Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale of Three Festivals

Posted: October 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale of Three Festivals

Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale Of Three Festivals, October 2019

Hocus Pocus, Dance Umbrella festival 2019
Philippe Chosson and Mickaël Henrotay-Delaunay in Hocus Pocus (photo: Philippe Pache)

The choreographic density of October and November is the result of a number of UK dance festivals vying for the eyes and attentions of audiences and artists; over a period of six weeks there’s Dance Umbrella, Nottdance, Fierce, Dance International Glasgow, Shout, LEAP and Cardiff Dance Festival. I spent some time in three of the English ones — Dance Umbrella, Nott Dance and Fierce — to look at their programmes and the sense of community around them.

There are some macro questions around who festivals are for, and what difference they make to the form and to their community. Are festivals moments of cultural change? Do they mark a shifting of taste and aesthetic? Are they miniature economic impact machines? Gentrification tools? Festivals that are simply made up of dance performances? A chance for artistic directors to display their air miles and intellectual baubles? Not all festivals are perhaps clear in what/who/why they are. I’m interested in festivals as a site of repetition as people return to the same city, see the same people, enter the same venues year after year but see different works by different artists. I recognise this is a partial view — in as much as the time I spent at each event was limited — but remembering previous editions of each festival I thought it would be worth looking at the three as a whole. With the shift of focus of the UK Dance Showcase (the new incarnation of British Dance Edition) to actively not invite international promoters to the event in May 2019 and focus purely on UK promoters, Dance Umbrella and Nottdance have worked together to create the October Collection, a project that invited a number of international promoters to spend five days traversing the festivals in Nottingham and London offering exposure to a selected group of artists pitching and presenting work. It is worth noting that of the ten works I saw at the festivals none were created by disabled artists.

Nottdance is a biennial festival in Nottingham that is curated by the team at Dance4. They ‘position the voice of artists at the heart of the development of the festival’. For the 2019 edition they published a three page curational statement on the vision for the festival, co-curated by Dance4’s artistic director/CEO Paul Russ and Matthias Sperling, and announced an ambition that Sperling select his successor for the 2021 edition. I spent Saturday October 12 in Nottingham attending five events — three performances and two discussions; all performance works were from artists based in Canada and/or France and the discussions were led by dance artists based in England.

Extended Hermeneutics by Jennifer Lacey ‘uses the sprawling meta-expanse of Bauhaus Imaginista as a divining system where individual readings are offered to those who desire them’. It is nestled in a corner of Nottingham Contemporary where Lacey and I sit facing each other at a small table. This 30-minute 1-to-1 encounter authored by Lacey leans towards a choreographic divination using the Bauhaus exhibition as a frame and set of tools to interpret the problem you have brought to her. Lacey is hyper attentive, responding to visual gestures and titbits of information derived from the verbal and non-verbal signals that leak from my body; after I choose from four decks of cards, she offers an approach to help me find an answer. Lacey is engaging in an American psychotherapist way; she holds eye contact, keeps the beats in between the conversation natural to a point of believeability. It’s an attempt at seduction, looking into the mirror she is presenting and asking me to find my own answer. It feels akin to an intellectual seaside/end-of-the-pier tarot entertainment and ends with a two-minute 55 second, mainly floor-based solo that Lacey performs for me before our time is up. When I’m taking the time to process the information she’s offering in relation to the history of 1970s Leeds Polytechnic Bauhaus practice or geometric costumes I don’t really pay attention because there is little time for me or the thoughts it conjures up in the moment; it is a broadcast that at that moment doesn’t feel personal at all. A seduction takes time and although the encounter could have been useful, it depends on how much weight you give to fortune tellers and tarot practices — they are all a mirror through which we attempt to see ourselves more clearly.

Beside by Maribé – sors de ce corps at Lakeside Arts Centre is choreographed by Marie Béland who begins with a two-minute introduction that explains that everything the performers say is what they hear on the radio on their headphones in that moment and, parallel to this, their movement score is derived and harvested from the gestures and choreographic body patterns on talk shows, political broadcasts and current affairs TV shows. We get the set up instantly; a performer delivers the words they hear (on this occasion at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon in Nottingham) over the course of 60 minutes, including the recent upturn of form at Notts County Football Club, a programme on Blockchain and Libra (Facebook’s new cryptocurrency) and the Irish backstop, all matched with pre-existing gestures. What is created is an ever evolving, live choreographic meme which reflects some of our broadcast media, music, songs and political broadcasts. 

What Béland has created is a frame that could enable this work to last forever; the work will always be relevant because it derives its currency from the radio content broadcast on that day in that city, and it will always connect and reflect the energies and priorities of that day. It could scale up from the three dancers to 13 or 103, depending on the size of the stage or the complexity of the audio narratives. It is funny, because life is funny when it is removed from its original frame. Hearing the absurdity of in-depth analysis of a football game coming from an alien mouth set to artificial gestures emphasises the assumptions of language (word and body) each community uses. The agility of thought and how each performer combines it with straight-faced and physical control demonstrates that Rachel Harris, Sylvain Lafortune, and Bernard Martin are skilled performers, but we see little of their dancing ability; it is more a controlled suite of bodily movement.

