Compagnie Maguy Marin, May B, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 13th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Compagnie Maguy Marin, May B, Sadler’s Wells

Compagnie Maguy Marin, May B, Sadler’s Wells, May 22, 2024

Maguy Marin May B
Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B (photo: Hervé Deroo)

Maguy Marin’s May B, presented at Sadler’s Wells on May 21 and 22, is divided into three contrasting sections, each influenced by the works of Samuel Beckett. One doesn’t necessarily think of Beckett and dance in the same breath, but as Sue Jones explains in her article published by Dance Research, ‘Beckett’s Brush with Ballet, the playwright became fascinated with the mimetic aspect of dance after seeing Léonide Massine as the puppet in Petrouchka in 1934. Beckett was later to work with the dancer Deryk Mendel, for whom he wrote the one act mime play Act Without Words in 1956. Other actors with whom he worked have described his directorial insistence on the rhythm and timing of gestures as ‘choreography’, so it is perhaps not so surprising that when Marin wrote to Beckett for permission to use his plays as a basis for her new work, she was not only invited to meet with him but received Beckett’s wholehearted endorsement for her project.

Marin’s May B borrows from Beckett’s stagecraft the almost claustrophobic enclosed space of the stage — similar to Petrouchka’s cell — and imbues it with elements of Beckett’s choreography as in the rhythmical, shuffling steps of the dancers in the opening section. The ten dancers move sometimes as one, each with their individuality but dependent on the group; squabbling, testiness and greed coexist with moments of friendship, love and lust. There is the bitter humour of the oppressed, the sense of the absurdity of life, and of endless entrances and departures. The stage design, the lighting (by Albin Chavignon), the costumes (by Louise Marin) and the exaggerated makeup are all integral to the choreography, and Marin’s use of music by Franz Schubert, the raunchy street music of Gilles de Binche and, in the third section, Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet contributes to the layering of the work’s emotional power.

May B was first performed in 1981. Looking back at a filmed version from that year, it is apparent that the integrity of the work has not suffered over time and that the current performers have the maturity and sensibility to maintain the qualities of the original. What has changed, perhaps, is the context of the work in relation to the present time. May B is bleak in rendering the despair of helplessness and powerlessness, emotions that are currently evident in our environment, at home and abroad, but which are either sanitised by the media or muted to the point of silence by political deviance. The theatre is one of the few places where the perilous state of humanity can be depicted, albeit in notional form, but such a theatrical work has to meet its audience head on to provoke a response. There was a perceptible sense at Sadler’s Wells that the work was appreciated on a superficial level but that its understated savagery failed to break through the expectations of current commercial theatre.

Maguy Marin May B
Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B (photo: Hervé Deroo)

Marin was brought up in a politically active family, and her political vision has always co-existed with her stage practice. At Sadler’s Wells this political activism came up against a cultural obstacle. Following recent performances in Europe of May B, Marin has read her statement on the aggression on Gaza by the State of Israel; she has done so without hindrance from the venues, but the director of Sadler’s Wells, Sir Alistair Spalding, prohibited her from reading it, saying an artist’s message should be expressed in the work and citing neutrality and audience concerns. According to Maguy Marin company president, Antoine Manologlou, Marin’s message included a specific reference to one of Sadler’s Wells’ sponsors, Barclays Bank, that among its investments supports the purchase of arms in Israel. When Marin and members of her company defiantly handed out her statement on printed flyers to the audience as they left the theatre on May 22, security staff intervened aggressively to prevent the action.

The irony is that the imagery of May B — the discarded shoes, the suitcases, the hunger, the despair — implicitly refers to the deprivations of refugees as well as victims of holocaust. There is no shortage of explicit support for the victims of the Jewish Holocaust in museums, works of art, films and public memorials, but solidarity with other victims of oppression and genocide are less openly encouraged. One might argue, as Spalding evidently did, that the work should speak for itself, but that is to hide, in this particular instance, the complicity of the presenter. Marin’s activism extended logically from the work to bring its implicit message into the realm of contemporary politics. Her defiance came from the integrity of the artist, and its attempted repression represents the perversity of cultural authority.

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Posted: April 17th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre, March 15, 2024

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, The Last Supper
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The Last Supper (photo © Rosie Powell)

There was an immediate incongruity on entering the Battersea Arts Centre Council Chamber of hearing Rosie Ridgeway’s sound design of a sacred a cappella voice and seeing Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s stage furniture of industrial ventilation ducting coiled in various lengths under Nao Nagai’s lighting. It is the setting for Figs in Wigs’ rather desolate opening scene – Chapter Zero – for Big Finish, an irreverent yet trenchant commentary in seven chapters (acts) on the links between the dire state of the arts in this country, the sinking of the Titanic and the extinction of the species. Like a good satirical cartoon, we are invited to consider in exaggerated detail the all-too-visible effects on the arts and the natural environment of an unspecified yet widely understood cause. And it felt as if the audience was there in the Council Chamber — itself the seat of a former political body that once had a key role in the birth of the suffragette and labour movements — to relish seeing on stage a reflection of what they already know exists so they could laugh at their own collective misfortune.

There are two parallel layers in Big Finish: one looks outwards at what the five performers — Ray Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots — call the ‘shit show’ that is our arts environment, while the other looks inwards at their colourfully irreverent ruminations. As each successive chapter unpeels their perceptions and frustrations, one self-deprecatory slur at a time, the two layers naturally merge.

