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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead: Surface Tension & (de)figured

Posted: July 1st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Exhibition, Installation, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead: Surface Tension & (de)figured

Caroline Broadhead and Angela Woodhouse, Surface Tension & (de)figured, June 28

Angela Woodhouse (de)figured
(de)figured (photo: Nathaniel Rackowe)

By evincing the intelligence underpinning the process of formal and conceptual exploration, two recent projects by choreographer Angela Woodhouse fit into and exceed the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘collaboration’ as ‘the action of working together with someone to produce something’. Thermal Duets is a series of five choreographic videos shot with a thermal camera and developed with Nic Sandiland and artist Caroline Broadhead as part of the latter’s exhibition Surface Tension at Mardsen Woo Gallery, while (de)figured is ‘a series of live action drawings by dancers’ created with sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe and dancers Martina Conti and Alice Labant presented in and around Dora House, home of the Royal Society of Sculptors in South Kensington. 

Broadhead’s practice brings together fine and applied arts through her expertise in jewellery design. In Surface Tension she rearticulates the relation between material and form by re-creating domestic objects and furniture. An antique picture frame is carefully pulled apart and remounted as a soft, almost articulated necklace that has lost its capacity to hold; a chair is encrusted in a fine silvery chain mail and another has its seat replaced with a geometric pattern of threads; a stool stands precariously on pointed feet while its finely beaded cast lies beside it like the divested skin of an eighteenth-century écorché. In stripping furniture of its functionality, Broadhead draws attention to its intimate relation to the body alluded to in the naming of its constituent parts — head, neck, back, arm, leg, and foot — and in the signs of wear that bear the shape of the bodies that have used them (what nineteenth century dressmakers used to call ‘memories’). Woodhouses’s series Thermal Duets resonates with this investigation of form, material and functionality. The technology of thermal photography was developed for military and surveillance purposes but is here transposed in an intimate context of choreographic stillness and minute movement. The videos are displayed on I-phones in black frames that draw the visitor close as if to a miniature watercolour or embroidery. We see the diaphanous blue and yellow silhouettes of two dancers in each frame while the body heat is revealed in shades of red. A description by John Berger comes to mind: ‘The bodies of dancers with their kind of devotion are dual…A kind of Uncertainty Principle determines them; instead of being alternately particle and wave, their bodies are ultimately giver and gift.’ The intensity and overlaying of colours makes the proximity and interaction of the bodies tangible: the lingering warmth of a hand caressing a back, an arm delicately moving away, or the intense vibration of breath as two heads folds towards each and then separate. Affect is here a residue of presence, a memory of touch. Woodhouse and Broadhead’s use of the thermal camera has transposed Berger’s view into luminous traces of orange-red dance.

The live action drawings of (de)figured are no less an exploration of surfaces, materials and physicality but on a three-dimensional scale. Rackowe’s choice of portable construction-site materials — breeze blocks, yellow scaffolding nets and ropes — relates the impermanent nature of the work and its re-configuration for different sites to the perceived permanence and solidity of buildings, teasing the porous relations between interior and exterior, rigid and pliant. The performance starts on the pavement of Onslow Gardens across the road from Dora House. Slowly unrolling a carefully measured yellow rope Conti walks backwards towards the Old Brompton Road with a serene calculation that contrasts with the bustle of passersby and the congested traffic. Across the road, Labant wraps herself enigmatically inside a scaffolding net hanging down over the entrance portico. The affect of the perceptive and emotional interchange between bodies and environment is central to (de)figured, though here plasticity and weight gain prominence. The yellow rope on the pavement remains as a trace of the initial action that, after Conti’s negotiated hiatus crossing the road, quietly moves indoors with Labant unrolling a black rope from the pavement up the broad entrance steps into the reception area, threading it around breezeblocks in the hall and two adjacent rooms into what was once the studio of court photographers, Elliot and Fry. The meditative pace of Woodhouse’s choreographic movement, like a silent line-drawing, figuratively conflates durability and transience, contrasting the solidity of walls and interior surfaces with the pliability of bodies and soft materials. (de)figured dematerializes in the shadows of the dancers’ bodies projected by industrial lamps on to a wall of the studio. Between them hangs Barbara Hepworth’s Construction 1 (part of the gallery’s current exhibition), taking the notion of collaboration to another level. 


Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Formosa at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: May 13th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Formosa at Sadler’s Wells

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Formosa, Sadler’s Wells, May 9

Formosa

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Formosa (photo: HSU Ping)

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s new production Formosa, presented at Sadler’s Wells, is also the last work choreographed by its founder Lin Hwai-min who has announced he will retire as artistic director in 2019. From its avant-garde beginnings in the 1970s, the company has occupied a unique position in Taiwan and internationally, distinctively merging diverse artistic and cultural influences into an extensive repertoire of works in which local traditions, myths or history acquire contemporary significance.

In his work, Lin Hwai-min uses Taiwan as a source of inspiration to create imaginative microcosms that act as metaphors for the dynamics shaping geopolitics and societies more broadly. Such a correlation between micro- and macrocosm is also the underlying motif in this latest work, in which Taiwan itself is the protagonist (Ihla Formosa is the seventeenth century Portuguese name meaning ‘beautiful island’). Lin Hwai-min evokes its landscape of rice fields and oceans, rivers, valleys and towns through poetry, sound and movement that convey the expansive idea of cultures as ‘collective conditions of immersion in air, [water] and sign systems’. He achieves this synthesis by seamlessly imbuing the choreography with formal integrity and poetic vibrancy.

The empty stage is like a three-dimensional plane of infinite possibilities delineated only by white light as if we are peering into an open box. The twenty-four dancers in loose costumes of pale blues, greens and orange-browns are both the embodiment of place and lore, and of the Chinese ideograms that represent them. The initial white emptiness gradually fills with projected typefaces giving form to an intangible scenery by Chou Tung-yen and Very Mainstream Studio. It is like a world in the process of being created that resonates with a soundscape of music, found sounds and recorded readings. Words, as the programme notes suggest, are the starting point for Formosa. We use words to name and document, to represent and give meaning to the environments in which we live, but words can also become blurred over time as the stories we tell give way to new ones. It is this potential to convey meaning and the sensory qualities of resonance, rhythm and the graphic character of words to which the choreographic movement responds, shifting fluidly from floor rotations to elevation and arched extensions in a constant gathering and dissipation of form that at points isfrozen in temporary stillness. Like the shape of a Chinese ideogram that contains within its abstract form the concept and action it refers to, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s distinctive dance vocabulary conveys in gestures and steps both aerial lightness and earthy robustness: the rhythm of seasons, the swaying of grass and leaves or the flowing of streams, the tapping of feet resounding like rain and falling bodies dropping with the mighty weight of stones shattered by an earthquake.

The vibrant almost pastoral beginning teeming with activity and the unpredictable eruption of the elements acquires a more sinister quality in the second half of the performance. As we learn in an excerpt from Taiwanese poet Walis Nokan’s Pulling Back The Veil Of Silence, the flow of rivers is stopped by man’s fortifications: we see Huang Pei-hua as a solitary river increasingly surrounded by the menacing and aggressive clustering of the rest of the company. She dances her demise in what is a Sacre du Printempsfor our ecologically doomed times and the stage is increasingly filled with typefaces whose density makes them illegible: a collapse into incommunicability and violence. Fighting erupts and the dancers divide into two groups. Lin Hwai-min comments in the program notes, ‘There is a tradition of internal fighting on this island. But as I was working on the piece, I realised such conflict was everywhere. Taiwan is not unique… Look at what is happening everywhere. But I believe it has a universal appeal that is applicable to other countries.’ On stage, aggression and violence turn into disintegrating energies and a struggle for survival. The dancers fall to the floor; ideograms themselves fragment line by line until they dissolve into nothingness. Slowly one by one the dancers pull themselves up into a faltering motion that increasingly takes on the perpetual flow of waves that form and break, repeated in the concluding section by a film sequence of the ocean and a solitary figure who stands in a box of white light as at the beginning of the performance.

