Visceral, bold, and suffocating, ‘Breathe’ is a stunning ode to the passions and insecurities of love over time. Performed by established dancers and choreographers Errol White and Davina Givan, the duet sees the couple interact with – or, pointedly, avoid – each other over a lifetime of meeting, growing, fighting, and deciding to continue.
Technically, expert use of light, music and space are deceptively simple, which all but adds to the overall feel. Six bright strips of yellow light surround the stage from above, which, when aptly used – or, again, pointedly avoided – creates a kind of arena. Throughout darker aspects of the performance, these lights become institutional and transform the space into a battleground that cannot be escaped – indeed, a poignant image of the show sees Givan staring into a light out towards the audience whilst a desperate White attempts to pull her back towards him. With White thus being cast into darkness by his partner’s shadow, the apparent abstractness of the image could not actually be more precise. When used more lovingly and passionately, the warm bask of the yellow light creates a kind of impermeable aura surrounding the couple.
Unlike other physical theatre performances, this gets away with its intensity. Performed in a small, simple space, this piece is unashamedly raw and intimate, something which can perhaps be lost on a bigger stage with more magical technical tricks and then has the potential to seem too vast to the audience. So intimate are the quiet moments of love or despair between the performers that as an ‘onlooker’ it is easy to feel as if you are uncomfortably interrupting some kind of spiritual communion. Perhaps though it more aptly feels as if we are given the privilege of witnessing a caterpillar become a butterfly: albeit with an awkward chrysalis stage in between – a peculiar feeling which heightens as the couple change out of their dark clothes (which see them mysteriously ‘blend’ into the stage) into brighter ones.
The use of empty space is particularly clever, with depriving one sense entirely allowing another to be heightened and engaged. In such a short piece of only 45 minutes the audience are left alone for periods of up to two minutes with music and lighting alone allowing a kind of breathing space. This breathing space is captured well by White in a different and more frantic moment, where the music cuts out and sees him animalistically pounce from side to side of the stage, panting and sweating desperately (and therefore perhaps more relatably.) This effect is clearly not lost on the audience, who become an empty space in themselves: it was in these moments of absolute quietness that it became clear why the piece was so aptly titled ‘Breathe’ – we all seemed to hold our breath throughout as the pounding heartbeat of music and movement did our breathing for us.
The couple’s subtle yet expressive dancing was, at times, loudly punctuated by white noise and dialogue which talked of the circulatory system, the turns of a record player, and the seeming randomness of life. Certain repeated movements added to this almost suffocating feeling of weariness. It was later, however, when being able to ask White and Givan about this that White remarked that he had once been told that dance, and life, were similar to a leaf falling from a tree. Its route downwards is apparently random, but there is a certainty in its reaching the ground, or meaning. It is was ultimately through this celebration of life and love’s randomness, certainties and cherished moments that this piece became so absolutely and utterly compelling.