How does the relationship of our geographical context to the work we see affect how we see it? The Nott Dance closing performance at Backlit Gallery is the same as Fierce’s Sunday lunchtime performance at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a week later: Make Banana Cry by Andrew Tay and Stephen Thomson. It’s the difference between a festival closer at 9pm on a Saturday night and a Sunday luncher at 12.30pm; energies, attentions and expectations of experience are entirely different. Described in Nottingham as ‘a continuous barrage of identity politics, a durational parade which contemplates the problematics of universal “Western” pop culture while drawing on the artistic background of each of the invited artists’, it becomes in Birmingham a work that ‘confronts western perceptions of the ‘Asian Fantasy’ in a durational parade drawing on the background of the diverse cast of Canadian artists.’ 

Set in a catwalk fashion seat configuration with a U-shaped runway on which the performers walk up and down, we see a slow, iterative introduction of each ‘model’ who is over-clothed with up to a dozen layers of items, props and accessories, some of which we would recognise as clothes, some not (tablecloths, giant fans, suitcases). Over the course of 70 minutes, garments and items are removed and embellished leading to a sense of a live GIF parade; each model demands attention for 5 seconds — in one case by swatting their naked butt cheek with a fly swatter — whilst the next comes along with a plunger that is being repurposed as a rocket launcher. The continual attempt of each act to outdo and one-up the next is predictable and is accompanied by a playlist of Asian stereotype music like Mr Roboto by Styx, We Are Siamese by Peggy Lee (from 1955’s Lady & The Tramp) or excerpts from the Miss Saigon soundtrack.

The noon encounter with Make Banana Cry sees a community, audience and staff feeling the effects of Fierce Party the night before with at least forty empty chairs, compared to the neatly organised, manicured, sold-out presentation in Nottingham. Although the prop and costume game is stronger in Birmingham (insert electrical fans, fire extinguishers and 3 phase extension leads) the cool, air-conditioned colonialism of BMAG drags it down. When you see a work again so quickly, you notice differences that were missed before because so much of our audience attention is taken with that immediate first impression. This time I pay attention to prop usage, gait and micro performativity, all of which had a depth of attention and detail that you don’t get from a single viewing. Make Banana Cry is a barrage of bodies, props, and music that raises a wry smile as it attempts to question Asian stereotypes and to examine the transmission of cultural identity, but the form of presentation and the predictability that ensues (and its finale of nakedness) dampens the impact and makes it appear quite facile when in fact there are layers, signs and Easter eggs to discover in multiple viewings.

Fierce is the Birmingham biennial which frames itself as Performance Parties Politics Pop. With his written introduction in the programme, artistic director Aaron Wright goes some way to answering my initial questions about what a festival is and who it’s for. ‘With a world in crisis what use is an arts festival, really? What can art achieve in the context of creeping fascism, mass anxiety and the ever-looming threat of the extinction of the human race? Will the performances get an anti-austerity government into Downing Street? Seems unlikely. Will they convince BP to move their focus to renewable energy? No. Will they bring about the demise of neo liberalism and the White supremacist patriarchy? Not any time soon.’ Instead Wright thinks the festival programme ‘can be boiled down to four elements that feel more vital than ever; communion, empathy, resistance and joy.’

Following on from Make Banana Cry I spend the rest of Sunday October 20 at Fierce encountering another set of performances by non UK-based artists, including Bain Brisé by Yann Marussich, Private: wear a mask when you talk to me by Alexandra Bachzetsis and iFeel2 by Melk Prod./Marco Berrettini; these three artists, all hailing from Switzerland, are supported by Pro Helvetia

Bain Brisé self describes as ‘A bath is filled with broken glass. A man’s forearm is visible on the surface of the sharp and crystalline magma. The man is stuck inside his bath of glass shards and cannot get out without getting injured…It is impossible for the audience to truly grasp that he is steeped inside some 600kg of solid matter, and that time is ticking by.’ Over the course of 50 minutes in Midlands Arts Centre’s Second Floor Gallery, we see a forearm delicately choreograph itself to slowly evict hundreds of shards of glass that splinter and smash as they hit the floor, scattering glass over the legs of the front row of a hushed audience. It is an act of choreographic removal, a slow unveiling of Marussich’s naked body which is encased in a cast iron roll-top bath filled to the brim with glass. With a live percussion and tense electronic score from Julie Semoroz and a sense of classic 80s Performance Art Top Trumps, there seems to be genuine peril that Marussich’s body could a) be cut to ribbons and b) suffocate under the weight of over half a ton of glass. There is both tension and boredom in play as the accompanying glass drops sting the ears alongside the predictability of outcome as his body finally emerges and leaves the gallery. From a choreographic point of view, the control and stillness of an almost Kerplunk choice of which glass to remove to minimise bloodletting is incredibly watchable and draws the focus into an area of about 70cm x 70cm. As part of his head, second arm and torso emerge, he attempts to pull/lift himself up in the bath to an almost sitting position and the sound of glass shifting underneath his legs and bum is an absolute eyelid twitcher. With the bath’s opacity obscuring the detail of how his tendons are being nibbled by glass, the imagination just runs wild.

