Cathy Marston’s The Cellist broadcast from the Royal Opera House

Posted: June 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cathy Marston’s The Cellist broadcast from the Royal Opera House

Cathy Marston, The Cellist, from the Royal Opera House, May 29

The Cellist, Marcelino Sambé, Lauren Cuthbertson
Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in The Cellist (photo: Gavin Smart)

Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, broadcast free online from the Royal Opera House as part of its Our House to Your House series, is inspired by and based on the life of the late Jacqueline du Pré, whose remarkable career was cut short at the age of 28 by the onset of multiple sclerosis. She lived for another fourteen years offstage but it is her early life from the discovery of the child prodigy to the end of her performing career that is the subject of Marston’s ballet. 

Du Pré’s emotional understanding and impassioned recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto made it synonymous with her name and popularised it as a major work in the cello repertoire. The score for The Cellist, composed and conducted by Philip Feeney and performed with soloist Hetty Snell, weaves the first movement of the concerto and other themes from du Pré’s repertoire into a musical narrative that follows the storyboard that Marston and dramaturg Edward Kemp lay out as a framework for the choreography. Marston makes the pivotal decision to personify the cello as a dancer (Marcelino Sambé), rather like Fokine’s use of personification in Le Spectre de la Rose. Sambé imbues the role with both dutiful acquiescence and a touching solicitude for Lauren Cuthbertson as du Pré but the coupling has the effect of reducing Cuthbertson’s interpretive agency, the very lifeblood of her art. Although her duets with Sambé are poignant, there is a sense that instead of playing the instrument, Sambé is playing her; he dances while she mimes. Ironically, the palpable bond between musician and her instrument is most apparent in scenes where Sambé watches helpless in the background while Cuthbertson struggles with her fatigue or her inability to play. 

As du Pré’s husband, Matthew Ball plays the self-assertive figure of Daniel Barenboim with charismatic elegance and charm. Like Sambé, he appears to dance Cuthbertson in a way that colours his love with ambition; Marston may be in awe of Barenboim but treats him as a dark prince. Ball’s opening solo on the rostrum ‘conducting’ Cuthbertson and Sambé in the first movement of the Elgar concerto is a highpoint in Marston’s choreographic invention; the full overhead sweep of Ball’s arm, his precise pirouettes and neat jumps on to and off the podium give the impression of someone in full command of his abilities. In the close-ups of Cuthbertson’s face — an advantage of the filmed transmission — one can see her commitment but choreographically she is overshadowed. Du Pré’s gift was her intuitive approach to making music, an internal maelstrom of forces and emotions expressed through the cello, but Marston seems reticent to let Cuthbertson dance out du Pré’s inner world with the physical sensuality and freedom with which she imbued her performances. 

The early years of their relationship saw both Barenboim and du Pré flourish, but it was all too brief. With Ball and Cuthbertson running around Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set, Marston shows effectively the relentless pace of the subsequent international tours Barenboim planned both as soloist and conductor in which du Pré was intimately involved as part of the celebrity couple. 

It is clear from her biography that the seeds of du Pré’s debilitating illness were present before her whirlwind tours with Barenboim started but it is also clear that his concern for his own career did not cease with the end of hers; as a visibly weary Cuthbertson takes a break from circling the globe we see Ball continuing around the corner with undiminished energy in a devilish revoltade. 

In the path from precocious child to international star, du Pré was influenced by her mother, her teachers and her musical colleagues. Apart from a sensitively conceived role for Kristen McNally as her mother and a dreamy young du Pré (Emma Lucano), the other characters seem hastily sketched and the level of characterisation, particularly in terms of mime, is weak to the point of caricature; even Ball defaults to gestures that belong more to Tybalt than to Barenboim. A multifunctional ‘chorus of narrators’ embellishes the set as anthropomorphic furniture, mirrors du Pré’s physical state and embodies the legendary recorded legacy.

If some of the details are weak, the emotional core of The Cellist remains strong. Marston uses Cuthbertson’s dramatic ability to convey du Pré’s physical decline as a triumphant force of spirit over flesh; it’s what makes the stillness of the end, as Ball slips into darkness and Sambé spirals away from her, such a powerful moment, one in which Cuthbertson is once again totally engaged.


Dominic Cummings: A Recent Performance at No. 10 Downing Street

Posted: May 29th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , | Comments Off on Dominic Cummings: A Recent Performance at No. 10 Downing Street

Dominic Cummings: A Recent Performance at No. 10 Downing Street, May 29

Dominic Cummings at No. 10
Dominic Cummings press conference in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street

After reading so many threads and news articles about the Dominic Cummings road trip to Durham, I realised the whole story he concocted is so implausible as to be deliberately misleading. It reminds me of the response to the Skripal poisoning two years ago. The two operatives sent from Russia to carry out the poisoning in Salisbury were able to return home unchallenged but their identities were later pieced together from CCTV footage and forensic investigation. To assuage the clamour for justice, President Putin ‘ordered’ the two suspects, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkinto, to be interviewed on Russian media where they spun the story they had simply been sightseeing in Salisbury, joking about staying in the same hotel rooms, citing the beauty of the cathedral and giving the exact height of its spire. 

Cummings pulled off a similar performance in his presentation to journalists in the garden of 10 Downing Street on Easter Monday. He didn’t joke but he spun a story that had only the faintest connection to reality. His whereabouts between March 27 and April 14 had never been meant to be open knowledge; the government had refused to answer media questions about the details of Cummings’ movements and they might have remained secret had it not been for a joint investigation by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror newspapers that broke the story that Cummings had breached lockdown guidance by driving 260 miles to stay on his parent’s farm/estate. To date there are two sightings of Cummings by locals that fall into the two-week period he was away: within the compound of his parents’ home and at Barnard Castle. A third sighting has been dismissed by the government because it happened after Cummings had supposedly returned to work in London. 

Cummings’ meticulously scripted press briefing concocted a link between the two known sightings with a story about he and his wife suffering from Coronavirus and needing to leave London for exceptional childcare needs. It was not written as a diary of what happened but as a re-engineered response to the unanticipated news report; it was as fraudulent as the details of the Russians’ sightseeing trip to Salisbury. Let us suppose that neither he nor his wife were infected by Covid-19 — as they both have written — and that he rushed home on March 27 not because his wife was feeling ill but because he needed to get the family packed up and ready to drive up to Durham that evening; they needed to be away at least two weeks. According to Cummings, he was downed by the Coronavirus the very next day, which means he probably had his first meeting that morning. The nature of the urgent business is not publicly known, and the government clearly intends to keep it that way. Was it for negotiations over the upcoming free trade deal with the U.S.? Did it concern the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which has a research facility close to Barnard Castle and is involved in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine? (On April 14, the day Cummings returned to work, an agreement was signed between GlaxoSmithKline and the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to develop a vaccine). 

But to date the outpouring of attention on the story, and the farcical extent to which government ministers are willing to compromise their integrity in supporting it, takes Cummings at his word. This is psyops at work at the heart of government. So no, Dominic Cummings will not be removed from office on account of this road trip, and he will duck the moral outrage because he is secure in his above-the-law role; indeed, the public reaction to his ‘lockdown transgression’ may well be a balm to someone who prides himself on tactical subversion and giving the impression of being impervious to compassion. His body language was casually dismissive of the invited audience and defiant against challenges to his word. While additional details of Cummings’ trip may emerge, the official obfuscation of the truth will lead only to a diminishing evaluation of the story. As others have remarked, the response to the recent comings and goings of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser reveals the machinations of an authoritarian state. 


Ema, a film by Pablo Larrain with reggaeton and flamethrowing

Posted: May 12th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ema, a film by Pablo Larrain with reggaeton and flamethrowing

Ema, directed by Pablo Larrain

Ema, reggaeton
A scene from Ema, with Mariana Di Girolamo

Film director Pablo Larrain was born in Chile and has evidently immersed himself in the history and politics of the country through cinema. He made a trilogy of films that cover the Pinochet years (Tony Manero, 2008; Post Mortem, 2010; and No, 2012), through which he must have gained an insight into the roots of contemporary Chilean society. In his most recent film, Ema, with a soundtrack by Nicolas Jaar, Larrain and his director of photography, Sergio Armstrong, paint a portrait of youthful life in the city of Valparaiso that is beautiful in an anarchic, hedonistic way but underneath the skin is an intimation of flesh made evil. The Spanish word for evil is ‘el mal’, which when spoken softly and elided sounds like Ema. 

