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.


Ian Abbott: Dance On Screen (And Other Spaces) In Lockdown

Posted: August 30th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Dance On Screen (And Other Spaces) In Lockdown

Dance on Screen (and other spaces) in Lockdown, August 16 2020

Dance on Screen
Onyemachi Ejimofor in Lanre Malaolu’s The Circle

It’s been three months since my previous article examined a range of work which wasn’t really made for screen; it was stage work that was filmed — with various levels of technical ability — ported and presented in March, April and May as the world swirled, the UK was in full COVID lockdown, and eyes were glued to screens.

It’s five months since lockdown was announced in the UK; this is a significant moment as culture secretary Oliver Dowden announced that indoor performances with socially distanced audiences would be permitted in England from this (August 15) weekend; outdoor performances have been permitted in England since July 11 — again, with socially distanced audiences.  However, these measures are set against a reality where many theatres (Sadler’s Wells, Birmingham Hippodrome, Wales Millennium Centre, Bristol Old Vic, Southbank Centre, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Horsecross Arts) have announced mass redundancies and some, like Southampton’s Nuffield Theatres and Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre, having to close permanently. This time, rather than stage shunted work, I’ve been looking at work that has been specifically made and presented by UK-based artists/organisations for screen, Zoom, ears or other digital worlds.

Mele Broomes was commissioned by The Scotsman to create a short video performance as part of its programme The Scotsman SessionsMobile Thoughts, published on July 22, is a slither under six minutes, and charts some of her response to lockdown from March-July 2020. Dealing with restriction of movement, restriction of emotional space and the societal restrictions put on Black bodies, it is a lo-fi claustrophobic choreographic capture of how it feels to be a Black womxn existing in the predominantly White space of contemporary dance. Self-filmed on a phone, the simple edits, repetition of tracks and the context of domestic spaces, Black Lives Matter protests and wider Glasgow is an effective demonstration of the constant tiredness and battles to be heard that Black communities face in the UK dance scene. In the end credits we see the question ‘What Is Your Reparation?’ alongside the text ‘It’s time to make space. Be Humble. No need to be crowned and congratulated for basic duty of care. It’s time for reclamation. Manifestations of love and solidarity.’ These questions should be asked and answered by Glasgow, the UK and the contemporary dance community.

The Fringe of Colour (founded and directed by Jess Brough) also commissioned Broomes to create the three-minute short film A Service in Committing to Love Manifestations of Love and Solidarity #2 as part of week three of their new online arts festival, Fringe of Colour Films, happening in the Edinburgh Fringe time slot; it’s a new platform screening four programmes of films over four weeks (each selection has seven days) built on the back of their valuable work in 2018 and 2019 creating databases of shows by artists of colour and a free-ticket scheme providing people of colour with tickets to attend shows by performers of colour at the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond. 

Performed and directed by Broomes — who was also responsible for the incredible music composition — there’s colour, crescendo, food and echoes of Janelle Monae; with Tao-Anas Le Thanh responsible for the editing, we see a development and refinement of the physical-glitch style  of editing from Mobile Thoughts as Mele, in a pink ruched dress, is sat at a table, eating in what looks like a tower before the film cuts to a flickering stuttered body entering and re-entering moments of pleasure. If these combined nine minutes are the first in a longer series of digital Manifestations of Love and Solidarity, then even more exquisite things await.

Fringe of Colour Films also commissioned A.T. (@JournalduPole) to create Bloom and presented the work in week 3 (15-21 Aug) as well; this exquisite five-and-a-half minute film, set to the 1958 recording Summertime performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, was filmed in Nairobi and self-defines as ‘a queer African pole dancer’s surreal adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and inspired by Ballet Black’s A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It fits that description so well; the film and A.T.’s performance are both soothing and hold magic. With almost constant movement and rotation around the pole their athletic prowess and strength is blended with such finesse I’m left thinking not of those prissy White ballerina jewellery boxes but how we might create some A.T. merchandise. How can we manufacture a jewellery box with a miniature A.T. spinning on a pole with Summertime chiming out when you open it? Filmed in portrait, it is bookended by an extreme close up of an anthurium (a flower that is both male and female) which speaks with subtlety and intelligence to the politics, stigma and subversion in play at the intersections of African bodies, queerness and perceptions of pole dance both within the dance community and society as a whole.

