Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Posted: October 15th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place, October 12

Split, Lucy Guerin
Ashley McLellan and Lilian Steiner in Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Lucy Guerin’s Split, performed by dancers Lilian Steiner and Ashley McLellan at The Place as part of Dance Umbrella, is an enquiry into duality that is structured on a grid laid down in white tape with a corresponding division of time. For the opening section, the dancers move within a spacious rectangle to a pulsing, driving score by Scanner for a prescribed period. When the time is up — and while the musical engine idles patiently — the dancers stop to rest, towel down and then divide the rectangle into two equal spaces with more white tape. They perform the next section in just one of the two rectangles for half the amount of time. With Paul Lim’s lighting providing an additional delineation to each section, the dancers continue in a diminishing geometric space/time structure until they have only a tiny square in which to stand and a final brief moment in which to resolve the entire choreographic puzzle. There is a strict logic to the pattern of partitions — resembling that of a Fibonacci series without the guiding Golden spiral — that appears to sublimate the agency of the dancers. Despite Guerin’s choreographic depiction of a ‘diminishing world’ that ‘induces competition, negotiation, harmony and aggression’, there is little overt emotional intent from the dancers beyond the gestural language itself. 

In the first section, Steiner and McLellan perform an ever-expanding sequence of movements in unison, remaining in the same relation to each other without ever touching. The gestural expression extends out from the torso to the bodies’ extremities — especially the hands and fingers — as much as to the patterns on the floor. This harmonious relationship within an ample space can be seen as the ground of human identity, while the sheer volubility and intricacy of actions and reactions, of skipping, jumping, reclining and swirling in all directions — a tour de force for the dancers — shows the rich complexity of such ground. Within this apparent unity, Guerin introduces a singular contrast by choosing to clothe only one of her dancers. As she writes in the program, ‘Having one naked and the other clothed created a split in identity that intensified the piece. For me it gives seriousness and normality to the female body, which is such a site of commodification, exploitation, shame and shock.’ On the other hand, as John Berger wrote about the fine art tradition of the nude in Ways of Seeing, ‘She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.’ While Guerin’s choice may provide an apt choreographic duality, in the context of the theatre she cannot preclude a spectator reaction that recognizes in Steiner’s naked body the very attributes she rightly deplores and allows their formal presentation to distract from the work’s rigorous construction. It is telling that the authority of Steiner’s body appears less assured than McLellan’s, suggesting she may not have come to terms with the reflection of her nakedness in the spectator’s gaze; she wears her nakedness like a costume but is not yet reconciled to revealing herself forcefully through it. 

Given that Steiner remains as she is throughout Split, the polarity of naked and clothed becomes the guiding metaphor for other recognizable dualities Guerin develops — human/animal, coloniser/colonised, predator/prey, and master/slave — in subsequent sections that see an increasing inclination towards argument and examination, one memorably olfactory. Because McLellan is dressed, she comes across as the more dominant of the two women in images of aggression, while Steiner is inevitably seen as vulnerable. In their process of negotiation this works well, but when they swap antagonistic roles the duality is less convincing. Guerin’s structure and dramaturgy are most persuasive in showing that pressure from ever-diminishing space and time leads to ever-darker shades of behaviour. As Split develops, we see the individual increasingly at cross-purposes with herself — even if there are moments of respite and harmony — until Steiner’s enactment of disembowelling McLellan and eating her entrails suggests a profound existential crisis. 

It is hard to read the final gesture in terms of all that has gone before. Reduced to a tiny space, there is only room for the two women to stand tightly together, with McLellan behind Steiner. As McLellan tips backwards the lights are quickly extinguished, leaving her fate suspended in space. As a powerful dramatic gesture — reminiscent of Tosca’s launch from the battlements in Puccini’s opera — it is beautifully timed and executed, but it leaves the issue of duality curiously unresolved.


Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Gisèle Vienne, CROWD, Dance Umbrella at Sadler’s Wells, October 8

DU 19, CROWD, Gisèle Vienne
A scene from Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD (photo: Estelle Hanania)

Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD, presented at Sadler’s Wells as the opening event of this year’s Dance Umbrella season, sets not so much a tone for the festival as a standard of engagement. Requiring full attention to its myriad details, it in turn rewards with an afterimage that lasts well beyond the performance. 

The setting, like a visual counterpart of Gérard Manset’s ‘un grand terrain de nulle part’, is an earth-strewn stage that suggests an exterior space on which the evidence of messy human occupation ranges from plastic bottles to abandoned clothing; whatever has happened has already finished — or has it? Approaching this ambiguous scene through the high decibel beat of Peter Rehberg playlist of 90’s club music, there is an evident disconnect between the deafening heat of a dance floor and the detritus from the aftermath of an outdoor rock concert, a demonstration or a climactic disaster, while Patrick Riou’s lighting picks out details like a torch searching through the debris for some lost possession. The sound cuts off any aural distractions, so our eyes focus at first on an empty space mired in a past event yet charged with the prospect of something about to happen. Vienne seems to be playing with our expectations by setting up anticipation and then gently diffusing it; when the first hooded figure makes her way across the stage, she is moving so slowly it takes a while to recognize her human agency before our eyes start to make out the details of colour, shape and topography. A second figure enters the stage with the same mystery, ending in a familiar gesture of lighting a cigarette; the smoke becomes not just a recognizable effect but part of CROWD’s visual dialogue. Riou’s lighting adds to the quality of the dialogue by enhancing the depth and volume of the stage and generating through the arrival of the crowd living tableaux that veer from the pictorial to the virtual. Vienne builds up layers of action, behaviour and narrative through a judicious mix of choreography, dramaturgy, colour and light so that the images breathe with the varied dynamics of individual and group behaviour. 

