It is such a refreshing pleasure to see a dance theatre piece be so very unique and original without straying to the unnecessarily strange or alienating its audience.
Ahilan Ratnamohan’s SDS1 is a more abstract dance theatre piece than his previous, text-driven works, The Football Diaries and Michael Essien I want to play as you… His signature combination of football and dance theatre is still very much the name of the game.
Now, as a purist only from my older brother’s passion for the sport, when I refer to “football” I mean soccer. Also as this is how the artist refers to his craft, this article will respect his chosen nomenclature.
First of all to be noted is Ratnamohan’s incredible performance. His absolute focus and commitment from beginning to end was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. Ratnamohan’s constant heavy breathing that permeated the piece was a testament to his endurance, as well as his unbreakable focus.
SDS1 contains mostly traditional and original football trick skills. The sheer amount of different techniques implemented throughout is staggering. The fact that, as Ratnamohan explored each move to its fullest range and then did not revisit it until the penultimate section which referenced the entire show, displayed his extensive repertoire.
When he moved around the space with the football, it felt as if it were just an extension of his own body. If counted correctly, there were only two very minor fumbles on opening night. The control required was undoubtedly noticed by the audience. When Ratnamohan moved without the ball, an invisible football was almost completely tangible.
Some particularly impressive movements were a tour (one of the many varieties of spinning jump in dance) but instead of air time his feet stayed balanced on top of the football, and a rotating step on one foot whilst simultaneously rolling the ball around in constant motion with the other.
The “choreography” doesn’t feel like dancing in the traditional sense until about twenty minutes into the piece, which made for a unique movement vocabulary, exploring every combination of football skills and dance possible.
Ratnamohan’s connection with the audience was vivid, at one point both defensively and aggressively challenging the audience, playfully dodging legs stuck into his space, or lovingly taking time with a few select seated members. Don’t be scared by what looks like a football about to be booted into your face (an oft-repeated movement) as he deftly stops himself and the football in their tracks.
If you’re squeamish about audience participation, perhaps sit in one of the two rows behind the seats up and downstage. If you’re a pretty girl, however, you might have the chance to be handed Ratnamohan’s (admittedly sweaty) custom SDS1 shirts straight from his torso mid-performance. The best piece of audience participation won’t be discussed here to avoid spoilers, but it is part of an epic finale without compare.
As for the structure of the piece, SDS1 is balanced and immersive. Each section has a clear sense of repetition, extension and variation. A football skill is introduced, slowly getting larger around the space while other moves and techniques gradually become integrated into the combinations.
The theatre-in-the-round style suits the piece perfectly, supporting the football field aesthetic and language in the piece. The music choices were appropriate, be it heavily rhythmic, ambient or silent save heavy breathing and the sound of foot on floor or ball. The rhythmic musical sections might have benefitted from more musicality in the choreography.
Nothing goes to waste in this piece, long moments of breathing time were filled with a heavy tension or a private moment of the performer taping his body section by section, whilst still being engaged and focused. The storyline is quite vague and interpretive, but a journey from youth to adulthood and the difficult route of exploring, training, loathing and loving your craft are endearing to any artist, sportsperson or professional who yearns to live their passion.
The lighting for each section was always appropriate for the specific mood required. Perhaps this reviewer’s only lament was only twice did the lighting states grow or shift to enhance the energy and intensity mid-section. That said, the timing of the audio-visual shifts were split-second perfect every single time. The lighting was versatile, hinting at a dingy bus stop, a small community football field, a professional football arena and many internal landscapes.
At first, the costuming looks like simple rehearsal gear. However, the custom black SDS1 shirt and black pants blending into the black theatre walls only help to cleverly highlight the bright orange shoes and football. This choice really complimented the movement style.
If you’re looking for engaging new theatre, tired of seeing generic contemporary choreography, or looking for a gateway into the unfamiliar world of contemporary dance and physical theatre, SDS1 is definitely for you. I, for one, sincerely look forward to seeing Ahilan Ratnamohan’s works in the future.