Choreographer, performer and sound/video artist Darren Johnston’s debut production as artist-in-residence at The Roundhouse promised a hybrid event featuring dance, music and visual arts. A collaboration including London Contemporary Orchestra and ambient hardcore musician Zan Lyons held so much promise on paper with its dark and brooding invite to enter whatever the “Underdrome” was, yet expectations were barely met as reality dawned on a fatally flawed 90 minutes.
Designed to take advantage of the auditorium of The Roundhouse, Underdrome started impressively. In the middle of the circular space stood what looked to be a tree constructed from sheets of acetate suspended from the ceiling with a soft blue light shining through it. Around this tree hung a flock of origami birds creating a harmonious feel to the centre of the room. Out of this centre came four elevated runways which led to platforms where violins lay: a sign of the live music to come. Around the edges were four giant projector screens displaying the word “Underdrome” in organic, tentacle-like letters and a choir was dispersed around the rafters. An loud, deep ambient noise filled the room as the onlookers filtered in and took up their initial positions, positions we were invited to move from to engage with the performance over the next 90 minutes.
A sense we were watching a work-in-progress
As a collection of white-robed people emerged from the centre, anticipation ran high. The music dropped off and built back up as four dancers looking like fallen geishas found their way to the platforms inhabited by the violinists: it seemed we were set for something special. It wasn’t. Underdrome’s creative riches flattered to deceive as the four dancers contorted themselves, fought each other, tackled men with gimp costumes and danced some more, all to a painfully slow soundtrack trying desperately to indicate we were part of another world. When a geisha came to out to calm down the dancers, so much time had passed you might have been forgiven for thinking it had stood still: many of the crowd moved towards the bar hoping a few drinks might help aid understanding of Johnston’s year-long project.
Sadly they didn’t: one key production element Johnston should seriously consider working on is narrative. Underdrome was undoubtedly a performance piece based largely around the dancers who gave their all to inspire the audience. Yet their efforts were rewarded only with increasing incomprehension by the onlookers. The initial media hype for this show was built on entering a space where our senses would be dazzled by the dancers, a choir, the orchestra, live mixing from and multimedia elements to go with the art-like installation at the centre of the circular room. Yes, these elements were there, but Johnston failed to bind them together to give much meaning: there was only a sense we were watching a work-in-progress. Condensed into 30 minutes, this may have made for an exceptional opening act. As a performance of its own, Underdrome was ineffectual despite the talents of all involved.