Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin.
For fans of dance, history, culture, and stage, there is something really exciting coming up. This Saturday and Sunday at the Fireworks Factory in Woolwich, New Movement Collective (NMC) are sharing their reimagining of Bronislava Nijinska’s iconic Les Noces (The Wedding). Originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev and his groundbreaking company the Ballets Russes, Les Noces sets the bar for innovation pretty high through collaborations with some titans of 20th century culture. It was scored by Igor Stravinsky. The original design was the work of avant-garde artist Natasha Goncharova. Fun fact: H. G. Wells was a fan!
Les Noces celebrated its 100 year birthday in 2023 and in the spirit of Nijinska herself, NMC’s reworking is a mighty collaboration of its own. Audiences on Saturday 13th will see an additional work by Manchester-based youth dance company Chameleon Youth, and those on Sunday 14th will see ENBYouthCo. For a company that has been around a fraction of the time that Les Noces has, NMC have created a lot of exciting choreographic collaborations since they formed in 2009. I spoke with a founding member of NMC, the co-choreographer and dancer Patricia Okenwa to get a sense of their Les Noces.
Okenwa was very articulate in her enthusiasm about the piece, which she says some of the dancers didn’t expect to ever perform. “NMC has a cast of more mature dancers,” she explained, “and a lot of us are old friends who have collaborated together for years.” There will be nine dancers (“a productive number!”). Some cast members have even danced other versions of Les Noces! But next week’s show will be altogether different.
NMC have a unique approach to choreography in that they make every decision collectively. “Everybody is involved, everybody is creative,” Okenwa told me, elaborating that this is a crucial difference between Nijinska’s original choreography and the NMC reworking. “We had watched some versions of the original choreography, and her style feels more conformed to one body, one style. With NMC, it’s part of the material that it takes different styles on different bodies.”
And not only bodies, but soundscapes; the show will feature over 50 performers, ranging from the NMC dancers, to singers from the Opera Holland Park Chorus, and musicians from both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. There will even be a beatboxer! I was very excited about this, and Okenwa smiled, saying, “We agreed that we wanted live music and an orchestra… To play with the relationship between the audience and the music.” I brought up that the Les Noces score is a piece of music that many fans say is his best, and Okenwa affably confirmed this. “It is stunning, but it did intimidate us a little,” she told me. “The chops and changes, and the variation of metre… It can be overwhelming! But Nijinska’s choreography is so clever. It embodies the music. I think that watching the dancing while listening to it really helps to understand it.”
It is very important to NMC to create a particular relationship with the audience, allowing them to interpret their experience in their own way. “We were so happy that we got this venue,” Okenwa confided. “It’s in the round, but it also affords the audience the freedom to get up if they want, to move around and see the piece from a different perspective. It’s not as formal as other theatre spaces.” I understood that this was intrinsic to the philosophy of not only the piece, but to the collective themselves – a collaborative company in every sense of the word, focused on providing their audiences not with something fixed, but with possibility, with choice. Patricia affirms this, saying, “We do have a history of performing in unusual spaces!” 2021’s Project XO was an ‘online, interactive event where you control a live performer,’ and 2016’s Collapse was a chance for audiences to ‘become directly involved’ in a performance ‘inside the lesser-known spaces of the Royal Festival Hall.’
I wanted to clarify one thing though, about whether NMC’s Les Noces would direct the audience to a particular feeling. Nijinska’s piece sits in that grey-but-intruiging area also occupied by the so-called tragicomedies of Shakespeare, particularly echoing The Winter’s Tale which also builds up to a wedding: is it really happy, or is there something deeply sad lurking beneath the surface? Some describe Les Noces as protofeminist, citing movements such as whacking the floor with unworn pointe shoes as rather telling, to say the least… As a big fan of the open-endedness of tragicomedies, I was pleased to hear Okenwa’s response. “To NMC, what is important is that your interpretation is the right interpretation. We want audiences to feel comfortable to have their own process, their own emotions, and their own images.” She added, “We see a show as one big ritual that we invite everyone to be a part of. Everything is valid.”
There are a few overarching themes that tie the piece together, though. Okenwa told me that NMC thought deeply about the effects of recent divisive events, such as Brexit and the pandemic. “Thinking about what can bring people together, a wedding seemed an appropriate theme,” she explained. “Weddings are a time when people have to come together, and as a result, communities are joined together that might not have been.” So in true wedding form, Les Noces strives towards the idea of commitment; “Commiting to generations to come and thereby to the environment. Without words, how can we show commitment?” Furthermore, Les Noces is informed by the notion of community (“a joining together, where we surrender to energy”) and also of celebration.
If, like me, you’re keen to see how NMC have interpreted Les Noces, you can come to one of three performances this weekend in Woolwich. For more information, please visit the website below: https://www.woolwich.works/events/les-noces