Private: Wear a mask when you talk to me, also at Midlands Arts Centre, self describes as ‘a timeless hymn to transitions. A notation of its inner development, but also a mourning sketch for possibilities that were once open but can no longer be realized. In the end, this dance is not about normative gender performativity, but rather about the somatic energy that allows us to introduce moments of what Jacques Derrida called “improvisatory anarchy” in order to interrupt history and trigger cultural change and political transformation.’ Private… is a 50-minute solo conceived, choreographed and performed by Bachzetsis that is the perfect embodiment of Fierce’s 4 P’s. With a presentation, demolition and (re)presentation of gendered movement from Michael Jackson’s choreography to Beat It, to mutated westernised yoga positions as well as football and porn poses, Bachzetsis stares straight down our lens and with inverted alacrity bathes in her own power, including presenting herself in a black latex dress and demanding an audience member to spray shine her to reflective mirrordom. There is silence, space and buckets of technical dance ability in the work — when Bachzetsis wants it on display. Private…is a #findom, #subdom and #choreodom; after all, we are only here to see Bachzetsis.  

The festival closer at DanceXchange is iFeel2, a 70-minute work for three performers which self describes as ‘a young woman and a middle-aged man, half naked in a tropical dream world boasting floating plants. They are being watched. An erotic female voice sings strange associations with nature. The elegant trance they trace out is done so according to a minimalist and repetitive structure based on the residue of social dances, which are then mirrored.’ iFeel2 is the embodiment of middle-aged white male confidence and entitlement; as Berrettini and Marie-Caroline Hominal, mirrored in only black trousers and black shoes, deliver a simple, repetitive, six step Tina Turner grape vine to each other whilst holding eye contact, Berrettini constantly crosses the invisible line (without touching) and invades the space, pigeon-heading and gesturing in the pursuit of desire. I cannot help but see Berrettini’s facial resemblance to Harvey Weinstein and this consistent invasion and act of violence on an unflinching Hominal is uncomfortable. iFeel2 is a work that was created in 2012, before the #MeToo campaign and Eirini Kartsaki wrote about the work in 2015 in an article entitled Circular Paths of Pleasure which offers an eloquent analysis of the work and its proximity to desire, repetition and philosophy. However, even with all my favourite components in play — repetitive choreographic structures, unusual scenography and lighting design (by Victor Roy) and an alternative pop soundtrack from Summer Music (a pop band formed by Berrettini and performer Samuel Pajand) — it is a work that in its conception and original creation time was an ode to catharsis, desire and unfulfillment, but in 2019 reads as invasion, violence and trauma. The world has shifted but the work has not.

Moving away from the Midlands, I had three trips to London’s Dance Umbrella to see four works; the three-week programme doesn’t offer the same possibilities of seeing a density of work in a single day. The first was the festival opener CROWD by Gisèle Vienne on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells. CROWD is the ultimate commitment to a concept as Vienne takes a single idea and has the courage to not sway or bend from it. On the soil- and litter-encrusted stage we have 15 White bodies engaged in a glacial movement score that looks like the morning after a loose and faux hedonistic night of drink, drugs and carnal encounters at a Glastonbury type festival; bodies emote, flirt, abuse, attack and re-evaluate each other across 85 minutes to an EDM and trance soundtrack compiled by Peter Rehberg. If this were a political and knowing portrait of the ‘festival community’ where rich, White millennials go for a weekend and pay to get high then Vienne has absolutely nailed it. However, CROWD is described as ‘dissecting the vast spectrum of our fantasies, emotions, and dark sides, in addition to our inherent need for violence and our sensuality. Flying in the face of the different artistic disciplines, the journey Vienne takes us on renders the onstage experience a cathartic one.’ What is it with White, European, middle-aged choreographers and their desire for White catharsis? As a festival opener and a lens to see the rest of the festival through it, CROWD is one that reeks of privilege, Whiteness and a concept that is radically dated. The slow-motion aftermath/energy of party/disco/club has been conceptually rinsed by GCSE dance students for the past 25 years and Vienne adds nothing to the dialogue. We see the anatomically perfect dancers dressed dubiously (working class holiday, anyone?) and present exaggerated limb emphasis and facial gurns with the odd break-out for 30-60 seconds as a solo takes place in real time. With the soundtrack playing in real time (and not slowed down), there is a jarring to our auditory and visual food which doesn’t resolve; it is merely presented without comment. No one really likes to watch other people have a good time, especially when you’re asking contemporary and classically-trained dancers to punctuate and dime stop movements to attempt an emphasis they don’t have the ability to execute. Put this concept in the body of Hip Hop dancers and at least you’ll have bodies that can execute what is being asked of them.

