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Sadler’s Wells x Candoco Dance Company: Cuckoo

“Time is passing. That, we can rely on. Time flies, drags, suspends. Time heals, wears us down. We waste time, chase time, cherish time. It leaves its mark.”

Co-produced by Sadler’s Wells and Candoco Dance Company, Cuckoo is a short film which explores time in an existential piece of modern dance. In collaboration with The Alternative Limb Project, the real star of the show (apart from dancer Welly O’Brian) is a bespoke prosthetic leg that inspired the work. It is carved from cherry wood and even features a working cuckoo clock!

So was this a perfect use of our finite time, or were our writers finding themselves glancing at the clock? Read on to find out!

A woman stands in an empty dark grey room with her arms outstretched. She has pale blonde hair and an intricate prosthetic wooden right leg. The image is framed with rrrramble colours.
Ready to get started?

Jayne

Cuckoo is the kind of existential dread I spend my life running from, but in a refreshing way. 

From the outset we’re given imagery and sound that serves to remind us of passing time. There’s a ticking clock, there’s the visual of said clock to really hammer home what you’re hearing, and until viewing this work I hadn’t realised how little I missed the sound of an actual analogue clock ticking. I think it’s a poignant thought to start off my viewing of this piece, that I very rarely hear an actual clock tick anymore and when I do, I am discomfited by it. 

From there we get the addition of music. Or rather, a soundtrack of beats and rhythmic snaps that serve as the music for which the performer dances to. It’s staccato and unpredictable, it reminds me of a heartbeat pounding in my ears in the midst of an anxiety attack or even the snap of someone drumming their fingers on a wood desk. Impatient. 

Our performer moves in a similar fashion. The arc of her arm is swift and graceful but the film will jump and we see the action repeated. Against a wall she will drop forwards as if exhausted but her upper half swings back and forth like a grandfather clock doomed to forever be a prisoner to time. She can’t escape, and neither can we. The clock, built into her prosthetic leg, is a part of her. Time is a part of her. Time is a part of all of us no matter how we wish it wasn’t. 

It’s incredible. With nothing more than sound and movement, Cuckoo has not only communicated a clear feeling of repetitive helplessness, but has forced the viewer to endure it too. And in a way, I enjoyed it. I normally hate constant reminders of the passage of time, of it seeping away. My own mortality is not something I like to think of.

But Cuckoo has made the right choice of performer, and despite the rough noises and jerky camera techniques going on around her: she seems mostly unaffected. Or blissfully unaware. She moves not with the purpose of assisting the message but countering it. She has an optimistic aura surrounding her, as if proving that being subject to time does not mean being a victim to it. 

Overall I did enjoy Cuckoo but I think it worked due to the short length of the piece. By the time we found the conclusion I was beginning to grow tired of the message, so to speak, and my attention had begun to shift.

Its short and sweet nature is the perfect way to remind you of that hovering anxiety we call life without ruining the viewer’s day with an existential crisis. I hope there will be more like this coming from the Candoco Dance Company in the future. 

A wooden prosthetic leg with intricate carving is lit up by a spotlight, with the rest of the image in darkness. It has a watch face set into it, and a small wooden cuckoo clock bird coming out of a door.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the most incredible prosthetic I’ve ever seen…

Becca

A short film, at just shy of 4 minutes, Cuckoo is the result of a recent collaboration between the inspirational Sadler’s Wells and innovative Candoco Dance Company. Alongside these two major names in the dance world, The Alternative Limb Project also boasts a crucial role in the creation of this project which seeks to shed light on the place of disabilities within the dance world in a playful and visually striking way.

I was familiar with Sadler’s Wells before watching this film, but completely unfamiliar with Candoco, so was unsure what to expect from their joint venture. In hindsight, I suspect my preconceptions were somewhat clouded by my vaguely ballet-oriented background, but I suppose I was half expecting a somewhat traditional piece of dance. This short film is far from that.

In just the first few seconds of the film – a dramatic introduction of contrasting light and dark – I was immediately reminded of the Tate Modern’s collaborative artistic response to the recent lockdowns, Resilient Responses. With both projects filmed in the same harsh, concrete, expansive space, this was hardly surprising.

I do think this is an interesting creative space to create art in. The emptiness of the vast space is a potentially daunting and boring blank canvas. The industrial nature of the environment has prompted both these projects to explore the light, dark, and shadows that lend themselves to an overly arty production. The light and dark, the relentless ticking soundtrack, the unsettling movements were all very reminiscent of Resilient Responses. Though presumably an unintentional similarity, I did think it was interesting that this shared space connected these two projects in a very notable way.

