hints of Pac-Man and Street Fighter – but also to works of high culture, such as Marina Abramović’s Luminosity (1997), where the dancers are suspended voodoo dolls against the wall, and to Japanese Bunraku theatre, with figures clad in black manipulating dancers as puppets. Most of the scenes overlap as in a dream – or, better, a nightmare – with music or characters as the only connecting thread. At times these transition sections give the feeling of danced intermezzos that have no real function, other than to allow the set to be rearranged in time for the next sequence. Still, the multiple perspectives of the piece allow for a closer depiction of reality, to explore (so the programme says) the notion of guilt.

More than guilt, it is the notion of responsibility and co-responsibility that is examined here. It is too early for guilt, at least for some of them. The piece also promises to provoke more questions than answers. I would argue that the questions left open are more general than the simple narration, that is pretty straightforward; rather, it leaves us questioning our fragmented understanding of the complexity of reality. Justitia is an elegant, noir dance, or rather performance, that indeed induces reflection on what we take for granted. And that, I think, is what I want from art.

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