Moving across London to Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hard to be Soft – A Belfast Prayer by Oona Dohetry is the second work from the Belfast-based choreographer and performer, which follows on from the incredible solo Hope Hunt and The Ascension into Lazarus in both the chronology of when it was made but also in the thematic sensibility of a portrait of a city and its people. All life is here. Some life is here. How can you stage a portrait of some parts of a city (Belfast), some of its history and some of its inhabitants? At a sliver under 50 minutes, Hard to be Soft…presents a work in four parts, bookended by solo’s from Doherty with an addition of a dozen young female dancers from the Croydon Sugar Army (Doherty draws a community cast from each tour location to perform this section) alongside a duet from John Scott and Sam Finnegan. It also sees Doherty shift from the small-scale intimacy of the type of theatres to which Hope Hunt toured to the larger and more physically distancing stages of QEH. Scott and Finnegan embark on a topless, fleshy, meaty sumo embrace which is all arms clutching and chest sweating that is the distillation of Doherty’s choreographic signature, tender violence. The Sugar Army with ponytails a-bouncin’ offer V formations, commercial routines to David Holmes score and are the choreographic embodiment of teeth sucking. What made Hope Hunt so electric was the performance and power of Doherty, not her choreographic work on other bodies; this is where Hard to be Soft is lacking. How can Doherty paint herself onto other bodies? That level of ferocity doesn’t translate and so everything around her is viewed as inferior and I’m left thinking about the long shadow cast by Hope Hunt and whether Doherty will be able to escape it. It is also worth noting that this is the first work I am seeing at the three festivals that is presented by a UK-based artist.       

There’s something about festivals as agents of gentrification and culture washers when they present the commodified trauma of others for the price of a ticket. Are Dance Umbrella and the other festivals really opening a dialogue and offering an insight into things that are unfamiliar to us like the tension and violence set deep amongst the people and architecture of Belfast that Doherty speaks of or are they perpetuating and cementing the evidence from the Warwick Commission report that arts audiences make up 8% of the population who are the richest, most educated and least diverse.

One of the successes of Dance Umbrella is the multi-venue orbital tour of European work for families and young people that has enabled work by Dadodans, Erik Kaiel and now Philippe Saire’s Hocus Pocus to tour to five or six venues across London (I saw it at The Place). Hocus Pocus ‘is based on the power of images, their magic and the sensations they provoke, and it is delicious; it’s a duet that nibbles at the edges of illusion and performance. Parts of Philippe Chosson and Mickaël Henrotay-Delaunay appear and disappear between two strip lights as they emerge and are absorbed back into the darkness. Playing with perspective, birds eye view, and vanishing points, it’s like they’re walking on alternate planes; sometimes we view them from above, sometimes they swing around, sometimes they present isolated limbs on rotation which plays havoc with the eyes as it takes a while to understand how the Jenga body parts are working together. At 50 minutes, the scenography, design and prop-making skill (Stage Device Realisation from Léo Piccirelli and Props and Accessories by Julie Chapallaz and Hervé Jabveneau) mixed with the physical skills of the two performers leave us jawdropped at how the things are happening.

REDD by Boy Blue (who’ve removed the word Entertainment from their name and descriptors in the programme) was the closing show from the Dance Umbrella Takeover of Fairfield Hall — two days of dance, performance, live music, participation and free events in Croydon which included a new commission from The Urban Playground Team and the premiere of Here and Now by Mythili Prakash — and my final show of DU19. Instead of a programme synopsis, Boy Blue offers 143 Words On Grief by R. Moulden as a contextual explainer in the programme. 

At 75 minutes without interval, this is a solo for choreographer and co-artistic director Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, MBE, supported by a chorus of eight dancers who act as his physical echoes, partial tormentors and skulk about in the shadows of grief. As the first dance show on the newly refurbished Fairfield Halls stage, REDD had an anticipation as it is the follow-up to their internationally acclaimed Blak White Gray. Silences and the mis-expectations of grief trigger different emotions in all those who encounter it, so how are we to comment on the sincerity or portrayal of the grief of another? 

As someone who has recently lost a parent, there’s little in REDD that speaks to me on an emotional plane; there are no dramaturgical invitations, no communion of power, and an empathy void; I am left to bear witness and engage if I want. With this lack of generosity, my focus and reflections switch to looking at it as a work of Hip Hop theatre in an attempt to find other things in it but I’m left weary by yet another commodification of trauma. 

Sandy, who is on stage throughout, wades, dives, stills and re-enacts some of Moulden’s words — ‘slinks in like a beaten dog and makes its home at your feet…with cracked voice and lolling tongue…reaching into your mouth’ — whilst the shadows of grief make visual noise in the periphery. With a new score from composer and Boy Blue co-artistic director Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and a lighting design from Charlie Morgan Jones there is little subtlety and craft in how the lighting, score and choreography come together. Each of the component parts (louder music and a flash flicker of light) often emphasise a particular choreographic move on Sandy all at the same time like three anguish anvils being rammed down your throat.

In previous Boy Blue works, Sandy is usually choreographically en pointe, he pops harder, isolates more cleanly and punctuates more sharply. However in REDD he is the weakest performer. He looked laboured getting in and out of the floor (with his hands on his thigh to help him up), he is out of breath in the final joint choreographic sequences and his performance presence is considerably duller than previous iterations; in the final duet he is unintentionally upstaged by the execution and presence of Emma Houston with whom he dances. It’s like seeing Superman bleed. REDD isn’t ready to be on stage, it doesn’t feel like it is sure what it wants to be (a solo or group work) and consequently what its strongest cast should be. 

There are dozens of very average contemporary dance performances happening in theatres every week; that’s because there are hundreds of artists making work across the UK and not everything can be incredible or abysmal; 90% of work sits in this middle ground. However, when a Hip Hop theatre company (who are considerably rarer and we’re talking in the low dozens of artists) makes an average work multiplied by the reputation, financial security and profile of Boy Blue, it feels shocking, but it shouldn’t. Not everything that everybody does will always be the best. We should be able to talk about and write about very average Hip Hop Theatre like we do contemporary dance; as a form, Hip Hop theatre needs honesty in the debate and honesty in the community about work that will enable it to grow and flourish.  

