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Beauty and the Beast
Raymonda Act III
'Still Life' at the Penguin Café
The Two Pigeons
The Dance House
'Still Life' at the Penguin Café
'I wouldn't say it was built around a message,' says David Bintley of the environmentalist angle of 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café. 'I wasn't trying to change the world or anything, it was just a theme in the way that every piece I do has a theme - it has the thread of one single idea which informs the whole piece.'
Still, the message behind family favourite 'Still Life'..., last seen in 2001, is a clear one, with dancers dressed as various endangered animals performing to the jazzy sound of Simon Jeffes's Penguin Café Orchestra.
Regularly appearing in films and television commercials, you definitely know their music. You just don't know it's them. And in 1988, David Bintley was already just as taken with their work as all those advertising executives are today.
'The message didn't actually come first, the music did, and it was the nature of the music that prompted the animals that I chose,' says David. 'First I had the framework, which was the idea of this Noah's ark of different creatures, with the penguins and this big café where people and animals all co-exist, all taken from Simon Jeffes's idea.'
This idea of humans and animals all mixing together enjoying drinks and polite conversation conjures up slightly surreal, dream-like images, and led David to see the inhabitants of the café as being in a kind of limbo. 'I had the idea of the penguin being dead, which led to this theme of extinction.'
While the end product is generally upbeat and playful, the idea of using animals sadly close to dying out made the process a slightly dark one. 'It actually got a bit cold-blooded,' muses David. 'I went looking for endangered animals, thinking about their movements and more pieces of music that would fit them. I'd never done a piece like that before, and probably never will again.'
David sought help with his research. 'I was researching lists of endangered animals and writing to museums. For example - and this is probably one of the most contrived ideas for a piece of dance ever - but one piece of the music had given me this idea for a flea dancing a parody of a morris dance.
'So I wrote to the Natural History Museum and I asked, "is there such thing as an endangered flea?" All they could say was that there are certain fleas which are indigenous to certain animals, which are themselves on the endangered list, so presumably, if the host goes, so does the flea. And they gave me this long list, and I picked the most ridiculously named: Humbolt's Hog-nosed Skunk Flea!'
Exotic names obviously proved attractive. David's flea joins the Brazilian Woolly Monkey, the Southern Cape Zebra, the Utah Longhorn Ram and the Texan Kangaroo Rat. Most important, however, was what each character brought to the overall piece.
David remembers, 'Every element had to fit - the balance of the pieces; whether they were comic or wistful; where the comedy came and where the wistfulness came.' This balance is part of what draws David to these ensemble pieces: 'Juxtaposition, where you get a great big laugh, and then suddenly get this completely flooring piece of humility or sadness. That's very powerful.'
With such joyous music and a carnival of colourful creatures, each moving in their own unique way, the laughs are guaranteed. The sobering sadness, however, that they might one day die out, is what makes 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café all the more effective.
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