Thomas Page Dances, A Moment

Posted: September 21st, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thomas Page Dances, A Moment

Thomas Page Dances, A Moment, Filmed at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, July 3

A Moment, Thomas Page Dances
Thomas Page and Llewelyn Lewis in A Moment (photo: Monika)

In writing the play, Moment of Grace, in 2018, Bren Gosling distilled the stories of three characters whose lives were irrevocably linked through the AIDS pandemic in the UK of the 1980s. Because Gosling was close to people affected — he dedicated the play to the memory of Shane Snape — he was able to incorporate his insights into the psychological stance of each character that allows us to better understand the socio-political environment in which they experienced the disease. The play deals with fear, loss, disgrace, shame and friendship as the scourge of AIDS began to impact the gay community through misinformation and rank prejudice and is based on a historic occasion, the opening in April 1987 by Diana, Princess of Wales, of Britain’s first dedicated AIDS unit at London Middlesex Hospital. In the version I saw, filmed in the first lockdown, Gosling mixes his script with archive video of Diana’s much mediatised visit in which she openly shook hands with nurses, doctors and one of the patients, which did much to counter the misinformation and prejudice around the spread of AIDS. The title’s ‘moment of grace’ links the defiance of Diana’s handshake with the courage of one of the consultants to admit, in conversation with the princess on live television, that he too had AIDS. 

When Gosling suggested to choreographer Thomas Page that he respond to Moment of Grace, the idea was to present both his play and the choreographic response as a double bill. “I am very interested as a writer in collaboration with other creative forms. Also, I wanted to open a dialogue between older and younger generations of LGBTQ people about the English AIDS pandemic. Art is always great for opening up dialogue.” 

Even though Page describes the work on his website as “two performers explor[ing| what it was to be gay in the 80s when the UK was full of fear and ignorance”, it is impossible to know the experience of another, let alone the experience of another forty years ago; art can only make marks on a surface or in space that point to that experience while the audience is left to reconstruct those marks and pointers in their own mind, to distil an emotion of what that original experience might have been. In this sense, A Moment is very much an exploration in movement by the two performers, Page and Llewelyn Lewis, of what it is to be gay today, at a time and in a society where homosexuality is more accepted, and, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, AIDS is no longer a death threat.

The setting of a bare stage under Rachel Luff’s moody lighting and Robert Singer’s evocative score gives A Momenta sense of existing on a raised dais floating in time. An arresting image draws us down to a domestic scene in which Lewis stands centre stage, fully clothed, in an overhead cone of light, repeating the close, enveloping gestures of one taking a shower. Repetition — a choreographic motif favoured by Page — etches the image in our memory while suggesting the languor and routine of the everyday. It is only interrupted by rising side lights signalling Page’s entrance into the space, coming to rest with one foot on one of the many items of clothing scattered around. The presence of clothes responds to a line in Gosling’s play spoken by Andrew as he looks back at his life: “I used to be interested in clothes, clubs, buying records. And men. Now my life…what life?” For Andrew and others in his position the desire for gratification must have seemed so insignificant in the face of death, but for Page and Lewis the clothes seem by contrast to be casual attachments, choices to wear or abandon. Page describes the ensuing duet as ‘moving through themes of paranoia, intimacy and oppression’, but his seismic palette has few ups and downs, few moments in which transitions from one emotion to another are clearly established. To adapt daily movement to the stage as a communicative structure to relay ideas and emotions requires a choreographic vocabulary that has the clarity of language in visual form. Page’s response to Gosling’s play is more an open-ended reverie between two men that softens the contrast between the themes it purports to address, as if Gosling’s social concerns have been replaced by Page’s existential ones. It will be interesting to see the live pairing of the two, as was intended, as an indication, perhaps, of how far the present LGBTQ+ community has developed from the initial AIDS crisis and how much it owes to those who endured it. 

(The two works premiered together at the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival but were transferred during lockdown to the screen, the format in which I saw them).


KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre

Posted: September 14th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre

KVN Dance Company, Coppelia, The Cockpit Theatre, September 2

KVN Dance Company in Coppelia
KVN Dance Company in Coppelia © Andrea Whelan

In 1934, Adrian Stokes wrote about the relationship between action and music in ballet: “The action does not interpret the music, nor the music the action. They would appear to belong to different atmospheres. Yet they cannot be held apart, since the picture they compose is unforgettable.” This is very much the impression of the opening night of KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre. Here the ‘different atmospheres’ include the costumes, sets and lighting, each on their individual layers of experience, that combine with the cast to create a high-octane performance that is in turn heightened by the proximity of the audience to the action.  

This is not a revival of the already much revived Coppelia choreographed in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon to a score by Léo Delibes, but, borrowing from contemporary musical jargon, a re-mix. Taking the traditional ballet’s narrative structure as a starting point, choreographer/director Kevan Allen, composer Rickard Berg and sound designer Henri Latham-Koenig have produced a masterful mashup of dance styles, sounds and popular Delibes tunes with turntable-inspired rhythms and beats that transform the action into the immediate present. Wendy Olver’s costumes, too, displace the characters from classical ballet to a sophisticated enclave of extrovert bohemians, in contrast to Justin Williams’ modular set retaining the sylvan character of the original. Throughout KVN Dance Company’s production of Coppelia these similarities to and divergences from the traditional ballet endlessly encourage and subvert our expectations. 

Coppelius is a maker of automata, or mechanical dolls, and his great project is to give life to one of them, his ‘daughter’ Coppelia. His persona is a fusion of three characters in ETA Hoffman’s eerie psychological short story, Der Sandmann. One is a shady itinerant oculist selling lenses, another an alchemist and the third a physics professor versed in occult sciences with a Promethean desire to create life in his mechanical dolls (Der Sandmann was published just two years before Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein). There is no place for the uncanny in the Delibes score, however, with the result that Saint-Léon’s doctor is downgraded to an eccentric but misguided doll maker in a small German village. Despite Allen’s desire to question “why Dr. Coppelius was so intent on creating a life-sized clockwork doll for himself”, and his brief suggestion of an answer in erotic gratification, his characterization of Coppelius (Michael Downing), remains — despite Berg’s promptings — more Saint-Léon than Freud.

Allen maintains the traditional setting of the ballet, dividing the action between the village square outside Dr. Coppelius’ studio in Act 1 and the inside of his workshop in Act 2. With a quick reversal of elements, Williams’ set suggests what is outside and what is inside, but they are insufficient to counter the choreographic similarity between the acts, making the two joined scenes of the second act appear a variation of the first. This is also because Olver’s tastefully exaggerated costumes blur the distinction of the characters between villagers and a successful rollout of Coppelius’ dolls. In the first act the balance of all the elements works so well that the occasional longueurs of classical ballet — the drawing out of the narrative into entertaining divertissements — appear to pass over into the latter part of the production. Nevertheless, the thread of the story is still clear through the interactions between Franz (Danny Fogarty), Swanhilda (Marina Fraser) and the doctor, while the other characters swirl around and through them as forces that maintain their prodigious energy and colour from beginning to end. 

KVN’s remix of Coppelia is Allen’s first production for his new company and is clearly a vehicle for his brand of artistic fusion. Under Mike Robertson’s lighting, the costumes, music, sound and choreography work brilliantly together, each egging the others on to greater expression, but by the end the story tends to melt away into the performance. It begs the question of what Allen will do next with his expressive palette. There is a sharpness and an awareness in his choreography that points perhaps to an energetic satire, a field of dance that is sadly under-represented in an era that desperately needs it. Rather than following the well-mined route of updating classical ballets, Allen and his team could give a contemporary choreographic edge to a period costume drama, for example, or a comedy of errors. With a sharper focus, their populist approach, humorous touch, choreographic asides and excellent handling of form could provide a vital antidote to the current sense of malaise.   