One of the strands of Nottdance (alongside performance, studio sharings, etc.) is a discourse strand and during Dr Gillie Kleiman’s session she speaks about her own practice in relationship to Community Dance and cites the idea of ‘Measuring The Distance’ taken from the theatre scholar Shannon Jackson. If we were to measure our practice/distance from a fixed centre (e.g. dance as centre, theatre as centre, visual art as centre) how far or close are we from it? What does this do to centre(s) and who determines what the centre (or perception of centre) is? Do Nottdance, Fierce and Dance Umbrella represent a centre of dance? How might artists and audiences measure their distance from these festivals and what is the proximity and size of their community? Later in the day there’s a panel, Artist. Curator. Leader, conceived by Joe Moran (as part of a larger piece of research he is undertaking) who invited Alexandrina Hemsley and Heidi Rustgaard to be part of it. One of the interesting things that comes up when the discussion opens is that Paul Hughes (who presented at Nottdance earlier in the festival) had asked Paul Russ if Dance4 would do an end-of-the-week sharing on Friday afternoon so that artists could see what Dance4 as an organisation had been working on that week. It is the reverse of when artists, in exchange for using a studio in their building, nine times out of ten give a presentation of ‘work’ to internal staff at the end of the week who then offer their ‘feedback’ on how to make it better. Can you imagine if Dance Umbrella, Fierce, Dance4 and dance development organisations and theatres were to give Friday afternoon sharings to rooms of artists and audiences who would be able to offer an assessment and critique of how they’re doing and how might they do better? Such events could alter the power imbalance that exists between artist and organisations, change centres, and equalise relationships across the entire ecology.


Body Politic’s Father Figurine at The Wardrobe Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody wins when the family feuds.” – Jay Z


Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Part 2

Posted: August 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Part 2

Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Part 2

Chisato Minamimura in Scored In Silence, Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Chisato Minamimura in Scored In Silence (photo: Mark Pickthall)

As part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase at Emerald Theatre (Greenside at Nicolson Square), Chisato Minamimura’s Scored in Silence is a ‘solo digital artwork that unpacks the untold tales of deaf hibakusha — survivors of the A-Bombs that fell in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — and their experiences at the time and thereafter’. Having visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (NABM) last year, I spent some time thinking about how Japanese museums present information. In the city there are six numbers representing the total deaths from the initial impact of the “Fat Man” alongside the thermal blast winds that killed many more, for many decades after. NABM presented warped metal water towers, items of clothing, radiation shadows, melted rosary beads and much more from that day — August 9, 1945 — with a level of emotional neutrality that was massively affecting; there was no bombast, no histrionics, just a presentation of what happened. 

Framed by this history, Minamimura appears as a floating spectral presence behind the Holo-gauze screen, inhabiting the past and giving voice to the trauma and history of ‘people like her’ — those who have been silenced. Through her use of BSL (and British Pathé-like voiceover provided by Peter Abraham), Minamimura echoes this mode of presentation with an accomplished sign mime performance (supported by Tetzuya Izaki), aided by a suite of simple white-line animations of life in 1940s Hiroshima by Dave Packer, slithers of video from two hibakusha (Katsumi Takebu and Tomoe Kurogawa) who recount the impact and effects of the A-bomb in Hiroshima, and the pioneering inclusion of Woojer straps for the audience — immersive haptic belts (mainly used for gaming) worn around the waist with a big bass vibrating speaker that emphasise certain parts of Danny Bright’s score.

Throughout this 55-minute work, Minamimura’s ability to conjure deft emotional landscape is without peer; she is our sign mime medium holding these stories, passing them on to audiences and leaving us to reflect on the emotional enormity and human consequence of those fateful days in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Beautiful Game by Next Door Dance is ‘a laugh-out-loud look at Britain’s undying obsession with football, celebrating everything from weird match day rituals to ridiculous armchair punditry’ and has been selling out at the newly minted ZOO Playground; after a significant shift in the mainstream visibility and awareness of women’s football following this summer’s World Cup in France, The Beautiful Game — created by Jennifer Manderson in collaboration with Hayley Corah, Emily Thurston, Georgina Saunders and Laura Savage — is the perfect show at the perfect time to reinforce female-led football narratives and to continue the quest for gender equality in football.

Premiered in 2016, The Beautiful Game is a wholesome, 55-minute, whistlestop sketchbook of all the physical quirks, behaviours and customs associated with association football. From the faux semaphore of the ref’s assistants’ flags and stanning Beckham and Lineker to the mimetic accuracy of in-seat fans sit standing as their team ALMOST scores a goal. Next Door Dance has choreographically dissected and reassembled football into a theatrical work that is accessible and super family-friendly — although I would love to see an updated scene referencing VAR. It is heartening to see it tour to village halls, community centres and social clubs as the work has a disarming charm and Next Door Dance FC will continue to gather more fans over the coming months.