‘All things contrived are like a dream, illusion, bubble, shadow, and as a dewdrop or lightning. They should be regarded as such’, reads the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. Out of movement and light Formosacreates a world that is both dreamlike and illusionary, full of tumult and tenderness, a drop that contains an ever-changing ocean of possibilities.


Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Posted: June 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit, Sadler’s Wells, May 31

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’. The past is irrevocable and unchangeable. The past can loop a person in a repetitive rewinding of backward motions; there is no escape. In Betroffenheit, a collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre director and actor Jonathon Young, this space of no escape is ‘the room’ — the site of trauma. Based on Young’s own experience, the work deals with horror, pain, loss and guilt. Trauma is not an easy subject to engage with, not so much because of its resistance to representation but rather because of its pervasive presence in our culture. Overused and glamorized, trauma has lost meaning and with it the connotations of the experience it designates. As a result, the risk for any artist wanting to engage with the subject is either that of slipping into self-confessional indulgence or in facile generalization or, even worse, universalization. Pite and Young resist these pitfalls. Betroffenheit does not steer from ‘the event’: it is focused on a moment in time and on the individual locked in its repetitive occurrence, constrained within the claustrophobic narrowness of pain and loss. There is no generalizing. It is one man’s experience — performed by Young himself — that isolates and is isolating: ‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’, repeats Young in his disjointed re-telling of the drama that unravels in his mind and on stage. ‘The room’ cannot be shared. The shock and the encounter to which the title Betroffenheit alludes are his fears, unbidden memories, guilt and survival. They are the ghosts that unremittingly draw him back to that space where the past repeats itself and attempts to get to terms with it are futile. Indeed, as trauma theorist Cathy Caruth observes, belatedness and incomprehensibility are at the heart of the traumatic event and its repetition opens up realms beyond what can be known.

Performatively, Betroffenheit enters such a space of belatedness and incomprehensibility by drawing on and weaving together a broad range of references from art, literature, theatre, psychology, film and dance. The first half is set within a narrow perimeter of false walls, clinical and industrial at the same time that are open on one side − ‘the room’. Voices intrude, personages enter it and lure Young into a disturbing vaudeville acting out, sinuously performed by Pite’s five dancers. The narrow space of ‘the room’ temporarily blasts open into the event — reminiscent of Hollywood’s disaster movies — then the room closes again onto its painful repetition. Pite and Young have set in motion what Jacques Rancière refers to as ‘a complex set of relations between the visible and the invisible’. This unleashes a chain of images, words, and movements that alter each other to convey ‘the sensible texture of an event’ whose forms are disquieting, grotesque, and nightmarish.

This motion continues in the second half, though the register changes. A spotlight defines the empty stage with its single pillar as a rarefied cone of incomprehensibility. If words and strident visual frames seemed to overtake the first part, dance regains its centrality in the second. Visual references are implicit in the moving tableaux of a Renaissance pietà and deposition reminiscent of the suffused rendering of Bill Viola’s slow-down video reenactments of The Passions (2000). Breathing becomes the sensorial punctum (in Barthes’s sense) on which the affective tension of Pite’s choreography unfolds. And breath carries the emotional movement of the work to its conclusion. The event happened, has happened. The event cannot be escaped nor understood. There is no resolution, only the possibility of acceptance. In the final solo by Jermaine Spivey, the spasmodic dance macabre of compulsive fears of the first half mutates into a fluid quietness of motion and emotion which weave through and across each other.

A question remains: where do Pite and Young position the audience in relation to the work? The first half of Betroffenheit makes subtle use of an alienating effect reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Recorded applause cruelly marks the re-enactment of trauma. We are uncomfortably reminded of the spectacle and voyeurism with which horror is so often endowed. In the second half the carefully lit pillar whose shadow lengthens over the auditorium gestures towards another position for the spectator, that of attentive, intelligent and sensitive observance.


Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 16

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh's Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

I saw Shobana Jeyasingh’s double bill of Material Men and Strange Blooms with a friend who has contributed the following review. I had seen Strange Blooms before and although it is a different cast with some changes to the production I have not written about it again. 

In a time when borders are closed and fences built, Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men feels both poignant and topical. In the note to the performance, Jeyasingh reminds us that the abolition of slavery in 1833 caused a wave of migration from the Indian subcontinent as European colonies sought cheap labour. Inspired by such a long history of migrant displacement, Material Men is a reflection on the ways in which cultural memories transmigrate across places and generations and how individuals mediate, absorb, long for or reject them; how memories — whether integrated or suppressed — contribute to forge individual identities. How the past, which is both historical and mnemonic, roots and haunts us at the same time. Choreographed for two male dancers on an original score by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (played on stage by the Smith Quartet) with sound design by Leafcutter John, the piece opens with Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran slowly entering the stage wrapped together in an orange silk sari. The account of their own family stories of migration can be heard in the background. The sari that ties the dancers together is like the fabric of histories and memories that weave shared pasts across times and places. It is the fabric that binds cultural, social and individual identities, the material with which each of us has to deal. It is ‘the continuous thread’ — as Marcel Proust writes — ‘through which selfhood is sewn into the fabric of a lifetime’s experience’.

As they unwrap themselves from the sari and release it, Subramaniam and Bahoran display their different bodies and responses to the fabric of the past that links them. Tall and elegant, Subramaniam is trained in the classical bharatanatyam tradition. He is bare foot, and wears traditional make-up and jewelry. Shorter and slighter, wearing shoes and knee pads, Bahoran exudes tense physicality: he is a hip-hop dancer. These differences are indicative of the distinct styles of dance and modes of performing that Material Men bring together. Bharatanatyam is a highly formal dance that has been transmitted and refined across the centuries; hip-hop comes from street performance and a subversive mixing of influences from rock to Afro-American dance. Jeyasingh’s choreography seamlessly weaves these two types of dance into a complex tapestry of patterns that seems to follow an intersecting of symmetries and asymmetries as she elaborates the quintessentially distilled and minutely precise movements of bharatanatyam with the hybrid dynamics of hip-hop. Hence, hands and feet positions are mirrored and at the same time fractured, extended and taken in new directions as one dancer responds to the other in a physical dialogue that constantly draws upon a canopy of contrasting movements from which transpire no less conflicting feelings and emotions. Joy, tenderness, antagonism and suppressed rage intersect as limbs and gestural patterns crisscross. Subramaniam and Bahoran may be said to encounter in each other the stranger that according to Julia Kristeva we all carry within us and which forms us from histories of psychic, cultural and historical migration. The dancers variously accommodate and contend with each other, and with the ‘stranger’ that each of them reflects back to the other.

From this encounter, visual and figurative forms emerge and disappear and in-between, in the interstices between sequences, moments of stillness are perceptible, as if they were ‘formless’ spaces, gaps saturated with possibilities and contradictions. It is in such dynamic flow of movement and stillness, of tension between form and formlessness that the transcultural features of the piece become palpable. Like the pleats with which Subramaniam carefully folds the sari, the layers are many and complex. Labels such as classical and pop, traditional and contemporary are reductive for what is a reconfiguration of the significance of dance movement as a medium that conveys the deeply embodied affect of cultural trajectories, backgrounds and individual histories. The work and the quest within it, however, are never nostalgic. The cultural allusions proper to bharatanatyam and hip-hop are conducive to the present, to the highly individualized interpretation that the dancers and choreographer confer on them by generating new synergies, overlapping rhythms and gestures. The piece concludes in a slow sequence in which Subramaniam and Bahoran move sideways off stage, one next to other, the arms parallel to the floor, half squatting. The movement feels endless as if melting into infinity, as if harmony and balance between pasts and presents, histories and memories were possible. As if continuity and reciprocity were not estranged by inner or outer boundaries.

Jeyasingh’s Material Men is a thought-provoking work. And Subramaniam and Bahoran are both superb performers.

c.a.