Choreographer and Lighting Designer: The association between Tero Saarinen and Mikki Kunttu

Posted: July 30th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Interview | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Choreographer and Lighting Designer: The association between Tero Saarinen and Mikki Kunttu
Tero Saarinen in Breath (2018), choreography Tero Saarinen, lighting Mikki Kunttu (photo: Mikki Kunttu)

The choreographer, Tero Saarinen, trained as a dancer in the rigorous Vaganova system and joined the Finnish National Ballet. He started to create choreographic solos and duets through spending time by himself in the studio listening to ‘other voices’ in his head and giving them shape. Only when Ohad Naharin saw one of his early works in 1994 and invited him to create on Batsheva Dance Company did the notion of becoming a choreographer begin to materialize. Before that, however, Saarinen had decided to pull up his career as a dancer and to put down choreographic roots, setting out for Japan whose culture and dance traditions had always attracted him. Finding much in common between the mental landscapes of Japan and Finland, in particular the cultivation of a minimal, almost frugal way of living, it is perhaps unsurprising that Saarinen was drawn to the dance form of Butoh. For a year he studied under the guidance of its co-founder, Kazuo Ohno — then in his eighties — and his son, Yoshito, as well as in workshops with Akiko Motofuji, the widow of Butoh’s co-founder, Tatsumi Hijikata. Saarinen seems to have found in Butoh a freedom of expression that derives from turning oneself inside out. Considering Ohno’s performances were, in his son’s words, ‘an occasion on which those ghosts dormant in him come to life’, Saarinen’s search for a choreographic form for his ‘other voices’ had providentially found a kindred spirit. It was as if the edges of Saarinen’s identity both as a Finn and as a classical dancer dissolved in the creative chemistry of Ohno’s workshops. The experience, he recalls, ‘completely changed my understanding of what dance can be and what can be achieved through it…how movement can be used to express the hidden, forgotten or repressed peripheries of humanity.’ He also shared with Ohno his empathy for the natural environment; Ohno once remarked in a workshop, ‘Make your dance more lifelike. You can grasp what life is all about by simply studying how a tree grows.’ For Saarinen the comingling of the spirit of Butoh with his Finnish roots created a choreographic amalgam that continues to transcend cultural barriers, revealing contrasting sensitivities and awakening new understandings. In formulating his aesthetic approach to dance making, Saarinen has remarked that “the dominance of words numbs us from a more sensory-rich experience of reality. By investing more in sensing, we could eventually experience each other, nature and life in a more holistic way.” 

The lighting designer, Mikki Kunttu, started out as a guitarist in a rock band and decided to study sound production at the Tampere School of Arts and Communication. Having started the course, however, he discovered it was concentrated solely on television and radio so he decided to change to the study of light, where he felt immediately at home with both his fellow students and his teacher. Kunttu recalls that his course was heavily weighted on the technical aspect; the creative side revealed itself to him only very gradually. “Later on, I understood that if you want to create and understand your own style or even aim to look for it, you’ll have to do this in-depth work on your own…The connection to your own artistic expression is a very personal thing and requires a level of solitude.” 

Having developed along similar introspective paths towards discovering their own artistic expression, Kunttu and Saarinen seemed destined to work together. When Saarinen returned from Japan in 1993, he was commissioned by Dance Theatre MD in Tampere to create his first evening of work and was assigned as his lighting designer a student in his first year of study. “My first lighting design project for the school was for contemporary dance”, Kunttu recalls. “Tero happened to be the choreographer. It was the very first time I had come across contemporary dance at all. I think we really hit it off from the get-go.” Saarinen’s recollection was less sanguine: “Mikki reminded me that at the premiere I was so nervous I stayed behind the lighting board with him and kept asking how it was going.” The evening evidently went well enough for the two to continue working together on projects over the next couple of years and when Saarinen created Westward Ho! in 1996 their collaboration was sealed, marking the official beginning of Tero Saarinen Company (TSC). 

Westward Ho! (1996), choreography Tero Saarinen, lighting Mikki Kunttu (photo: Chris Beirens)

What these two artists with their contrasting sensitivities had in common was that they were open to dialogue. “We never wanted to stick to something that ‘seemed to work in the past’”, recalls Kunttu. “There’s always been this strong will to create and to explore together. It’s always been very important for me to have a free hand in terms of the design.  I believe over the years we have really built a concrete base of confidence between us. The creative process is always very fragile and if this sort of confidence and trust is achieved and cultivated, it is really the best grounds for creative work. It’s not often with other choreographers that lighting would inspire concrete changes of choreography on stage or even help create something completely new. Tero is very aware of the light and the space and that way of working is a big inspiration for me.” He readily acknowledges, however, that “the main obstacle is approaching visuality too much from the technical perspective, thus letting the tech overshadow the creative inspiration…I consider the tech as being the brush you paint with; it’s no use focusing on the brush when you’re painting.” For Saarinen, Kunttu “not only illuminates the action on stage, but also creates architectural and emotional spaces. He is innovative, constantly updating his skills and looking for new ways to implement the art of lighting design, both in the theatre and in other kinds of spaces. All of this is fascinating and inspiring.” 

Although TSC has a strong Finnish identity, Saarinen believes in collaboration and cultural exchange programs — in the 25 years of the company’s life, he has worked with artists from Kenya, Australia, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway and the US — as key elements in constructing all the company’s activities on fundamental humanist values — equal rights and respect for all individuals — as well as on education. The basis for this was laid during his stay in Japan where he was able to attend private Nihon buyohclasses led by Yoko Fujima to understand and learn the basics of traditional Japanese dances. “A huge amount of detail and internal information is passed down from generation to generation. The fact that I, a complete outsider, was able to be part of this chain for a while…made me reflect on the importance of active, constructive and respectful intergenerational dialogue and transmission of knowledge…I believe the only way to really learn and make our lives better is through communication and transmission between nations, generations and traditions. All these elements, experiences, and tastes have shaped my choreographic thinking and are reflected in both my creations and teaching.” Saarinen has developed what he calls the Tero Technique, an approach to movement that focuses on awakening all the senses and activating every cell and nerve ending (it has also been called ‘butoh with wings’). “Technically, we pay a lot of attention to the feet, fingers, eyes and skin. The goal, both in the class and during the creative process, is to create an environment where the participant feels safe to take risks and develop. When dancers are 360 degrees aware and 100% present, they become authentic, vibrant and also more diverse. All of this leads to a dance that is constantly morphing and surprising, like flora and fauna.” 

This simile of natural regeneration is one that pervades Saarinen’s thinking. He remains passionate about creating and while he feels some of his works can stand the test of time, he doesn’t want his company to become ‘a museum’. “We want to serve as a springboard for those interested in exploring and developing their own choreographic movement language and this art form. Our common dream is to provide opportunities, mentor and promote the next generation of dance makers, sound designers, lighting designers etc. I think the idea of total artwork needs constant updating and it feels great to be helping future generations on this path of development.” 

Two years before the Covid-19 pandemic, Kunttu had moved with his two teenage sons to Montreal to work with the Cirque du Soleil, where he was able to continue to push the boundaries of his art. “Lighting designers have always introduced new ways of visual storytelling and I see them as the bold risk-takers always willing to make another leap into the unknown…They have pushed the envelope of stage performance more than any other profession in the field.” But as soon as the effects of the first lockdown took hold and it became clear that Cirque du Soleil would close, Kunttu brought his family back to Finland where he has managed to set up a new studio. He has ongoing projects — he is the production designer for the Finnish National Opera’s upcoming Wagner Ring cycle — but most have had their realizations postponed. Although he is happy to have made the decision to return to Finland, it’s been very difficult to keep afloat in an artistic discipline that has suffered inordinately from the disruption of the pandemic. 

For Saarinen, the pandemic coincided with the 25th anniversary of his company but despite the restrictions TSC managed to celebrate the opening of its new office and studio space in Helsinki’s Cable Factory, to maintain its network of staff and to initiate two residencies. However, all its plans for artistic collaborations and exchanges had to be put on hold. With live performances curtailed, one project Saarinen was able to undertake with filmmaker Thomas Freundlich (who made a wonderful documentary on Saarinen in 2018 called Rooted With Wings) is a multi-camera filmed re-enactment of his Third Practice that had premiered for the Monteverdi Festival in 2019. With a return to live performance for the Helsinki Festival, TSC is planning to present the Finnish première of Transit on August 19-21 in the new studio space, a work that had its world première last October at Malmö Opera as a co-production with Skånes Dansteater. In line with one of Saarinen’s all-consuming themes, Transit ‘examines our relationship with nature’ as a ‘frantically performed ritual, a fight for survival and change’ that adds his eloquent choreography to the multiplicity of artistic voices expressing concern about the current environmental crisis.  

In the Spring of 2022, the new Tanssin Talo, or Dance House, will open in Helsinki and TSC is a key partner in establishing its path into the future. It will be a culmination of many years of dance advocacy in Finland by Saarinen, his colleagues and supporters, and he is naturally enthusiastic: “The new house will serve as a unifying address and event platform for the presentation of a wide range of dance truths and as a stage for international guest performances. It will also be our home stage so we will perform more in Finland. In addition to our home performances, we will also co-produce guest performances with Tanssin Talo.”

Jing-Yi Wang in Transit (2020), choreography Tero Saarinen, lighting Minna Tiikkainen (photo: Carl Thorborg)

With the backlog of interrupted engagements, and the long arc of production schedules, it will be a few years before Kunttu will be in a position to light a new work by Saarinen —there are, however, several accomplished freelance lighting designers and supervisors, in addition to Kunttu, listed on TSC’s web site (Third Practice has lighting design by Eero Auvinen, and Transit by Minna Tiikkainen). But for the opening season at Tanssin Talo Saarinen plans to stage some of his key works for which Kunttu designed the lighting (including the post-apocalyptic Breath), so there will be a chance to celebrate their long and prolific collaboration. Kunttu, who has always correlated the high energy levels of lighting with the energy of dance, has worked with many choreographers, “but a creation with Tero always feels like coming home.” It’s a neat temporal intersection that Kunttu’s fiftieth birthday should coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of TSC as it moves into its new home. 