There are 15 narratives woven into CROWD that might each take up to 5 minutes to enact in real time, but Vienne calibrates the actions and interactions of each performer using the cinematic devices of slow motion, splicing and freeze frame to expand each 5-minute narrative into a collective performance that lasts 90 minutes. It is as if she focuses an aleatory light on what makes each person move rather than on the movements they make and in doing so builds up a finely detailed composite image of a crowd.  The gathering of young people like displaced survivors in what could be construed as a post-industrial environment inevitably lends itself to a poetic comparison with the uncanny proximity and overlap of Extinction Rebellion protests in London. CROWD sees a very human drama unfolding between the individual and the group, and we are caught in the micronarrative of each performer’s struggle for recognition, comfort and intimacy.

Vienne’s manipulation of time also makes CROWD a work about choreographic seeing. How much time do we spend looking at a painting or a photograph in a gallery? Do we not tend to rush past images, searching for immediate gratification? Choreographic narrative and imagery can rush forward like a conveyor belt of emotional returns — sometimes very successfully — but here Vienne draws us into her frame and makes us linger to savour the image she puts before us. In deconstructing the choreographic image, she thus gears what we see to the way we see it.

The time it takes Vienne and her team — writer Dennis Cooper and assistants Anja Röttgerkamp and Nuria Guiu Sagarra — to achieve this experiment in duration is pure theatrical time. The only elements that happen in real time are the mimed conversations between performers — in contradistinction to their slow-motion gestures — and the trajectory of water spilled or ejected from plastic bottles that are evidence of the inevitable pull of gravity. We are reminded of time’s cyclical nature at the end as the performers chart their individual paths away from the gathering into the darkness; against the flow, almost imperceptibly, the first figure can be seen re-entering the stage before the lights dim. As we reach for our scarves we find ourselves back at the beginning; having witnessed this microcosmic crowd of preoccupations on the stage, we prepare to go out into the city night with our own. 

Presented by Dance Umbrella in partnership with Sadler’s Wells
Gisèle Vienne is supported by the Institut français as part of FranceDance UK


Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, October 4

Dada Masilo as Giselle
Dada Masilo as Giselle (photo: Laurent Philippe)

Seeing two revisions of Giselle at Sadler’s Wells in as many weeks — Akram Khan’s version presented by English National Ballet and Dada Masilo’s recreation as part of a Dance Consortium tour — is perhaps an accident of programming but they inevitably offer comparisons of approach. Any contemporary revision of a classical ballet that seeks to justify adopting its name requires an understanding of the original structure on which to build an updated narrative. But why revise the ballet in the first place? Théophile Gautier’s Giselle does not resonate today because of its fascination for Romantic tropes of the irrational and supernatural, but because its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness expressed through Jean Coralli’s choreography and Adolph Adam’s music can still evince a powerful emotional effect on a contemporary audience. The challenge, then, of any revision is to generate this kind of emotional resonance through a new gestural vocabulary, music, sets and costumes. 

Dada Masilo’s Giselle, in which she dances the eponymous role, begins as a vibrant re-telling of the narrative set in a village in her native South Africa on a hot and languorous day with Giselle’s mother (Sinazo Bokolo) clutching her aching back as she sweeps around the chattering, bantering villagers. Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) rushes in clapping his hands to get everyone on their feet and back to work before Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) and Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) make their entrance; Masilo has replaced the entitlement of the original ballet’s class structure with wealth, so while Albrecht and Bathilde are dressed in fine indigo robes they appear to have much in common with the villagers, even if Bathilde’s extrovert manner arouses some jealousy among the women. This lack of class division is reminiscent of the social cohesion in the benchmark revision of another classic, Romeo and Juliet, by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.   

Masilo is helped here by Philip Miller’s intelligent, sensitive score that samples phrases from Adam’s original to signal key moments in the musical narrative while introducing earthy African rhythms on which the villagers, and later the Wilis, can dance. Masilo’s choreography — a mix of classical steps with the energy of tribal dance liberally sprinkled with colourful everyday gestures and high-spirited banter — gives the story a delightful realism and is put to the service of fleshing out the psychology of her principal characters; the inner workings of Albrecht and Hilarion are embodied in their respective solos and differentiated in their confrontation, while Bathilde is given an extrovert personality to stand out from the already ebullient villagers. Giselle’s mother’s drunken cameo and Giselle’s dream sequence are particularly poignant. 

It is in the transition from the first to the second act that Masilo starts to bend the narrative to her own agenda. Her mad scene sees her at her most vulnerable, mocked and stripped by the villagers, an outcast who has lost everything, but her physical presence has a sense of fragility mixed with a sensual pluck that will resonate more with her conception of the Wilis: she replaces the hapless maidens with a gender-neutral pack of voracious warriors under the tutelage of a vengeful Myrtha (Llewellyn Mnguni). They prowl the stage in blood-red costumes in search of male prey, hoovering up first Hilarion and then Albrecht. Albrecht? Doesn’t Giselle’s love and forgiveness save him? Not here; the closest Giselle gets is the moment she appears to assuage a frightened Albrecht with a gentle caress and a kiss through closed eyes before slaying him. It’s a chilling reminder that Masilo has replaced forgiveness with revenge. Although the reversal has connotations for the #Metoo campaign, it also aquires profound political sensitivity in the aftermath of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission.

