Intrepid jungle explorers, epic adventure, Egyptian gods, mummies, burning astronauts; Mark Bruce Company’s new show Return To Heaven sounds like an amalgam of all the great movies of the 70s and 80s brought to the stage.
In fact, Mark cites diverse influences from Hammer Horror to Dawn of the Dead via David Lynch, David Bowie and all manner of road movies. It’s reflective, he says, of “movies back when movies were dirty because they were shot in dirty circumstances; it was hot and messy and shot on film. The show’s got that retro edge to it.”
The acclaimed company’s latest touring production is “a visual feast and very cinematic”. The striking set features Gothic trees straining heavenwards, a strapping chair that looks purpose-made for a man named Igor and a classic convertible car sits proudly in the middle of the stage. A film fan could happily spend a few hours playing spot-the- reference.
But Return To Heaven is not a movie. It is a stage show. More than that, it’s dance theatre.
“I think a lot of people shy away when they see the word dance,” Mark explains. “They perceive contemporary dance as perhaps something elitist that they won’t understand. But dance is one of the most basic forms of communication. It has no language barriers and it can communicate on a wide level. Dance theatre is a good vehicle to do this.”
But what is ‘dance theatre’? “It’s a very young art form,” Bruce answers. “It’s got places to go and there’s so much you can do with it. It’s potentially very powerful. I always say my work is theatre, but, of course, I’m a choreographer, so that then marries with the show’s visual world and its drama.”
Return To Heaven follows a pair of explorers searching in a jungle, as they tumble into a waking dream of a land beyond time and death. It’s a cinematic love story full of the rich imagery that has become the company’s trademark, a hallucinatory nightmare of sinister scientists and supernatural forces. Imagine the world of Indiana Jones as viewed through the lens of David Lynch, set to a soundtrack ranging from Penderecki to Lanegan. “The explorers go through a very dark journey,” Bruce divulges, “but at the end there is hope.”
“You can follow a narrative through the piece, but you don’t have to,” he continues. “You can feel your way through instead. The performers are strong, the dancing is visceral; we want to sweep the audience away. I like to do things in dance theatre where we’re triggering the imagination of the audience, triggering their subconscious. I think dance theatre is a good way to do this.”
Bruce is not your average choreographer (if such a thing exists). Brought up by dancer parents, for most of his childhood he had no interest in following them into the profession. He would far rather lose himself in films and write comics. At 17, that changed. He had an epiphany about how much he loved the physical, animal nature of dance and committed himself whole-heartedly to training.
But those earlier influences are still the most powerful drivers of his work. Return To Heaven, he admits, is a particularly personal piece and its creation was triggered, in part, by the death of one of his idols.
“When Bowie died, I was working on The Odyssey. I was shocked by the devastating effect it had on me, it a reaffirmed the place his work exists in the otherworld inside of me. It took me a little while to be able to listen to [Bowie’s final album] Blackstar. Though there isn’t any of Bowie’s music in the production, when I did listen to it during the tour of Macbeth, it goaded me to push myself, to make Return to Heaven. Bowie didn’t play safe. I don’t want to either.”
When Bruce founded his company in 1991 it was with that same pioneering ambition, to test the boundaries of what could be done with dance theatre. It is, he says, “too much hard work not to be progressive with it”. In the three decades since, he’s created a host of productions, most recently earning nominations and awards for his versions of Dracula, The Odyssey and Macbeth.
Return To Heaven is a move away from those well-known stories to one of his own invention. “I’m taking a risk with this piece,” he admits. “I’m trying to be progressive because that’s what dance theatre can do. My story goes into dreams, into a surreal landscape. I want to fall deeper into the subconscious. The outcome for audiences should be similar to listening to a really powerful piece of music; it just has an effect on you, it doesn’t have to have a narrative.”
Bruce is pioneering in another way. Rather than set up his company in a bustling, metropolitan city, they have been based in the Somerset town of Frome for the last 15 years, where they have very much been adopted by the local community.
Residents are host families for the company’s dancers and the students of its summer school. Older Frome-ites attend a regular Silver Swans ballet class at the converted warehouse they’ve called home for the last three years. A local whole food store currently has a window display of Return To Heaven paraphernalia. “Frome is a magical place” Bruce states. “For the people here, it seems like the world of this work appeals and there is a real enthusiasm for the company.”
As much as he is excited to show Return To Heaven to his most ardent local supporters, he’s eager also tour it across the UK and is passionate about the power of live performance: “Live theatre, dance, is really important. We’re in a time where so many people spend most of their time plugged into machines. We’re going to end up with a wasteland like this. Having something live and in the flesh in front of you, seeing performers go to those places and take you with them, there’s nothing like that. It’s essential. Every effort is made to make a vehicle that is a real assault on the senses; that just splits open your subconscious so you feel something. That’s the power of live performance.”
Is that what Bruce hopes for his Return To Heaven audiences?
“I think they should be moved and entertained, have moments of stepping into the unknown, find humour, feel they’re taken on a journey and come out feeling that things have shifted inside them. We have a really good relationship with Ipswich; it’s always good to go there. They’ve always been extremely supportive over the years.”
Return to Heaven will be at DanceEast on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th March - click here to book your tickets.
Interested in peeking behind the scenes? Book your free place to watch the Company in their class, where you’ll be free to watch, sketch, or paint – click here to book your place.