The Death of Liam Scarlett

Posted: April 21st, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Obituary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Death of Liam Scarlett
Liam Scarlett by Cleon Daniel
Photo of Liam Scarlett by Cleon Daniel

On April 17 it was announced that Liam Scarlett, former dancer and choreographer with the Royal Ballet, had died. He had just passed his 35th birthday. Almost exactly a year ago, on March 23rd, the Royal Ballet announced it would no longer be working with Scarlett, formerly artist-in-residence at Covent Garden, following his suspension from the company the previous August after a report emerged of ‘sexual misconduct with students’. The allegations against Scarlett went public in January in an article in The Times, after which the company announced that performances of his Symphonic Dances would not go ahead. Soon after, the Queensland Ballet, where Scarlett was an artistic associate, also severed ties with the choreographer, cancelling his planned production of Dangerous Liaisons. Both the Royal Ballet and Queensland ballet announced they had conducted independent investigations into the allegations of sexual misconduct. The Royal Ballet stated they had “found there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School” and the director of Queensland Ballet, Li Cunxin, stated the company had found no evidence of improper behaviour by Scarlett in Australia.

So an acclaimed young choreographer’s reputation is publicly repudiated and his career wiped off international rosters despite statements that no evidence could be found to substantiate the claims against him. Then on the morning of April 16, the director of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Kasper Holten (who had been director of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden from 2006 to 2011), issued a press release saying that Scarlett’s full-length Frankenstein, scheduled for May 2022, would not go ahead because of “information (that) has recently emerged about unacceptable behaviour from…Liam Scarlett towards several people among the Royal Theatre’s employees during rehearsals in 2018 and 2019.” 

The coincidence of this announcement and Scarlett’s death the next day would seem to suggest that the fallout from his year-long public trial without jury had finally engulfed his spirit. While there is an incontrovertible argument against abuse, the loss of a life as a consequence does not square with it. Scarlett’s death is evidence of a penalty applied through the media rather than through the courts. Have the Royal Ballet, Queensland Ballet and Danish Theatre through their actions rooted out the cause of abuse or have they merely dealt with its effect? Scarlett trained at the Royal Ballet junior school, White Lodge, from the age of 8, graduating through the upper school into the main company at the age of 20. Was his behaviour an aberration or accepted practice? Over the twelve years of training, was he perhaps the product of an abusive culture? 

A prestigious institution like the Royal Ballet and its parent, the Royal Opera House, is run by individuals, but it is in the nature of their power to withdraw behind an institutional mask in the event of danger and to publicly deflect any repercussions on to an exposed individual. Had there been previous instances of Scarlett’s behaviour (or anyone else’s) that had been brushed under the plush red carpet during his rise to fame (from which the company basked in reflected glory)? Was he a victim of the times, of the #MeToo campaign that must have made institutions like the Royal Ballet nervous of what lay hidden from public view?  

In the first act of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, after the first scuffle between the rival families in Verona, the Duke enters and signals to the townspeople to step aside to reveal the dead. It is a powerful moment in Prokofiev’s score and in the choreography. The Duke brings the heads of the two warring families together to lay down their arms but the killing goes on in the next two acts until the two lovers take their own lives. In the Shakespeare play and in the original Bolshoi production, this final tragedy brings about a reconciliation between the two families. In Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version for the Royal Ballet, that reconciliation is not shown on stage but is left in the hearts of the audience to sense. Liam Scarlett’s death is a tragedy, but if his death is to have any lasting legacy, a thorough reform of abusive culture wherever it may exist needs to take place. 

While some companies have maintained Scarlett’s work in their repertoires — on Sunday, Bayerisches Staatsballett dedicated the première of its streamed program Paradigma to his memory and the Royal New Zealand Ballet has announced it is reviving his 2015 A Midsummer Night’s Dream this December — I question whether the Royal Opera House, Queensland Ballet and the Royal Danish Theatres have the moral compass to pass judgement on the choreographer by withdrawing his works from their stages. Those who handled the investigations into Scarlett’s alleged abuse and found “there were no matters to pursue” yet sacrificed him on the altar of public opinion should admit their craven error and resign before any meaningful restitution can begin. 


Breakin’ Convention 2020: Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: January 12th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Dance on Screen, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Breakin’ Convention 2020: Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells

Breakin’ Convention, Social DisDancing, Sadler’s Wells, December 11

Breakin' Convention Jonzi D
Jonzi D as MC (photo @Belinda Lawley)

Yes! A live performance at Sadler’s Wells in a brief respite from Covid restrictions. The subtitle of Jonzi D’s Breakin’ Convention riffs on government guidelines to produce Social DisDancing, an event tailored for a smaller audience at Sadler’s Wells than would normally attend this annual celebration of hip hop, proscribed by current safety regulations assiduously carried out by the theatre staff. 

Since its inception in 2004 Breakin’ Convention has mapped ‘the origins and evolution of hip hop culture from around the world and around the corner’. Embodied in its ethos is a resistance to the norms of western theatre art and a choreographic celebration of Black identity, channelling the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement long before it materialised. The killings of George Floyd — once a rapper affiliated with Houston’s Screwed Up Click — Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland are three recent reminders in the U.S. of the systemic racial violence that constantly feeds into hip hop’s emotional charge.  

Looking at the three stage performances and two films presented at this year’s Breakin’ Convention, the notion of resistance and defiance is ingrained in the choreography both in its physical power and unyielding psychology, but the enemy is sometimes within. Mental health issues are prominent in O’Driscoll Collective’s One%, where oppression is internalized as a struggle between bboy Marius Mates and his shadow, Jamaal O’Driscoll, while in Botis Seva’s solo filmed portrait of depression, Can’t Kill Us All, he takes themes of his BLKDOG and personalizes them, with his young rambunctious son as an antidote to his own dark state of life. The framing of the film by Ben Williams adds to the impression of suffocation in Seva’s powerfully tactile performance, drawing a parallel between the politics of mental health and those of racial discrimination. 

Breakin' Convention Axelle 'Ebony' Munezero
Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Our Bodies Back

Jonzi D’s film, Our Bodies Back, created with poet and performance artist jessica Care moore, is overt political resistance not only to the murder of Black women but to the pervasive anti-Black attitude to women. Three dancers in three cities — Nafisa Baba in London, Bolegue Manuela in Hanover and Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Montreal — each choreographed their response to moore’s words, filmed by three cameramen and seamlessly edited by Ben Williams. The power of each of these women is self-evident, but if their choreographic resistance takes its coiled force from the incendiary anger of moore’s delivery, it also extends through their bodies into an expression of hope and freedom, giving anger wings. The outdoor settings in which they are filmed may have helped this impression, but it’s also in moore’s metaphor of the body as both crime scene and source of inspiration. Invoking Judith Jamieson and Katherine Dunham, she incites these black, female bodies to continue resisting with unfettered confidence; Munezero resists with eloquence, Manuela with power and a Baba with soaring spirit. 

In Boy Blue Entertainment’s Untethered 3.0 there is an overt sense of existential oppression that explodes in passages of virtuosic solo and ensemble dance. Here, the men (and Nicey Belgrave) remain resolutely within a style that has the aggressive DNA of hip hop while remaining self-referential; unlike in Can’t Kill Us All and Our Bodies Back, there is no way out. And yet, at the end when the cast relaxes and smiles to the applause of the crowd, the mask of aggression drops for a natural expression of joy. Could this not be a starting rather than an end point? Resistance can take many forms: in an early work, Aeroplane Man, Jonzi-D demonstrated a form of resistance filtered through his ebullient, sardonic wit and a freedom of movement grammar. It communicates on many levels and is still relevant today. How relevant will Untethered 3.0 be in 10 years? 

Breakin' Convention Hip Hop A.I.M Collective
The cast of A,I.M Collective in Suspended (photo: @Belinda Lawley)

The all-female A.I.M Collective’s Suspended was the one stage work that had no difficulty in exuding an exhilarating sense of mystery. The technical acuity of the performers is clear and there is an imagination at work in the choreography — the work was created by the company’s founder, Sean Aimey, along with the cast — that breaks up the force into contrasting filigree elements. The result is a sense of strength and resilience that breathes self-confidence.        

In choreographic terms, there’s a danger that a genre as powerful as hip hop can become trapped in its own form (the same can happen with a genre like ballet where the past fails to adapt to the present). What Our Bodies Back and Suspended seem to suggest is that female intuition and power have a vital role to play in the development of hip hop and of Breakin’ Convention in particular. 