The film can be read at face value as the story of a young reggaeton dancer and teacher, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), who is married to an older, avant-garde choreographer/director, Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal). When the film opens, we learn that since Gastón is infertile (‘a human condom’) the couple had adopted a Colombian child, Polo (Christián Suárez). Things did not work out — Polo set fire to the house, badly burning Ema’s sister — so they returned him to the care of the State. It appears from the social worker (Catalina Saavedra) that the adoption and un-adoption required a certain amount of illicit rule bending on her part for which she was paid under the table. The repercussions play out in a series of revelations that put a strain not only on the marriage but on the group of dancers on whom Gastón choreographs, some of whom are members of Ema’s reggaeton group. Out of this turmoil of mutual recrimination, guilt, corruption and violence, Ema forms her resolve to find Polo at whatever the cost. 

This is where Larrain upgrades his story to a meta-narrative on the lines of Greek tragedy in which Ema’s inner determination merges with an inexorable external force. While her character is grounded in the reggaeton counterculture of Valparaiso, her slicked, platinum appearance is cast as both trendy feminine prototype and mythical vampire. She is handy with a flamethrower — a causal link to Polo’s actions — but her capricious predilection for destroying urban infrastructure goes entirely without civic challenge; for a thriving port city, Valparaiso under Armstrong’s eye becomes a denuded, dystopian backdrop to Ema’s exploits that lends the film an eerie sense of improbability. Such is the nature of dreams, but the dream overlaps strategically with the story. The only time the fire brigade arrives to extinguish a car she has torched is a narrative device to introduce her to one of the firemen, Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), who happens to be Polo’s new adoptive father. Even if Ema admits at the end of the film to having paid a social service psychologist to reveal the names and address of Polo’s new adoptive parents (and presumably their respective professions), she can hardly have anticipated Anibal’s arrival as part of the fire crew. Not content with seducing Anibal and becoming pregnant by him, Ema extends her rapacious scheme to get close to Polo’s new family by hiring Anibal’s wife Raquel (Paola Giannini), a divorce lawyer, to whom she offers seduction as payment for instigating divorce proceedings against Gastón. The folder is closed and the relationship begins. 

Ema’s wanton seduction in pursuit of her goal involves a level of detachment that differentiates her from both her fellow dancers — Gianinna Fruttero as Sonia provides a fine earthy counterbalance — and her victims; the response of the seduced is more alluring than the posing of the seducer. Not even the charismatic presence of Bernal can compete with Di Girolamo’s forensic ambition; but if the meta-narrative of the film is that the politics of charm, seduction and serial determination can only succeed in a corrupt society, Ema’s role is as a psychologically one-dimensional femme fatale. 

By choosing adoption as a theme, Larrain is perhaps alluding to the Pinochet years when babies from poor families were forcibly removed from their mothers to be sent abroad for adoption, and in using the dance form of reggaeton he places the context firmly with a rebellious younger generation that favours sensation over artifice, hedonism over order. Bringing together dance, flamethrowing and adoption as seductive metaphors for confronting the past offers emotional release but no stable solution. Larrain finishes his story with a superficially harmonious reunion of the two disaffected couples and their shared children, but immediately returns in the final scene to the violence of his meta-narrative, where dream and daily life converge once again. At a petrol station Ema is waiting while an attendant fills her portable tank. 

Ema is available to stream on Mubi


Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Posted: May 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Dancing on Screen in Lockdown, May 7, 2020

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bennelong, Dance on Screen
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong (photo: Daniel Boud)

What is the purpose of viewing on a screen dance that is made specifically for the live intersection of stage and audience? In these times of lockdown there is a deluge of choice from UK and international companies, artists and venues that are seeking visibility, relevance and attention. 

With so much to watch, it’s how and when we access it (convenience) as well as what and why we access (taste) that makes the demand on our attention even more pressing. As our menu explodes and our time feels even more finite than usual, the paralysis of choice is real. Attention is the main currency – those who are demanding it and those to whom we want to give it. Sat alongside us (2 metres away) are the rampant, ever-present inequalities and biases that have simply shape shifted from the old world to the new.

Dancing on screen is presentation as restriction. We see the taste, bias and preference of the editor and those behind the camera (who are often uncredited) and the screen is unrelenting; it does not let our eyes rest. Work is captured, edited and our gazes directed to only one body, one face or one part of the stage at a time. We are being told what to watch, where to watch, how long to linger. Whilst we are restricted to our homes we are also being restricted in what/who/how we watch; our choice is to watch or not watch, absorb all or miss part of the visuality. 

Whiteness is everywhere on our screens and the curational choices made by venues/festivals have not changed. A lot of the performances are free for audiences to access, but what aren’t talked about are the woeful and insulting payments that some venues/festivals are offering artists to stream/publish/present their content in lockdown which won’t even cover buy-outs or music rights coverage. Whilst onlineness makes geography and the costs of travel/tickets disappear, there is a divide between those who have access to the necessary devices and a stable internet and those who don’t, between those who have the time and freedom to access the works and those who don’t.

These initial seven weeks have made a mockery of the notional seasons that venues have imposed up to now. The touring windows of October, November, February and March for certain types of work are an arbitrary choice that has been demolished and rendered meaningless; and I wonder whether the old world will look to reinstate these boundary markers moving forward from 2021.

Over this lockdown time I’ve watched the equivalent of one screened event a week; these are works that I hadn’t seen previously either for geographical reasons, because I missed them when they were originally touring or because they are companies I’ve not seen live before:
In Loco Parentis by Vincent Dance Theatre, presented by Pavilion Dance South West
Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy (aka Babson), broadcast by France.TV
Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company, presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company 
Dust by English National Ballet, presented by English National Ballet
Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre, presented by the Sydney Opera House

All five are existing stage shows that have been recorded (with more or less skill) and are not current corona commissions. (One of the new HOME MCR commissions by Bryony Kimmings caused some theatre beef earlier this week with a three-star review by Broadway World followed by responses from Kimmings as well as other critics and the Twittersphere.) 

In Loco Parentis (ILP) by Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) was screened on Thursday April 9 and was billed as the ‘Digital Premiere’ by PDSW. The work was filmed at Worthing Theatres in March 2020, and was available only between 7pm and 11pm that night with a pre-recorded post-show discussion with Charlotte Vincent, Artistic Director of VDT (director and designer of ILP), Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School and Louise Michelle Bomber, Director of TouchBase. 

ILP self describes as a reflection ‘on the universal human need to be safe, to feel looked after and to belong. Movement, strong visual imagery and spoken word combine to explore the cycles of rupture and repair that drive children into care and the impact this has on their young lives. Critically acclaimed for translating real-life testimonies into beautifully crafted performance work, Vincent Dance Theatre shed light on the extraordinary resilience of care-experienced young people, their parents and carers demanding their stories be heard.’ 

ILP was captured by a multi-camera team; the screening offered different angles (and heights), lingering focus and attentions with a sensitivity that aligned wholeheartedly with the delicate nature of the themes explored in the work. At a shade under 90 minutes, the presentation of the work was exquisite; it was an exercise in choice and movement which aided my attention as a viewer, matched the authorial flow, and macro/micro’ed the stage, performers and puppets when necessary. No other UK company from my watch list has come close to this detail, audience consideration and approach to their camera and audio set up. It cannot be overstated how important it is to get the tone of the edit and the cuts right when re-presenting live work on screen without the mechanics of the recording getting in the way.

The multi-generational cast of five — Robert Clark, Aurora Lubos, Janusz Orlik, Kye and Tia — played out a heart-breaking tale of documentary dance theatre showing the highly complex system in which care-experienced children exist and its accompanying stigma. Choreographically and theatrically the work deals with multiple notions of support (or lack thereof); the duets between the two younger members, Kye and Tia, and their respective adults hit hardest as they do not have the professional polish, whilst the wider group exchanges where the cast brushes past and wipes away histories and memories on the double decker chalk board establish the tone and power dynamics well. 

ILP is impactful in the domestic presentation; it has some graceful puppet work but tends to overuse slow motion to the point of saturation (taking up what seemed like a third of the 90 minutes). This consistent emphasis of slow speed mainly ritualises and highlights the violence and domesticity authored by the adults as a party spirals out of control into coke snorting, bottle smashing carnage whilst the children hide away under the tables. Even if the performers execute their descent into stupor with exemplary control, the combination of slow motion and screen viewing meant my attention drooped as each scene became predictable and dragged time out unnecessarily.

