Iconnotations

Music-theatre with solo cello plus dance, Iconnotations is extraordinary: surreal, wry, expressionistic, at times baffling, profoundly sad but at the end joyous. This is Peter Maxwell Davies’ rarely performed Vesalii Icones (1967) performed by Red Note, Scotland’s superb six person ensemble specializing in contemporary music, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson and danced by the iconic Matthew Hawkins (former member of the Royal Ballet) with his own new and arrestingly strange choreography, full of pathos and humour.

A bonkers and glorious show which for all its humour is profoundly moving.

Inspired by Vesalius’ series of 14 anatomical drawings of a flayed man, in which each ‘icon’ has further muscular layers stripped until the figure is a skeleton, it is then overlaid by the ‘icons’ of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The music itself is multi-layered: the sonorous lyricism of the solo cello performed expressively by Lionel Handy overlaid with allusions to Medieval, Renaissance music and fox-trot, with honky-tonk piano and a range of unusual percussion such as a cheese grater, typewriter, a car-horn. Is Davies having a laugh? Certainly. Hawkins too has described it as ‘a solo about martyrdom, autopsies and other larks.’

In the solemn environs of Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk this is a daring piece to perform. At the time of composition, Maxwell Davies was an enfant terrible, an atheist who must have doubly enjoyed éclater les bourgeoisie. Yet this is not so much about Christ as about a modern Everyman, the human condition, stripped down like Vesalius’ anatomical dissections, suffering and mortality only relieved by silliness - a good message in these times of pandemic.

Hawkins echoes this with staring eyes, weird costume of tights, elbow-length gloves and tight cap all a light patterned yellow, along with white t-shirt and grey shorts. His tall, slim frame, though muscular as a dancer, is not outrageously so. Nor is he skeletal, but with his blank stare and woeful expression he is almost a clown figure like Pierrot. (It’s interesting to note that the first performance of this piece was by Davies’ company The Pierrot Players.)

It’s a shame there were no programme notes. However you can google the Vesalius drawings and the Stations of the Cross (of which there are many versions), but the version Davies used is best done by googling the record sleeve of the Fires of London Sextet recording which starts with the Agony in the Garden and ends with the Resurrection and Anti-Christ. However, this is only tangentially a help. Hawkins’ original choreography is an embodied response to the music itself and Vesalius and the Stations are used only as a springboard for his own modernist, abstract dislocations reminiscent of Wayne McGregor but with his own ultimately humane interpretation, as well as an eccentric sense of humour and enigmatic hand gestures.

Just as the score uses unusual percussion, Hawkins introduces anachronistic modern props for humourous effect. Some are used for explicit references, flagellating himself with a large fleece top, drinking from an enamel cup (the vinegar offered by the soldiers). However, miming slitting his throat with a knife (the death on the cross) is perhaps rather crude. Musicologists might want to compare score with the choreography but for most of the audience it is best to let the performance carry one away and not try to analyse too closely.

There are stand-out images though such as Hawkins’ head and shoulders trapped in a wooden rectangular structure (i.e.Christ laid in the tomb?) where his struggles expresses all mankind’s trauma of pain and death wonderfully transformed by the joyous ending, the Resurrection and Anti-Christ where Hawknis finally smiles and dances with wide balletic movements and the irresistible ‘Anyone for tennis?’ moves. A second dancer, Soraya Ham did not have much to do and it was not clear why she was included apart from the exaltation of her raised arms suggesting Resurrection. But this is a quibble. Do watch this bonkers and glorious show which for all its humour is profoundly moving.

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Reviews by Stephanie Green

MultiStory

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★★★★
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Iconnotations

★★★★★
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★★★★★
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★★★
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★★★★★
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The Blurb

'It was touching, eccentric, wry, surprising, profound. I adored the nods to surrealist art… there was so much there' (Audience member). A new production of the iconic Vesalii Icones, written in 1969. This is Peter Maxwell Davies’ rarely performed classic work of concert-hall music theatre that superimposes the Stations of the Cross onto 16th-century anatomical drawings by Vesalius to create an extraordinarily dramatic, multi-layered fusion of dance and live music. New choreography by Matthew Hawkins, performed by Hawkins and Soraya Ham, illustrations by Brian Hartley, design by Calum Duncan and lighting by Simon Gane. Part of Made in Scotland.

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