Dada Masilo and Lwando Dutyulwa in Giselle
The death of Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) in Dada Masilo’s Giselle (photo: ©Tristram Kenton)

Even if the ending robs Gautier’s narrative of its catharsis, Masilo has only pushed the envelope of the story to a logical degree within a contemporary context. All the theatrical elements work seamlessly together to condense the action succinctly within a sixty-minute performance. The one drawback is an additional ten-minute ‘technical pause’ between the first and second act narratives that dissipates the tension Masilo has so carefully constructed at the very moment she introduces the emotional core of her revision. While the imagery is strong, subtlety flees in the ensuing melee. Masilo pulls back from leaving us with a brutish taste of revenge through an image of Giselle blowing a cloud of white dust over the body of Albrecht that neatly inverts Gautier’s original scene of Albrecht’s remorse. The dust, suspended in the light, is Masilo’s gesture of redemption.


Lighting: Suzette Le Sueur with assistance from Thabiso Tshabalala
Costumes: David Hutt of Donker Nag Helder (Act 1), Songezo Mcilizeli & Nonofo Olekeng of Those Two Lifestyle (Act 2)

For an in-depth alternative perspective, see Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou‘s review on LucyWriters platform.


Riccardo Buscarini’s The Age of Horror at The Place

Posted: October 1st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Riccardo Buscarini’s The Age of Horror at The Place

Riccardo Buscarini’s The Age of Horror at The Place, September 19

Riccardo Buscarini, The Age of Horror
Andrew Gardiner and Mathieu Geffré in The Age of Horror (photo: Federico Ranieri)

For the UK première of Riccardo Buscarini’s The Age of Horror (L’età dell’ horror), the theatre at The Place is transformed into a square enclosure with seating on four sides. As we take our seats, we are aware of a muted event that has already begun: two men lying interlocked head to toe on the floor, hands clasped, rolling over each other almost imperceptibly along one side. This intimate ritual is accompanied by the calm intricacy of a contrapuntal variation on piano from Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The time it takes the audience to fill the seats is the time the two men take to continue their slow, sinuous journey around the square until they disentangle themselves and stand up, their hands still joined, as the lights brighten. 

Dancers Andrew Gardiner and Mathieu Geffré, who collaborated with Buscarini in the work’s development, look around almost sheepishly before continuing their choreographic dialogue to Bach’s fugues from this upright state. They retrace the edges of the stage, always in the same clockwise direction, interpenetrating each other’s space as well as the musical phrases in a constant, muscular entanglement measured in the flow of opposites — forward and back, in and out, under and over, inside and outside, through and around, rough and smooth. There are moments early in the choreography that are uncannily reminiscent of a kind of eighteenth-century court dance familiar to Bach; the ‘horror’ of the title arrives insidiously when harmony gives way to rough jabs of rivalry and aggression. As their articulations and changes in intensity, speed and complexity develop, the two men become more and more estranged from the symmetries and ceremonial display of the court, pitting one against the other in an endless interplay of thrusts and parries, lifts and slides that form a repertoire of physical accretion. Moments of stillness and silence relieve their dwindling reserves of energy and sense of desperation before the onslaught continues, with shifting eye contact accenting the inflections of fear, anger and uncertainty. This harrowing pattern of behaviour tests the emotional and physical limits of the two dancers over the hour-long performance and stems, Buscarini writes, ‘from the instinct to escape the other, and at the same time, the desire to merge with them’.

Clearly, the simple device of holding hands throughout the work can serve as a metaphor on several levels. In interpersonal terms it is the distillation of the manifold variants and departures that mark the development of a relationship, where tenderness and conflict underpin the evolution of being together through varying degrees of intimacy. Towards the end, in the process of peeling each other’s black shirts over their heads with their teeth to reveal their shiny silver linings, the two men momentarily turn into surreal faceless figures enacting a sensual sado-masochistic game where pleasure and pain are equally at play, becoming a feral double-headed creature both distinctly human and cruelly animalistic. 

In the post-show talk Buscarini and Geffré talk of the work’s larger remit, underlining the political significance of the title that openly references our contemporary zeitgeist. Geffré explains the interlocking hands in terms of the ecological and political challenges of our time, how we tenaciously hold on to ideas and affirm beliefs in the face of opposition and the temptation to let go. Buscarini is interested in history and how historical epochs recur in the present with specific variations, teasing a complex web of continuities and differences that the choreography articulates in its constantly evolving cyclical path. Today’s ‘age of horror’ is the toxic product of histories of exploitation, aggression and inequality that underpin the tense geopolitical interdependence of different parts of the globe. In effect, Buscarini’s stage becomes an imaginary ring in which the antagonism between two men epitomises global tensions where one resists the force of the other to whom he is inexorably bound. 