ILP is the fourth in the series by VDT that translates real life testimonies into crafted performance work; Vincent’s signature visual and tonal quality is still strong (and it’s nearly 20 years since I saw their Caravan of Lies when they toured to University College Scarborough) but it feels like this current series that works less from an abstract concept and more from a base of lived experience suits the weight and current direction that VDT are pursuing. 

I watched Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy on Friday April 24; it had originally been broadcast by France.tv in December 2019 and remains available to view online for free till December 2020. It was filmed at Espace 1789 in St Ouen, and alongside Queen Blood there is a wealth of other French, France-based and international dance work that is available year-round (in or out of lockdown) on France.tv should you wish to continue to explore. 

Queen Blood self describes as: ‘Femininities through house dance. Ousmane Sy (aka Babson) made his debut in hip-hop in the 1990s and quickly became a representative of house dance, into which he integrated the Afro-house spirit with gestures inspired by traditional African dances. With Queen Blood, the choreographer continues his creative work on house dance through a show that explores what femininity can be: in dance, gesture, that assumed or suffered, etc. The seven dancers from the four corners of hip-hop respond with virtuosity through personal journeys danced in distinct musical universes (acoustic and electronic). A demonstration of grace and power to live in replay on France.tv.’

This was the only broadcast that acknowledged the dancers and screened their names with a short snippet of them warming up prior to the performance starting and credited the production team; so I know this was directed by Josselin Carré and produced by La Belle Télé. It was a simple gesture but for those who are not familiar with the dancers, knowing their names before the performance creates a relationship and offers a respect that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

Queen Blood is a remarkable and emotionally rich work manifested by seven exceptional performers — Nadia Gabrieli-Kalati, Linda Hayford, Nadiah Idris, Odile Lacides, Cynthia Lacordelle, Audrey Minko, and Stéphanie Paruta. It’s a portrait of femininities which has house dance at its choreographic core but branches out to include dozens of other Hip Hop dance vocabularies executed with acres of style, deep clean technical execution and a sense of community and strength that echoed a pressing need in these times of lockdown.

The camera choices, editing and knowledge of the choreography (to capture emotion and angles not seen by the in-theatre audience) revealed nuances, bodily and facial details alongside relational connections between the performers that aligned with Sy’s intentions. There were dozens of moments of satisfying innovation, from using the wings of the stage as centre and reframing the centre as edge (with the support of Xavier Lescat’s lighting design) to a reworking of the one of the original Hip Hop dances — the running man — to the running woman alongside an activist stillness (still so rare in Hip Hop): all the performers down stage in a line with a number of devastating solos played out to Nina Simone’s Four Women. 

As I watched Queen Blood on the screen take up space, play with edges, be political and present choreography that sits in and emerges from the body with such finesse, strength and fluidity by seven incredible Black female dancers I felt something shift; this is a work that was created, performed and edited so well that I will watch it again and again. Queen Blood is quite simply a remarkable work.

Not all work screened since lockdown has the quality, care, attention, cohesion and technical prowess that In Loco Parentis and Queen Blood have. I watched Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company (JVC) on April 13. It had been recorded at Sadler’s Wells and was screened across the Easter weekend on their Vimeo page; below their video was a full cast and creative team including roles like sound advisor (Peter Hall) to graphic design (Ranaan Gabriel) — a crediting of every single role that went into making the work that was absent from a lot of the other screened presentations.
Pinocchio is based on the original book by Collodi and performed by Vardimon’s multi-talented dancers. ‘Pinocchio brings to life the famous marionette as he embarks on a fantastic journey to become a human boy. Showcasing Vardimon’s uniquely theatrical choreographic and directorial style, Pinocchio combines physical theatre, quirky characterisation, innovative technologies, text and dance to examine the idea of what it means to be human.’

My previous encounter with JVC was a positive one over five years ago with a trip to the Winter Gardens in Margate to see Maze presented with Turner Contemporary. Pinocchio was somewhat like Twitter — in desperate need of an edit button. Although Guy Bar Amotz is listed as dramaturg, responsible for the video and jointly responsible with Vardimon for the set design, I cannot see how so many aesthetic, choreographic and narrative clashes made it out the studio.

Across the 90 minutes there’s some really naff technical execution mixed in with credible theatrical illusion; the wind wafting scene of shaking a newspaper and wiggling your pockets alongside opening and closing an umbrella is primary school terrible but one minute later there is a brilliant raft scene that looks like David Lloyd is sailing across the stage in mid-air. Whilst Pinocchio’s trip to the marionette theatre is aligned with the narrative and brilliantly executed, featuring a weight and pulley system duet, it was followed by an inexplicable mash-up of Crazy in Love by Beyoncé full of commercial routines that felt entirely alien to the world conjured up before it.

One of the mistakes that Pinocchio makes is that there is no adjustment in light levels (which need to be higher for work that is screened) so there were oodles of darkness where we could hear the sounds of…knees? feet? bodies? doing something in relation to the floor but which were impossible to see on screen. When we could see the choreography it was Maria Doulgeri as Pinocchio leading the eight-person ensemble (with everyone else playing multiple roles) who was highly watchable, all putty-kneed as she grew from wooden boy to angsty teen.

In 2015 Maria Campos and Guy Nader came up with the concept and performance, Time Takes The Time Time Takes, that I saw in India at the Attakkalari India Biennial in 2017. Campos and Nader created a number of embodied mechanisms via five performing bodies that echoed, measured and represented time. They also created a sequence of movement (see this video at 2:25) that I had never seen before. This very same sequence reappeared in Pinocchio (which premiered a year later) and I’m unsure if there’s a link between the two creative teams, if it was morphic resonance or a just a bit of choreographic kleptomania.

Akram Khan’s Dust was presented by English National Ballet (ENB) on Facebook and YouTube as part of their #WednesdayWatchParty season from 7pm on April 29 to 8pm on May 1; it was originally recorded in October 2015 at Milton Keynes Theatre. Dust self describes as ‘Created to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’, as dancing full of pain and power’ (The Independent) ‘with a pounding soundtrack and atmospheric lighting, it grabs you from the start and does not let go.’ 
Performed as part of ENB’s larger evening of work entitled Lest We Forget, it was in essence a live, 25-minute ballet audition for Khan. In a press release issued by Sadler’s Wells in 2018 it said Dust ‘led to an invitation to create his own critically acclaimed version of the iconic romantic ballet Giselle.’

With the opening scene of the single clap of dust from the corps I’m reminded that colour runs were really in vogue in 2014 when Dust was created. The film capture was terrible: so much camera work covering the whole stage when it was just the duet, or dancers taking up 10-15 percent of the screen while the rest of it was empty blackness. In the edit there were close-ups in the wrong position, dodgy framing and a considerable amount of time focused on Tamara Rojo.

Khan acknowledged on ENB’s website that this was the first time that he had worked with ballet dancers; is it coincidence that Khan’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry, was creative producer at ENB from 2013-2017 or was it merely brilliant expansionist work on Khan’s behalf? Whilst there were no pointe shoes in evidence, it felt like ENB was cosplaying as a contemporary dance company using Khan to gain traction, trying to shift the dusty perceptions of ballet as an elitist dance form and using a tenuous relevance to the World War I centenary celebrations to dump money into shallow fireworks.

Whilst ENB and the dusty Khan corps felt flimsy and opportunistic, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong presented by Sydney Opera House as part of their From Our House To Yours season, premiered on YouTube on April 15 (available until May 5) demonstrating how a large-scale work that has a specific history and geography can be approached and sensitively handled.

Bennelong self describes as ‘… the story of one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal figures: Woollarawarre Bennelong. He was a senior man of the Eora people from the Port Jackson area in Sydney who was responsible for establishing a means of communication between his people and the British. With extraordinary curiosity and diplomacy, Bennelong led his community to survive a clash of cultures and left a legacy that reverberates through contemporary life. In a unique Australian dance language, the company celebrates the continuation of life and culture through the power, artistry and passion of the country’s most outstanding dancers. With its immersive soundscapes and exquisite design, Bennelong will leave you in awe of Australia’s history – and its power to repeat.’ 

