EMBODY YOU. Presented by Figure of 8 Dance Collective in association with The Baxter. At the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 30 July, 2022. DEBBIE HATHWAY reviews

Accolades aside, you’re only as good as your last performance, right? Wrong. When it comes to Figure of 8 Dance Collective, with Grant van Ster and Shaun Oelf at the helm, every performance is better than the last. And this one – Embody You – is sheer brilliance.

Figure of 8 Dance Collective is one of very few contemporary dance companies in this country that can make an audience erupt at the end of a show like they do. Embody You stands head and shoulders above the rest. No pun intended. Go and see it and you’ll understand.

The work is a contemporary dance piece that explores and deconstructs the body’s movement, how the body makes us human, and how our bodies are expected to conform. As the piece develops, the audience is exposed to moods, thoughts, a search for meaning and clarity in our physical, emotional, somatic, and systematic self. It tackles issues of identity, age, beauty, pleasure, love, pain, and sadness. It raises timeless questions about who we are, why we are the way we are and whether that is truly us or just the body that the world created for us.

Shaun Oelf in Embody You
Shaun Oelf

Emotional rollercoaster

I took a class with Van Ster and Oelf during lockdown. Working in a tiny lounge, negotiating space with my desk, dogs and lounge area, “use the space”, they said. “Feel the room.” Or words to that effect. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable, tentatively leaping on and off the couch and gingerly bouncing off walls – things I was taught as a child never to do. But the choreography for Embody You lets the audience know exactly what that means.

They run up walls, dangle from the “rafters”, ricochet off each other with an energy so explosive the audience is swept away by adrenaline. And just when you feel like you can’t hold your breath any more, the tension dissipates with beautiful, lyrical movements that you never want to end.

Figure of 8 Collective dance works have always been notable for their music selection and this is no exception. Guiding both mood and pace, alternating with voice and absolute silence but for the heavy breathing of the dancers after all their exertions, the soundtrack is a major contributor to this emotional rollercoaster. Choreography is by Oelf, Van Ster and the cast, sound design is by Oelf, puppetry consultation with Craig Leo.

Deserving of a global audience

So let’s talk puppetry. When I saw the promotional poster of the company founders gripping a bust of a mannequin I wondered if I would like it. Props can make or break a production.

Making them work as an extension of your own limbs takes particular skill – I’ve seen very few performers do it convincingly. It means dancing so well that the audience forgets that they’re holding anything that isn’t covered by their own skin. I should have known better. This is Oelf and Van Ster at their career best.

To explain it any further would be a spoiler. Keenun Wales, Lubabalo Pupu, Jay-Dee America and Crystal Finck are superb in their roles – characterful, strong actors and dancers. What a pleasure they all are to watch.

Now back to the accolades. Earlier this year Figure of 8 Dance Collective performed Karatara, a dance theatre piece that tells the story of the devastating Knysna fires of 2018. It won best debut production at this year’s KKNK, the latest in a slew of awards that Oelf and Van Ster have won for their work since they founded the company in 2014.

If there are more awards to be won, Embody You must win them – for the artistic directors, for the choreography, for the cast. If there are international tours to be had, this piece must travel. It deserves a global audience.

What: Embody You
Where, when: Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, until 30 July 2022, 8.15pm, matinee 3pm  Saturday
Book: Webtickets