During this period Lanre Malaolu has also written, choreographed and directed two films. The Conversation (a 12-minute film originally presented by BFI via their social media channels in late May) is available now via BFI Player, Amazon Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema as part of the UK film anthology, The Uncertain Kingdom, and The Circle (published and presented by The Guardian in mid-July as part of their World News topics) available now via their website. 

The Conversation  self describes as ‘Exploring the conversation black people face when communicating their racial experience to white partners through a dynamic fusion of dance and dialogue.’ It depicts the everyday reality and repetition of racist microagressions that Black people encounter from White people (hair touching, tracksuit wearing tension, BLM ally virtue signalling and bag clutching knuckles on public transport) alongside the trauma of having to hear the ‘not all White people’ mantra and other excuses for racism from those we’re in relationships with. 

Central to the film is a ten-minute section shot in one complete tracking sequence which is bookended by two scenes in a restaurant; set in a disused industrial warehouse with distressed walls and exposed ironwork we see the bodily reactions and lung-knotting sound of Tyrone (Onyemachi Ejimofor) struggling to breathe as he repeatedly encounters a chorus of fixed smiling Karens. With krump the predominant choreographic language puncturing the screen, it’s mixed with emotions and a facial theatricality placed on top of his hyper expressive body, this is a choreography of the breath and lungs and almost looks like reverse CPR. Ejimofor finds a powerful metaphor in his attempt to repel the tiredness and suffocation brought on by the consistent draining encounters with White people. 

With Anna MacDonald as director of photography (often circling the performers as an echo of the repeated microaggressions) and music from Jan Brzezinski (also the composer on The Circle and his theatrical work Elephant in the Room), there is a cohesion between the visual, choreographic and sound worlds that ensures The Conversation hits the social commentary button square in the eye. Although the movement sequences become a little literal towards the end as Ejimofor gets knotted up in a White web of Karen and he pushes through and tries to extract himself, there is a neat cyclical payoff at the end that artfully demonstrates these encounters are not one-offs.

There has been some experimentation with form and format by independent artists. Two works supported by the Siobhan Davies Dance WebRes 2020 microcommissions were marikiscrycrycry (Malik Nashad Sharpe) presenting a reflective visual and audio Mood Board for a work that doesn’t currently have a future in a heightened moment where they are trying to imagine a future for themselves. Wheras Nikhil Vyas’s Dances For PowerPoint uses Microsoft PowerPoint as a playful site to investigate digital choreographic possibilities resulting in a digital flick book.

In May Justine Reeve wrote, performed and released two new episodes via Spotify of Smacks of Naff, a satirical audio documentary examining the known and unacknowledged issues in contemporary dance. In an act of uncanny choreographic premonition/synergy, one of Reeves’ characters mentions they have started on the greatest and most amazing project ever known in the dance world, a ridiculous lockdown idea of a corps de ballet doing a ballet dance in their bath tubs. Just two months later Corey Baker Dance releases Swan Lake Bath Ballet as part of the BBC Culture in Quarantine commissioning process.

Dadderrs the Lockdown Telly Show — created and performed by Frauke Requardt and Daniel Oliver (commissioned and produced by The Place) and filmed and edited by Susanne Dietz — reimagines the intimate and dysfunctional activities of their live show Dadderrs, adapting it over 11 short (8 to10-minute) episodes which were available for a month from mid-July to mid-August. Filmed in their own home during lockdown, it’s a psychological portrait, at times awkward, that blurs the fine line between their relationship and their creative output, sowing a seed of what a performance art Big Brother might be.

Ffion Campbell-Davies has been using Instagram as a platform to publish and archive a series of evocative vignettes, visual experiments using filters and krump and miniature concept films which utilise her skills and talents to multiply and kaleid herself across music production, writing, voice and dance. As part of his 365 Day Dance Challenge, B-Boy Si Rawlinson has also been using Instagram to publish daily micro films using breaking throughout 2020 and during lockdown he has been mixing it with new skills in masking and illusion to duplicate and make himself disappear to delightful effect.

Meanwhile in a fringe-free August in Edinburgh, ZOO Venues have put together an exemplary six-day dance, theatre and performance programme featuring new durational and live-streamed work, archived recordings of audience favourites, adaptations and digital interpretations of international work alongside new digital work all via their channel ZOO TV. 

