The Fifth Edition of The Place Prize is in full swing as the first four semi-finalists presented their work Saturday night to a sold-out audience. Choreographers Joe Moran, Moreno Solinas, Tony Adigun and Riccardo Buscarini shared the first performance in the four-evening series, which features new work by 16 of the UK’s most exciting dance artists, all competing to be winner of The Place Prize and recipient of the £35,000 award. Out of these 16 choreographers, three finalists are chosen by a panel of judges, but the fourth is chosen by an audience rating, collected after the show each night.

Joe Moran, Obverse: The Place Prize for dance © Benedict Johnson
Joe Moran, Obverse: The Place Prize for dance
© Benedict Johnson

This platform created an exciting and competitive atmosphere in which to view these dance works, and each of the four choreographers certainly exhibited individuality and passion. Each piece was clearly thought-out and executed precisely, but that is where their similarities end – which is part of the fun of The Place Prize.

Joe Moran’s Obverse opened the show, with three colourfully-clothed dancers moving with a distinct lightness to a pensive sound-score by Jamie McCarthy. The piece was also highly affected by the lighting, which was composed mostly of overhead fluorescent lights that flickered and flowed on and off throughout the 20-minute work. The dancers moved in a repetitive and almost subversive way, executing difficult and specific movement without showing any effort. This gave the piece an automatic and somewhat ritualistic feel. It was almost like, as an audience, we were watching a clinical experiment of movement, and the moody music, interlaced with classical Handel and Beethoven, made it feel like the experiment itself was eerily unethical.

Moran explained that he wished to investigate how movement and meaning are interpreted without the use of any choreographic device aside from the dance itself, and that was evident in the virtuosic and looping movement phrases performed in the work. Unfortunately I felt that the lighting and music eclipsed this effort to investigate movement, and while I enjoyed the dancers’ use of the body and exacting intricacy, I soon found the movement overpowered by the narrative inferred by the music and lighting design.

Moreno Solinas’ Life is a Carnival came next – an autobiographical solo that explored the many journeys and emotional extremes in his life. Solinas was able to craft a piece that showed humour and joy, vitality and strength, yet also a deep and crushing sadness. I was struck by the flow of the piece, which from start to finish was eloquently crafted to achieve a strong emotional reaction. It also benefited from a beautifully subtle lighting design, and a well-thought-out soundscape performed live by Solinas through vocal work and body rhythms. The salsa-inspired solo found a good balance, and was engaging from beginning to end.

After a short interval, Tony Adigun’s The Lake took the stage with undeniable power that was attractive and visually stimulating. The Lake was a hauntingly Victorian piece that wavered between an implied narrative of family and death, and a mosaic of hard-hitting imagery. This piece pulled out all the stops technically – it had a dancer hanging in the air, a bathtub with water and emanating blue light, strong lighting cues and an epic soundtrack. This created a hugely produced effect which, while striking, sometimes overpowered the humanity of the performers, turning them into caricatures.

The parts of the piece I most enjoyed were the clever and rhythmical trios performed by the core group of dancers, Katie Webster, Tim CJ Chew and Sara Gordon. However, the emotional performance of Lisa Hood cannot go without mention. Ultimately the piece was hugely accessible and very prominent, but amidst all the effects I appreciated when I got to see the performers with less of these production layers, and would have liked to see it more often.

The final piece was a cool foray into the juxtaposition between human and machine, in Riccardo Buscarini’s Athletes. This sleek piece was an interesting experiment into how to make the human body more like a machine, incorporating measured, robotic movement, clean white body suits with three-dimensional representations of the spine affixed on the back, and lights in a soft technology-inspired bluish glow.

At the beginning the dancers executed a sharp and intricate trio that moved from upstage left to downstage right, with robotic accuracy and an unbreakable focus. However, after this initial segment, the piece seemed to lose whatever momentum this incredible trio had garnered, and I got lost in the transition and subtlety. Perhaps the piece would have been better viewed at a closer perspective, to catch the nuance and articulacy. Despite this lack of arc, though, I did appreciate the calm, cool mood created, and the slippery ambiguity between the body of an athlete and a machine.

Overall the evening was an exciting presentation of new work from four thoughtful and inspired choreographers. The evening’s audience vote showed that Tony Adigun’s The Lake was the favourite with 3.6 stars given. However, if not chosen by the judges, Adigun’s piece will need to receive a higher rating than all of the pieces in the next three evenings.