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INTERVIEW: ‘Making a Difference’ Donald Hutera talks to the Duke Brothers, Svendsen & Palermo

The Difference Engine could be deemed the show with a difference. Although it’s being presented within the context of a major international dance festival, dance is not its sole creative motor.

The foursome responsible for this new work – the award-winning dancer-choreographer Ben Duke, video artist Will Duke, composer Dario Palermo and theatre director Zoe Svendsen – call it an interdisciplinary performance that will give equal weight to movement, music and real-time electronics involving interactive video and animation. “The idea is that no one discipline dominates,” says Svendsen. “Each serves the over-all experience for the audience but also has a place in the work in its own right.”

“We’ve spent a great deal of time talking together and trying to arrive at a shared idea of what the show is,” Ben Duke chimes in. “Part of those conversations have helped us question the relationship between music, visuals and movement.”

Svendsen, the Dukes - who are, by the by, brothers - and Palermo came together as collaborators on Discombobulator. Developed in Venice in 2009 during a 12-day workshop produced by ENPARTS - the EU-funded network of which Dance Umbrella is a member - this playful yet eerie 15-minute solo was presented the following year as a Brief Encounter in Dance Umbrella 2010. “It was fascinating in Venice to try out a whole series of different technologies that have been around for a while,” Svendsen recalls, “but with which I wasn't familiar.” The point, she hastens to add, “wasn’t to show off technology. Rather, it was to see what ideas emerged from it.”

Although, like Discombobulator, The Difference Engine will employ a variety of technological devices to put its themes and story across, technology itself is emphatically not the show’s raison d’etre. “All technology, no matter how new, is merely a tool. It's what you use it for that matters.” Ben Duke concurs with her. "There are plenty of places for exploring gadgets and what they can do," he says, "but theatre is not really that place. If the art that you make is just operating like an advert for new technology then it will, of course, be boring."

The Difference Engine has been loosely inspired Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a 1962 French film classic about post-nuclear war time travel that is composed almost entirely of still images. (It was also a direct influence on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys.) As Will Duke explains, “We wanted something that could act as a trigger for each of us to go away and create something in our own mediums.” Svendsen calls the film “a catalyst for discussion and a point of reference. For me the abiding sensibility is its economy. In memory it feels as though the images must have been moving, and yet apart from one moment they’re merely stills.” Marker’s gift, she says, was his ability to “condense a narrative into very simple, specific references - visual and verbal - and from these an extraordinarily complex world of emotion emerges. On a more prosaic level, the notion of time travel - of what it might mean to be a body in another time-space - has had a strong impact on all of us.”

Apart from the time travel, The Difference Engine takes as some of its themes desire, loss, melancholy, memory, the epic and the everyday and, as Svendsen puts it, “the absolute moment of the present with no past and no future. How these different concepts emerge, and which is stronger, will depend on what’s invented in rehearsal. It’s less a case of developing towards a preordained vision, than combining our ideas and methods to come up with something that’s different from anything any of us would do on our own. For example, the music is not a soundtrack but an active participant in the telling of the story. Similarly, Will’s images don't ‘illustrate’ that story but are integral to the over-all experience.”

Ben Duke won’t appear in the work. The two dancers are Anna Finkel and Chris Evans, both of whom appeared in the Place Prize-winning piece, It Needs Horses, that Duke created with Raquel Meseguer for their dance-theatre company Lost Dog. Finkel and Evans are joined by a live singer accompanied by the renowned Arditti Quartet playing an electronically enhanced pre-recording of Palermo’s composition. “For me Dario’s music is about space,” Svendsen says. “It’s so complex, and creates a sense of a world beyond what we think we know.”

The finished performance, Ben Duke claims, will last no more than an hour. “Time and our relationship with it are the central concepts of this piece.” Echoing Svendsen he reveals that “one of the things that struck me most about La Jetée was the idea of a relationship which has no past and future but can only exist in the present. The man in the film appears in the woman’s life at different moments, but we have no idea if these appearances are two minutes or two months apart. I like the impossibility of this idea, as it’s something we often catch glimpses of in our time-delineated lives. For me it’s also a very interesting idea in terms of dance. Dance is an art form that deals well with the extended moment, in which time and narrative are not necessarily moving forward, but there is instead a physical representation of the multiple possibilities contained within that moment.”

Co-commissioned by Dance Umbrella, The Difference Engine will have its world premiere at The Gate. Duke describes this tiny theatre in West London as “wonderfully intimate and thrillingly claustrophobic. It’s very rare to be able to experience dance up close. I think the effect of that energy right next to you is worth a ticket on its own.”

The Difference Engine shows at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill from Wed 12 - Sat 22 October (not Sun 16) at 7.30pm, and tickets are available at

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