Stopgap Dance Company’s The Enormous Room: a new genre for dance?

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Directed and choreographed by Lucy Bennett, The Enormous Room carries Stopgap’s hallmark qualities of an absurdist, narrative-driven dance genre we first saw come to maturity in the company’s 2014/15 touring production Artificial Things, a step further. Colin Hambrook caught the premier at the University of Surrey in Guildford.

Stopgap Dance Company's The Enormous Room group shot

Stopgap Dance Company’s The Enormous Room. Photograph: Chris Parkes

As the audience enters we see a huge cacophony – a topsy-turvy world of dysfunctional furniture in which doors are tables and wardrobes are windows. It’s as if we’ve entered an Ikea dream-world in which all the house fittings have fused. The scene is set with Video Killed the Radio Star – it’s a new era dominated by the medium of sight rather than sound.

We recognise remnants from the late 1970s; a yellow melamine kitchen table and a Queen Anne armchair on its side, stage front. An old TV plays black and white films while Sam (Hannah Sampson) switches channels and her father Dave (David Toole) looks on.

Stopgap Dance Company the Enormous Room

Amy Butler and Meritxell Checa in The Enormous Room. Photograph: Chris Parkes

There has been a death in the family and an unyielding atmosphere pervades as Sam exacts despair from the Enormous Room and Dave dwells in apathy. The ghosts of the mother (Amy Butler) and the wife (Meritxell Checa), dressed in blue bath robes, make mirrored shapes through the space, eventually lying above and below the table-door, which then resembles a coffin.

Dave tells us about the accident in which his wife died and its impact on the family: “This is the house where the chairs have forgotten how to hold us, and the walls how to contain us. No-one told us grief could be like fear.” We’ve entered a looking-glass world in which mirrors have stopped reflecting the characters in the story.

Through the silver enters Chock (Nadenh Poan) a Puck-like devilish spirit, dangerous and unpredictable. The room could explode as the dance turns to another 80s classic, Smalltown Boy, echoing the all-too-human urge to run away from difficult emotions.

Sam hides in her room while her boyfriend Tom (Christian Brinklow) tries to reach her, unsure how to approach. But aside from brief glimpses of her falling partially out of cupboards, his movement mirrors the awkward attempts of an outsider trying to embrace a family’s pain.

Group ensemble piece in the Enormous Room

Claustrophobic yet intimate moments in The Enormous Room. Photograph: Chris Parkes

The Enormous Room is, after all, a claustrophobic space in which we are drawn to small movements, the ripple of back muscles and an undulating abdomen. The drama is punctuated beautifully with Dougie Evans’s soundscapes − here the sound of outside traffic and there, the pull of a dreamy, surreal blend of effects.

There was one small glitch where the sound level rendered one of Dave’s short monologues barely audible, but the combination of movement, sound, set and dramatic lighting evoked a totally absorbing experience.

Hannah Sampson excelled, commanding the stage with a compelling presence and a raw, emotional physicality that was breathtaking. The choreography revolved in the first half through a series of pairs in combination and Sam’s bond to her father in particular, created a believable thread throughout.

In the second half of the performance the Eraserhead world of the Enormous Room dissolves orchestrated by Chock. Is his character malevolent or is he there to help the family rise above their sorrow? The company move in a bigger relationship to each other to soundtracks from early Cure.

The dance becomes less experimental, more fluid and the energy builds out and away into a series of movements resembling a more emblematic kind of contemporary dance – the narrative held together by the connection between father and daughter.

The Enormous Room is an immensely ambitious piece of work that will enhance Stopgap’s reputation internationally as a leading proponent of physical dance theatre that is unafraid in using powerful combinations of types of corporality that take dance into a new genre.

Stopgap are set to tour with The Enormous Room until Spring 2019, with dates in the coming month at Sadler’s Wells, London; Leap Festival, Liverpool; Arc, Stockton-onTees and Pavilion Dance, Bournemouth and Kammer Theater, Munich.