Buscarini’s weaving of variations, like Bach’s The Art of Fugue, could continue endlessly in ever-richer permutations but the work finds its organic ending in stillness. Gardiner and Geffré, visibly exhausted, face each other and slowly separate their hands. It is a poignant moment: but is it capitulation? Psychologically, fear establishes constraints and its opposite is not courage but freedom. In the concluding act of letting go the two men, with whatever misgivings, seem to have chosen to break with the past and to face a future that seeks, in Herman Hesse’s words, ‘to find new light that old ties cannot give’. 

Lighting: Riccardo Buscarini with Maria Virzi
Music advisors: Alexis Delgado and Sebastiano Dessanay
Costumes by Ludi Andrade


Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Posted: September 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone, September 12

Emma Gladstone, Dance Umbrella
Emma Gladstone (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

NM I read there’s a through-line to the 2019 Dance Umbrella festival focusing on ‘the emotional, intellectual and sensual power of the body’. I wonder if this focus is the result of the works you have chosen or if it is a pre-selected theme for this year?

EG I suppose I do like works that have structural concepts within them. Lucy Guerin’s Split is an example; it’s a pure dance piece but there’s a very clear structure of space and time in it that I think is not only a fabulous invention but also a guide to our watching. I feel there is more intellectual power and association and suggestion and connection in dance than people sometimes think. That’s why we do all the debates and talks during the festival; I think choreographers are such intelligent beings and so wide in their thinking and their invention that when they do find a way of working, or a particular discovery, it’s quite different from theatre. 

Dance Umbrella Lucy Guerin Split
Lucy Guerin’s Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

NM Do you think dance has a place in intellectual and political discourse? 

EG Yes, but I always think dance is not a good art form for facts, so you are always working more subtly and that includes the power of suggestion and connection for audiences while they are watching. There’s always going to be politics because of the body. But there are also many other things that can be revealed within the frame… 

NM Do you think they are revealed during the performance or in discussing and thinking about it afterwards?

EG Well, if you take Jérôme Bel’s Gala, for example, it’s a hugely political work because of the journey on which it takes us, how it addresses our prejudices or assumptions and I love that evolution of our headspace while we’re watching. There’s also a big thing about difference, when international artists bring different worlds or different perceptions. In Gregory Maqoma’s CION for this year’s festival, you will hear an African choir singing Ravel’s Bolero and it makes you appreciate difference, hearing one of those rather hackneyed bits of music that are ‘owned’ in the western canon, how they can be used and treated and still be effective and moving and powerful from another world. To me difference is always part of the politics: looking at difference, understanding difference, not being afraid of difference. I think it’s something the art form as a whole can do very well. There’s something much more interesting for me about works that are full of politics through suggestion rather than flag waving. 

Dance Umbrella Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma’s CION (photo: John Hogg)

NM Do you find this kind of content is more marked in works from outside the UK?

EG Oona Doherty is an interesting case for the questions of class and place she brings and reveals in her work (Hard To Be Soft at Southbank Centre and Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus at The Yard Theatre). I think as an artform dance can also exist for its strength and beauty like music. There’s a wonderful American artist, Theaster Gates, who said in response to a question about the validity of art in a context of deprivations within society, “Beauty is a basic service”. I think there is a total validity in work that is for the human spirit alone. I don’t wish to negate that, but there is also the potential for insipid or empty works in the same way. I do search for complexity that includes intellectual ideas in the choreography, but there are so many different ways these can be realised. 

NM What percentage of works that you see contain the ingredients you are looking for and find their way into your Dance Umbrella program?

EG I probably see about 180 works a year and there are usually 10 or 11 in a festival. But that 10 or 11 can include five or six commissions and then I don’t know what’s coming! These are artists I believe in who we’re keen to support and they’ll bring their work whatever it is, and we take that leap with them. For example, one of the works at the Linbury Theatre this year is Jacobsson and Caley’s reimagining of a Merce Cunningham piece, For Four Walls, and there are a couple of works in Freddie Opoku-Adaie’s Mixed Bill in his Out Of The System at Bernie Grant Arts Centre that are commissions. There are also two of the Four by Four Commissions, one chosen by Akram Khan — a new work by Mythili Prakash, Here and Now, at Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover — and the other by Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker — Georgia Vardarou’s Why Should It Be More Desirable For Green Fire Balls To Exist Than Not? at the Lilian Baylis Theatre. I think it is part of our job to support artists and trust in them. That’s part of the fun. You’re asking people to take that leap with you and you get to see something at the start of a journey. I love those works that make me leave the theatre in a different place from where I went in; that’s what I want an audience to feel.

Dance Umbrella Mythili Prakash
Mythili Prakash (photo: Jonathan Potter)

NM How do you see Dance Umbrella supporting the dance ecology in London? 

EG One of the big decisions I made when I became artistic director was to bring over artists who are not already represented here. I felt liberated by the fact that most people don’t know most of the names most of the time, so it’s our reputation that we have to build through the quality of the work we present. Hopefully that means people will trust us and come to see fascinating artists because they appear under a banner whose quality audiences have come to value. Another decision was to stretch the diversity of choreographic expression as wide as possible, as with Charlotte Spencer’s Is This A Wasteland? in 2017 and Annie-B Parson’s 17c last year. 