With at least six different works each day — and available to catch up for seven days afterwards — I have been enamoured by EweTube, an infinite eco-opera by Graeme Leak. With four hours live-streamed for six consecutive days, this multi-camera visual mixed with hypnotic audio is wholesome ASMR at its finest. Set deep in the Stirlingshire countryside we are witness to the actions and movements of sheep running, rabbits munching and birds twitching as they trigger the musical traps (i.e. guitar strings placed on a bird feeder, so when the birds land and eat they create improvisatory scores) that Leak has set to create a land and animal symphony like no other. 

Sat quite happily at the opposite end of the wholesome ASMR spectrum but just as satisfying as work of art is untitled [circuit breaker] by CHILLIDXDDY x Bootlicker; a brutal binaural video filmed in negative that builds, flickers and rumbles through you slowly revealing five balaclava-faced bodies cut together with explicit stills that interrogate the restlessness of social isolation. 

Inevitably there has been the mandatory Sadler’s Wells co-commission attempt and fail, this time with Artangel for film director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast and Under The Skin) who created Strasbourg 1518. It self-describes as Inspired by a powerful involuntary mania which took hold of citizens in the city of Strasbourg just over 500 years ago, Strasbourg 1518 is a collaboration in isolation with some of the greatest dancers working today.’ It is a sadly inept attempt at a film, at a showcase of dancers’ ability and at a way of communicating any semblance of emotion. It also bears some wider scrutiny in terms of possible conceptual magpieism. After more than two years in development, New Zealand-based Borderline Arts Ensemble announced the premiere of their contemporary dance work Strasbourg 1518  at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in March utilising the same historic source material to present it in a stage version. 

The aesthetic, presentation and format of the two works are entirely different but ideas seem to travel swiftly in the digital world and those with greater resources and a larger platform are often seen as pioneers when in reality they are standing on the shoulders of others. We see IP and conceptual plagiarism happening a lot in the fashion/design world where independent makers coming up with new and innovative designs that gain some traction in their community discover their ideas have been brazenly lifted and ported to a larger brand. ASOS and boohoo have been called out on this multiple times and I hope we aren’t witnessing similar behaviour in the dance world.

While there has been some innovation on screen/in ears from independent dance artists in how to re-present dance, choreography and the concepts behind their work, it feels like theatre/performance has moved more swiftly and has been more successful in adopting alternative formats to keep audiences engaged with original content and stories. However, what needs acknowledging is that for some communities and artists it is almost impossible to conceive new formats and deliver innovative work because of societal inequalities, systemic racism and ableist structures that are still in place in the fabric of the UK dance commissioning and presenting infrastructure. Those who do have the space to dream and forge new things often do not acknowledge the privilege within which they exist and create.

Darkfield Radio’s Double is an immersive binaural audio experience for two people in the same room which questions perception, appearance and reality. Smoking Gun by Fast Familiar built a web-based app that only eight audience members could enter between 6 and 6.30pm to interrogate information, evidence, whistle blowers and government data cover-ups before we collectively had to decide to publish our findings to the press. Outside The March (based in Canada) created the brilliant and witty Ministry of Mundane Mysteries where they called me on the phone every day of a week for 15 minutes to help solve a mundane mystery that I had set them when signing up for a ticket. Selective Memory by Todd Simmons used Zoom polls in a live DJ set mixed with Choose Your Own Adventure book as we the audience chose the records from Simmons’ collection and he, in-turn, shared the entertaining, heartbreaking and deeply personal stories that reside within each piece of vinyl.

It’s also worth noting for historical purposes that the first live performance — framed as an outdoor variety show set in the beautiful gardens of Kings Weston House on August 1 — was presented by Impermanence Dance Theatre. It was a sunbaked two hours compered by Tom Marshman and filled with 20- to 30-minute sets by the incredible poet Vanessa Kisuule, who had written a new work in response to Colston’s statue being toppled into the Bristol dock, singer/guitarist Andy Balcon with a voice so gruff he should be singing the titles to Peaky Blinders, alongside a rusty dance duet full of touch, lifts and over-emoting music from Kennedy Muntanga and Olivia Grassot. Roseanna and Josh finished off proceedings with a hybrid formal/social partner dance turn set to the dulcet tones of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again. It was well managed, clearly communicated in advance (with maps and instructions), COVID safe event; masks and hand sanitisation were available at multiple points alongside a one-way walk system (swiftly ignored by the audience). I did indeed meet dance again outdoors, but it is hard to imagine when an artist, company or theatre will be able to present work inside a theatre again. That meeting still feels a long way off.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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