Ian Abbott on The Choices And Decisions of 2020

Posted: January 8th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review, Dance on Screen | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on The Choices And Decisions of 2020

Ian Abbott on The Choices and Decisions of 2020

Here lies a reflection of moments, encounters and performances that have settled in my 2020 memory bank. In a year where power entities, structures and artists have been disrupted, there are those who’ve ostriched (insisting that theatrical normality will eventually resume), those who’ve octopused (adopting new thinking and adapted to the world as it shifts) and those who’ve been paralysed by the economic and/or emotional matters outside their control.

The choreographic world has fragmented while the audience offer has exploded; where before there was broadly speaking a mix of stage works, outdoor works and screen dance, artists are now finding audiences in between these worlds, taking their ideas and seeding them in the cracks of Zoom, WhatsApp, Spotify and other format spaces to see what will emerge in the future.

Theatres as buildings and festivals as spaces in which to gather are currently no longer a cultural magnet; their siren calls and community relevance have weakened as they can no longer pull people towards them as they have done for centuries. The theatre and its local geographic audience model is reminiscent of the monopoly of the terrestrial broadcasters of BBC, ITV and Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s before the emergence of Channel 5, Freeview, the Internet and streaming services. Most of the power, resources and ability to generate noise came from a select few places and we were limited in the choice of where and what we could watch; this preservation of power could anoint artists who would stay close to the centre, being reeled out time and again without creating space for alternative voices. 2020 has put a fissure through this Hobson’s choice.

I no longer need to travel hours on public transport to see works, while my palette of possibilities has widened; if I am no longer satisfied by the curational choices of The Lowry or Chapter Arts Centre then the technological platforms of 2020 have allowed me to see works presented by independent artists from Kenya and Canada, Seoul International Dance Festival, Carriageworks in Australia and dozens of others. With this increase in choice vying for my attention, decisions made by theatres, festivals and organisations are more critical; when those previous precious slots in the calendar and the financial resources that accompanied them have been suspended, what are they choosing in their place, how and why? Every choice is political, because being apolitical is a privilege afforded only to those with power. 

The majority of work written about here has been absorbed into screen, speaker or something in between. However, there were two live, pre-lockdown works in early 2020 that I want to mention; Fabulous Animal by Zosia Jo, presented in March on International Women’s Day at Cardiff MADE, and Coletiva Ocupação’s When It Breaks, It Burns presented at Battersea Arts Centre in February.

Reflecting on Jo’s Fabulous Animal is framed by her decision in August to give up the brutal, time-consuming, often futile treadmill of funding applications, challenging herself to go for a minimum of one year without writing another supplication for funding, projects or commissions. 

Zosia Jo
Fabulous Animal
Choices 
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Zosia Jo in Fabulous Animal

Jo describes Fabulous Animal as ‘…a research project, a method and an attitude. It is a feminist approach to dance and movement and a performative project aimed at re-wilding the body and shedding imposed gendered movement habits.’ 

Set in the corridor gallery of Cardiff MADE crammed with around 20 audience members, the exhibition featured a 20-minute solo by Jo alongside photography from Grace Gelder and Mostafa Abdel-Aty, film by Jo and Ruth Jones, design by Ruth Stringer and sound by AcouChristo. This was followed by a post-show conversation about some of the research, feminist texts and approaches behind the work.

What Jo challenges with her research project and performance is what bodies get to tell stories and how they should be presented. Whilst I could offer a choreographic analysis of her improvisatory score, there is little point in describing what her body was doing in the space because the work actively rejects pre-existing notions of bodily technique and beautiful patterned steps; it concerns itself instead with connectivity, rootedness and listening. Connections related to re-wilding, connections through shifting masculine and feminine energies and listening to non-habitual movement patterns on the body. All of this landed with clarity and left a choreographic residue that was deeply satisfying compared to the highly polished, over-produced dance theatre that many venues covet and most artists and companies subscribe to.

There is space for Jo and room for research like Fabulous Animal — work that connects to care and practice that is not necessarily concerned with formal theatrical outputs and pre-existing notions of what is deemed acceptable. By approaching the performance, film, sound, design, and post-show talk, we have a rounded encounter which meets a breadth of practice with an emotional landing; looking back at how few works have achieved this before or since March, Fabulous Animal is a work that continues to resonate.

A work that stays with me for another reason is When It Burns, It Breaks by coletivA ocupação at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) for nine performances in late February. It self-describes as ‘Sixteen young people who were part of the high-school occupation protests in Brazil in 2015 and 2016 fuse dance, music and performance to re-create the revolution and share their story in this rousing show. The action overspills from the stage as the coletivA ocupação performers sweep audience members into the uprising. Prepare to stand, dance and be part of the movement.’

In any act of re-telling and re-presentation, we are already removed from the source, but by choosing to programme this work at this arts centre in this city at this time, BAC is choosing to make its audiences proximate to that experience of high school occupation protests in Brazil from five years ago. Why? Why do they want us to attend this? 

The further I get from this work the more uncomfortable I am with the decision to present it. coletivA ocupação is a company of young people who have created a work about something that is very important to them; it comes from their direct experience and they want as many people to know about the high school occupations as possible.

Without denigrating the performers or the director, Martha Kiss Perrone, I am questioning why BAC has chosen to bring the work from Brazil (with the ensuing ecological and environmental footprint of moving 20 people from South America to UK for a short run) when there have been and are dozens of equally passionate and equally talented groups of young people in Battersea, London, England or the UK that are also engaged politically, socially and emotionally in their communities exploring issues that resonate and have meaning for them. Why are venues and festivals so enamoured with the international cherry? Finding work from international locations to bring to their audiences has a whiff of those historic collecting practices that we continue to decry in the museum sector yet for which we give passes to venues and festivals who continue to do it. 

One reading (which I lean towards) of When It Breaks, It Burns could be: we witness 13 people aged 18-23 diluting and re-performing their anger and experience for the Lavender Hill experimental theatre set. With a BAC framing of nine performances only, come and witness how troubling it must have been for these children and the hundreds of others in Brazil from the privilege of our subsidised London theatre.

With plenty of call and response in the show in their original language (supported by projected English surtitles), the performers attempt to re-kindle their original emotional response, but miss. Instead they offer re-enactments that feel closer to a historical society presentation than to any sense of what it might have been like to be there at that point in history. With some urgency the performers move around and in between the audience, brushing and banging our knees on our tightly packed island of black chairs, before herding us around into smaller groups where they exchange some tiny personal details about themselves before running off.

The work is thin, dramaturgically green and feels like a theatrical tourist trap where we’re encouraged to write words like ‘power’ or ‘resist’ on their crayon-stained banner alongside the waxy echoes of previous audiences; our ending consists of being marched outside, gathered next to the BAC bar to engage in some lukewarm, communally awkward shouting about how we should occupy spaces and build a revolution. It’s bad taste presentational politics. If BAC wanted to build a revolution in their community or change perceptions about young people, why did they spend their resources on this? Is it some form of programmer flexing? They’re already doing many useful things like making all of their performances relaxed, ensuring all performances from Spring 2021 are pay-what-you-decide and for many years have supported BAC Beatbox Academy who’ve created the brilliant Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster, but the framing of When It Breaks, It Burns felt incredibly uncomfortable in many different ways.

Bhairava
Choices
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A still from Bhairava (photo: Kes Tagney)

Moving on from the live into the screen worlds, there has been a flood of artists taking their first steps into screendance as well as festivals looking for existing content to platform. In August, The Joyce Theatre in New York screened Bhairava, a film directed and produced by Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer (Mouvement Perpétuel) with cinematography by Kes Tagney and featuring dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa.

Filmed in 2017 and released later that year, Bhairava ‘…evokes facets of Shiva, the Lord of Dance, as both the destroyer of evil and the guardian of time. He is fierce and drives terrible deeds, but he is also the Divine Protector and Supreme Guardian; his intention springs from pure compassion. In this work, carried by a strong and deeply evocative musical score and by the singular energy of the ancient site of Hampi, dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa embodies the presence and distinctive qualities of Bhairava.’

The film is dazzling in how it frames and balances the solo dancing body with vast landscapes; Shivalingappa is a fine performer who is able to hold focus and not let our eyes wander. In many screendance works the landscape overshadows and unbalances both the performer and choreography but Millar and Szporer allow the nuance, focus and detail of Shivalingappa’s kuchipudi technique to be equal to the majesty of the locations in Hampi and Anegundi. 

At a shade under 14 minutes there are multiple unconventional positionings and framings of the body; we see, for example, how the choreographic body plays with and responds to the source of light with slow pans and zooms. The rhythm of the film and prevalence of cuts is gentle and lets our eyes dwell long enough to explore each scene without it becoming predictable.

