Velvet Petal – Traverse Theatre

Last week’s one-night-only production of Fleur Darkin’s ‘Velvet Petal’ at Traverse was sold out, and for good reason. The work was last performed in Edinburgh in 2017 and it isn’t hard to see why the pulsing vitality of the music, choreography, and above all, dancing would leave audiences jumping at the chance to experience it again.

Inspired by the Polaroids of Robert Mapplethorpe, this piece was a vibrant exploration of physicality and sexuality, featuring bodies in contact, in tension, and in communion. Throughout, it pitted self-control against desire, and individuality against the magnetism of the group. Part red-hot rave and part loose-limbed contemporary, the choreography and impeccably tight delivery (by the exceptional dancers of Scottish Dance Theatre) were truly fantastic.

In its gentler moments, the choreography evoked flight patterns, taking influence from the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly which Darkin had observed and incorporated in the making the piece. Often, the ensemble of dancers moved as though compelled by wind, their bodies and hair tossed in unison by unseen forces. Yet, the tranquillity rarely lasted, with the accelerating music cuing a surge in energy. As the movements of the perfectly co-ordinated corps grew faster and more intense, the thrashing of their torsos from side to side could only be described as synchronised whiplash.

Despite the impassioned frenzy of these moments, the dance was underscored with a vulnerability that emerged through almost all of its individual sections. This was most evident in the scenes where clothes were removed, where a sense of exposure permeated even the most brazen of acts of disrobing. This paradox was what really sold the piece to me. While the portrayal of youthful vivacity and sexuality was engaging and energetic, the tension between defiance and defencelessness made for a subtle and stimulating work.

Clothes were, after all, the most important props. Throughout, they were removed, replaced, swapped and, in one particular case, swung from, denoting the arbitrariness of the connection between gender identity and apparel. This was one of my favourite sections: a suit jacket hanging from a clothes rail was ‘inhabited’ by the arms of a dancer whose head remained hidden but whose legs walked the identity-less jacket up and down, prompting laughter from the audience. But her embodiment of the jacket wasn’t merely a humorous event. Instead, anxieties concerning fitting in, being recognised, and escaping gender roles were here uncovered.

This anxious undercurrent was reflected in the music throughout the piece (arranged by Torben Lars Sylvest), which frequently included refrains of losing control and struggling with social surveillance. Similarly, three spoken interludes, performed by Adrienne O’Leary, considered the place of the individual in history, and the impossibility of portraying an authentic self to an audience. The simple set, composed of only a mattress and occasional photographs, allowed these considerations of selfhood and social relationships to be explored. Likewise, the incorporation of the wardrobe department as a feature of the stage exposed how identities are constructed and altered by clothing.

With sections focusing on duets, solos, and ensemble pieces, the scope of the performance was really exciting and kept me riveted throughout. My one complaint, however, was that the dance begins set to a piercing electronic soundtrack. Fortunately, this desisted and was replaced by a cool, pulsing punk playlist that complements Darkin’s vibrant, edgy choreography. This dance piece was truly unique in its thought-provoking composition and energetic delivery. If it takes two years for it to return to Edinburgh, pencil it in now, it’ll be worth the wait.


PHOTOS: Brian Hartley

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Jess Cowie

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