A piece about the perceptions of mental illness, Cassandra is clearly a labour of love for its creators Ludovic Ondiviela, Ana Silvera and Kate Church. They each have had personal experience with mental illness -- an intimacy with the raw material which truly shows in the sensitive and beautiful way they've presented the subject.
Cassandra is understated. It tells the simple story of a Daughter grappling with mental health issues, and explores the reactions of the people around her. You're brought through the arc of her condition's progression, starting with a guileless pas de deux of young love, to the onset she clearly finds both terrifying and confusing, to medication, and finally admission. The structure is straightforward, with each stage of degradation furnished with Cassandra's take on the situation, echoed by that of her family, lover, doctor.
The point of this piece is not to be outlandish. It's to explore psychosis rather than exploit it, and so it isn't paraded around the stage in the almost exhibitionist manner it is in works like Giselle or Metamorphosis. Madness here is treated with reverence, as if it really did bring the prophecies of Ancient Cassandra. Ondiviela's subtle steps are the key to this. Olivia Grace Cowley's arabesques that stretch and then restrain themselves tentatively, Gary Avis' fingers that shiver independently at the end of outstretched hands, Mara Galeazzi's foot that hooks itself into Avis' knee while the rest of her tears away -- these intricate touches of Ondiviela's bring an air of quiet desperation, of fragile minds that both wish to belong and set themselves apart.
Ondiviela is an extremely special choreographer. His steps have such an intriguing quality of duality that works perfectly here. It is both cogent and yet unpredictable, both soft and solid. He clearly has a physical language of his own, one that appears to have a broad vocabulary that will provide much room for expansion and permutation in the future. Moves appear random yet there is a discernible pattern and intention behind them -- it's almost as if his trademark is in the velocity and relative motion of the limbs rather than in the placement of them. Through this he seems to have found a direct emotional tap, where each move is such a clear representation of the dancer's emotional state. As such, simplistic movements like how Cowley's hands palm and stretch across her 'hospital bed' could've moved me to tears, and Galeazzi's perch on Avis' back caught my breath. Neither does this attention to detail come at the cost of the whole -- each segment fits together, varying to just the right degree to be unique but conforming, and story lines and emotions flow sensibly. An impressive feat indeed for his first full length ballet. I very much look forward to his future endeavours, even on the same topic, as one can tell he's not done telling the story yet. If there's one possible improvement on the evening, it's that perhaps it was treated too beautifully and superficially -- it can afford a deeper upheaval. It doesn't have the full bodied feel of a full length ballet yet, but of course that will come in time.
But Ondiviela doesn't achieve this debut mastery on his own, he has generous helpings of interpretation from Cowley, Galeazzi, Avis, Paul Kay, Thomas Whitehead and Yuhui Choe. The moves fall beautifully on each of them, and Avis and Galeazzi in particular have the maturity to lend subtle layering to their movement, where their struggle and concern in treating Cassandra becomes self evident. I so wish I'd seen the Royal Ballet when Galeazzi was around more.
The collaboration between Ondiviela, Silvera and Church (also Becs Andrews and Paul Keogan for set and lighting) is also stunningly symphonic. Dance, music and film fit perfectly as if drinking from the same waters of inspiration. They complement each other yet also tell their own story -- Silvera with a vocal overlay that represents Cassandra's inner voice and film snippets that visualize her obsessions. The effectiveness of the combination is such that the onset of Cassandra's first episode is eerily familiar -- anxiety is something my mind used to dabble in, and that sudden shrinking away of the world, the grist-like quality of the film, the sound even, are pretty dead on. This team must certainly create together again.
Their most poignant message comes edgewise at the end. Here the Mother and Brother are on either side of Cassandra, caught up in their own quiet lamentation about the situation. They struggle with themselves, and for the first time the music and the moves see unprecedented discordance. It borders on chaos and ugliness -- they reveal a madness of their own. But just as it reaches its height, it becomes overlaid with the music's main (and highly danceable, by the way!) riff -- as if saying that one can always brush these oddities under the rug or force them into comprehensibility by imposing a familiar tune or mental framework on them. It's exactly as they question in the programme -- is insanity only the things we find unfamiliar?