Live Action Relay, a work premiered and presented by Carriageworks in Sydney in October 2020, saw Sydney-based choreographer and film maker Sue Healey attempt to break new ground in the live-dance-film space. According to the publicity, ‘Drawing from our current moment of social isolation, Live Action Relay reimagines the role of technology in bringing us together across distance: a portrait of individuals in isolated spaces, connected by the orbiting eye of the drone camera and instantly shared in real time. It is immediate and raw, revealing split-second, real-time decision-making between drone pilot, director, musician and dancers, in an immediate and heart-racing spectacle.’

What Healey was attempting alongside performers Raghav Handa, Billy Keohavong, Allie Graham, musician Ben Walsh and drone cinematographer/director of photography Ken Butti was an ambitious, live, 20-minute choreodrone broadcast presented across an epic Australian rocky coastal landscape…and technically they pulled it off. 

With the dancers draping themselves in, on and around the rocks, climbing to high spots, to be ready for the next shot was a technical feat. All the components were present: Visit Australia landscape. Check. Dancers and musician. Check. Drone. Check. Shot list. Check. However, because something can be done, it doesn’t always mean that it should be, and at what point do we consider the audience?

Whilst we can forgive the technical messiness of live vision mixing (seeing steadicam operators or dancers running in the background of live shots getting ready for their next scene), Live Action Relay suffered from both an imbalance of scale and in how the scenes were edited and pasted together: pulling back and panning to see a 4-mile turquoise seascape shot from a longing drone in smooth HD for 10 seconds before being dumped back to the steadicam of Walsh dragging a microphone across stones to generate an experimental soundscape is jarring…and not in an interesting way.

For an artist like Healey, who has such a long practice with screens, it is surprising to see so many areas that were not tended to. Live Action Relay felt like it was in draft form and would have benefited from further refinement and focus on the purpose of the pursuit. Whilst I applaud the technical ambition and encourage the pursuit of dance in alternate fields, Live Action Relay was overwhelmed by the majesty of the site, whilst the constant overhead drone shot diminishes in impact after the first five uses; we get used to it very quickly and our attention diminishes in equal measure. 

A final note on works made in landscape is Insular Bodies, a new film from Stephanie Thiersch with Hajo Schomerus as director of photography. Co-produced and presented by Seoul International Dance Festival in November, it was filmed in the Ionian Sea and runs at 23 minutes.

Insular Bodies
Choices
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A still from Insular Bodies (photo: Hajo Schomerus)

Insular Bodies ‘…plays with materialities. What happens when we horizontalize human and biological, flesh and stone, wind, water and hair? Insular Bodies draws our attention to the wacky entanglements between the human and the non-human, the living and the non-living, and develops poetic images of an ecology that does not show hierarchies but rather approaches utopian scenarios of consonance.’ 

Insular Bodies is a mix of photographer Spencer Tunick’s mass naked photographic portraits with Willi Dorner’s Bodies In Urban Space presented on rocky uninhabited islands near Corfu. Eight slow, meandering, tentacled bodies climb, cling to rocks, existing in and out of the sea; moving, not moving their sea bodies, re-emerging as if they’ve been in a naked colour run after floating in the sea. 

There is a danger that Insular Bodies could be perceived as a cerebral indulgence, but the rhythm of the work was soft, fluid and on this particular day I was ready to receive those type of signals and I was held delicately by its wash.

One of the things missing from a lot of screen work is any sort of duration; the longest of the previous works was 23 minutes and a lot of the other works referenced in my previous lockdown responses have been significantly under this marker as well, leaving little time for subtlety, narrative development or a space to invite an audience to sink into it.

Back in the UK, there were a number of male-authored Hip Hop works made for screens and/or ported to the stage across the year.

One% by O’Driscoll Collective was a simple recording of an outdoor work broadcast back in June (after being commissioned by Dance Hub Birmingham for Birmingham Weekender in 2019) as part of the Midsummer Festival in Birmingham. 

One% is ‘a 14-minute dance performance featuring the dynamic rawness of breakin’. It explores how two characters move in different emotional states and how the form of B-boying/Breakin’ shifts accordingly and cultivates a synergy. One% is a sequel of Jamaal O’Driscoll’s solo piece Simplicity focusing on the significance of the need for mental health awareness. Both Simplicity and One% use this poignant topic to convey a message of emotion, intensity and despair found within mental health through movement and music.’

Performed as a duet with B-Boy Marius Mates (both O’Driscoll and Mates are part of the collective Mad Dope Kru) One% is a fine collection of strength, foot work, power moves and intentional collapse. O’Driscoll presents some snappy floor-based footwork whilst Mates has the cleaner power and sharper freezes; together they often hit and complete their moves (both duet and solo) before collapsing crumpled on the floor. There’s a slight emotional tide drifting in and out and whilst it is quite repetitive in terms of ‘I present a strength and then collapse’ there is definitely room for more development (in length) and complexity (in what it’s asking of the audience). Because of the floor work sequences, I’m unsure how successful it would be for outdoor audiences who are not on the front couple of rows; it might be better suited to an indoor theatrical presentation. The soundtrack felt like it was recorded from the mic so you hear a LOT of wind rushing into the microphone which breaks any emotional intensity that might be built through the relationship of Mates and O’Driscoll. One% is a neat work that adds to the growing library of masculinity and mental health in Hip Hop dance theatre. 

An absolute highlight of Hip Hop dance this year came from an East London Dance (ELD) produced collaboration with the BBC Singers as part of the BBC Radio 3 concert series in November. Commissioning choreographer Duwane Taylor to create an eleven-minute krump choreographic response for three performers — Jondette Carpio, Viviana Rocha and himself  — to A Curse Upon Iron by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was a stroke of magic.

A Curse Upon Iron is a choral work described as a shamanistic allegory on the evils of war that simmers with raw power; as a work it builds, threatens, layers, disturbs and burrows under the nervous system. When this sonic landscape is then amplified by the power and emotion of a staccato and rippling trio of krump choreography, the fit seems so perfect I cannot understand why other krump theatre has not been set to classical choral works. Whilst there have been some krump theatre solos, films and sessions that have had some classical music in them (see Les Indes Gallantes, a film by Clement Cogitore featuring choreography from Grichka, Bintou Dembele and Brahim Rachiki), having Carpio, Rocha and Taylor working on and riffing between the different choral lines of musicality is a visual a/synchronous feast. Filmed for broadcast rather than a screendance work within the sparse Milton Court concert hall and conducted by Ben Palmer, this short work shows again what Taylor can and has achieved under the banner of krump theatre — after he disbanded Buckness Personified in August — with a team of exceptional performers, clarity of commissioning intention and the support of a fine producing team.

A problematic lowlight of Hip Hop dance this year was Our Bodies Back, presented by ‘Sadler’s Wells’ Digital Stage and Breakin’ Convention…in collaboration with Jonzi D Projects and BCTV’.

Our Bodies Back (the publicity continues) stages the work of acclaimed American poet and performance artist jessica Care moore in a breath-taking new dance film from Breakin’ Convention Artistic Director and Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Jonzi D. Created during lockdown, this film is choreographed and performed by Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Montréal; Bolegue Manuela (b-girl Manuela) in Hanover; and Nafisah Baba in London. Our Bodies Back presents a powerful rendering of Black women’s voices; speaking out against the realities of anti-Black racism, misogynoir and sexual violence, while uplifting and honouring in full the Black lives and memories lost, in a stunning ceremony of dance, spoken word and visual art.’

Now, we know that both Sadler’s Wells (through their associate artists choices) and Breakin’ Convention have a problem with women. They actively choose not to platform them when Breakin’ Convention tours outside London; and as recently as three weeks ago in their live programme called Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells they erased the authorial voice of women again.

Social DisDancing presented three live works and two films; one of the film works was Our Bodies Back (directed by Jonzi D), the other was Can’t Kill Us All by Far From The Norm (directed by Ben Williams). The live works were: Untethered 3.0 by Boy Blue Entertainment (directed by Kenrick H20 Sandy and Mikey ‘J’ Asante), One% by O’Driscoll Collective (directed by Jamaal O’Driscoll) and Suspended by A.I.M Collective, an all-female popping crew (formed and brought together by Shawn Aimey in 2018). With five slots how many works were authored by men?

I wrote extensively in the summer about Breakin’ Convention’s choice to systematically erase women here so I won’t go over old ground, but the programming choices made in Social DisDancing conform to a clear behavioural pattern.

What isn’t really foregrounded in the credits and descriptions of Our Bodies Back is the creative and production team, which is worth highlighting as the work is ‘a powerful rendering of Black women’s voices’ so you might assume that Black women’s voices are central to the production of the film. These are the credits: Directed by Jonzi D, Edited by Ben Williams, with Sound Design by Soweto Kinch. So the three roles that are pivotal to how audiences experience the film are not Black women. What about the camera operators? They are: Jonzi D, Kofi Mingo, Pepe Luis Caspers, Sebastian Gronzik, Zach Lakes. No Black women here either.