Working On My Night Moves by Julia Croft and Nishan Madhan — presented by Zanetti Productions — at the Old Lab (Summerhall) ‘breaks the rules, the patriarchy and the time/space continuum. It’s a search for multiple feminist futurisms, a gesture to the impossible and an ode to the search for utopia.’ It is presented as a live artwork but has an original choreographic sensibility, a clear movement score and enough things that look like dance (with Sarah Fister-Sproull as Movement Advisor) to warrant further inspection. 

Let us assume that the theatre is a patriarchal space; French feminist philosopher, Hélène Cixous, asks “How…can women go to the theatre without lending complicity to the sadism directed against [them], or being asked to assume, in the patriarchal family structure that the theatre reproduces ad infinitum, the position of victim?” Croft and Madhan take the bodies of their audience and herd them on stage behind a star cloth for the opening seven minutes in the first rebalancing of power. As the cloth is ripped from the rig, we are ushered into the seating bank which has piles of stacked chairs, ladders and lights which are taking up room in the positions that we thought were ours. 

Working On My Night Moves deals with the usurping of power and the anatomies of belonging; Croft and Madhan depatriarchalise the space and we look not at their bodies but at what their bodies achieve in the transformation of spaces and futures. With a consistent suite of retina burners they go about their business, exploding scenographic conventions by dangling seats (on a safety chain) above the audience, tailoring suits made of tinfoil, dropping parcans from the lighting rig dangling just above the floor and invoking some sort of poetic fever dream of Judy Garland’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz

There is something delicious in their idea and execution; each night under the cover of darkness (to the tune of Bob Seger’s Night Moves and Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better) Croft and Madhan could enter every theatre space in the country, reconstruct it and shift the perceptions of those who enter it. Their strategies for a new feminist futurism are like the durational dance live-action version of Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter but with a better soundtrack. 


Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Part 1

Posted: August 23rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Part 1

Ian Abbott at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Part 1  

The Desk, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Reetta Honkakoski’s The Desk (photo: Noomi Ljungdell)

Snipping at the fringes of the Fringe this year have been some discussions about price, privilege and the voices that are not present. On one side are those who directly benefit from Edinburgh Fringe espousing the historical foundation and ideology on which it was built; they treat it like a cult, swearing unswerving devotion to it and proudly wearing their badge of service reflecting the years they have put into their community. On the other side are those who see the reality of the Fringe as a paid marketplace, a neoliberal capitalist playground that has long since lost the values on which it was founded. One of the works on From Start To Finnish, the showcase of work from Finland at the Old Lab (Summerhall), speaks to some of these macro discussions. It is Reetta Honkakoski’s The Desk that ‘mines her personal lived experience of a cult in this meticulous ensemble piece about the seductive power of discipline, hierarchy and mind control.’ 

With five ‘students’ and one whistle-happy ‘leader’ we see 60 minutes of tightly choreographed, softly punctuated and highly repetitive wheely-desk manipulation with students jostling for prime position right under the nose of their glorious leader. The duration of the scenes is always almost too long, but Honkakoski pulls it back before we lose interest and in some ways it has a predictability these structures like the army, enforced education, and cults often manifest: the erasure of the self, physical automation and the absence of constructive thinking. They just do. However, the final 10 minutes deliver two scenes that lift The Desk to another level. There is a well-worn trope of the puppet/master/invisible strings that has been done to death; however in this context it works conceptually. The detail, weight and anatomical cause and effect of the pulling activated parts of the body in each of the five dancers is delivered with such finesse and believability this section alone is a fringe highlight. It is followed by an absolute skewering of a lot of the former (and current) communist statues that are built in victorious poses, questing forward into battle or displaying benevolence to the poor; echoing the pulling down of statues by the people, we see the leader in rigor mortis slowly decaying, ready to timber, be caught and repositioned by the students. The Desk is like an absurd, fascist epilogue to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with an immaculate execution.

111 by Joel Brown and Eve Mutso — part of the Made in Scotland showcase at Emerald Theatre (Greenside at Nicolson Square) — is named after the number of vertebrae Brown (Candoco Dance Company) and Mutso (former Principal at Scottish Ballet) share ‘as his spine has fused, meaning he has only 11, and she moves like she has a 100.’ As our genial host Brown welcomes us, he offers some context about how the two met in 2015 on a project initiated by Karen Andersen of Indepen-dance and choreographed by Marc Brew (who gets a name check for his witticism of “getting his strap on” as he secures himself in his wheelchair). 

Brown and Mutso have developed an unsettling intimacy; during their floor sections and on the exoskeleton cube of ballet scaffold barres (which creates a miniature Krypton Factor), we see them meet, mirror, linger, brush, carry and display their physical prowess on stage but are left after 55 minutes without a defined relationship. There’s a lack of coherence to the work or of a sole choreographic voice with something to say; this may have something to do with the number of ‘outside eyes’ in the creation of the work — Tim Nunn, David Street, Risto Oja and Susan Hay. The work feels less like a piece of theatre than a display of what Brown and Mutso can do (they are both excellent dancers) alone and together on a stage, but this isn’t enough. Having worked with the aerial coach Mark Gibson, the 20 or so minutes they are engaged in hanging, climbing, and conquering heights with the cube, there seems to be the potential for an interesting outdoor work, where technical virtuosity and feats of strength are familiar and welcome. 111 feels like it wants to get out. 