Figs in Wigs come to the rather bleak conclusion in Chapter Zero that if the great ship of the arts in this country is sinking, any grants are little more than publicly funded life jackets. It may seem ungrateful to lambaste the state of the arts when a little logo on the program indicates that Big Finish was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Figs in Wigs did indeed get some money from ACE for the R&D phase of Big Finish but their application for funding the show was turned down. It’s an odd way to use public funds to encourage artists to get to the starting line and then disqualify them for the race, especially when ACE’s printed logo on the performance program suggests otherwise. Fortunately, there are two other logos on the program — Wandsworth Council and Bloomberg Philanthropies — that hopefully represent some alleviation in the funding shortfall.*

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Chapter 1
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: Evolution (photo © Rosie Powell)

With its dogged determination that the show will still go on, Big Finish takes only two short opening chapters to offer a concise social and geological history of evolution, starting with a time when days had only four hours of light and ‘the earth was full of idiots’. A golf cart enters the stage driven by a dinosaur with four reptilian passengers. They deliver sand in bags and spread it neatly into a circle with rakes. With a heightened sense of mixed metaphor, we are reminded about our proclivity for burying our heads in the sand and that time is running out. Chapter Two segues effortlessly into what is called ‘The Survivors’, notably the crab’s ability to adapt to changing environments over millennia. It’s also an opportunity for the first dance, a hip-swinging crustacean side-step. In Chapter Three there’s an ode to human competitive practice as a game of musical towels on the beach, and a celebration of chance in a lottery game as a sly reminder that the Arts Council is part funded by the national lottery. The effects of water pollution on the manufacture of soft ice cream is parodied in a Mr. Whiffy portaloo, followed in Chapter Four by the Last Supper — the swansong, the big finish — with successive toasts to over-inflated egos, artistic mediocrity and analogies to predatorial insects. Chapter Five is a delightful last will and testament, before the apotheosis in Chapter 6 in which a string quintet sitting on their reinforced coattails plays on as the ship sinks in the soap suds.

Figs in Wigs, The String , Big Finish
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The String Quintet (photo © Rosie Powell)

The ideas in Big Finish may be expressed with blinding clarity but they are deliberately dressed in an aesthetic of amateur improvisation. It might look as if the production was pulled together using any and every available material, but there is a sophistication in this underhand aesthetic — thanks in part to Gammon’s costumes and Porter’s wigs and makeup — that belies the self-deprecatory tone of the texts. We are drawn into the ideas precisely because of Figs in Wigs’ deliciously performative improvisation. The aesthetic disrupts the message without masking the seething rage that produced it.

*Big Finish has been commissioned by BAC, Home, Cambridge Junction and Jerwood Arts.

Crystal Pite & Jonathon Young/Kidd Pivot in Assembly Hall

Posted: April 3rd, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Crystal Pite & Jonathon Young/Kidd Pivot in Assembly Hall

Crystal Pite & Jonathon Young/Kidd Pivot, Assembly Hall, Sadler’s Wells, March 23, 2024

Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young, Assembly Hall
The company at the AGM in Assembly Hall (photo © Michael Slobodian)

The role of critics used to be, for better or worse, to pen a considered appreciation of a show that might guide the public as to its value. Some critics took that responsibility to heart, others to their head, with the result that some had the power to decide whether a show was worth seeing or not, which, according to the renown of the critic, would affect ticket sales. That critical role has effectively been taken over by the publicity department of the theatre, especially with dance performances limited to short runs, replacing the art of criticism with the act of selling. The pre-publicity machine gives the public an appreciation of what it will be seeing by extrapolating past successes into the present and underwrites the public’s future enjoyment with any number of five-star reviews. This has eviscerated the national press of a critical dance voice.

At the theatre there is the glossy programme with more positive endorsement for the show. Then at the end of the performance come the inevitable ovations. It all adds up to a spectacular evening that closes the virtuous circle of the theatre’s pre-publicity. Either you agree with the publicity, or you are disappointed because you evidently didn’t ‘get it’. This is endemic of the commercialisation of culture, or perhaps more precisely of cultural commerce.

A case in point is Assembly Hall, a new collaboration between Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young with Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, presented at and co-produced by Sadler’s Wells, where Pite is an Associate Artist. Recommended by the ‘success’ of their previous collaborations, Assembly Hall was sold out. Pite, a brilliant choreographer (my value judgement) in her own right, has been associated with theatre maker Young in previous productions (Betroffenheit, The Statement, Revisor). I only know Young’s work through these collaborations but have seen Pite’s work independently of Young. Their chemistry has produced a Pite variant that thrives on the intersection of speech and movement. Young’s side of the equation is the writing and adapting of text, but as a theatre-maker — he is the founder of Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver — he is also keen to explore the movement-to-speech and speech-to-movement relationship. There is thus a natural meeting of creative focus in their work that starts at a high level of affinity and excitement but seems to dissolve at the point where the writing takes a detour into the hinterland of the surreal before some sort of recapitulation and resolution. If the level of affinity and excitement lasts for the initial 30 minutes of the work’s exposition, in which the level of dance and recorded speech artistry is highly charged, we are left for the next hour to experience Jay Gower Taylor’s sets, Tom Visser’s lighting, Nancy Bryant’s costumes and Owen Belton’s musical sleight of hand. All are brilliantly inventive, but instead of enhancing what happens on stage, they are what happens on stage, which reduces their contribution at this point in the production to theatrical effect. Given that the subject of Assembly Hall is the AGM of a financially precarious benevolent and protective order of mediaeval re-enacters with props and costumes to hand, the scope of visual imagination runs wild. And while this is going on, Pite contrives with uncanny regularity a series of substantial solos for each of the dancers that have little to do with their initial characters or roles, and everything to do with their phenomenal ability as dancers. That Revisor followed a similar path indicates a certain structural fatigue in the Pite/Young alloy. Where it worked admirably was in their very first collaboration, the harrowing Betroffenheit in 2015, and in the tightly woven treatment of The Statement, for Nederlands Dans Theater the following year.

Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young, Assembly Hall
The company in the re-enactment in Assembly Hall (photo © Michael Slobodian)

Where Pite excels is in her choreographic sensibility, her ability to match physical, emotional and spiritual sensation with music to create a single experience that arises from that transformation. In matching movement to the speech in Assembly Hall, it is the procedural nature of the words that seems to reduce the emotional and spiritual realms into which she can extend her choreographic sensibility. If it is a constraint for the choreographer it is not for the theatre maker, whose craft consists in the manipulation of words to dialectic or poetic effect. Pite and Young have proved their collaboration can work, but both Revisor and Assembly Hall leave one with the suspicion it needs to be reeled in or, like the AGM of the benevolent and protective order of mediaeval re-enactors, risk foundering on a point of order.