For some context, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. It was started in 1989 by Carole Y. Johnson, the energetic founder of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, along with NAISDA graduates and Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone. Their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is at the heart of Bangarra, with a repertoire created on Country and stories gathered from respected community Elders.

In tackling the complex and real-life story of Bennelong, the challenge for artistic director Stephen Page was how to distil the story of a real person who lived over 200 years ago. What he attempted was to give a whistlestop wikipedia tour of the keyframes of Bennelong’s life and his relationship to the British colonial party led by Governor Arthur Phillip, who arrived in late 1789.

Whilst the camera set-up and edit was more skilled than Dust, it didn’t achieve the integration and invisible magic of either In Loco Parentis or Queen Blood, but at least we saw what we needed to see when we needed to see it. The set pieces were played out in naturalistic bodily movement which occasionally burst in textbook Modern Dance emoting. We saw Bennelong and his community being invaded by the British Royal Navy whilst a remix of Rule Britannia played, and a female elder prophet walking through a smoky portal suggesting things might be unwell. We heard the word smallpox on the soundtrack and saw writhing bodies convulsed in pain, and in the final act we saw Bennelong come back to his home only to be locked up in a mirror-blocked house built slowly by his community as the ultimate ostracization.

Choreographically and camera wise we saw both a literal and metaphorical capture of those big emotional moments across time in textbook story dance; the most important thing the performance did was to present a history, give a platform to and challenge some of the colonial history erased from contemporary British contexts. There’s no doubt that the story of Bennelong needs to be told, taught and discussed, but in this case and in general, history isn’t neutral and we shouldn’t adopt a neutral perspective. 
Viewing through the single lens of the screen, I was left unsure how to feel about any of the parties involved. Nor was Page’s perspective on this history clear. Across its 90 minutes we were unable to see it either from the point of view of Bennelong and his emotional journey, from the position of his original community, or through the eyes of the British colonisers. 

The inequality of platforms is as rife in screen land as they are in stage town; at the time of watching I took note of the viewing figures: In Loco Parentis achieved 168 views, Bennelong 3,021 views, Pinocchio 2,165 views and Dust 2,800 views (there were no figures available for Queen Blood). What is still more illuminating is that in the rush to present work there is a lack of nurturing of the community/audience who engage with the work, or an understanding about how audiences commune and behave online. 

When some video games are released, a Community Manager is often employed who is responsible for the community that grows around the game. This person attends events, writes newsletters, organises social media, sets up live streams and finds the best way of dealing with criticism; community managers know the fans best. Imagine something like this for either a production or a specific role in a theatre. Although the technology of online delivery obviates the need for an intermission, there was no offer for people with access requirements of alternative forms of viewing/experiencing like audio description or sign language interpretation; there were no warnings of strobes/lighting effects and there were no content trigger warnings before the performances. This is irresponsible and highlights the naivety and lack of care and attention that venues/companies are currently giving to their online audiences.

As a postscript — it didn’t involve watching dancing on screen, but did build a community, was highly curated and properly joyous — I want to highlight sync watch party #1 that was organised by Tayyab Amin and Gabrielle de la Puente: two hours of watching some of the weirdest, wholesome and obscure videos on YouTube including the Tyne and Wear Metro The Musical, the 2017 Blade Sports World Knife Cutting Championship Final and How to Build a Hamster Aquarium


Double bill of HARLEKING and The Passion of Andrea 2 at The Place

Posted: April 30th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Double bill of HARLEKING and The Passion of Andrea 2 at The Place

Double Bill: HARLEKING, and The Passion of Andrea 2, The Place, February 26

The Passion of Andrea 2, Simone Mousset
Luke Divall, Lewys Holt and Mathis Kleinschnittger in The Passion of Andrea 2 (photo: Lydia Sonderegger)

Both works on this program weave the power of laughter into contemporary forms of tragedy. In HARLEKING, Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi use silent laughter as a mimetic trait related to, but abstracted from, Italian Commedia dell’Arte; laughter is the physiological subject the two performers employ in a form disengaged from its underlying affect. With eloquence, intensity and riveting mimicry they present their manipulation of gesture knowingly, from states of innocence to underhanded treachery. The work does not set out to achieve historical context; as Panzetti and Ticconi explain, ‘it is reminiscent of the Grotesques, ancient wall decorations, in which monstrous figures emerge and blend in with elegant ornamental volutes’. It is this duality of monstrosity and elegance that suffuses their performance; in their black costumes against a white floor and backdrop under Annegret Schalke’s lighting, Panzetti and Ticconi accentuate gesture, creating the impression of two metamorphosed gargoyles on a night out from their cathedral perch, displaying a detached emotional behaviour derived from centuries of inanimate observation. Demetrio Castellucci’s sound interpolation further wraps the visual imagery in readings that alternate between teasing playfulness and psychotic malevolence. 

Constantly playing on the idiom of ‘falling about laughing’ or ‘dying of laughter’, Panzetti and Ticconi adjust the semiotic relationship of laughter to danger by subtle variations. In a central section of hypnotic gestural play, the appearance of a fascist salute appears as little more than a beguiling sign among others, while towards the end of the work, the transformation of a loving embrace into a murderous grip loses the emotional intent between the signifier and what is signified; in each case it is left to the audience to feel the chilling effect.

While HARLEKING is a spectacle in the traditional proscenium perspective, Simone Mousset’s The Passion of Andrea 2 defies any traditional mould. Mousset has suggested the work describes an inability to grasp the confusion of current events and the consequent suspension of belief in personal agency. Negative space is difficult to frame, and the first impression of The Passion of Andrea 2 is that it has no point of reference; its action is set in a timeless present that has no past (despite the indication of a sequel) and no future. Lydia Sonderegger’s large inflatable sculptures suspended above the stage lend credence to an imaginary dreamscape in which arbitrariness weighs heavily. The first indication of human agency is the improbable appearance of three hapless characters, costumed and bewigged in triplicate, wandering aimlessly as if afflicted with debilitating fatigue. It is immediately apparent from their gestures and mimicry, however, that the absurdist tragedy is being undermined by consummate humour. When they greet each other with an auspicious display of energy we learn they are each named Andrea and their past is now revealed in a favourite trio they attempt to remember.  

Mousset aligns the role of her three Andreas — Lewys Holt, Luke Divall and Mathis Kleinschnittger — with the Shakespearean jester whose artful clowning camouflages a disturbing reality. In their state of constant fluidity, the only anchor the Andreas have is their relationship to the audience, but even here its nature is ambiguous. They dissolve us in laughter with their absurdities and by involving us in their deadly competitive games, but there is a sense that Mousset is using them to hold up a mirror, that the work exists only in its ability to draw us into a state of reflection she wants us to share. Perhaps in our era of blatant political opportunism and misinformation absurdity is not so much a subversive antidote to the dis-ease of individual helplessness but a way of understanding it. 

From its initial manifestation in 2018 at Touch Wood, the enlargement of The Passion of Andrea 2 with a substantial musical element and Sonderegger’s set, costumes and wigs, has lost nothing of its original affect. In mixing theatrical genres, Mousset has enhanced the absurdity at the work’s core with a tonic of choreographic, musical and textual play that is disarmingly funny in inverse proportion to the darkness of its inspiration. 

Towards the end, following the Shakespearean demise of all three Andreas, Mousset introduces an epilogue in which sound designer Alberto Ruiz Soler is spirited on to the stage to explain, through a commentary by the resurrected Holt, that what we have just seen is in fact The Passion of Andrea 1 and that its sequel is about to begin. Soler dies, and the united Andreas climb into the audience singing a medieval round. 


Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

Posted: April 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

On portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre, Spring 2020

Hip Hop Theatre. Botis Seva's BLKDOG
Shangomola Edunjobi in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

This early 2020 reflection on portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre presented across England was originally going to be longer; I had planned to feature eight works presented in different part of the country — in itself an indication of the community’s rude health — that could inspire a wider conversation around similar themes. But with coronavirus taking hold of and effectively shutting down the social fabric, my plan has been reduced to four pre-coronavirus works: Caravan Social Night 7 – The Soulquariains Tribute Edition by Caravan/Chris Reyes at Richmix on January 25; Far From the Norm/Botis Seva’s BLKDOG at Warwick Arts Centre on February 11; Company Nil/Daniel Phung’s Blowin’ in the Wind at Richmix on February 14, and Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme presented by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Vaults on March 14. Those I was unable to include are Artists 4 Artists showcase in Gloucester presented by Strike A Light featuring Happy Father’s Day by Dani Harris-Walters; Fig Leaf by Joshua ‘Vendetta’ Nash, and Man Up by Kloe Dean on March 17, and Born To Manifest by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Courtyard, Hereford on March 26. 

