The Guardian Review Without Trace

Cinema with moves

Keith Watson

The Guardian, 19 October 1999

the company’s most sophisticated exploration of this brave new genre to date

“Is it a film? Is it a dance?” is the question often asked when Mark Murphy’s V-TOL takes to the stage. Actually it’s both.

The idea of combining filmed images and live movement is not that new, but whereas in the past choreographers have used the screen as a prop or a mere backdrop, Murphy elevates the cinematic element of his work to the status of equal partner. Switching the action between screen, stage and a magical limbo in between, he creates what can only be described as dance cinema.

V-TOL’s latest, Without Trace, is the company’s most sophisticated exploration of this brave new genre to date. Part mystery, part thriller, with a dash of gore for good measure, the central story concerns the sudden disappearance of a 30-next-month woman from a stable and happy relationship. At least that’s the way her deserted partner looks at it. It’s at this point that all previously held notions about the wanton inaccessibility and abstract opaqueness of modern dance should be set aside.

Murphy is in the business of telling stories and uses every device at his disposal to rush the narrative along: filmed sequences set the scene, actors articulate the internal motivations of the dancers, a voice-over links the action between past and present.

There’s a line between accessibility and spelling things out and, in his anxiety to side-step the security blanket of ambiguity which masks so much dance, Murphy sometimes crosses it. The classic Dutch thriller The Vanishing is a major influence on Without Trace, but where the movie revelled in guessing games, Murphy seems reluctant to leave as much to the power of his audience’s imagination.

As a result, Without Trace is not quite the exercise in psychological exploration it promises at the start. What begins as an enigmatic mystery turns into a high-speed road movie, but it’s an exhilarating spectacle for all that.

Driven along by a live scored by Graham Cunnington of post-industrial drum thumpers Test Dept, the pace never flags as the story of the runaway Beth and her pining lover Jim unfolds in a cunning juxtaposition of dance and film.

The human element is the key to Murphy’s success. Without that all the tricksy camera angles and back projections would be so much showing off. But not only does he have the technology, he also knows why he’s using it.