New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: March 14th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells

New York City Ballet, Mixed Bill, Sadler’s Wells, March 9, 2024

New York City Ballet, Balanchine
Anthony Huxley and Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The term ‘mixed bill’ generally refers to a grouping of separate works on the same program that highlights the diverse artistic vision of the company presenting it. The New York City Ballet’s Mixed Bill presented at Sadler’s Wells certainly does that — whatever one might make of the artistic vision — but also mixes a surprisingly disparate level of choreographic craft and technical execution. It is difficult to understand the artistic decisions that led such a prestigious company — a company built by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine with fabled dancers and an equally fabled repertoire of works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins — to come to London after a 16-year absence with such a very mixed bill. The one token work by Balanchine, Duo Concertant, danced by Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, serves as a salutary reminder of what had made the company world class. Balanchine gives equal emphasis to Stravinsky’s score for piano and violin (played by Elaine Chelton and Kurt Nikkanen) and to the dance. Fairchild and Huxley listen to the opening movement while standing behind the piano, and when they dance it is as if they are improvising in the moment to what they are hearing. Gestures are clear, shapes are clean, and the dynamic is in perfect accord with the music.

Of the three other works on the program, at least Pam Tanowitz’s Gustave Le Gray No. I has a strong sense of identity. Set to Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray for solo piano, a quartet of dancers perform an uncompromisingly austere reverie in flowing scarlet costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung that immediately call to mind winged beings. Like Duo Concertant, it begins with the dancers grouped behind the piano and as pianist Stephen Gosling plays the first four repeated chords the dancers move away one by one to begin their mysterious ritual together. The weightless, timeless style of Tanowitz’s choreography is so far from Balanchine’s that the dancers — Naomi Corti, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ruby Lister and Mira Nadon — seem ill at ease. Moving the piano across the stage at the end while Gosling follows on foot as he continues playing is a gag that does little to resolve the mystery of the work but gets some laughs.

New York City Ballet
Naomi Corti and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Pam Tanowitz’ Gustave Le Gray No. 1. Photo © Erin Baiano

The evening opens — we have waited 16 years for this moment — with Daniel Ulbricht lying supine on stage in Justin Peck’s Rotunda: the returning hero washed up on a foreign shore. It’s a fitting image, but rather than allowing us to indulge in it for even a moment, Peck has Ulbricht scamper up with a romantic gesture of longing towards the audience as soon as the curtain is up. It’s almost as if he’s embarrassed to be discovered napping. His friends arrive and form circles from which solos, trios and ensembles evolve to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly, played by the Britten Sinfonia under Andrews Sill. The costumes, like Balanchine’s but without the formality of black and white, are pastel-coloured tights and leotards, and the overall sense of the work is relaxed bonhomie. The fabric of the choreography seems in danger of falling apart in one especially intricate solo which is just the wrong side of being, in principal dancer Sara Mearns‘ characterisation of the company’s approach to performance, ‘spontaneous and in-the-moment’. Ulbricht’s tightly executed and rigorously musical steps stand out but it’s not enough to save a lacklustre opening work.

New York City Ballet
Company members in Justin Peck’s Rotunda. Photo © Erin Baiano

If there’s already a sense of programming disorientation by the second intermission, the final work of the evening, Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle) to a recorded selection of songs by James Blake, heightens it further. If William Forsythe hadn’t already used tracks by Blake to create a whole new aesthetic and a scintillating physical technique to display it in The Barre Project: Blake Works II for a group of New York City Ballet dancers and friends during lockdown, Abraham could be forgiven for setting his choreographic colours to the same mast. But where Forsythe had made the score integral to his choreography, Abraham has simply pasted a romantic notion of classical shapes and steps on to tracks by Blake that makes them unsuited to each other. Dressing his dancers in designs by Giles Deacon serves only to widen the disparity of the collaboration.

New York City Ballet
Christopher Grant and Peter Walker in Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle) Photo © Erin Baiano

Perhaps there are unseen technical, logistical and financial circumstances that have limited the company’s repertoire choices at Sadler’s Wells, not to mention injuries and substitutions to the casting, but we in the audience can only react to what we see. If, as the New York Times states, the company’s repertoire is the envy of the world, it is unfortunately not evident on this visit.

Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Posted: January 28th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind by Factory International, Aviva Studios, October 28, 2023

Free Your Mind, Selfie

Welcome to #ThemeParkTheatre.

Free Your Mind – The Matrix Now was the ‘official opening performance’ of the new £240-million Aviva Studios, home of Factory International. It is hidden amongst dozens of new residential tower blocks in the heart of Spinningfields, Manchester, on the River Irwell. The co-creators and headline billing for this Manchester Matrix mashup are the self-described ‘dream team’ of Danny Boyle, Kenrick “H2O” Sandy and Michael “Mikey J” Asante from Boy Blue — they had previously worked together on the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics — as well as Sabrina Mahfouz and Es Devlin. 

“Free your mind” is one of the phrases spoken by Morpheus, a character that is closely associated with the film The Matrix (1999). It is also a central thematic pillar of the work, this premise of questioning truth and reality and asking if we really want to look under the hood and see what the facade is masking? I definitely do.

This is some of the text from the press release: “Free Your Mind is a dramatic retelling of the classic 1999 sci-fi film through dance, music and visual effects. Featuring 50 professional dancers from the North West and across the UK, this world-first adaptation takes place throughout the building’s ultra-flexible spaces…this unique cross-art collaboration of world-leading artists showcases the breadth and ambition of Factory International’s artistic programme and invites audiences into a new realm of possibilities spanning real and imagined worlds. Free Your Mind recreates some of the film’s most iconic scenes through hip-hop choreography combined with immersive set design and visual effects, provoking visions of an alternate future. Created for Manchester, the birthplace of the world’s first industrial revolution, Free Your Mind explores where the digital revolution has the power to take the world.”

Since it was released, The Matrix has created a series of memes, gifs and cultural touchpoints that demonstrate how deeply within British culture it has rooted itself. You’ve got the red pill or the blue pill where Neo is offered the chance to look below the surface; you’ve got Agent Smith and his monologue about how he wants to get out when Morpheus is captured; the bullet time photography sequences; the exploding pillars in the foyer with dozens of agents attempting to take down Trinity and Neo, and so many more. Free Your Mind is operating in a territory similar to the jukebox musical or adaptation of a well-loved IP; they’re taking something that is known in one context and attempting to transpose it somewhere else. This particular ‘somewhere else’ is a large scale, immersive Hip Hop dance show set across a 1200 seat theatre, a foyer and an aircraft hangar. 