The blurb on the Sadler’s Wells website describes how Cuckoo was inspired by a bespoke prosthetic leg created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of The Alternative Limb Project, for dancer Welly O’Brien. The leg is truly a work of art in itself that deserves its central role in the piece. Carved from cherry wood and featuring a working cuckoo clock and pendulum, it was a fascinating co-star for O’Brien. I was almost more invested in the mechanisms of the unique leg, than I was in anything else. Maybe that was the point of its role within the piece, but I was vaguely disappointed that there wasn’t more emphasis on the dance itself. In the interest of accessibility, I also watched the short film with the audio description, which honestly provided another interesting insight into disabilities in dance and the visual arts. Chaotic and slightly unhinged in its own way, it honestly (unintentionally?) complimented the video impressively well.

I love dance. I love to dance, I love to watch dance, I love Sadler’s Wells, I love to see major dance companies challenging what a traditional ‘dance body’ looks like. I didn’t massively love Cuckoo. Its saving grace was that it was so short. In this sense, it gave me the food for thought that I wanted, within the time frame that I was willing to give it.

The performer, a white woman with pale blonde hair, lies on the floor with her head propped up by her elbow. She is wearing a waistcoat and boots, with an intricately carved wooden prosthetic leg. The foreground is blurry, and she is looking intently to her right off-camera.
Paint me like one of your French girls…

Abbie

I’m going to start this review with a massive statement: Cuckoo made me want to move. Not to dance, but to get fucking moving. To spring out of my seat (despite an arduous day and my body’s chronic pain and exhaustion), to charge out of my front door and somehow chase my ambitions or dreams or whatever it is determined young protagonists do in those kinds of films – you know the ones. I’m not sure how a 4-minute dance piece managed to give me more motivation than anything else I’ve encountered in the last two years, but here we are, and I’m not mad about it.

The funny thing is: I’m not sure that’s what Cuckoo tries to do at all. If I try to step back and take a broader look, I can see that Cuckoo could even be a stressful or uncomfortable watch for others. You’re almost constantly listening to a ticking clock (side note: when do we really hear ticking clocks anymore?), the space looks barren and industrial and grey, and nothing really happens, per se. That ticking could feel suffocating, like it’s teasing you with the arbitrary sound of time moving on, running away from you, whether you’d like it to or not. A constant reminder that the passing of time is inevitable, immutable.

The backdrop of the film is grey, concrete and barren, and the neutral colours in the costuming mean that the dancer blends in, rather than stands out. The dance isn’t ‘dance’ in a traditional sense, it’s more carefully selected movement. The score pulses in such a way that you can feel it in your chest, and it includes sharp sounds – like metal grating against metal – and a kind of banging. Yeah, I can certainly see why people wouldn’t agree with me.

However, amongst this sound and landscape and movement (or perhaps lack thereof), it felt like there was limitless potential. Not potential in the ‘well if they’d have done this differently…’ sense. It’s the potential available to us if, instead of being afraid of the clock or watching it incessantly, we made friends with time. Or perhaps grabbed it by the horns and made it our bitch.

At the start of the piece, it seems that the dancer is trying to resist time by ignoring that it’s there (no easy feat when only thing in this massive room is this stunning prosthetic that is an actual CLOCK and it’s TICKING LOUDLY). But then she embraces it; time, and the passing of it. At this point, everything feels more urgent. As the score pulses faster, escalates, I find myself wishing that the dancer were doing something more. Moving. Taking action. I was waiting for the pulsing to crescendo, and for the dancer to explode into movement – but this never came. Instead of this feeling disappointing, that sense of urgency and need for action poured into me instead, as the watcher. A feeling I can’t shift, and so am taking away into my own life (which could always do with its own burst of action).

I can’t leave this review without ensuring that there’s some major commotion for the prosthetic. It is an incredible feat of artistry by prosthetist, Chris Parsons, and wood carver, Sam Rudman. Every element – from the choice of cherry wood, to the peek-a-boo holes (industry term, I’m sure), the exposed pendulum, the metal – is breath-taking.

If you’re not convinced on Cuckoo yet, know that it’ll only take watching this 4-minute video for you to be able to say you’ve seen a prosthetic leg which functions as a cuckoo clock – obnoxious bird and all.  If that won’t sway you, I don’t know what will. 

Cuckoo is available to watch for free on the Sadler’s Wells website, here.

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