Back for its sixth year, the Taiwan Season features the return of Chang Dance Theatre with the first iteration of their new work Bout at the Old Lab (Summerhall) and an Edinburgh debut, Monster, by Dua Shin Te Production at Dance Base. 

Bout claims to be ‘inspired by observations of live boxing shows on TV, investigating how spatial configuration and role setting evolve nuanced conversations between moving bodies.’ This sounds way more academic than is necessary; the reality is it’s much closer to a sometimes playful, sometimes sombre physical portrait of the brothers Chang and how their relation, friendship and conflictships manifest in distances between them over the years. There are some inventive moments of how their bodies come together and echo each other; an opening scene sees one body pacing the edge of the stage and is eventually joined in step and in time (with little more than a bead of sweat between them) by a second and a third and we’re now watching a multi/single being with six arms and six legs with perfect gait and rhythm. Another scene is where one brother is the other’s 3D shadow; as one strolls across the stage inhabiting verticality, the other is at home in his horizontality glide-sliding and mirroring him detail by detail. However, choreographer Chien-Hao Chang burns through scenes and ideas at a rate of knots meaning that not every scene is successful and the ones that are are quickly discarded and not extended to their dénouement. At 40 minutes Bout hasn’t quite settled into its final shape and would benefit from some judicious editing; it needs to not leave the audience feeling like we’re fighting to like them as we know they have buckets of charm after the success of Bon 4 Bon.

Monster is an Entirely. Different. Kettle. Of. Fish. Choreographed, and performed by Yen-Cheng Liu (who also created the sound design), the programme note states, ‘Everyone alone carries a different monster in his/her own mind, a monster gradually bred, grown and shaped by various influences in life. If the master of one’s mind is the soul that dwells in the body, it must be a complicated compound, expandable, shrinkable and distortable at different stages of life. A distinct monster.’ 

Reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s 2007 work Blind Light at the Hayward Gallery (aka Fog in a Box), the audience enters a white-out. We see no monster. We have a 3-metre visibility range as the studio is suffocated with dry ice; as our eyes begin to settle on the scenographic detail — somewhat like The Generation Game — we’re presented with a white, stationary masked figure holding an elongated and home-made version of a boom mic. Along with Liu, a number of noiseless technicians move a rotary telephone, a spherical object wrapped in white paper, a small white wireless, a white 3m x 0.5m LED scrolling screen, two white prison-like loudhailer speakers on extendable stands and a pair of floodlights into a line from stage left to stage right. Enter dry ice smoke blast part 2. As the LED screen delivers philosophical platitudes on time, self and chasing unknown futures, some of the things are moved, delicious silhouettes are created, Liu gets nude and crawls off stage in an act of self-loathing. Slowly the things are moved, re-presented, dismantled and taken down. 

It is the perfect fringe companion to Ultimate Dancer’s For Now We Through The Mirror, Darkly as it offers us a mirror to what we are and what preconceptions we bring to the studio. In effect, Liu has created an alternative, 35-minute performance art version of Frankenstein that places us with him in this simple/complex/indulgent/terrifying/laughable space.


Artists 4 Artists double bill of Chris Reyes and Kloe Dean

Posted: August 8th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Artists 4 Artists double bill of Chris Reyes and Kloe Dean

Artists 4 Artists Double Bill of Chris Reyes and Kloe Dean, July 30, Laban

Hip Hop, Artists 4 Artists
Kloe Dean in Man Up (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Choreographically the space between the torso and the head is rarely a focus; it’s often used to draw attention elsewhere, a passing place, an in-between place towards more important sites. The emotionally affecting Hip Hop theatre double bill of Sean by Chris Reyes and Man Up by Kloe Dean uses the neck — as a site of power, as a radar of threat, as an antenna of pleasure — from which to explore two autobiographical experiences. 

Sean is a 35-minute work that Reyes frames as ‘a journey of displacement, family and migration. Sean (British-born Filipino) shares his stories and the memories of early immigrant, Rosemary (Sean’s mum). What does it mean to be British born?’ The opening twenty minutes see Reyes and Jonadette Carpio creating and establishing a danceless narrative of a complex mother/son relationship; Carpio’s character has left the Philippines and heads to Britain to give her son a better life where she takes up a cleaning job to support him, but Reyes’s character does not achieve enough for his mother, turning him subsequently to drink (manifested by a black morph-suited cameo from Mikiel Donovan). 

Emotional contagion and inherited familial trauma is complex territory to explore but Reyes  — with support from Maxwell Golden’s dramaturgy — uses a suite of theatrical techniques to hook the audience: “I’ve been sober five years today” or “I saved all my lunch money to buy my mum a small fish.” It’s an efficient twenty minutes although it felt a little obvious that the bait lines we’ve swallowed will be reused later in the show.