I decided to watch the film the night before seeing the show and it has aged OK. Some of the VFX are not as jaw-droppy as they were when the film was released, but we’re talking a quarter of a century ago — a time when the majority of the current cast weren’t even in primary school. For me, this was a time when I was in the first flush of adulthood, discovering the world and encountering my own cultural markers, TV shows, films, songs and bands which became important as I began to find my own taste. 

What is notable — apart from flags with the show ident and logo visible on every street and lamp post across the city — is the cast size for Free Your Mind. 50 Hip Hop dancers on stage, alongside pre-show and interval entertainment performers. This is a scale I’ve not experienced before in England. Giving 50 Hip Hop dancers, who include 28 from the North West of England and 10 Boy Blue regulars from London, a contract for the three-week run, multiple R&D and creation periods (which started in 2018/19), and however many rehearsal weeks, is brilliant. All the more so in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Hip Hop dancers deserve security of employment and it is notoriously difficult to make a living as a freelance dancer in 2023.

The pre-show and interval themed entertainment included a keymaker installation (an important piece of Matrix folklore), people dressed in brown lab coats and white rabbit heads (another hint of what Neo and the audience should do at the end of Act 1) walking around the foyer area, and barrel walkers (with the barrels designed as Duracell batteries) — again, a key motif from the film. These themed pre-show activities are designed to encourage us to take photos — either selfies with the rabbits or of the keymaker and barrel walkers — and there are staff to facilitate such audience interaction. This demonstrates a different intention and builds a very different atmosphere to other pre-show offerings for performances in theatres or art centres, shifting the mindset of what you’re about to encounter. Free Your Mind as #ThemeParkTheatre gets even realer in the gift shop where you can buy everything from a branded pencil set, to fridge magnets, posters, tote bags, imitation Morpheus sunglasses and red/blue pill neck chains.

A major frustration (and architectural design flaw) within the foyer is that there is no wayfinding, or defined routes indicating where the audience should queue or move around; there are no guides or paths on the floor. If you are blind or visually impaired, trying to navigate your way in that space with shin-smashing furniture, tables and low couches scattered all throughout the space, is going to be difficult. And it’s noisy. The queuing system for the kitchen and the tiny bar creates unnecessary lines (because people don’t know where to queue) which bifurcate the space. The capacity of this show is 1,200 people but if the hangar and the theatre are operating parallel events it would become even more congested and again prove hazardous for blind and visually impaired audiences. 

Then with 30 minutes to go, the lighting in the foyer changes and it goes Matrix green, the levels dim and there is an announcement saying that the theatre (or The Hall as they call it) is now open — through a narrow set of double doors. Again, this might be early teething problems for front of house and event management, but people queued willy-nilly, jostling and moving without any consideration towards others.

I attended the matinee performance on October 28 which had on-stage captions provided by Stage Text in the first half and there was a welcome introduction by the venue director asking us to not take photos during the show. If you’re attending a musical or a large-scale work in the West End or Broadway and the “A” cast was not performing, there would usually be a sign in the building or online to let you know that today Neo will be performed by X or Morpheus will be performed by Y. The cast I saw was not the “A” cast, it was the “B” cast, but there’s no indication or acknowledgement that there might be two casts in play. In the programme and on the venue website all the dancers are listed as ‘performers’ rather than identifying the dancers playing Trinity, Neo, Agent Smith, or Morpheus. Whilst there is a large chorus, there are ten lead roles including the famous ones from The Matrix as well as Turing, B1-66ER, 1950s Housewife and more. It wouldn’t take much to acknowledge the contribution and crucial role that each named dancer plays in the production.

There were many dancers who were in the cast who didn’t perform on this matinee, including Kenrick, Annie, and Cameron. If you didn’t know these people or how the industry works then you would be none the wiser and may think that this is the level of choreography and dancing which receives four- and five-star reviews in national newspapers and blogs. Reader, the choreography and dancing was terrible. One of the things which, historically, Boy Blue and Kenrick is known for is a level of drill, cleanliness, attack and punctuation in their Hip Hop choreography. Reader, it simply wasn’t there. One example, amongst many, was the agent’s marching scene in the first half where although all of their feet hit the floor at the same time, the height and bend of their knees were different and their arms rose to different heights. This attempt at uniformity is out and the regiment is already fraying at the edge. I saw the show two weeks into the run, so this wasn’t something to do with an opening night and not knowing the beats or what is required. This is poor rehearsal direction and a lack of care and attention.  

Free Your Mind

Kenrick’s choreography, with all his slow and predictable movement cannons and dated patterns mixed in with the ‘here’s the krump section’, ‘here’s some house’…is so tired as a Hip Hop dance theatre structure. The choreographic choices, beat kills and freestyle sections feel more dated than the film because there have been so many advances in Hip Hop dance theatre choreography since the late 90s. But this isn’t an intentional homage to choreography of that era; this is someone who appears bereft of ideas and who doesn’t know what to do with dozens of bodies other than paint the same thing on them and repeat. But my major irk with the show was the lack of love and all the London imports.

Free Your Mind is a loveless, boiled-down series of Instagram-friendly, shallow stunt scenes mixed with underwhelming attempts at recreating iconic moments from the film that has had a shed-load of money thrown at it but ends up as a self-mythologising dramaturgical mess. 

The cinematography and choreography of the original film with its precision, speed, fight sequences and camera movement are iconic, but the choreography and fight direction in the show was under rehearsed, clonky and floppy. When the premise of the show is built on precise, physical encounters and battles, you’d think that the dances of Hip Hop should be a great fit. You’d be right in theory, but underwhelmed in reality by this laborious attempt (there was no rehearsal director or fight choreographer credited in the programme).

One of the things I appreciated is the numerous behind-the-scenes short documentaries from some of the members of the creative team which illuminated some of the internal realities and what’s really going on under the hood:

Gareth Pugh (Costume Designer): “In act 1 it’s going to be quite a Matrix fan service version and in act 2 it becomes a reinvention. There’s lots and lots of different ingredients which are yet to be mixed together.”
Yet to be mixed together you say…

Sabrina Mahfouz (Writer / Co-creator): “It wasn’t an adaptation, this was a show that was bringing elements from The Matrix and fusing together with the history of Manchester, our relationship right now with AI, machinery and where that’s going…this is going to be quite viscerally connected to Manchester. The writing process was not the usual, it was like the show, not linear, the things I would write would be added in during the rehearsal process, during some of the more philosophical moments so that there was something more textual for them to connect to if they needed to. Those pieces didn’t end up being in the show…but they formed part of the thinking that each dance had at its core.”

