We are on the border between England and Scotland, life and death, fluid and solid. We are on the banks of the River Tweed among the centuries old stone of Dryburgh Abbey. Established in 1150; burned down in 1322; all but abandoned by 1584, the Abbey’s ruins remain today as a remarkably well-preserved reminder of medieval monasticism and sacred solitude. It also provides the setting for Dudendance’s remarkable site-specific piece,
Borderlands is a truly impressive feat, a new mode of worship that we are briefly privileged to observe.
The twelve performers are dressed in white, flowing robes. They are ecclesiastical ghosts, purity personified. Most are hooded, with exposed hands; feet and faces are painted white. Monks of a pale order. They roam within the Abbey walls, its lichen graves and ancient trees. We follow them, presumably for an hour, but it could be longer; it could be less. Time, in this holy place, seems to work differently, stretching and compressing as the Abbey breathes in and out.
They drift from one point to the next like a glacier: slow, purposeful, natural. One walks between the trees; one lies on a stone ledge and sits up; one emerges from the cloister, beckoning with a flag. We are guided through the grounds by director Clea Wallis, who occasionally signals to the performers to begin the next stage of the action with a bell. In spite of this obvious signifier of formal structure, Borderlands never feels forced or prepared. Paul Rous’ choreography flows like an amorphous solid – we get the sense that the dancers have been here forever and will continue after we leave, part of the architecture and part of the border.
The silence is broken: we hear choral voices reverberate through the walls. The Andante Chamber Choir sing The Requiem Mass beautifully, purely. A sacred polyphony for a sacred performance. Then, more sound. Occasional recorded soundscapes – chirping crickets and crackling radio voices – seem out of place and distract from the beauty and simplicity of the other elements. It’s frustrating and unnecessary but short lived. We walk around the back of the Abbey and we return to peace, losing ourselves once more in the ritual.
Borderlands is a truly impressive feat, a new mode of worship that we are briefly privileged to observe. The movement is glassy, spectral, hauntingly beautiful. The point remains obscure and, perhaps, will frustrate some expecting a more ‘traditional’ dance piece. For those willing to open their minds to the Abbey’s history however, Borderlands is truly compelling. A beguiling piece of living sculpture, deeply textured with the past and its echoes in the present.