Ghost Dance, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru

Mike Smith
Arts Scene in Wales
15 November 2015

This highly emotive work opens the flood gates to an outpouring  of reaction to the themes of endangered culture and, perhaps, the feasibility of fighting back, through physical theatre and dance.

The three strong women performers, Eddie Ladd, Angharad Price Jones and Anna ap Robert, combine the bitterly resented flooding of a Welsh village to provide water for another country and the fate of a group of native Americans as their world too was washed away. Cultural colonialism is a favoured theme of the arts with a political conscience yet one that needs deft handling to avoid agit-prop clumsiness.

This work maintains subtly and inventiveness to steer clear of such labels as it takes two cultures that may have been world’s apart but through the ghost dance practiced by the native American tribes on the 19th century, when these actual and symbolic acts took place,  are united in a sense of a common damaged soul. The bomb and the dance are manifestations of  a longing for a future, or a place, or at least a sense, that these worlds will exist again.

The dancers lay out large, white Styrofoam mats across the stage to a soundtrack that both charts and drives the flow, rhythm, drama and catharsis of the work. As they trace the course of rivers with the leads of the microphones, they lay the basis of the narrative, the Afon Tryweryn and the Missouri and the fateful events that displaced and eroded community and culture.

Violence lies heavily on the work from the Americans telling the Native Americans they do what they do because they can, to the snowy night in 1963 when Emyr Llewelyn, Owain Williams and John Albert Jones detonated a bomb at the site of the dam that reduced Capel Celyn to a ghost village. The performers adopt the roles of the men coming together and discussing their act crawling on their bellies through the snow.

Those Styrofoam mats are eventually smashed up and scattered literally to the winds as giant fans blast the shattered landscape and performers.  At one momentous stage Ladd smashes through a sheet with her microphone. The broken shards are reformed, piled in different formations, used as protection, as refuges, although as the performers place small blocks across the landscape we are told the encroachment of houses, not just the waters, covered the lands.

Now whether the link between spiritual dance and nationalist bombing is a particularly convincing one has to be left to one side and the work approached as a striking, stirring and inventive experience and one which will probably resonate in all communities that feel under the cosh (whether literal or metaphorical) of larger, stronger dominant cultures.

Choreographed by Sarah Williams, who co-directed the work with Eddie Ladd, the audience needs to either be Welsh speaking or use the Sibrwd an app on a mobile phone to read or hear either the actual spoken text or a summary of what is being spoken. The experience could be enjoyed on a totally abstract level, listening to the sounds of the voices and the music from electronic musician W H Hughes (under his performance name Y Pencadlys) but I opted for the app. 

Ultimately as the shattered landscapes have been violently swept away the three women’s movements, whether synchronised or stylised  in the unravelling narrative, become infused in a trance-like state, taught vibrating, repetitive head, arm, hand movements, crushing crescendos of music and howling from our electronic musician that become so intoxicating you want to join in,

Calm resumes, the performers consult one another on their experience and the hour draws to a close as the lights fall and they are again working on the remnants of their once perfect white world.