Another thing we are doing this year in Croydon and at the Opera House is working with our partners to put a mixture of work in a single frame; this is where I feel most responsible in terms of curating, figuring out what sits next to what, how will the audience see it after seeing something else. I’m excited by Amala Dianor’s work, Somewhere in the middle of infinity, at the Linbury, because he is in such an interesting place and the diverse training and styles of his three dancers contrasts with what Merce Cunningham is doing with his solid, single technique at the other end of the bill (Sounddance performed by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine). That’s why I like the title of the program, The Future Bursts In, that is taken from a 1964 Observer review of Cunningham’s first London performances. We have to look at works differently now; there are no longer those kinds of monolithic techniques. 

Dance Umbrella Amala Dianor
Amala Dianor’s Somewhere in the middle of infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

NM How do you sift through the works you see to arrive at a Dance Umbrella program?

EG Apart from working on the diverse elements of age, culture, gender, and the geography of the city, I often invite those pieces I am not sure I liked at first, but which remain with me; they become milestones in my art journey of life. This is why I enjoy programming a festival rather than a venue; it’s the difference between the responsibility of programming year-round to develop a dance scene, with the growth over time of individual artists, and then the idea of a two-and-a-half week festival that’s about the new, the international. It’s a quite different focus, and it’s fun to play within that framework.

NM The geographical reach of the festival seems to have increased this year. 

EG Yes, this is the most we have ever attempted. We have added the Royal Opera House — though it’s not a first for Dance Umbrella — because of the mix of audiences and the strength of the technique of the dancers in the program. And, of course, there’s four different locations in Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover. We are also developing our partnerships with festivals around the UK and internationally though we only tour within London; Philippe Saire’s Hocus Pocus is going to six venues around the city. I love that. This year the festival will embrace a total of 23 locations. It’s a bit mad!

NM In terms of the future? 

EG This is my sixth year and I have no plans to be programming this festival years into the future. It’s a huge job, because it’s personal — art is personal; there’s no other way to do it. I love the job, and I love the team I am working with, but the scene is constantly changing and new, younger voices need to be heard. You can only reinvent your own wheel so many times. 

Dance Umbrella runs from 8 – 27 October. Here’s the full program.


Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

English National Ballet, Akram Khan’s Giselle, Sadler’s Wells, September 18

Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet
Tamara Rojo and the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet (photo: © Dasa Wharton)

Akram Khan created his transposition of Giselle for English National Ballet in 2016; this is its second return to a London stage since then. Giselle, as Jane Pritchard writes in a program essay, is the earliest (1841) of the ‘canon of ballets’ and one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Set in an ‘idealised, picturesque arcadia’ it ‘tapped into the fashion for Romanticism with its emphasis on exoticism, irrationality, other worldliness and danger’. Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have updated the context of the ballet while allowing its historical timeframe to remain vague, somewhere in a colonial economic era with Giselle as a redundant garment worker in a closed factory (an ‘outcast’) and Albrecht as the scion of an overseer family (a ‘landlord’). Albrecht’s duplicity, Giselle’s naivety and Hilarion’s jealousy still drive the narrative, but Khan’s appropriation of the romantic ballet seems to get in the way of his overarching theme of migrant labour, landing his cast in a narrative no-man’s land undermined by a contrived dramaturgy and a choreographic language that fails to take advantage of the expressive strengths of either Khan’s kathak or ENB’s classical technique. 

As Khan’s dramaturg, Little is aware of the connections and correspondences at work in this creation and coherently disentangles the various references in a program essay. But on stage, where it counts, the coherence is unresolved. The first act follows the broad sweep of the original scenario but conjoins the love story with social inequality. The stage is divided horizontally by Tim Yip’s monumental, moveable wall that hinges like an overhead garage door, dividing a small number of landlords on one side from the outcasts on the other. The wall is not so much a background as an overpowering metaphor of uncompromising power and social separation that underlies Khan’s vision; the attempt to fit this vision to the story of Giselle becomes especially problematic in the tenuous link between the two acts. Little writes that the second act is set in a ‘ghost’ factory (which looks uncannily like the first act) where the Wilis have become ‘the female migrant workers of Act 1 [who] have laboured, and too many have died, victims not of betrayal in love, but of industrial accidents…’ The original Wilis, having died of broken hearts, were a natural advocacy group for Giselle who had suffered a similar fate. In Khan/Little’s version the Wilis’ revenge is aimed at the callous manipulation of the owner class rather than against dissembling men; love has been transposed — and sidelined — by socio-political sanctions. 

Khan’s choreographic vision is rooted in the collective and it is in the corps de ballet that his imagery is most successful, coinciding at times with Vincezo Lamagna’s high-decibel score to suggest repetitive, mechanical gestures and formations of migrant factory workers, while the feral quality of the company scampering on all fours across the stage signals the breakdown of humanity under brutal subjugation. Even Giselle’s madness and death at the end of Act 1 are overshadowed by the seething circle of outcasts who mill around her like a black hole into which she disappears. Despite the narrative fault line in Act 2, the Wilis form a powerful image of unified revenge with their bamboo sticks banging out the musical rhythm like devilish warriors. 