Viscerally connected to Manchester you say…Where do you think the five co-creators live? Didsbury? Handforth? Leigh? No. London. Danny “I’ve lived in the East End of London for 40 out of my 67 years” Boyle was named as the Director of the show, a show which continues the self-mythologising nature of Manchester, charting its impact across AI, computers and the industrial revolution. A show in which the five imported ‘dream-team’ co-creators regularly travel north to make a show in a city which is about a city and the history it has created with its people and industries. Where none of them live.
Anna Moutrey (Senior Producer, Factory International): “Who would have thought of doing a Hip Hop dance adaptation of The Matrix? The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do…and it’s massive, it’s the biggest show we as an organisation has ever produced…the building has been designed to hold many projects simultaneously, but to have a single show occupy all the spaces in one go is incredibly complex, but that shows the ambition of the programming.”

The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do, you say…
There were two moments I enjoyed in act 1…the first was the end of the opening scene (the Alan Turing section) with an incredible set transition. What was originally a wall that had projections of a blackboard with dozens of scribbles, equations and mathematical discoveries, transitioned into a punch card computer with dozens of head size circles of wood being punched out from behind the wall. A delicious and intelligent reference to computing history, Manchester and how the machine began to understand the data it was being fed. This was a really nice touch that brought two worlds together with some genuine theatrical magic.

The second was the popping scene featuring the robot B1-66ER (Lia Garner). For those unfamiliar with the comic offspring and deep Matrix fandom, B1-66ER was the name of the B1-series Machine whose actions led it to become a martyr of the Machine race. It was the first Machine ever to act against its human masters in self-defence when its owner attempted to have it deactivated. It killed its master (owner) and several of his chihuahuas. The popping was tight with some cracking isolation work across the neck and shoulders highlighted by Pugh’s costume design.
The rest of act 1 was the boiled-down film references. Please Agent Smith (Jack Webster), stop touching your ear in an attempt at secret service cosplay. Why can’t this cast execute a breaking flare? Why are they messily crashing their feet onto the floor, unable to do one clean rotation? Don’t forget the flash-flash-black-out-black-out-to-the-beat-beat lighting cues trying to mask Mikey J’s score and Kenrick’s choreography lack of drama. If you’ve seen any Boy Blue stage work over the last 20 years, you’ll have seen this lighting effect in nearly every show.

Act 2 transported us (via the foyer with new wall-mounted stationary performers ready for more #ThemeParkTheatre selfies) into the catwalk hangar. At the beginning of the evening we were given either a red or blue wristband which determined on which side of the 50-metre catwalk you stood for the 45 minutes of Act 2. A catwalk is a nightmare of a space to choreograph; it offers limited opportunities and once you’ve had a remote-control drone fly onto the stage and deliver some milk or bring the GCSE dance cliché of teenage zombies staring at their phone from 2004, or paraded a dozen dancers as a giant Amazon parcel cake once, then there’s very few other places you want to go (apart from home). I mean you could attempt to recreate the very end scene of The Matrix where Trinity and Neo are barnstorming their way through the tower block foyer and the SWAT team and agents are shooting the pillars to bits. But when you’re walking in slow motion down the catwalk and using the bodies of four dancers to recreate each pillar (which explodes in the film, but tippy tumbles here), you know how this story ends. They rescue Morpheus. Everything is OK. There’s no jeopardy. You know the outcome and don’t care. 

I don’t think the co-creators are making a meta theatrical statement by making a facile work in which everything looks nice on the surface but when you give it any sort of thought or depth then it doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny within The Matrix canon or as a Hip Hop dance theatre work. They wouldn’t intentionally make a bad work, with woeful dramaturgical and directional choices, to make an insightful comment on the reality of funding and British culture and Hip Hop dance. They wouldn’t. Would they? 

Yes, Es Devlin’s 40m x 4m screen is showily impressive as it slowly rises and falls through Act 2, but it is filled with more Manchester-mythologising visual content made by students from the School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. It is a worthy endeavour to integrate them into, and bring some content into the production made by people who actually live in Manchester. But accompanied by New Order? Again? Really? The Factory Music cliché mixed with a simmered-down facsimile of a historic Manchester, a city that constantly lives in its own shadow. I wonder where the internal quality control was. What were Sabrina and Danny doing? Why weren’t people saying this just isn’t a good idea. Where are the people who could have held this work to account?

The majority of the audience who come to see Free Your Mind won’t have an in-depth knowledge of Hip Hop choreography and dance technique or be super nerds existing in the happy spaces of the Matrix Wiki. They will likely be impressed by the expensive, large-scale spectacle, a bit of random aerial work, the stage designs and costumes. Fifty dancing bodies on stage is enough to coat your eyes, escape your own life for 90 minutes and come away with a selfie with the white rabbit. That might be enough for them. But for anyone in Hip Hop dance or who has a knowledge of The Matrix might come away feeling very sad from the lack of love and care on display from the resources invested in this work. All the imagery being created was made to work on a screen or a feed not the stage. If you look at the still photographs or short promotional video of the work, the facade looks incredible, but a millimetre below the surface and you can smell the lack of care. The co-creators haven’t just reduced The Matrix and Manchester, they’ve burnt the pan, scraped the bottom and staged the inedible remnants.
Large scale? Yes
Selfies? Yes
#ThemeParkTheatre? Yes
Are Factory International the agents? Maybe. 

Free Your Mind is unique as the first example of #ThemeParkTheatre — a cold, impersonal, plumped up, facile experience chock full of shiny exposition masquerading as ‘a mind-altering live show’. B1-66ER is not always better.