There are a number of journal articles and books looking at masculinity, Hip Hop culture and dance; some of those that have informed my thinking are: Toby S. Jenkins A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture from 2011’s Journal of Black Studies; Sara LaBoskey’s Getting Off: Portrayals of Masculinity in Hip Hop Dance in Film from 2001’s Dance Research Journal; Mina Yang’s Yellow Skin, White Masks from 2013’s Daedalus, and Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón’s Graffiti Grrlz published by New York University Press in 2018.

Sat amongst this, the Producer/Writer Tobi Kyeremateng (@bobimono) published a three-tweet thread on March 1 which feels more reflective of the dialogue, complexity and intersectionality currently in play at the edges of masculinity and race and although she wasn’t explicitly citing Hip Hop dance theatre it could be read in that way: 

“i’m more and more certain that i’m really not interested in creating or producing work on “the Black experience” that isn’t specific in its focus, pushes Blackness into a monolith or isn’t saying anything new or different or interesting. 
“afros, growing up in ends, road life, knife crime, Black girl magic, masculinity – all incredibly nuanced, but it doesn’t feel like artists are being challenged to push themselves to think about different and creative ways we can talk about these topics”
“also don’t care for respectability work either lol like two ends of the same spectrum”   

In early 2019 Botis Seva talked about the influence — on the early incarnations of his BLKDOG — of Sally Brampton’s compelling and graphic Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression; in it she charts reflectively a depiction of her own isolation, incarceration, addiction and patterns of repeated abusive behaviour (which feels even more resonant in our current situation). This book influenced some of the original thinking and continues to inform the choreographic axis of the now-70-minute version of BLKDOG, co-produced by Sadler’s Wells.

After winning the April 2019 Olivier award for the 20-minute version, the task facing Seva was to build, flesh out and construct this first of seven performance dates across England in Spring 2020; it is framed as ‘Botis Seva’s BLKDOG’ and not as authored collectively by his company, Far From the Norm. This foregrounding of founder and prominence of the auteur/creator/name is a growing London trend (hello Tony Adigun’s Avant Garde Dance and Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance) which in some way feeds a masculine ego — I don’t see Kloe Dean’s Myself UK Dance Company or Vicki Igbokwe’s Uchenna Dance — whilst backgrounding all the other people in the company who have fed into the process.

BLKDOG self describes as: ‘A genre-defying blend of hip hop dance and free-form anticsexploring the inner battlefield of an ageing artist trying to retain his youth. Performed by Seva’s powerhouse company, Far From The Norm, BLKDOG searches for coping mechanisms in the ultimate hunt for acceptance. Vital and gripping, BLKDOG is Botis Seva’s haunting commentary on surviving adulthood as a childlike artist.’ 

There are two tracts that BLKDOG explores; isolation as violence and, leading off from that, dance as violence on the self. A body placed in isolation deteriorates physically and emotionally; it fractures and is unable to heal. Shoot the Damn Dog offers an account of personal proximity to trauma, whereas BLKDOG offers an account of personal proximity to isolation. As an accompanying text — although Seva doesn’t foreground it in the programme notes or marketing copy — Shoot the Damn Dog is an illuminating portal for his thinking. With six dancers on stage (Jordan Douglas, Joshua Nash, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi, Naima Souhair and understudy Hayleigh Sellors, who replaced the injured Ezra Owen with 24 hours’ notice), BLKDOG is a work of two states and two halves that is clearly still in progress; with a second half dressed in dinosaur onesies and crowns (courtesy of Ryan Dawson Laight) straight out of Where The Wild Things Are, the first half is visually reminiscent of fresh 1970s asylum threads with bespoke quilted hoods. 

Seva has honed and expanded some of the choreographic palette and visual devices (gun toting/pointing and the duckwalkesque ‘nibbles’ that scuttle) from Madhead, his commission for the National Youth Dance Company in Summer 2019. The first half is the foundation of the original Olivier award-winning work demonstrating some of Seva’s core strengths: building rich and interesting choreographic movements that challenge the preconceptions of the dancing body. I like this focus on the half space. If level 1 is work/bodies on the floor, and level 2 is full verticality, there are oodles of sequences where the dancers are existing at level 1.5, demonstrating a gluteal strength and a bodily duality that is neither one thing nor the other —  ready to spring or ready to collapse. It is this space that Seva likes to inhabit as he deflects choreographic boxes and boundaries into which his ‘free form antics’ do not neatly fit.

Long-term music collaborator Torben Lars Sylvester (Seva’s whole creative team is male apart from producer Lee Griffiths) spoke in the post-show conversation of the process of one-upping each other, finding patterns, inflexions and musicalities that the dancers could ride and that would in turn cause him to build extra tracks and layers into the score to create an additional mood for the dancers. Thinking back on the work three days later (when I wrote this and now six weeks later in revisions) I cannot recall the score or any of the emotional drivers behind it.

The proximity of choreographic isolation in both time and relationship for each dancer ensures they do not infect those around them; like a virus they remain immune to each other. There is no being influenced or influencing, and apart from the last 10 minutes when Jordan Douglas really shines brighter, hits harder and erupts, the cast of six are diminished and muted; either in their cumulative number or choreographic difference. We have six ones, rather than one six. 

If this is the first time you’ve seen Far From the Norm in a theatre — and for those non-London audiences it is quite possible — what you will encounter is a band of dancers who are fiercely committed and deliver a slippery blend of choreographic putty under the guidance of the good ship Seva. The first time you see a Norm it is refreshing; you’re in the presence of a set of dancers that don’t look like Hip Hop, don’t look like contemporary dance and don’t look familiar — they are defined by what they are not. Seva is isolating himself from easy choreographic definition and at the same time making a choreographic lineage hard to attribute or to see where the seeds of his influence(s) will fall next. 

Heavy is the Head is the last track before the show begins and Ultralight Beam is the first track after the no-bow; we have BLKDOG as the filling in a Kanye and Stormzy masculinity sandwich. However, having seen six of his works since 2015/16, including his break-out work Reck, it feels like Seva’s choreographic language is intact; he still has a knack of creating unusual moments, motifs and visual food, but (I may be incarcerated by my/his own expectations) five years down the road his ability to sustain interest, to shift a mood or shake a mono dynamic, to think of an audience as a complex layered entity able to receive multiple signals and modes of address, needs further development. He’s in his own suburbs. 

It’s worth reiterating that this was the first show of the tour that should (coronavirus permitting) continue touring into Autumn 2020, and as a work tours and beds in with new audiences it will shift and be modified. I look forward to meeting BLKDOG again at a later junction.

Presented and commissioned by Chinese Arts Now, Daniel Phung/Company Nil’s work Blowin in the Wind self describes as: ‘…a powerful and dynamic dance theatre piece addressing the complexity of the current patriarchal society, it challenges our perspective on ‘power’. Four characters who are forced to place their ‘power’ within patriarchy, use mind blowing Contemporary and Hip Hop dance (emphasis is mine) to take you through multiple episodes of masculinity: Sensitivity, emotion, conflict, aggression and adolescence. It is an emotional response to these following questions: What is masculinity? Does masculinity exist? What is cultural masculinity? Does cultural masculinity exist?’

This is the first full-length work Phung has created, and these are some large claims and questions he attempts to answer with four performers in several episodes over 50 minutes. Either the questions are so grandiose that they are impossible to answer or are so simplistic that we’ve heard them before. There are a few nice sketches and motifs — mainly featuring Fern Grimbley who has a physical elasticity and watchabilty that warrants a deeper choreographic challenge — but a tender wrestling duet in which two people try to wear the same jacket is indicative of Blowin’ in the Wind’s facile representation. It offers a 2D stereotypical masculinity that belongs in the Daily Mail with little thread or authorial commentary. Despite a couple of nice lift sections and a solo for Grimbley that showcases what a fine dancer she is, the visibility of a Hip Hop choreographic language is hard to find and the throwing of paper aeroplanes into the audience and inviting their return is a fine but shallow attempt at audience engagement. I find myself leaning back to what Tobi said earlier around a need for nuance: masculinity is a big word, with a set of expectations alongside it; it isn’t a monolith. A smaller, tighter focus is needed if Blowin’ in the Wind is going to add to any future dialogue around masculinity and Hip Hop.