There was an article about Our Bodies Back in The Guardian written by Lyndsey Winship and this paragraph is worth noting: ‘The three women choreographed their own material, and Jonzi sees the irony that perhaps, in the name of empowerment, a woman should have directed the film, too (he worked with his wife Jane Sekonya John as assistant director), but he tried to ‘use my privilege’ to give a platform to female artists. Jonzi has been instrumental in nurturing and promoting black artists for more than a decade through the annual hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention, but still doesn’t see enough female leaders, ‘the woman being the person with the vision, I want to encourage that more’. 

The quotes “use my privilege” and “the woman being the person with the vision, I want to encourage that more” really stand out here especially in light of what is mentioned above. Why isn’t anyone else talking about how Breakin’ Convention is actively trolling women in Hip Hop? 

What is great about the work is the searing strength of jessica Care moore’s words and her delivery and how those words created a deep emotional response for the dancers who choreographed their own bodies in response to it. However, why did a work about Black women’s bodies have to directed, scored, edited and filmed by men? Why weren’t even one of those roles given to a Black woman?  How can we talk about these choices?

Choices. Choices, choices, choices. Why did Rambert choose to commission Wim Vandekeybus — who made his first work back in 1986 — to make Draw From Within? Rambert’s Artistic Director, Benoit Swan Pouffer, originally commissioned another work for the company’s touring season in 2020 and in light of COVID shifted the commission instead to make a work viewable from home for a three-night run. 

The publicity for Draw From Within describes the project in effusive terms: ‘Take an exhilarating leap into the unknown. Rambert’s full company of dancers are currently in the studio creating their first real-time, live-stream performance with leading choreographer and filmmaker, Wim Vandekeybus. Through the eye of the camera — you’ll land right in the middle of a turbo-charged live performance. Rambert’s London South Bank studios will be transformed into a series of contrasting, vivid theatrical worlds, some dream worlds, some nightmares, some turned upside down…’

Rambert eschewed Vimeo and YouTube to host their performance on their newly launched Rambert Home Studio platform; I originally bought a ticket for the night of September 25 at 8pm, and was given a 16-digit code to access the work. After being kept waiting for 50 minutes with limited informational updates we found out at 8:50pm that the Rambert servers were down and they would not be able to broadcast the live performance that night. We received an email early next morning saying Rambert was going to put on an extra show on the 26th and that all tickets were transferable with the option of a refund. Having logged on to Twitter and Facebook I saw I was one of many deeply frustrated audience members, including an Arts Council England dance relationship manager. 

Throughout the entire pandemic I’ve not felt welcomed by those who have published their work online; this experience with Rambert was the worst case and symptomatic of how little thought artists, venues or organisations publishing and presenting art/performance online are giving to their audiences and community experience. There’s no care, little communication, no design of experience and no consideration about digital front-of-house. Where is the nurturing of that relationship and connection that is so crucial in the exchange between art and audience? Is it because there’s no drinks, merchandise or programmes to upsell? Are we really just walk-in coins? It’s as if in the urgency to present art digitally the notion of ‘valued customer’ has disappeared. And this is before we even begin to consider access and the needs of different audiences; be that the time parents who put their children to bed (why is everything still at 7.30pm or 8pm?), closed captions, audio description, large print programmes, trigger warnings and more. If you’re big enough and rich enough to build your own bespoke platform to present your work then you need to consider the 360-degree experience of how audiences interact with you, rather than rely on an endless shower of retweeted praise to demonstrate what is important to you.

All this was hardly a conducive build-up to see the work, which was heavily trailed as being live — it might have been live for the performers, creative and broadcast team, but there was nothing in the audience experience that indicated it was live or needed to be. If you’re not going to do anything with the audience why not offer it as a film that can be accessed at a time that is convenient? Is it another peacocking instance of doing it because you can?

Draw From Within was billed as moving around the Rambert Coin St HQ, but apart from a 2-minute opening scene on the roof followed by a 5-minute section traversing down the multi levelled steps/fire escape, the rest of the performance took place in a single dance studio that had been dressed and productioned to death to replicate a theatre stage.

Whilst it was heartening to see dancers performing again, what Draw From Within exemplified is that organisations with big commissioning budgets and historical reputations always choose the safe option. A White male choreographer, the dance equivalent of a theatrical banker like Shakespeare. However, there are other ways that this could have been done — see The Living Newspaper at the Royal Court, for example. 

Aesthetically the work is full of tired faux-horror film tropes lifted from Vandekeybus’ formative years — Argento, Hitchcock, Lynch — dropped into episodic 5-8 minute sections (hospital corridor, live TV news reporting, elastic guy ropes attached to walls) that attempt to mask a narrative deficit with high production values and quick camera edits. It’s the choreographic equivalent of the Tory government dead cat distraction strategy: look at these shiny things over here, aren’t they wow? If you stop to think about it, the audience treatment, the choice of who to commission and the resultant work tell you all you need to know about Rambert. This was definitely not a choice for the future and there really wasn’t anything new here (new to Rambert maybe), but this is the fading White male past dressed prettily for the present. If you want to know what the choreography was like, have a look at anything produced by Ultima Vez from the mid-90s onwards.

Alongside my choices to write about these works and highlight the choices made by others, there have been some glorious works that I’ve encountered that are worth celebrating because the care, quality and consideration are wrought right through them. 

Bloom by the queer pole artist A.T., Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy aka Babson (who passed on December 27 and leaves a chasm in the worlds of Hip Hop and house) and Quanimacy by Claire Cunningham. These are the works that I would choose to spend my 2020 with.


Ian Abbott: Still Locked Down…Still Dancing

Posted: December 14th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Dance on Screen | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Still Locked Down…Still Dancing

Still Locked Down…Still Dancing, December 3, 2020

Still from dance on screen (Re)United
A still from (Re)United

The time it takes for a dance work to simmer, manifest and make its way out to the public can take anywhere from six months, to a year-and-a-half to five years plus; it usually depends on a number of factors including access to resources, levels of existing privilege and what platforms or partners are needed for distribution. 

The speed at which we have seen works microwaved, packaged and distributed in the last nine months is somewhat akin to the current dialogue around the production, regulation and distribution of the new COVID vaccines in the UK. We’ve seen processes that have previously taken 10 years or more accelerated at an unprecedented pace demonstrating that things can be done if barriers are removed.

In a timeline of response, the dance works (and other art forms) that we’re seeing this autumn are actually an articulation of thinking from those first three or four months of the first UK lockdown and its effect on artists. Such works could be viewed as re-presenting an emotional digest of that time, foregrounding those feelings and bringing them into a sharp relief or understood as a shedding, a letting-go and removal of those feelings from their systems.  

Premiered by Serendipity on October 26 during Black History Month as part of their Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF21) preview, (Re)United is a short interactive film by Alleyne Dance that was available online for three days via a newly-built website from Mukund Lakshman.

Directed by Marc Antoine, the film was inspired by the real-life separation of Mo Farrah from his twin brother Hassan; they were torn apart at the outbreak of war in Djibouti during their childhood. With Sir Mo Farrar’s recent appearance on the ITV reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in November, a larger audience is now aware of the story. In the film, identical twin sisters Kristina and Sadé Alleyne have interpreted the anxiety of separation alongside the familial bonds of hope, love and connection.

In a nice touch, the interactivity in (Re)United fits the thematic driver of the work; after a short two-minute sequence in which we see the faces and isolated body parts of Kristina and Sadé in extreme close up, documenting their intimacy, their bonds, their tender huggings with each other, we have to choose. In a moment of split-screen forking, will we choose Kristina or Sadé? Which twin do we watch? Which do we leave behind? We are suddenly responsible for their fracturing and disconnection. After clicking on one of them, a technically beautiful and seamless window scroll triggers this fracture and reveals our choice of solo twin alone in a derelict empty room in a cottage, where for the next seven minutes they dance in moments of frustration, collapse and strength; it’s an entire three-act narrative arc in a tiny slither of time. After seeing one twin, we get the chance to watch the other; time is re-wound to the point of separation to see how the other dealt physically with the separation over the course of another seven-minute film. 

Recognising the very real differences in internet speeds and video latency, there are at least four quality options depending on the viewer’s broadband connection, but in the highest quality settings (Re)United is lush; it has an incredible colour palette and is full of signature Alleyne Dance exquisite sequences that fill the screen for 20 minutes.

Because of the uncertainty of both COVID and Brexit that we are still experiencing, the notion of reunification has the ability to connect to audiences and reads in multiple ways; the coming together of families again for Christmas after so many months apart, a longing ode and love letter to live dance and the desire to see it live with other bodies again or an antidote to the UK’s relationship with the EU three and half years after the referendum vote and with the transition period less than a month away. 

