But beautiful are the chances you take…
Melissa Mostyn reviews Sign Dance Collective's latest show But Beautiful and raises questions about deaf audiences and music.
Love is funny or it's sad
Or it's quiet or it's mad
It's a good thing or it's bad
Beautiful to take a chance and if you fall, you fall
Ignorance of jazz notwithstanding, this much I do know: But Beautiful was both a song covered by Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Barbra Streisand among others and the title of a 2003 jazz standards album.
Sign Dance Collective (SDC)'s new show - accompanied by a live jazz quartet, the Luke Barlow Band - is inspired by neither of these. Instead, taking its cue from the book of the same name - which uses music to explore the self-destruction behind the genius of eight jazz greats - But Beautiful becomes an undulating story about one of them, the celebrated alto saxophonist Art Pepper.
In turns lurching, subtle and poignant, the narrative centres round a few key events in Pepper's life that serve as catalysts for a 1950s jazz legend. Hard livin' is portrayed here as the agonising foil to the musician's ecstatic bursts of creativity, so much so that he frequently spent time behind bars (and I don't mean just the drinking sort).
A misogynistic drug and alcohol addict, Art Pepper led a troubled life, and as a result, SDC and the Luke Barlow Band have collaborated hard to inject the same raw unpredictability by making improvisation an integral element of the show.
Thus through devastating acts of intoxication and heroin injections, the beauty of Pepper's gift materialised into sweeping pieces of contemporary footwork by David Bower as he mimicked the Elvis pelvic thrusts or western shoot-outs being screened on a flickering television, or tapped his arm in tune with saxophone riffs. I especially loved his vague gestures of flashing police cars arriving, in slow realisation that they were coming to arrest him for drugs-related offences: a potent reminder of what drink can do to your consciousness.
Just as consummate was Isolte Avila, who accentuated the show's inebriated atmosphere with her drunken dance before flopping to the floor, and in the penultimate scene sang Bewitched with Billie Holiday-like pain while Bower quietly splashed water over his face in the light-shadow of prison centre-stage.
Music is equally paramount to But Beautiful, which explains the inclusion of a small diversion led by the band upon the story ending. This could have jarred on a larger, more impersonal stage. Within the intimate confines of Jacksons Lane - its first London venue - it simply appeared tousled, with jerky camerawork by Bower recording the playing quartet live, or screened videos of past SDC performances alongside awesome rhythmic contortions by Avila and a pliable Kevin Jewell.