Khan is less successful in delineating the individuals. When a dancer of Tamara Rojo’s stature is unable to extract from her eponymous role a fully-fledged character who can surmount the storms around her and elicit our sympathy, it points to weak dramaturgy and suggests the gestural vocabulary on which her character is built is lacking. Like Natalia Osipova in Arthur Pita’s The Mother, Rojo’s classical form loses its emotional compass in contemporary choreography that fails to address the source of its power. James Streeter’s Albrecht is revealed as a one-dimensional figure who stands out from the crowd by his height, his inability to dress like the outcasts while wanting to hide amongst them and his execution of some technically demanding classical steps. It is Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion who benefits most from Khan’s transposition, giving Giselle’s cloying emotional manipulator a more prominent role as a spivvy factory floor manager who knows how to insinuate himself between the workers and their masters. His more integral role suggests Khan had in mind an alternative, darker polemic treatment of the narrative — which the visual aspect of Yip’s design and Mark Henderson’s choreographic lighting corroborate — than the romantic mould of Giselle could possibly provide. 


Body Politic’s Father Figurine at The Wardrobe Theatre

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Body Politic’s Father Figurine at The Wardrobe Theatre

Body Politic’s Father Figurine at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, September 13

Father Figurine
Tyrone Isaac-Stuart in Father Figurine (photo: Mark Lamb)

Then John knew that a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son. Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.” – James Baldwin

Body Politic’s Father Figurine should be celebrated as one of the first full-length Hip Hop theatre works from a Hip Hop company based outside London that has multiple tour dates across southern England. Based in Oxford, Body Politic’s artistic director Emma-Jane Greig describes Father Figurine as a work that attempts to ‘question the stigmas around the mental health of men and boys whilst combining poignant spoken word poetry with hip hop dance, to explore the fractured relationship between a father and his son and their inability to healthily deal with a traumatic event’.

In Tyrone Isaac-Stuart’s father and Isaac Ouro-Gnao’s son, we have two eminently watchable and skilled Hip Hop technicians. Oura-Gnao transforms, shrinks and takes up less space in the first 20 minutes with his physical mannerisms and facial mimicry that bring to the fore a sense of a six- or seven-year old boy (not his college playing age) idolising his father, whilst Isaac-Stuart broods, blunts and isolates himself from all things in his orbit. 

Marked in repetitive chapters, we see the rhythm of time in the familial home, life played out in silent plates for breakfast, crumpled table mats for dinner and strangled conversation before bed; to see the chasm develop between the desire for proximity in Oura-Gnao and the emotional distance of Isaac-Stuart is painful. There is something in Father Figurine that has echoes of a Pinter and Beckett sensibility; not in the language or writing but in the way we are presented with a menace and memory whilst anchored in their world replete with pauses, awkward beats and ghost lives repeated. The most successful moments come when the two characters retire to their rooms at night; visited by the paroxysms of trauma, they assume a yoga-like boat pose that teeters and convulses in sharp, unsettled isolations. Isaac-Stuart’s use of popping and animation as choreographic languages on the floor and standing is both fitting (in the isolation of his body/mind in the work) and delicious.

The physical language and monosyllabic dialogue has a clarity that negates the need for the monologues; when each character burps these uncharacteristically poetic soliloquies it completely jars with the emotional investment and integrity that has been so carefully built up until this point. The writing feels a little indulgent and out of place — not to say it’s not eloquent, but it’s totally ill-fitting. Likewise, the inclusion in the soundtrack of quotes and testimonies from other men who are encountering mental health issues feels a little forced and obvious.

With Stephen Brown and Derek Mok credited for the choreography, it was interesting to hear in the post-show conversation that Brown and Mok were responsible for the original version presented at Resolution 2018 (‘which was essentially the last 20 minutes of the current version’) and have had no input since. It has been Isaac-Stuart and Ouro-Gnao who have built backwards from that point and harvested a movement language from the original source; it feels like they should both have a credit for the work they’ve done on extrapolating the choreographic world.

Father Figurine feels closer to a family portrait than a work that questions the stigma around mental health; it’s a good addition to the number of other one/two person Hip Hop theatre works currently on tour, like Elephant in the Room by Lanre Malaolu and Born to Manifest by Joseph Toonga, that are looking at mental health, lived experiences and the representation of black male relationships.  

Nobody wins when the family feuds.” – Jay Z


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Three Programs at Sadler’s Wells, September 4-14

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations (photo: ©Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated 60 years of life last year and the three programs the 33-strong company has brought to Sadler’s Wells in London focus on that celebration. The opening program is about Ailey himself, reflected either in Rennie Harris’s two-act Lazarus or represented in Ailey’s own early signature work, Revelations. Revelations is the ground, both figuratively and biographically, on which Ailey built his choreographic expression; he endowed it with vivid characterisation, joyous vitality and by anchoring it in traditional spirituals created a work that was politically and socially significant for its time. Revelations has rightly become synonymous with Ailey and it has pride of place at the close of each program. While the juxtaposition of Lazarus and Revelations neatly bookends the history of the Ailey company, there is a certain duplication in Harris’s narrative. For him to return to images of the slave trade in the first part is to repeat what Ailey achieved more evocatively through his association with spirituals in Revelations; in the second act, Harris simply substitutes hip hop for Ailey’s jazz rhythms as the contemporary expression of vigorous joy. There is also a distance between the two works that reflects on the treatment of African American culture over the past sixty years; it is the distance between Ailey’s trailblazing efforts to challenge racial discrimination in American society and the company’s current corporate identity. The year before he died, Ailey summed up his vision to dance critic Anna Kisselgoff: “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that colour is not important.” Sixty years on, the question could well be asked how the company is serving this vision.

