Review: Visually arresting Split lacks emotional heat

A scene from Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

With Split, which opened at the NAC on Thursday night, Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin wanted returned to the simplicity of the duo. So it’s ironic that the piece, while visually arresting, lacks the intimacy and emotional heat of her works for larger groups. 

Split features two female dancers in a bare, taped-off square. Lilian Steiner is completely nude; Ashley McLellan wears a simple, sky-blue dress. To a hypnotic score made up of low-frequency, thrumming beats by composer Scanner, the pair start off in perfect synchronicity, moving through an increasingly elaborate set of gestures and patterns. 

It’s interesting to see how the dancers’ state of undress can alter our view of identical movements. The screen of clothing adds softness and curves to the punchy angles of Guerin’s vocabulary, while the same gesture can look shy or lewd, depending on whether the dancer is touching fabric or bare skin.  

There’s a pause in the action, as the dancers towel off and pick up a roll of tape to divide their single square down the middle. When they take up their positions again, the choreography becomes more feral and chaotic. We hear the smack of skin hitting skin as they turn on each other, punching and slapping. Moments of tenderness dissolve into violence. At one point, Steiner hunches like an animal over McLellan’s prone form and triumphantly mimes devouring her heart. 

The dancers break over and over to subdivide their space; the intervals grow shorter and more frantic as the squares they tape off get smaller and smaller. At the end of the 50-minute piece, there can only be room for one.

The dancers were magnificent, the choreography taut and well-edited. So why does Split seem so cold and distant? We observe the conflict playing out on stage without feeling involved or concerned. There’s an abstract, almost cartoonish quality to the aggression that even Steiner and McLellan can’t overcome. Every time they stop to tape off the stage, it breaks any spell Guerin is trying to cast, and it becomes increasingly harder get pulled back in. 

Perhaps the concept itself — the duality of human nature, the tension between the carnal and the spiritual — has become too much of a dance cliché. Whatever the reason, Split is the kind of work that you walk away from with sharp pictures, but numb feelings. 

Split continues tonight and Saturday night in the Azrieli Studio at the National Arts Centre,

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.