In terms of concept, production and execution (Re)United is a step above many of the plethora of short dance films that have been released during the last eight months and is testament to the work of director Marc Antoine, Alleyne Dance and their producer Grace Okereke.

In a glorious 20-minute hug of aural intimacy, Quanimacy, a binaural sound work created by disabled artist and choreographer Claire Cunningham, is an asymmetric conversation and reflection on their relationship with their crutches, the queering of their body and the concept of queer animacy.

Commissioned by The Place and hosted on their website from October 15 to November 13, it was presented as part of Splayed Festival, a suite of artists energised by queerness as an approach to creativity curated by Amy Bell.

Having Cunningham’s Glaswegian burr nestle in my ears alongside the voice and theories of scholar, rabbi, and activist for disability Prof. Julia Watts Belser is a delight. Quanimacy invites an attention, offers a place to sit in these conjured worlds in comfort whilst providing shifts of perspective on how Cunningham and Belser relate to their crutches and wheelchair.

The tiny personal revelations and historic symmetries of Fatima Whitbread and how she was ridiculed by the media and school friends because ‘she looked like a man’ but also revered for that same strength in javelin throwing drew parallels to how Claire felt about their body. As the use of their crutches slowly made them stronger it ‘took them further away from the feminine as that was what they thought they were supposed to be’; it’s these analogies, these moments of micro and macro testimony that create the architectural strength of Quanimacy.

The words are supported by the musical arrangements of Matthias Herrmann and the dramaturgical care of Luke Pell, whilst a transcript of the entire work (beautifully designed by Bethany Wells) is also available. They all offer an emotional scaffold which helps to achieve that narrative clarity and personal intimacy which are the satisfying threads and reoccurring hallmarks of Cunningham’s works.

Whilst (Re)United and Quanimacy were available for extended periods of time, Something Smashing was a live Zoom event presented by Citymoves during DanceLive2020 on October 15. Something Smashing is – usually – a live performance platform for dancers and musicians to encounter, improvise and experiment with each other’s practice. This iteration at DanceLive was the first time that they’d presented it online and was curated by Skye Reynolds (due to her ongoing and strong relationship with Citymoves) and performed/devised with fellow co-curators Tess Letham, Graeme Wilson and Something Smashing regular Mike Parr-Burman.

With over 40 folks digitally gathered, our event chair, Citymoves’ Hayley Durward, started us off. For the next 60 minutes we saw three 12-15-minute home-based improvisatory sets from dancers Reynolds and Letham and musicians Parr-Burman and Graeme Wilson culminating in a Q&A. 

The idea of watching an improvisatory anything over Zoom is usually enough to make me want to gnaw a pebble-dashed chalkboard, but the Something Smashing team has been putting on regular events across Edinburgh for a number of years so their improvising and communication muscles are taut and well honed. I was intrigued to see how it translated online.

From each of the performers there was a consideration of the frame of the screen and what parts of their body/instrument we could see during each set; as we have collectively been existing in Zoom boxes for the last nine months it was nice to see some creativity in scale, proximity and perspective in a close up strangled guitar head, floating midriffs and claw hands coming from the top of the screen alongside moving and handling the camera mid-set to re-orient our view. What was appreciated is that Tess and Skye not only changed costume in between each set, but moved to a different part of their house; this palette cleanse ensured that the possibility of boredom from a static visual plane was removed and demonstrated an awareness of how the audience was receiving Something Smashing.

The highlight was set three as we had both musicians in play and both dancers, but this time two new boxes appeared in the Zoom room; Reynolds and Letham had introduced an additional camera into their space, so now we saw their movement from a dual perspective. Six boxes and multiple things to choose. This was a feast. If I wanted to watch Parr-Burman play his guitar with a battery-operated whisk I could, if I wanted to see Letham open a bottle of wine from the fridge I could, and if I wanted to see Reynolds rolling citrus fruits around her kitchen I could. 

Technically there was no latency, so we could see how sounds were responding to bodies or bodies were responding to sounds. However it was tuning into different rooms with their different energies and architectural restrictions that really sustained my interest. What the Something Smashing team has demonstrated is that as a live event it works online; the live presence is translated into a digital event and we’re able to relish those instant compositions in their homes from our living rooms. 

The commonality between each of the works is that these are artists who are already deep within their own groove; they have a clearly established practice and are able to articulate the what and the why of their outputs. Having this confidence and depth has enabled them to move into new formats and new territories with an ease that many others haven’t been able to navigate. Their conceptual rigour and exploration of themes which are already familiar has enabled them to port an idea that is firmly rooted in their wider and established practice. Each work is an absolute delight. 


David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

Posted: October 28th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Obituary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

David Toole
David Toole in Stopgap Dance Company’s Bill and Bobby (photo: Ludovic Des Cognets)

One of the themes of Lloyd Newson’s 2004 film The Cost of Living lies in the ambiguity of its title. It is not a film about economic statistics but about the effect of economic and political policy on the lives of a group of people whose occupation falls outside the norms of sustainability: freelance performers. The current Covid 19 pandemic has only exacerbated the persistence of this covert ideological policy, and yet to watch The Cost of Living again is to be reminded not so much of the policy’s effect as of its antidote: it’s a film of enormous wit and heart that punches through the thickset callousness of the policy it decries. If its caustic wit is embodied in the performance of Eddie Kay (Eddie), the powerful heart is that of the late David Toole (Dave). Another thread within the film is the perception and treatment of disability, and the probing integrity of this was borne entirely by Toole. He was born with a condition known as sacral agenisis that causes a malformation of the legs. When he was 18 months old both his legs were amputated to improve mobility. 

After leaving school David Toole spent nine years working for the Post Office before being encouraged by a former teacher to join a workshop offered by Candoco Dance Company at Yorkshire Dance in his hometown of Leeds. On the strength of his participation he was offered a part-time job in the company while studying dance at the Laban School. He was 29 years old and subsequently pursued an illustrious career in dance and physical theatre, working with Candoco, DV8, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Graeae Theatre Company, Stopgap Dance Company, Slung Low Theatre and in film. His performance at the opening of the 2012 Paralympics was watched by millions. In recognition of his services to dance and disability, David Toole was awarded an OBE in December 2019; his example did so much to break down barriers between disability and acceptance on stage, opening a path to integrated dance and individual dreams. 

Toole used his long arms and powerful hands for propulsion while his muscular torso and expressive face were capable of a broad range of emotions; like a powerful voice, his body  had an accent that could command attention, that could inflect meaning and speak volumes in silence. I remember a Stopgap Dance Company performance of Artificial Things in which he lip-synched Family’s Old Songs New Songs to the voice of Roger Chapman; while his arm span seemed to contain the lyrics within its grasp, his expression corresponded uncannily to the haunting, gravelly tones of Chapman’s voice. 

David Toole was a constant reminder of that ability of performers to transcend the notion of ephemerality. For those who saw him, it was his unadorned artistry that became indelibly imprinted on our memories, an integrity of mind and body that was a privilege to witness. Whatever the political and economic circumstances, the performing arts will survive through the example of artists like David Toole who convincingly embody the drama of their thoughts and feelings despite — or because of — a strong undercurrent of suffering that they turn into a source of such riveting inspiration.


Ian Abbott on Pagrav Dance Company’s Kattam Katti

Posted: October 20th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Pagrav Dance Company’s Kattam Katti

Pagrav Dance Company, Kattam Katti, Cambridge Junction, October 7

Pagrav Dance Company in Kattam Katti (photo: Ian Abbott)

In the current political climate in the UK, making, rehearsing and presenting art takes courage because of the barriers the government are actively erecting to make it almost impossible for freelancers to survive and to not leave the sector — not only performers but also producers who are attempting to support dance, music and other performing arts.

There are many theories as to why this is happening, but financial return to the exchequer cannot be one of them. In the week I was invited to see a production of Kattam Katti by Pagrav Dance Company (PDC) in a closed performance at Cambridge Junction, Arts Council England published research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research that the value to the UK economy of the arts and culture sector is £13.5 billion and employs more than 230,000 people.

PDC has been working on iterations of Kattam Katti for over two years; it was originally due to premiere earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells with additional dates at Folkstone’s Quarterhouse and Milton Keynes’ MK Gallery. The company describes the work as: ‘Created by Urja Desai Thakore it transports its audience to Uttarayan, the world-famous kite festival that takes place in Gujarat, North India. Tales of competition, danger, excitement and unity in a landscape that wonderfully evokes both the solemnity and delight of this hugely important celebration are vividly brought to life…a neo classical work with a contemporary feel and strong roots in the South Asian dance tradition. It features original music, performed live, by four musicians who interact with and move around the four dancers.’