The possibilities offered by the choreographic, masculine Hip Hop dance theatre body are numerous; it can be expanded, reduced, presented in binary or opposition, it can be fragile, in mourning and in so many other different states. Yet I find it hard to recollect a Hip Hop dance theatre work made recently that offers either a new narrative or an alternate angle on masculinity without relying on what Yang calls: “…overt displays of masculine swagger and power, and built on a value system derived from the streets of corporeal risk-taking, competitiveness, and improvisation.” I am left yearning for the complexity, prowess, emotional strength and honesty of Kloe Dean’s Man Up which I wrote about last year and now consider a yardstick for other Hip Hop dance theatre works. So far nothing has come close. 

Caravan Social Night 7: The Soulquarians Tribute Edition was an evening presented by Caravan — a project founded by Chris Reyes — which celebrated the legacy of artists J Dilla, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, James Poyser (all who shared the Aquarius starsign) and the wider 90s Neosoul movement. Although definitely not a Hip Hop dance theatre work in itself, Caravan Social Nights are primarily events and fundraisers for Reyes’ other Hip Hop dance theatre work; they are a place for some of the community to gather, to showcase and see peers exercise different creative muscles, inviting and encouraging acts to bridge music, art, dance and improvisation with all the rich pollination that comes from them.

Comprising roughly five 20-minute stage sets (with a drinks interval between each), live painting by Isaac Bonan and Gatien Engo and hosted by the triple threat Ashley Joseph, the luxurious opener saw L’atisse Rhoden slow jam to Marli Artiste’s vocals and Vicky ‘Skytilz’ Mantey on drums; next up was Ben Ajose-Cutting (aka Mr Ben of The Locksmiths) with a playful set where he would control the various instruments/band members (including Turbo on drums) by lightly stamping an imaginary start/stop button in front of each musician as he layered/stripped away levels of funk and lyrics to lock to. There were other sets featuring T-Boy and Inga Be with a New-Style Hustle partner duet leading into an improvisation with Dani Harris-Walters, a work from Reyes himself, and Boy Blue’s Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy topping off the night spitting J Dilla’s Pause with a trio of male dancers.

Caravan is without doubt a valuable space for some of the Hip Hop community; the event was slick, full of original content and one of the few places to see artists trying something different without the pressure of their own brand. There was a consistent acknowledgement of Reyes as the driving force and focus of the night, shouted out by Joseph as the man who got the funding and who made it happen (not the producer of the event, Emily Crouch). 

However, what I found strange was that Reyes had a ft. in all of the stage works as well as his own set, whether that was taking over as conductor in Mr Ben’s locking stamp band, dancing in Ken’s work or improvving during L’atisse’s opener. While there’s respect for Reyes having made the evening happen and for bringing people together, when is that line crossed? When does the consistent presence of masculine ego draw focus away from the other acts? What signals does the continued attempt to assert a veneer of alpha status send to the audience and participants? 

Do people in Hip Hop dance theatre really want to talk about masculinity? Do they see how some may be perpetuating problematic behaviours of masculinity? Are they able to engage in the complexity that surrounds the question? Or is it a shallow and facile fundraising hook on which to hang a set of technically adequate routines whilst looking winsome and drawing attention to themselves?

In 2013, Just Us Dance Theatre (JUDT) set up Let’s Shine, a mentoring project to empower young Hip Hop performers and provide them with tools and opportunities to develop as artists and individuals. In the latest edition of the programme (which runs weekly) ten young men aged from 16 to 23 have worked with Joseph Toonga and Ricardo Da Silva to create and perform a response — entitled Let’s Shine, like the project — to Toonga’s work Born To Manifest. Part of the problem of not having seen Born To Manifest is that I’m unable to gauge the success of this 40-minute response by the seven Let’s Shine dancers, but since the original was inspired by first person accounts of young Black men from across London, there are multiple things that need acknowledging in such a political and socially resonant work. The lived experience and racial profiling that young Black men in London face is radically different from any other cultural or racial group; in 2018 43% of the Metropolitan Police’s Stop and Search targets were Black people who make up just 15.6% of the London population. In the same report it said that the likelihood of Black people being stopped is 4.3 times higher than White people. In 2018, 76% of homicide victims were male, with 62% being of African-Caribbean heritage aged under 25, and in relation to victims of knife injuries under the age of 25, 455 were White and 1,370 were ‘BAME’. 

Sat alongside these statistics and lived realities, this 2017 study — Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability — published by the American Psychological Association says: “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men’s physical size may play a role in this process. The results of seven studies showed that people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men.” Toonga has himself received some highly problematic language in previous reviews of Born To Manifest, like “Toonga, an imposing presence who wouldn’t look out of place at the Rugby World Cup”, which again plays into the inflammatory stereotype that is perpetuated by the majority of the UK media. This is only some of the societal context within which this work operates.

Let’s Shine attempts to provoke, make us answer questions on our own biases and pose deeper questions about masculinity and power. We are presented with examples of choreographic contagion as one dancer emerges from the bunch, delivers a dance popularised by the video game Fortnite in a swift Tik Tok burst and suddenly all seven are mimicking, summoning up a collective energy. Then it disappears as quickly as it manifested, only to be replaced by another authored by someone else and repeated. This cycle is a fine demonstration of the difference in the behaviour and psychology of a man on his own — what he would/could do and what he can/can’t do in comparison to the behaviour of a group of men when they’re together.

Arnold Tshibangu is an absolute stand out fizzing with a performance magnetism, focus and an ability to draw and hold our attention when he is on stage, like an echo of a young Ivan Blackstock; previously he was Tin Man in the 2017 version of ZooNation’s Groove On Down The Road. The other performer that had a cleanness in execution and a barrelfull of energy was Musa Mohamed aka Moose; knowing that Born To Manifest is a duet, I’d be interested to see if the pairing of Mohamed and Tshibangu could step up to the full work at a later date.

Choreographically Let’s Shine cycles through Hip Hop and funk styles; the stage is peppered with krump jabs and oodles of pops and muscular contractions. Though technically it’s not the cleanest in execution, the musicality, the energy passed between them, the sweat and believability masks any technical deficiency in the wider cast. With some animal noises on the soundtrack mixed with gorilla vocal imitation by some of the cast, we see a relationship between the krump jab and the gorilla chest pound — but which do we see, Gorilla or krump? Violence or expression? Again, Toonga and Da Silva are playing on the edges of our assumptions/stereotypes to intelligent effect. Some of the chorus and crowd scenes were a little wafty, filling air, and were too much of a distraction to the solo/duet focus, but this is a minor quibble. 

In creating Let’s Shine — both the work and the wider programme — JUDT have created an interesting model that is asking socially relevant questions about masculinity using Hip Hop dance theatre. It is a soothing antidote to the growing number of over-produced Hip Hop dance theatre works that feeds us empty calories or fail to adopt a political position. I’m not saying that all work needs to be about something or answering a societal need, but if you’re making a work that is autobiographical, it does not automatically make it about masculinity or femininity. If you’re making something lighter, for entertainment purposes, ensure your intention is clear and let audience know.

It feels somewhat ironic that seven out of the eight works on my list were authored by men; is this an (un)conscious positioning, creation and affirmation of their Hip Hop masculinity in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Is it a bias and set of active decision making in programming by venues to present men over women? We know this is a consistent problem across the wider dance industry, including the work Sadler’s Wells and Breakin’ Convention choose to present and tour.

I see few attempts, inquiries or acknowledgements from the England-based Hip Hop Dance Theatre scene to engage with different types of masculinities that intersect with communities of disabled, trans, gay or femme artists. There are conversations happening elsewhere around Hip Hop and masculinity including the two Minnesotan rappers Kyle ‘Guante’ Tran Myhre and Tony The Scribe and their nine-episode debut podcast season of What’s Good, Man? which self describes as ‘a podcast on men, masculinity, and culture. Featuring two hosts who sharpened their analyses in the worlds of Hip Hop, cultural organizing, and movement-building, it’s also a response to a specific call: men need to speak up more about issues like consent, gender violence, and sexism, especially with other men.’  What England-based artists are currently dealing with is a very narrow masculinity; if they’d seen each other’s work they could have had an active dialogue or hosted a wider discussion around their thoughts on masculinity and its relationship to Hip Hop.


Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: April 4th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition at Sadler’s Wells

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Sadler’s Wells, March 7 & 8

Richard Alston Dance Company Voices and Light Footsteps
Jennifer Hayes, Niall Egan, Alejandra Gissler, and Ellen Yilma in Voices and Light Footsteps (photo: Chris Nash)

It is perhaps too soon and too delicate to unpick the accumulation of political and economic decisions that have led to the premature closing of such a renowned cultural entity as Richard Alston Dance Company. Alston has known for the past two years that ‘my Company simply could not continue beyond this Spring’, and for someone who admits to have been ‘entirely lacking in any sort of strategic plan’ over his fifty-year choreographic career, he has managed to end with remarkable prescience. The latest run of performances has finished just one week before Sadler’s Wells closure for (at least) the next three months to comply with the government’s guidance on containing the coronavirus pandemic. In the current climate, Alston’s company may well feel relieved that its calendar of adieux has been able to run its course and finish in style; if there is such a thing as a good death, this is it. For Alston, however, there is no intimation of mortality; on the contrary, in the last two years he has created some of his best work and has built his company to technical and expressive heights. 

This Final Edition is the last of several national and international performances by the company; the choice of program is as much a retrospective as a statement of current form. The earliest work is Isthmus from 2012 to the music of Jo Condo, followed by Mazur from 2015 to Chopin mazurkas played on stage by long-time collaborator, Jason Ridgway. Two younger recruits to the company, Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis, get inside the music and its relationship to the choreography to create an emotional portrait of elegance and close friendship. Three works on the program date from the past tumultuous year: Bari for the graduating students of Alston’s alma mater, London Contemporary Dance School, Voices and Light Footsteps and Shine On. First performed by the students at the Alston At Home program at The Place, Bari is inspired by the pizzica music of the Puglia region in southern Italy. Alston’s mastery of form and pattern partners the liveliness of the musical rhythms to create a gem of choreographic construction — not so much a translation of the traditional pizzica dance as a transposition of the earthiness in the music. Music has always been the motivation for Alston’s choreography, the source from which both the rhythm and the style of his movement arise. In Shine On, he returns to one of his favourite composers, Benjamin Britten, for the collection of songs On This Island set to five of WH Auden’s poems; they are sung by Katherine McIndoe accompanied by Ridgway. Alston enters the work through Britten’s joyous opening fanfare, but Auden’s pessimism casts a long shadow that Alston — as well as lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli — alternately rejects and absorbs, most poignantly in the central Nocturne where Niall Egan and Harriette express the pain of a love that must remain in the shadows. After this vein of darkness, Martin Lawrance steps in with his own contribution, A Far Cry, set to the elegiac Introduction and Allegro for Strings by Sir Edward Elgar. It is in effect a paean to Alston from the opening fanfare to its triumphant coda, embracing elements of his style within Lawrance’s own characteristic rush of energy. In the ecstatic entrances and exits there is a sense of a continuation well beyond the stage, embracing all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. 

In the final work, Voices and Light Footsteps, Alston transcends any sense of darkness by returning to another of his favourite composers, Claudio Monteverdi, and through the music to the early seventeenth century period in which he lived. Not only are there traces of courtly Renaissance dance in the work (it is dedicated to the memory of Alston’s historical dance teacher, Belinda Quirey), but emotions and virtues that have supported him through difficult times appear to be subtly embedded in the choreography. Each member of the company has their own light and colour but their individuality is sublimated to the harmony of the whole. Voices and Light Footsteps is spiritually uplifting and visually stunning, with costumes by Peter Todd under lighting by Lawrance; its central duet, danced on alternate nights by Monique Jonas and Elly Braund with Shikkis, is its crowning achievement. The work ends, significantly, with Monteverdi’s Damigella Tutta Bella, which Alston notes ‘is the earliest music I can remember hopping around to as a small boy.’ TS Eliot could have written the epitaph with the last line of East Coker: ‘In my end is my beginning.’

Dancers in Richard Alston Dance Company for this Final Edition: Elly Braund, Niall Egan, Alejandra Gissler, Joshua Harriette, Jennifer Hayes, Monique Jonas, Nahum McLean, Nicholas Shikkis, Jason Tucker and Ellen Yilma.


Resolution 2020: WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr & Autin Dance Theatre

Posted: March 27th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2020: WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr & Autin Dance Theatre

Resolution 2020, WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr, Autin Dance Theatre, February 20

Johnny Autin in Square One
Johnny Autin in Square One (photo: Nucis Designs)

WonderWoman Collective is a trio of dancers from the London Contemporary Dance School’s Developing Artistic Practice programme: choreographer Hannah Adams and her collaborators Greta Gauhe and Marta Stepien. Their work, Her Agency, explores ‘womanhood and female empowerment’. The program note is written in the style of an abstract, detailing what we can expect to see. ‘The performance will highlight the importance of mutual support in the time of social isolation’…and ‘(the three women) will find themselves in unexpected complex situations, easing into unforeseen connections that demand instant response.’ In the field of academic research papers, an abstract is intended to connect to the arguments elaborated in the text, but in a visual, image-based art like dance such a desired concision is lost between the performance and the onlooker. As Roland Barthes argued in the field of literary studies, once a book is published, its author has no authority in its interpretation. It’s not just a question of the program notes; Adams has interpreted the physical aspects of Her Agency quite literally while loosening their connection to the dimension of dance. On a bare stage with three hanging microphones, we can see the development of ideas like mutual support and precarious balance, as well as complex, unconventional interaction, but a section of guided contact improvisation with Adams at the microphone seems straight out of the school curriculum. What is missing is an enveloping choreographic and spatial dynamic that takes thinking-as-dance to the realm of dance-as-thinking. 

Harry Parr’s desire to ‘connect the space, the dancers and the audience with a rousing energy in a shared experience of flow’ is like an adrenalin shot that kicks the evening’s program into gear. PEAK is an unapologetic opportunity for Parr to exercise his ‘own idiosyncratic vocabulary’ in a work that does a lot more; it imprints itself on the imagination by the nature of its formal and spatial organisation. The responsibility lies both with the dancers — Parr, Adélie Lavail and Corrie McKenzie — and with Zak Macro’s lighting that treats light and shade as if it were pulling focus between sharpness and blur. Parr’s idiosyncratic, edgy vocabulary borrows from the gestural language of mime; the use of his body, hands and fingers has a dramatic intent that, although abstract, has a quality of language that gives structure to his choreography. He projects the persona of a puppet master or magician in relation to Lavail and McKenzie who in turn enter into this alchemy with finely attuned contributions that are like a wild, animalistic chorus. Far from simply an exercise in idiosyncratic vocabulary, PEAK has perhaps inadvertently stumbled on an expression of movement in space that is at the heart of drama. Macro’s play of light and Parr’s detached groupings — like the closeup focus on a dialogue of legs between Lavail and McKenzie while Parr’s torso coordinates in the shade behind — work together to create a unified emotional field. 

For the purposes of full disclosure, I rehearsed and performed with Johnny Autin in a production of Lindsey Butcher and Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Rites of War in 2014, so I am familiar with his vocabulary and way of moving. But nothing prepared me for the searing psychological evocation of mental health that permeates his solo, Square One, for Autin Dance Theatre, a work that would be impossible to achieve without him having personally driven through the landscape it explores. It is a landscape of black floor and walls in which a broad cylinder of white paper in various permutations is both the material of his preoccupation and his path to survival. Autin is already on stage as we enter the auditorium, obsessively tearing white paper into small squares and littering the floor around him while staring out absentmindedly at the audience as if through a window. The crossover between mimicry and the recollection of mental disturbance is unnerving but the visceral energy of Square One derives from this proximity of performer and subject and Autin has both the courage and necessary distance to combine the two. The effect is a carefully constructed diary of images that is both attractive through Autin’s sensual athleticism and chastening in its psychological fragility. Joe Henderson’s lighting enhances the idea of archetypical opposites, contrasting the white paper against the black walls to create opacity and translucence, shadow and substance. 

The program defines Square One as a work in progress, but the performance belies this; it is polished with experience, candour and Autin’s perverse delight in performing it.


Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young, Kidd Pivot in Revisor at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: March 18th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young, Kidd Pivot in Revisor at Sadler’s Wells

Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young with Kidd Pivot in Revisor at Sadler’s Wells, March 5

Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young, Kidd Pivot
Doug Letheren as Director of the Complex in Revisor (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Choreographer Crystal Pite and playwright Jonathan Young have collaborated previously on two productions, Betroffenheit for Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, and The Statement for Nederlands Dance Theatre. Although each work is quite independent of the other in terms of emotional heft, they both use the technique of lip-synching to recorded voices as a choreographic tool. In The Statement, the relationship between language and choreography is the basis of the entire work, taking Young’s one-act play about corporate disinformation to expressive heights, while Betroffenheit combines choreography and text in a haunting expression of trauma. Their latest collaboration for Kidd Pivot, Revisor, presented recently at Sadler’s Wells, pushes the boundaries of text and its physical embodiment further than both The Statement and Betroffenheit, with mixed results. 

What Young has proposed is his adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (Revizor in Russian), a farce written in 1836 on the theme of government corruption in a small provincial town. Young’s production uses the recorded voices of nine actors directed by Meg Roe with original music and sound design by Owen Belton and Alessandro Juliani. By making a pun on the Russian title, Young changes the function of the Revizor to a Revisor of government documents; it has no bearing on the outcome of the farce but the word play informs the adaptation. After the curtain rises to an ominous rumbling of thunder, we hear the voice of a narrator (Roe) revising her description of the scene a couple of times before she’s happy with it. We’re in the office of the Director of the Complex (Doug Letheren) who has called in his cronies to discuss the arrival of a revisor (Tiffany Tregarthen) who they mistakenly believe has been sent by head office to report on their incompetent practices. The clarity of Jay Gower Taylor’s minimal period set, Nancy Bryant’s lush costumes and Tom Visser’s lighting engage with that of Pite’s gestural response to the voices. The ensuing scene of heated discussion sets in motion a thrill of choreography-as-farce as we take in Pite’s transmutation of language into gesture and the imagery she extracts from every nuance of the script. The dancers embody their characters through total corporal articulation and lip synchronisation to a degree of verisimilitude where we see the voices and hear the gestures. Jermaine Spivey’s physical translation of Juliani’s speech-impaired Postmaster Wieland’s dialogue keeps the audience in gales of laughter and on the edge of their seats in anticipation of its continuation, while Ella Rothschild as Minister Desouza fleetingly combines imagery of the Russian orthodox church and classical ballet in a passing phrase about religion and culture. 

The sheer energy of creative investment in this opening scene, so intricately woven and detailed, is remarkable. In the subsequent dialogue with the revisor and his assistant (David Raymond), however, and in the further convolutions of the plot, Pite’s transmutation of language plays second fiddle to Young’s adaptation of the script, which now takes us on a digression through a conceptual landscape — what Young calls a deconstruction of a farce. The dancers are in rehearsal clothes, and the dialogue is replaced by the narrator’s ‘report’ on the action using stage directions, looped vocal phrases and fragments of recorded text. It is difficult to tell if this ‘report’ demands something less precise of Pite’s choreography, or if her choreographic ingenuity loses traction in the treatment of dialogue. What were the dancers’ individual textual-corporal characterisations gradually evolve into danced solos and duets — even sections of unison choreography — that change Pite’s focus away from the text into movement. Just when Young’s deconstruction seems in danger of completely losing the plot, the opening scene and its characters return for the play’s resolution. Once again the dancers are in their costumes and their dialogue becomes lip-synched action. But by now the effect has waned and a sense of déjà vu sets in. What Pite and Young had begun with such promise just an hour before appears to be already overused, or perhaps that long, conceptual, self-reflexive middle section has numbed our choreographic interest and drained the dramatic action of its momentum. In an intense collaboration like this, if one partner pulls too much in one direction the other’s contribution suffers. Betroffenheit and The Statement held the balance like a high-wire act between theatre and choreography, each on their own terms; Revisor is ultimately disappointing because that balance is not maintained throughout the work, and there is nothing the extraordinary cast can do to save it. 


Ian Abbott on Candoco double bill at Bristol Old Vic

Posted: March 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Candoco double bill at Bristol Old Vic

Candoco Dance Company’s Double Bill: Face In and Hot Mess, Bristol Old Vic, February 25

Candoco Dance Company in Yasmeen Godder's Face In with Clinkard's Hot Mess
Face In by Yasmeen Godder (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

In a deliciously niche piece of UK choreographic history, Candoco commissioned the works on the current double bill from Yasmeen Godder in 2017 and Theo Clinkard in 2019; back in 2008 when Clinkard was one half of the brilliant PROBE alongside Antonia Grove, it was PROBE who commissioned a short work from Yasmeen Godder in which Clinkard danced as part of their Magpie evening and it was the first time I encountered both these artists. 

Face In by Godder self describes as: ‘a sensual and disturbing ode to intimacy and imagination, expressed through striking images and daring uninhibited dance, set to an urban indie score.’ Set amongst Gareth Greens’ design of prisms of fruit-salad lighting projected on to white cycs on either side of the stage over 30 minutes, we’re introduced to solos, duets and trio islands of abstract partner work, contact and some lifts mixed in with plenty of Godder’s visual signatures of ripped/embellished costume (designed by Adam Kalderon) and big leary tongue pulling. 

Whilst Laura Patay is highly charismatic (having also been the standout performer in Hetain Patel’s Let’s Talk About Dis) and Mickaella Dantas has a spiky energy, the rest of the company feel really lacklustre in their performance with Toke Broni Strandby struggling in particular. The uninhabited and sensual dance that we are meant to be witnessing and feeling is nothing but a false and fabricated physical frenzy and one that I simply do not believe; they attempt to build and sustain an energy on stage, attempt to create friction or disturbance but none of this transfers to me in the audience — if it ever really leaves their bodies. 

The all-White company are dialling it in and in some sense I can understand it; middle-class choreographic abstraction is dead, it’s dull, it says nothing, there’s no point to it and it’s an exercise only in ego. If this is the material you as a dancer have to work with, then you’ll deliver a certain level of professionalism, but I think you can tell if they really subscribe to either the choreographer or the intention behind the work. 

Clinkard’s Hot Mess self describes as ‘an unpredictable and anarchic performance set to an eclectic score by the award-winning Joe Newman of alt-J. Art installation meets dance piece in this explosive new work by the company that continues to expand perceptions of what dance can be.’ 

On his own website and social media channels, Clinkard offers lots of other contextual information around the work which is worth adding to the slim programme notes from the evening. He says: ‘It’s a piece full of doubt and actively unknowing and I’m genuinely filled with doubt and unknowing when witnessing it. We created an oddly exciting place of collapse and potential and watching these dancers navigate its demands is pretty thrilling. I hope it’s a dance that reflects the times were living in.’ Alongside this he also created:

Hot Mess. a Manifesto

Rejecting:                   Celebrating:
the stable                   the unformed
the fixed                     the unknown
the polished               the potential
the repeatable           the collaborative
the product                the unplanned
the heroic                   the process
the known                  the unexpected
the formal                  the failure
the ordered                the queer
the absolute               the precarious
the resilient               the disobedient
the known                  the messy

In 2019 Clinkard made nine new works for different companies; with Hot Mess I feel like the reservoir of his ideas and concepts have dried up. What we’re left with is the dregs of an alt-J b-side pushed through three effects modulators with seven pieces of dangling material in which the dancers thrash about in the opening scenes followed by half-finished Meyerholdian biomechanical gestures that are neither satisfying, explosive, nor instrumental in expanding perceptions of what dance can be. If I feel a sense of reluctance from the performers in Face In, in Hot Mess it is multiplied to infinity; they are certainly carrying out the manifesto and reject it all, but they also reject the majority of the audience who come to see the company; it is almost uncomfortable to sense the amounts of sighing and fidgeting in the audience. 

Candoco is not a company that is touring small-scale and indie black box studios; it’s touring mid-to-large scale theatres around the world and need work that is befitting those spaces and audiences. Hot Mess does not rise to the occasion. Although Clinkard undoubtedly achieves his manifesto (with a considerably heavy nod to Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto from 1965), it is at a cost to the company, and I cannot see Hot Mess staying in their repertoire for as long as works by Godder, Patel or Thomas Hauert. Titles can be revealing: in informal American usage, a ‘hot mess’ is ‘a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination’.

It’s really worth repeating for those in the back: middle-class choreographic abstraction is dead.