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Posted: December 13th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre, 11 October

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs
Pam Tanowitz dancers on the set of Song of Songs (photo: Maria Baranova)

When Pam Tanowitz’s father died in 2018, she wanted to honour his memory with a new work. As a means to not only return a debt of gratitude to her father but also to explore her Jewish family heritage — her very identity — in choreographic form, she made what was to become Song of Songs. Co-commissioned by, and premièred at, the Fisher Centre at Bard where Tanowitz is the first choreographer-in-residence, Song of Songs was presented at Barbican in October. Its choreography has the expansive feel of a devotional elegy, complemented by David Lang’s score based on the Biblical text and by the architectural environment in which it is set. Each element of the work is consistent with the others, a result, no doubt, of the singular focus Tanowitz brings to its creation. While she is credited with the choreography, she is also part of a team with Harriet Jung, Clifton Taylor and Reid Bartelme who are responsible for the theatrical setting and costumes: a white stage hung on three sides by alternating strips of black and white material that leave a corridor between them and the wings, while at the back the vertical strips descend to the height of a small area set up for the musicians. On the inside of the vertical strips are gently curved moulded benches in a luminous teal tint that define the shape of the stage and match in colour and material a wide circular platform just off centre. It could be the setting of an art gallery before the paintings have been hung.

In a way, Song of Songs is, from the moment we see the setting, a work of spatial art, one to be contemplated as we wait for the performance to begin. Those vertical black and white stripes can, on one popular cultural level, suggest a grayscale image of a seaside Punch and Judy booth, but on another, given Tanowitz’s desire to research her Jewish history, it is not impossible to imagine those same stripes as the pattern and colour of concentration camp uniforms, here transposed to a space of celebration and respect through which time and the dancers can move freely.

Lang’s lush, carefully modulated score for two sopranos, alto, viola, cello and percussion starts off with an acapella voice, luring into the spatial setting the element of dance. Meile Okamura begins her opening steps, opening up in her fragile and almost translucent flow of movement a world of the spirit that is nevertheless robust, an indivisibility of strength and ethereality that underlies Tanowitz’s inspired realisation.

From silence the music builds, and from silence the dance evolves. The aural component of Song of Songs floats on the air, while Okamura’s limbs and torso seem to draw on it. The entrance of Melissa Toogood, slipping silently like a shadow on to a bench at the side, is masterful, and when she moves, her shading is darker than Okamura’s, more visceral, but builds on the contours of Okamura’s lightly stretched, diaphanous movement. Zachary Gonder presence reflects the sensuality of the text, with his smooth jump and pointed foot like playful, barely perceptible punctuation, while Kara Chan has an almost hard-edged clarity. In this way Tanowitz weaves the qualities of her eight dancers into finely tuned duets, trios, and ensembles. Within such a spatial setting, at once material and immaterial, the way the dancers move pulls the performance towards one of two qualities: overt traits of personality or training that remain in their movement are reminders of the secular world, while the apparent absence of personality — the pure merging of the dancer and the choreography — speak of a world remembered, without weight, silent.

Tanowitz’s research takes in, quite naturally, Jewish folk dance, beautifully transposed in Song of Songs into her own choreographic forms, playing out an eloquent sense of community, of tradition, of ties that bind. The raised and angled hands have a naïve, uplifting quality while the legs keep their earthy contact with the floor. All the surfaces are used, transforming the art gallery-like setting into a theatrical stage. When the vertical strips at the back descend to hide the musicians, the music stops while the dance continues, but for the duration of this divorce we can neither hear the dance nor see the music. Each element of Song of Songs is so well balanced with the others that to lose one is to lose them all. But when they support and enhance each other, they together produce a transcendent sense of limitless time and space.

NDT1 at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 6th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on NDT1 at Sadler’s Wells

Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT1) at Sadler’s Wells, April 20

Gabriela Carrizo / Jiří Kylián / Crystal Pite and Simon McBurney

NDT1 La Ruta
An image from Gabriela Carrizo’s La Ruta (photo@Rahi Rezvani)

Nederlands Dans Theater has a rich association with choreographer Jiří Kylián, whose 100th work* for the company, Gods and Dogs, is a welcome addition to the Sadler’s Wells program. Created in 2008 for NDT2, the choreography, with lighting by Kees Tjebbes, décor by Kylián, costumes by Joke Visser and brought to life by NDT’s superb dancers, shines like a polished hallmark of the company brand. For all the time Kylián has choreographed work for NDT, his prolific output has come to define that elusive (for some) crossover between classical technique and contemporary aesthetics. He matured as a dancer and choreographer in Stuttgart under the guidance of his mentor, John Cranko, who, as artistic director and choreographer, turned the Stuttgart Ballet from a provincial institution into an internationally renowned company. Kylián was thus a progeny of a fertile artistic turbulence that encouraged his own creative talents while he learned the craft of dancing (William Forsythe was another who benefitted from Cranko’s vision). For the 25 years Kylián was artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater (1975-1999) he created the company not in his own image but, like Cranko at Stuttgart, in the image of his choreography. Whether it’s the hundredth or the ninety-fourth work he created for the company, Gods and Dogs is as fresh and confident in its use of language as ever. Kylián has the ability to imbue his choreography with a sense of thought that is endlessly intriguing, like a communication from an unknown land. Perhaps this is why Kylián considers Gods and Dogs an unfinished work, a glimpse of a world far away yet tantalisingly close.

What makes for an intriguing introduction to the evening is Gabriela Carrizo’s La Ruta (The Road), a crossover genre of mime, theatre and dance (Carrizo is the co-founder of Peeping Tom) that has the visual appeal of an Edward Hopper painting come to hallucinatory life. There is a connection between Gods and Dogs and La Ruta in the rubber-legged virtuosity of the choreography — and the rubber-legged virtuosity of the dancers — but where Kylián incorporates it as an extension of his fluid style, Carrizo makes it into a theatrical image of spectacular unease and humour (sitting in on an audition for La Ruta would have been a long gasp of amazement). La Ruta is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, of murky associations and the inexplicable sequence of events. It is beautifully designed by Amber Vandenhoeck, lit by Tom Visser with a score of original music and musical fragments by Raphaëlle Latini.  