Offering employment for over 20 freelancers (4 dancers, 4 musicians, film crew, and production staff) for anywhere between a week and four weeks during this time is an act of courage; Thakore and creative producer Nina Head are to be applauded for achieving this. The performance I saw was three-and-a-half weeks back into rehearsal and the final two days of the week were dedicated to creating a new screen dance version by The Motion Dance Collective which will be released further down the line.

In 50 minutes, Thakore has created a snapshot of Uttarayan, a glimpse into some of the windows, characters, joys and physical rituals involved in making, flying, battling and celebrating kites at the festival. We see explicitly how the kites are constructed with the abrasive manja string that is coated with coloured, powdered glass that cuts your competitor’s string and, as Subhash Viman Gorania mimes, can cut your own skin, too. In the classical and contemporary kathak and bharatanatyam work I’ve seen before, musicians and singers are fixed either stage left or right and remain seated throughout the performance, lessening their presence and impact as live performers. What is refreshing in Kattam Katti is that the musicians are unfixed; they themselves are like kites traversing the stage on the winds of their own musicality, providing physical and aural emphasis to the choreography. Praveen Pratap on flute is particularly accomplished in his physicality and abhinaya whilst creating rippling melodies that cover the stage. The benefits of having the musicians and singers move — and move comfortably — around the stage is that Thakore has built her cast of 8 into an ensemble equivalent to the size of a Scottish Dance Theatre or Motionhouse production, creating a sense of theatrical scale to which this work could adapt in its future life. 

There’s a suite of literary (Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 debut novel The Kite Runner) and wider cultural references around kites, Uttarayan and the idea of atmospheric flight that Kattam Katti sits alongside (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a 1999 film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a whole song about Uttarayan, Kai Po Che, sung by Shankar Mahadevan and Kavita Krishnamurthy). The 2013 film Kai Po Che! directed by Abhishek Kapoor — the title is originally a Gujarati phrase that means I have cut — is a film based on Chetan Bhagat’s 2008 novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life which explores cricket, friendships and religious politics, but there is a scene that references the festival and offers a visual marker of how the city sky is covered in kites and how many thousands of people participate in it. There is genuine joy in the festival and on stage the sense of camaraderie between the entire company comes through; the ease with which they interact (especially in COVID times), trust each other and play with such grace is testimony to what Thakore has built in the rehearsal room.

The kite as a choreographic entity is fascinating and how it relates to Thakore’s primary kathak movement language is one of the most interesting aspects of Kattam Katti. A kite is steered by both the atmospheric conditions and the flyers themselves; it’s a constant and delicate negotiation, a balancing of conditions and ambitions to keep it in the air for as long as possible. A kite and a kathak body are technologies of movement and mobility; they’re not strictly directional and they are composed of loops, deflections and circles that can tell narratives whilst folding in and back on themselves. Whilst early on in the work we see the recognisable biomechanical movements of holding the kite, flying, tugging and keep the tension, the final sequence is quite brilliant in showing how these movements are fleshed out, built into and embellished using a wider kathak vocabulary. I wanted to see more of this bringing of the two movement worlds together rather than sequences of kathak followed by kitely recreations.

In some of the group kathak choreography, there is need for a little more polish and finesse in the execution of movements from a couple of the dancers, but each scene is elevated by the musicianship and compositions from Kaviraj Singh, Gurdain Singh Rayatt, Hiren Chate and Paveen Pratap. The musical arrangements are part of Thakore’s directorial role but the compositions are the work of each individual musician; Singh’s rhapsodic vocal work layered with Rayaat and Chate on the hypnotic udu and the beating rhythms on the kanjira for the dancers to ride give a visual and aural sense of being aloft. We are musically transported and immersed in an elemental space, shifting our perspective and scale to play amongst the kites; because the musicians are moving and playing the instruments around the stage there’s a three-dimensionality in play which adds so much to the visual world of Simon Daw’s moveable kite-tail, tangle-trip set design.

What is hinted at but feels like a missed opportunity is a commentary on class/caste. There’s a verticality in urban architecture and the Indian caste system where those who are richest (Brahmins) will predominantly own the tallest buildings, have access to penthouse apartments and therefore access to the wind. They are already at an advantage in the kite-flying stakes to the poorest (Dalits) who are deemed untouchable and who work in the streets. Having to mitigate all those structural inequalities to even get to a level playing field to engage in a fair Uttarayan could be further explored. 

There’s room in the work for this, to stretch the characterisation and abhinaya of the dancers (or even creating a kind of sharks/jets relationship between the musicians and dancers) whilst acknowledging that it is a festival of joy, celebration and festivity. However, for 17 days of rehearsal, in the depths of a pandemic, with the concern around touch and transmission, Pagrav Dance Company has created a portrait of a fascinating festival, a work of lightness that rides the wind-soaked eddies; their crack team of musicians combine to elevate the work to a higher realm.


Alston Nash, a visual history of the Richard Alston Dance Company

Posted: October 19th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alston Nash, a visual history of the Richard Alston Dance Company

Alston Nash, A visual history of the Richard Alston Dance Company, Fiat Lux, 2020.

Alston Nash

Choreographer Richard Alston has crafted his life’s work in movement, while Chris Nash has crafted his in the still, graphic format of the photograph. Resolving the ever-present contradiction of recording the one with the other has been the litmus test of successful dance photography. In Alston Nash these two great exponents of their respective arts have effectively choreographed their long collaboration in a series of still images that celebrate movement. 

The book comprises 50 of Nash’s photoshoot images from the time he and Alston started working together in 1995 until the closure of the company 25 years later. Studio photoshoots are designed to capture images for advertising purposes — for programs, posters and flyers — and as such they are a close collaboration between photographer, choreographer, costume designer and dancer. While the choreographer constantly wants to free the dancer’s movement, the photographer aims to capture it. Nash is clearly the hunter, and the choreography of Alston the prey. Nash lays his trap with the careful integration of studio lights and shutter speed, and it is evident that his eye is attuned to the dancers in front of him; he cherishes the photographic process to substantiate his feeling for dance, working to translate that feeling into precise imagery and framing. It is part instinct and part message. For an art form that is famously ephemeral, Nash can distil a work into a single image that through the analogous nature of the photograph offers the viewer either an entry into the work or a point of recall. As such, these publicity images represent a timeline of RADC’s choreographic output from both Alston and Associate Choreographer Martin Lawrance; to look through them is to re-capture both the performances and the  superb dancers — there’s a list of them all in the appendix of the book — whom Alston has nurtured and raised equally to the level of his choreography. There is also a text that accompanies each of the images in the form of a conversation between the three creative voices of Nash, Alston and Lawrance. As well as being a fascinating insight for dance photographers, these dialogues offer an informal, anecdotal history of the company and individual dancers in the context of each photoshoot. 

A sense of time pervades these images, time in which not only have Alston’s style and Lawrance’s choreographic invention developed but Nash’s sensibility too. As Judith Mackrell writes in the introductory Overview, Nash had come to RADC from working with post-modern choreographers like Lea Anderson and Michael Clark where he ‘sought to replicate a similar playfulness — his images manipulated post-production to create surrealist collages or visual puns’. The opening promotional photographs in Alston Nash are of Darshan Singh Bhuller, Isabel Tamen, Samantha Smith and Henry Oguike; they are very much Alston in the image of Nash. Over the years, however, Nash transforms his work in the image of Alston. This can be seen in a comparison between a photograph of Olcay Karahan in Red Run in 1998 and a retake from a revival of the same work in 2019 with Elly Braund. Both are atmospheric images of a human coil of energy ready to unwind and break free, but the photographic treatments reveal an aesthetic evolution. 

Even if Alston laments in one of his comments that ‘you can’t photograph a musical phrase’, Nash manages to interpolate in his images a layer of meaning between movement, musicality and the notion of writing dance. In the shot of Joshua Harriette stretched in an airborne figure of speech with Monique Jonas as his elegant anchor in Brahms Hungarian (2018) or in the muscular grammar between Ihsaan De Banya and Oihana Vesgo Bujan in Lawrance’s At Home (2015), he captures what Alston acknowledges as a calligraphic quality in his work. It is this kind of subliminal understanding between Nash and Alston that makes their partnership so rewarding.  

It is tempting to read into the book a lightening of tone over the last ten years, as Nash’s sensibility follows Alston’s movement towards ineffable clarity and light, culminating in his final work for the company, Shine On: the elements of these photographs are as emotionally refined as the choreographic imagery. As a visual history of the Richard Alston Dance Company, it will be hard to improve on this finely attuned collaboration. 

Alston Nash is the second book of Nash’s imprint Fiat Lux. Beautifully designed by Pure Land’s Allan Parker, it is available from Nash’s own shop or on Amazon as of October 19.