The question of legacy is one that any dance company has to face when it loses its founding choreographer, and modes of continuation differ widely. Alongside his own works, Ailey in his lifetime was keen to present the works of other choreographers of any race, so the continuation of a repertory system within the company is consistent with his direction. The problem is how to deal with his own repertoire without his vital intervention. When Merce Cunningham decided controversially not to leave his company to function without him, perhaps he did not to want his works to define him beyond his direct control. While at the time of Ailey’s death in 1989 the decision to protect the company’s legacy in its existing form was wise given the socio-political environment, the further away Ailey’s works are from his rigorous influence the less representative they are of his unique spirit. Perhaps this is why, but for Revelations, the present London repertoire is entirely the work of other choreographers. It’s as if the anniversary celebrations are less about Ailey than about the continuation of the company he created, one that on this showing appears to have swallowed its founder almost without trace.

In the second program, the company presents works by Jessica Lang, Ronald K. Brown, and company artistic director, Robert Battle. Lang’s EN, dressed in white like the Take Me To The Water section of Revelations, is the one work that doesn’t address the company’s inherent culture; it is an abstract work that shows off the company — especially Jacqueline Green and Jacquelin Harris — but is not specific to it. Brown describes his The Call as ‘a love letter to Mr. Ailey’; it reaches back into Ailey’s choreographic influences, is replete with quotes from his work, and ends in the circle of light with which Revelations begins. It falls somewhere between a tribute and a pastiche without managing to reach the heart of its inspiration. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, was created in the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and arguably reflects that political climate in its frenetic dynamic. Battle calls his quartet a ‘modern day Rite of Spring’ and its folkloric rhythms and angularity derive almost certainly from Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring that presaged uncannily the devastation of the First World War. There is no sacrificial maiden here, however; in this kind of setting we are all victims.

Battle’s other work in London is Ella, a duet for two men that tries to match its choreographic gesture to the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing Airmail Special. It’s a tall order and succeeds only partially; it’s a party piece that showcases the thrillingly intricate dynamics of its performers (Daniel Harder and Renaldo Maurice) but fails to capture the full range of Fitzgerald’s vocal pyrotechnics. 

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Ounce of Faith could also be a paean to Ailey in its celebration of the influence of a teacher in a child’s heart. Undoubtedly sincere, the work’s exuberance is mitigated by a superfluous spoken text. Anna Pavlova once remarked that if she could explain something in words she wouldn’t need to dance it. Moultrie’s text is clear but his choreography waffles. Jamar Roberts’ Members Don’t Get Weary is inspired by the recording of two liquid blues numbers by John Coltrane, Dear Lord and Olé. Roberts is a longstanding member of the Ailey company and his body instinctively understands Ailey’s response to music; he seems to arrive at his own choreography from the inside and his dancers relish the opportunity to embody it.   

And so to Revelations. It’s a work you can’t help but appreciate although after seeing it at the end of each program the appreciation gives way to a mildly cloying sense of familiarity. Much has been said of Ailey’s theatricality, his ability to draw an audience into his embrace, but when this emotional effect is pre-empted by a conscious desire to please its authenticity is undermined. For an audience, it’s the difference between being profoundly moved and being entertained.  


Cullberg Ballet in Deborah Hay’s Figure A Sea at Southbank Centre

Posted: September 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cullberg Ballet in Deborah Hay’s Figure A Sea at Southbank Centre

Cullberg Ballet, Figure a Sea, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, September 6

Cullberg Ballet, Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea
Cullbert Ballet in Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea (photo: Urban Jörén)

In Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, The Monk by the Sea (1809), a diminutive figure stands on a seashore facing the horizon. The viewer observes the observer at a distance, removed from the scene and at the same time vicariously present in it. Such an image resonates with Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea (2015), choreographed for Cullberg Ballet — where Hay is one of three associate artists — who perform it at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on a welcome visit to London.   

The bare stage is defined only by lighting designer Mimma Tiikkainen’s white rectangle of light and a white backdrop. Divided in three groups in Marita Tiämström’s costumes, Cullberg Ballet’s seventeen dancers respond to some unspoken tasks by exploring the emergence and dissipation of movement either in isolation or in couples and trios. They sit or stand still, with only the slightest tilt of the head; they embrace each other then move apart; they walk each in their own specific and singular way of lifting one foot in front of the other and putting it back down, or creating a dance sequence that another dancer reciprocates through her own variations, their hands at times held in front of them like imaginary mirrors. They freeze a posture as if posing for a long-exposure photograph, or seamlessly continue the trajectory started by the kinetic energy of a movement till fully exhausted as they follow the rhythm of their own murmuring voices or that of the changing cadences and vibrations of Laurie Anderson’s soundtrack that in turn emerges and dissipates like waves. The effect is of a kaleidoscope of varying patterns, forms and images that shift across the stage or happen at either side, each distinctive but also expansively related to each other. 