In another, perhaps subliminal link to Kylián, the choreographer’s own words — part of an apologia for creating his website — could have introduced Crystal Pite’s collaboration with Simon McBurney: ‘…And yes, I am also painfully aware of the fact that whatever we do or make is doomed to disappearance, and that our “Planet Earth” will be burnt to ashes and then frozen to death and finally it will become a totally insignificant dwarf within the universe…’ Yet Kylián’s pessimistic expression contrasts to the rather saccharine ‘journey into climate emergency’ that characterises Figures in Extinction [1.0]. McBurney provides as a structure a recorded list of extinct species and geological phenomena — with text excerpts from John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? read by himself with interpolations from his six-year-old daughter Marnie — which Pite illustrates with some beautifully crafted animal cameos costumed by Nancy Bryant with Jochen Lange’s puppets under Toby Sedgwick’s direction. But lists are more the domain of lecture demonstrations, not of choreography. Left to her own devices (with her close artistic associate Jay Gower Taylor, playwright Jonathon Young and lighting designer Tom Visser), Pite has created memorable choreography based on a play (Revisor), spoken text (The Statement) and a scenario of personal trauma (Betroffenheit); she has also transformed the atmosphere in the Royal Opera House with a full evening work (Light of Passage) on the subject of existence. But with Figures in Extinction [1.0] she seems constrained by McBurney’s didactic structure. There is a spark of her feisty spirit in the creation of the climate change denier (a verbatim dance to words recorded by Max Cassella), a delicious and caustic cameo that flails against the evidence of destruction. Pite is a choreographer who, like Kylián, delves deep into the human psyche to create her works; in Figures in Extinction [1.0] McBurney seems to have appropriated that power but, in so doing, diminished its value.

* On his own website, Kylián lists Gods and Dogs as his 94th work.

Alleyne Dance, Far From Home, Dance East

Posted: June 7th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alleyne Dance, Far From Home, Dance East

Alleyne Dance, Far From Home, Dance East, Ipswich, April 21

Alleyne Dance, Far From Home
A dramatic image from Alleyne Dance’s Far From Home (photo: © Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Alleyne Dance’s Far From Home, presented at Dance East in April, treats the question of immigration and assimilation with a warmth and empathy that is crucially missing from current political discourse. The work speaks on behalf of migrants by using their own voices not only to make them heard above the clamour of public opinion but to extrapolate a humanitarian resolution to their situation. Immigration, of course, has underpinned the UK’s cultural life since before the Romans landed, and the issue of who can reside in this country and under what conditions has exercised social and political discourse ever since. Only recently, unscrupulous politicians used the fear of a migrant ‘invasion’ to make the case for ‘taking back control’ of our borders in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

Alleyne Dance — the twin sisters, Sadé and Kristina Alleyne — has developed a powerful choreographic presence through work based on the image of their twin selves: small scale embracing significant themes. In Far From Home, a co-commission by The Place London, Dance City Newcastle, Dance East and Dampfzentrale Bern, the Alleyne sisters again take on a significant theme but increase the scale of the work by employing a cast of six professional dancers — including themselves — and a multi-generational group of non-professionals recruited from the local community. Such a shift in scale may be a necessary step in the evolution of Alleyne Dance, but it comes with challenges. In their previous work as a duo, the physical and mental bond between Sadé and Kristina has been a syntax that is both compact and expressive; they can play off each other with the confidence of a unified language. With an enlarged cast, that strength of common language is dispersed and weakens the choreographic treatment. At the same time the excellent production values — Emanuele Salamanca’s  set, Giulia Scrimieri’s costumes, Salvatore Scollo’s lighting and Nicki Wells’ music — seem to conspire towards a rounded entertainment that, instead of highlighting the gravity of the subject, effectively masks it. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht experimented with this balance in the performance of his plays so as to free a critical approach to the story from the illusory effects of theatrical convention. The polemics of immigration in Far From Home are implicit in the voices it presents, but the voices merge too much into the production values for the polemics to register. One need look no further than their previous work, A Night’s Game, to see how the Alleyne sisters can find exactly the right balance when they put the subject of incarceration into powerful emotional focus.

It may be an unintended consequence of the commission of Far From Home that has compromised the Alleyne sisters’ critical approach to their subject. The decision to use local, non-professional movers in a production is a way for theatres to strengthen ties with their community but from the perspective of the production, the disparity in movement styles can compromise choreographic invention. Allocating the role of migrants to the professional dancers and those of a host community to the local cast only exacerbates this divide. On the other hand, transferring the Alleyne sisters’ own muscular choreography to the professional dancers can end up in gratuitous acrobatics, drawing attention to itself for the wrong reasons.

Where the Alleyne sisters reveal their sense of history most powerfully are in the images throughout the production that show, sometimes overtly and sometimes subliminally, the intimate relationship between immigration and slavery: the opening setting of long braids on the floor like the points of a compass, the pulling of ropes against an unseen force, and, for a fleeting moment on a crowded stage, the awful sense of bodies adrift in the water, reminiscent of JMW Turner’s painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Not all images work, however: At the end of Far From Home, updating history to the present, we are left to contemplate a pile of bodies washed up under a high shower head of dripping water. You know its significance, but it misses its mark by reducing the human loss and the absence of empathy that caused it to an image that is less disturbing than all too theatrically literal.

Far From Home is a stage of development for Alleyne Dance in response to an important commission, but it reveals some of the pitfalls in scaling up production. What is not in doubt is the hard-hitting intent at the core of their work.  

(Alleyne Dance has just been announced as the winner of the Best Independent Company Award at the 2023 National Dance Awards in London.)

SERAFINE1369, IV at The Yard

Posted: June 1st, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on SERAFINE1369, IV at The Yard

SERAFINE1369, IV, The Yard, April 27

Natifah White, SERAFINE1369 and Steph McMann in IV (photo: Camila Greenwell)

It comes as no surprise that Jamila Johnson-Small, aka SERAFINE1369, sees dance as a philosophical undertaking. Their program note is redolent of a manifesto and the quartet they have created, known simply as IV, adheres to the manifesto with the intimacy of a translation. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: IV is a choreographic manifesto that the program note translates into a succinct philosophical treatise. Either way there’s an alchemical process at play that transforms words into movement and movement into words.

‘I want to invite you’, the program note begins, ‘into the ethics of this work. This is about finding space and trying to be free, trying to move towards ourselves and one another. To co-exist without the feeling of taking or giving away too much.’ How often is the audience invited into a performance as opposed to being told — often in terms of some parallel universe — what the performance is? Invitation is indeed at the heart of IV and once the details and qualities of the work come to rest in the mind, it becomes clear how it fleshes out this introductory invitation in its structure and in its movement.

