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Review of Gravity & Levity's Rites of War at Stratford Circus

Review of Gravity & Levity's Rites of War at Stratford Circus

6 June 2014

Jane Cuppage reviews a collaborative art-form piece that joins
in with the ritual of remembrance of war

Review of Gravity & Levity’s Rites of War at Stratford Circus

Gravity & Levity was launched in 2003 by Artistic Director Lindsey Butcher, who is a dancer and aerialist. The company combines aerial suspension techniques with dance aesthetic, creating a more creative and expressive form of dance. Not only do the company want to develop the potential of the artists but also the audience’s imagination. For a new production, Rites of War, Gravity & Levity collaborated with acclaimed director and choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller and BBC Afghanistan Correspondent David Loyn. The production uses aerial dance and contemporary dance with film and news commentary to tell the stories of two soldiers; one serving in the First World War and the other, 100 years later, fighting in Afghanistan. The premiere of Rites of War was hosted by Stratford Circus and I went on Friday May 2nd to review this intriguing piece marking the 100th centenary of the First World War.

I found a seat in a very full audience. A very simple stage was set, black floor, curtain-less wings and a back stage wall that had two thin strips running the length of the wall, dividing it into panels. Rather than the curtain going up, the lights in the auditorium changed and blaring heavy metal music started playing. It was apparent from this opening scene that the use of aerial dance was not only going to be visually important but well used. I was unsure of how much aerial dance would be used and worried slightly that it would be too little or too much. As a dancer flew up and backwards, hitting the stage wall behind him I realised that aerial dance would be used accordingly.In this case it represented a British soldier in Afghanistan being blown up. As the soldier and other dancers slunk off stage, a visual image and words appeared on the back stage wall declaring the soldiers name, birth and death in Afghanistan. 

 Rites of War, photo credit Mark Morreau Magalie Lanriot & Johnny Autin, photo by Mark Morreau

The back stage wall continued to act as a viewing screen for other names of soldiers involved in both the Afghanistan war and the First World War, for visual commentary by David Loyn and as a scene backdrop. The best example of the use of the scene backdrop was visuals of soldiers going over the top during the First World War. This was coupled with aerial dancers climbing up the back stage wall, as if they were part of the battle going on. The visual backdrop also acted as a scene divider, allowing time for the dancers to strip down from their harnesses or get into them.

The stage and set confused me at first. I was sitting to the sides of the theatre and I was a little surprised that so much of the wings were exposed to the audience. However as the show carried on I realised it was a necessity; the aerial dancers were lifted and controlled by people in the wings. The exposure of the wings was so that the aerial dancers could be seen clearly, when they needed to be lifted up or let down. Although a technical requirement, I found the exposed set had a rawness to it which added to the overall effect of the piece. I found Rites of War to be an honest depiction of both the First World War and also the Afghanistan war. One of the videos screened between scenes was an Afghan man speaking about the invasion of his country by outside soldiers. The raw nature and honesty of the set and piece gave me the impression that nothing was being hidden from the audience. You could see the harnesses and how the aerial dancers were lifted and controlled, the set was simple, which allowed the contemporary dance to speak for itself. The videos and visuals may have been carefully chosen, but I thought that they were honest portrayals of the nature of war and people in war.

Rites of War, photo credit Mark Morreau

Magalie Lanriot & Johnny Autin,both photo by Mark Morreau

The piece was 60 minutes without a break, but for me it went much quicker. There was a constant flow from scene to scene, though I’m sure the in-between visuals and videos helped to create this flow. The scenes changed between the First World War to the Afghanistan war. Even though they are 100 years apart they linked to each other and it seemed logical to move from one to the other. I had a feeling by the end, everything had come full circle. The framework of Rites of War is the dates of the two wars, 1914 – 2014. The First World War began exactly a century before the end of the war in Afghanistan. 

Rites of War, photo credit Mark MorreauJohnny Autin & Richard Causer, photo by Mark Morreau

Through the use of historical and modern music, visually created images and news footage, and with the use of aerial dance and contemporary dance, Rites of War is an emotive and beautiful piece of work. The energy throughout changed from stillness to impossibly high, but there was never a lull or feeling it didn’t fit. There are lovely aspects of spiritualism as well as shockingly disturbing moments. Some parts have comical touches, while most is remembering violence, confusion, loss and sadness. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the mix of so many art forms. I would say it is a successful piece; it told the story of two wars and many relationships through at least three different mediums. I have only ever known of the First World War through history books, but I have witnessed news footage of 9/11 and the resulting war in Afghanistan. Two different wars that I have experienced very differently, but sitting in that audience I felt connected to all of the emotions being displayed. Rites of War is complex, interesting, emotive and worth seeing.

Jane Cuppage

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