Hay describes Figure a Sea as ‘a meditation on seeing. Seeing music, fleeting incidences and synchronicities, unbelievable unexpectedness and, most surprising – seeing the unnameable. It is a space for seeing oneself seeing’. In meditation, to see oneself seeing suggests the immersive experience of feeling movement, touch and hearing, of ‘seeing’ what the sensations and emotions of incidences feel like without lingering on possible narratives or meanings. Hence, ‘synchronicities’, ‘unbelievable unexpectedness’ and even ‘the unnameable’ are characterised by the uniqueness of the observer’s experiencing and feeling as a state in which one is both the subject and object of the observation. Quantum physics underlines the importance of such a point of view, positing that an event is intrinsically determined by the observer, since any observation is the result of a subjective response and the observer partakes of the very unfolding of experience. By offering us a meditation on seeing, Hay thus makes us the removed participant of its very articulation. She takes us to the core of what French scholar Michel Serres refers to as ‘the knot of the sensible’, where all the senses converge in the very act of seeing that Serres understands in terms of movement; this is the way Hay asks us to see, to observe, to be present. What we see and what we feel depends on our willingness to enter the realm of the sensible and to figure what sea of possibilities can fill an empty white space, to see the emergence of motion in stillness and stillness in the endless flux of movement that makes space and time. 

Figure a Sea ends with the dancers leaving the stage one by one, until only one remains; as the lights gradually dim, she also leaves. The white rectangle seems to flicker like the surface of the sea and a shadow divides the backdrop in half. It is as if Friedrich’s painting has been projected back to the audience, and now we are the figure looking out into infinity. 


Images Ballet Company 2019 at Lilian Baylis Theatre

Posted: September 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Images Ballet Company 2019 at Lilian Baylis Theatre

Images Ballet Company at Lilian Baylis Theatre, June 19

London Studio Centre classical Images Ballet Company
Images Ballet Company 2019 (photo: Johan Persson)

Finding a fresh end-of-year performance repertoire for students in the final year of London Studio Centre’s classical ballet strand is fraught with compromise. While classical ballet may be central to the curriculum, the classical form in contemporary performance is subject to various challenges, from inadvertent misunderstanding to intentional mishandling. With four new works to commission for her London Studio Centre students, Images Ballet Company artistic director Jennifer Jackson is well suited to navigating the hazardous paths to its realization. Having been a soloist in the Royal Ballet and subsequently experimented in choreographing the classical form and engaged in teaching its essentials ever since, she knows how to stand her ground and is not one to follow trends. She is careful to avoid, for example, the existential threat to the classical form at her former company arising from the dis-location of the body in the choreography of Wayne McGregor. Nevertheless, she faces two issues that this end-of-year performance aims to resolve. The number of choreographers working in the classical idiom is as limited as her budget so while she can at times access the talents of some of her more experienced colleagues, she must judge the input of less well-established choreographers to make up a program that will show off the quality of her dancers to their highest standards. That Jackson succeeds in balancing these competing demands is testimony to her skill in the artistic equivalent of realpolitik.  

One aspect of the performance Jackson has developed during her tenure at London Studio Centre is the musical through-line. This year composer and percussionist Martin Pyne provides not only a virtuosic composition for Mikaela Polley’s Interplay that he performs on stage, but a witty trio with himself on a mini-piano and two dancers that is performed during the intermission as an impromptu work in itself. Pyne begins Interplay seated behind his drum kit on an empty stage, giving us a foretaste of rhythmic patterns and percussive sounds for the choreography to follow. If Polley is conversant with classical technique, the forms and underlying rhythms she has chosen for the dancers are no match for Pyne’s virtuosic playfulness. Unlike the tradition in Indian classical dance, its western counterpart lacks the training of an integrated, percussive dynamic between musicians and dancers; although the interplay is present in the communication between Pyne and the dancers, the choreographic effect falls short of its promise. At the end, the gradual dismantling of the drum kit by the dancers while Pyne continues playing undaunted is a gem of musical and virtuosic wit.

Andrew McNicol’s Mirrors is a trio, a welcome relief from the habitual form of end-of-year performances where everyone appears in all the works. McNicol trained at The Royal Ballet School where he won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Competition and clearly has an understanding of classical technique. Mirrors, to the third and fourth movements from Ravel’s Miroirs for solo piano, is an impressionistic portrait of three women that never quite frames them. As long as dance is the physical expression of emotions it cannot be abstract, but if the expression is not clear the choreography will be bewildering. Mirrors has no story but its spatial and gestural intent is dissipated in this lack of clarity. 

One of the misunderstandings about classical choreography is the over dependence on the signification of its shapes; just as music exists in between notes, dance happens in between shapes. Cameron McMillan’s On Lineage relies on classically trained dancers’ shapes in movement but leaves out the dance. The choreography is perhaps too influenced by Ezio Bosso’s saccharine music (from Six Breaths and Music for Weather Elements) that uses successions of chords in a similar way. It is the kind of work, however, that can bring individual presence into relief, as is the case with Daisy Bishop, whose transformation as a performer from last year is testament to the value of Jackson’s tenure at London Studio Centre. 

It is Ashley Page’s Meadowdown that finally sets the dancers free as if the previous works had been a preparation; with a strong sense of classical technique within a contemporary form, Meadowdown soaks up the selection of music from Benjamin Britten’s lively Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra and translates it into a dynamically rich choreography that sets the stage dancing. Page writes that the work has been created ‘to reveal the students as they discover themselves in performance’ and that’s exactly what it does.