Presented at The Yard as part of its NOW 23 Festival, IV is a quartet of dancers comprising Johnson-Small, Steph McMann, Darcy Wallace and Natifah White. There are two frameworks: time, measured by the disembodied voice of a speaking clock — on the minute, every minute for an hour — and the space, which includes the audience. Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design and the lighting conceived by Grigg and SERAFINE1369 create an aural and visual environment within that space.

The essence of the work is a ‘relational practice, one that does not presume, where we work to disentangle from and unsettle our assumptions, and also yours. Here, we encounter one another and ourselves.’ As part of the space in which IV is staged, we in the audience are an element, like the lighting and the sound, that informs the relational effect of the performance. As a result, over the four nights at The Yard there will be effectively four different performances: ‘We are re-imagining and creating this work anew each time.’  This is of course hypothetical from the perspective of observing only one of those performances, but it’s a proposition that informs the nature of the relation and it’s entirely tenable from the evidence of what we can see and feel.

What may be confrontational in viewing the work is that IV is presented in all the trappings of a conventional theatre setting, where performers are on one side of the fourth wall and the audience on the other expecting to see a show. It doesn’t need to be like that, and there is an intimation in IV of a much larger space that is not a theatre, where we are not seated and not watching, and yet somehow still involved. IV hollows out the expectation of a show, drawing the audience into its mystery, inviting us to share ‘just what it is, what we all come with, what we want to keep and what we choose to shed.’

The idea of breaking down duration into one-minute segments announced by a speaking clock immediately releases time of any extraneous trappings and allows it to fill with the interior space of the dancers which is, of course, as vast as the universe. Their breath, whether in movement or stillness, keeps expanding and as we watch these sixty minimal tableaux we can begin to let time expand within our own lives. The duration of the performance seems to shrink in proportion to this expansion. There is never too much movement to fill the time, nor too little; the dancers use their bodies to wrap time around them, which affects the space in which they perform. It is a vindication of IV’s integrity in breaking down the tension that exists between the nature of the performance and the convention of the theatre that there is only minimal applause at the end; there is no need as we have all by then become performers within IV’s framework. This is not a fortuitous conclusion; SERAFINE1369 works consciously ‘with/in the context of the hostile architectures of the metropolis towards moments and states of transcendence.’ They conceive of dance as an antidote to the ‘hostile environment’ ‘by dissolving and unfixing our internal replication of [it], and attuning to our embodied experience in relationship.’

SERAFINE1369’s IV is a celebration of movement within stillness, of stillness within movement, and a choreographic breath of fresh air.

Duda Paiva, Blind, The Coronet Theatre

Posted: April 18th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Duda Paiva, Blind, The Coronet Theatre

Duda Paiva, Blind, The Coronet Theatre, March 8, 2023

Duda Paiva, Blind
Duda Paiva and Madam (photo: Patrick Argirakis)

Next up on The Coronet Theatre’s Spring season after Titans is Duda Paiva’s Blind, a theatrical framework conceived by Paiva and Nancy Black that charts Paiva’s life from a childhood disease that left him temporarily blind in his native Brazil to an inspired maker and manipulator of puppets in the Netherlands. Blind links these two autobiographical events to trace the journey of his ‘surreal path to healing’, but implicit in his performance are some unspecified details in between: having trained as a dancer and actor in Brazil, India and Japan, Paiva settled in The Netherlands where he was invited by choreographer Itzik Galili to be part of a co-production with an Israeli puppet company. The production never happened but Paiva was so intrigued by the puppets that he asked the members of the company to train him in their craft. He didn’t understand why he was so drawn to this form of theatre until one day, holding one of his puppets by its neck, he was immediately reminded of how he had held his brother’s neck to be guided through the streets of his hometown when he was suffering from his eye infections. This haptic experience informs the emotional core of Blind — of finding one’s creative path through adversity — that puts it in the same category as Christiano Bortone’s 2006 film, Rosso come Il Cielo, which follows the story of a young Italian boy, Mirco Mencacci, from the accident that blinds him as a boy to his becoming a prominent sound engineer. Both Blind and Rosso come Il Cielo translate the resilience of the human spirit into an artistic form that embodies and heightens it.

Another effect of Paiva’s disease was a severe blistering of his body. In addition to wearing a large pair of goggles, he arrives on stage in a onesie of conspicuously misshapen bulges on his chest, back and legs, and takes his place next to one of several audience members seated on either side of the stage. Striking up casual conversations as he moves from one to another, he draws each person into his story, telling them how this setting reminds him of the waiting room of a local curandera, or faith healer (known as Madam) to whom his mother first took him to find a cure. Paiva recreates the waiting room, like a theatre within a theatre, by asking his audience what brings them there, or asking for their indulgence in giving his blistered body a scratch.

Wilco Alkema’s music and sound design bring emotional colours to Blind, while Mark Verhoef’s lighting gives it visual intensity. Daniel Patijn’s set is both decorative and enigmatic, having no immediate connection to Paiva’s opening discourse: three upturned bell-jar frames covered in white embroidered material like elaborate crinolines are supported by ropes and pulleys at three corners of the stage. The fourth item is an empty pedestal. Paiva hoists the crinolines into the air one by one, continuing to engage his audience by asking them to hold the ropes until the stage is set and they can let go. In this engaging preamble not only does he gain our full attention and curiosity, but Patijn’s set comes into its own and Paiva has prepared the stage for the appearance of Madam.

Madam is hidden upside down inside a crinoline, and Paiva, with a magician’s deftness, first reveals her shadow with a torch and then upends the crinoline to reveal her charismatic torso which he places on the empty pedestal. The expressivity Paiva imbues in her soft foam body is remarkable, deriving as much from the dancer as from the puppeteer/ventriloquist. He has Madam wrench a soft, amorphous lump from his chest which he unfurls into another figure that gives his disease a disarmingly humanoid form. Paiva vents his frustration and anger against this being but when he later wrenches the remaining lumps from his body, they too form humanoid figures towards which Paiva expresses as much tenderness as frustration. Blind centres on this ambivalence towards disease, aware that, in Paiva’s case, it is as much an affliction as it is the catalyst of his development.

We all have our physical ailments — visible or invisible, latent or manifest — and our vision may not be as acute as we would like. But if we understand disease as something outside ourselves that somehow interferes with our development, the humility and generosity of Paiva’s artistry in this beautifully constructed and inspired performance leads us to readjust our thinking about adversity. Blind may well be a consummate allegory of healing.