Sean suffers slightly from the intensely autographical work it is paired with; we are left unsure of its emotional construction. How removed is Sean from Reyes’ own experience? How much is autobiographical and how much is fiction? Reyes is entirely credible in the role of Sean (and it feels like a deeper dive into a character than he created for a previous work, Caravan) but the artifice of a younger Carpio playing his mother isn’t convincing and distances us emotionally again. However, the intensity of their final fifteen-minute duet, with its focus on the power of the neck, speaks of emotional violence and restrictions. We feel the tension through the choke holds that bleed into lift hugs, and in focusing entirely on to their inability to shed/embrace their identity they own the large stage. It’s electric. The earlier use of language and the emotional spoon-feeding isn’t necessary; their physical communication is strong enough to convey what they want without recourse to words.

There is something about the notion of ‘enough’ that links the work and its author; was Sean good enough for his mother? As someone who is British-born, is Sean’s character British enough? Is he Filipino enough? Is there enough dance in Sean? Is Sean Hip Hop enough? These are the kinds of questions that bubbled up while watching the work. There are many parallels in different media that are currently exploring the notions of ‘enough’ and how individuals sit between worlds; one of the most effective is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch; it’s a non-fiction work of memoir/reportage about her time in Senegal and the UK,  finding she is considered too British to be Senegalese and too Senegalese to be British. It’s an eloquent reflection on where we (don’t) belong.

Dean’s Man Up is a 35-minute work that has developed substantially from an earlier and shorter iteration presented first at Ignition Dance Festival in June 2018 and four months later at the Startin’ Point Commission Platform at The Place. Man Up is an autobiographical story, adding a comedic twist to the profound and surreal circumstances surrounding her father’s suicide. It explores the stark realities of male suicide and the parallel emotional journeys of those left behind.

There is an audible intake of breath from the audience as Dean emerges out of the tangle of sky-blue ropes on the stage after crouching invisibly under it as still as an iceberg for nearly ten minutes as the audience filtered in for the second half. It’s a stunning opening.

Dean delivers an emotionally devasting movement monologue that zooms in and out of the tiny details that stick with you when you lose a parent. The rasping kiss of the nylon rope on skin as it brushes her radio mic is eerie; we see her carving it across her neck, wrapping it around her wrists and marking out territory on stage.

One of the significant improvements from the previous iteration is the inclusion of composer Teresa Origone, who performs her synth-laden score down stage left in a sonic call-and-response that increases the intensity and depth of feeling on display. Origone weaves layers of lightness amongst the chord progressions which helps to ballast the work.

In some moments it feels like we are unintended witnesses to a series of deeply private moments that weigh heavily; when she sings “I want to do what my daddy does…” because she’s a daddy’s girl or when she happens to be at home on the day her aunt calls at the front door to tell her the news because she’s tired and had uncharacteristically called in sick. These are heart-wrenching moments that feel very, very close.

Dean is captivating in performance, from her original rhymes (sung and spat) that sound a little like Kate Tempest, to all sorts of bgirl flavour, style and power she throws down. Because of the repetitive placement of a noose around her neck, I’m left thinking about Hip Hop as an architecture of air and Hip Hop as suffocation; as she moves the adapted wave tightly around her torso — a taut set of waacks up to and around her face and oodles of other close Hip Hop vocabularies — her body finds it difficult to take up space, to push the air away and move through the emotional weight of the space around her. 

It is heartening to see two artists exploring the social/political weight of events through Hip Hop (and kudos to Artists 4 Artists for supporting them); for a culture that has such a history of resistance, oppression and community we too often see it mis-used to make slick, glib routines that bear little relationship to the culture they exploit. However, Dean has delivered an emotionally resonant Hip Hop work that not only highlights the fact that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, but delivers it with craft, intelligence and no shortage of integrity.


Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much at the Manchester International Festival

Posted: July 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much at the Manchester International Festival

Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much, Ukrainian Cultural Centre, July 20

Claire Cunningham in Thank You Very Much at Manchester International Festival
Dan Daw, Vicky Malin, Tanja Erhart and Claire Cunningham in Thank You Very Much (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.” – Elvis Presley

The Ukrainian Cultural Centre, tucked away in the residential side streets of Cheetham Hill and a tram ride from the slick glossy centre of Manchester International Festival, is the venue for a new work from Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much, commissioned by MIF; the social club cum bar cum community centre is the perfect location to explore impersonation, identity and acceptance through the lens of Elvis tribute artists.

The idea of using a tribute artist as a vehicle to pose questions on the authenticity of self already has a delightful irony, but to extend the idea to embrace questions on disabled and non-disabled bodies in a society that requires an almost mythic quest for the perfect normative body is a touch of genius. The four-performer ensemble (Daniel Daw, Tanja Erhart, Vicky Malin and Claire Cunningham) pull back their personal curtains on the glittering world of the professional tribute artist; they share intimate solo moments and delightful interactions with the audience alongside the experiences and authentic movement tips from the tribute acts like Black Elvis and Elvis Desley they spent time with during the creation process. 

Presley made the jump from local Mississippi heart-throb to national icon after his TV appearance on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956; the intense pelvis shaking and broken choreographic lines alongside his appropriation of gospel/rhythm-and-blues/country sounds beamed a new and exotic culture into small screen America. Just as Elvis danced passionately with his microphone stand bent towards him, Cunningham introduces the evening in a gentle Glaswegian burr with an exquisite triped solo of weighted microphone stand and crutches; delicate balances mixed with 45-degree crutch leans while she serenades us with a flawless Elvis opener. 

Thank You Very Much is a love letter to those that exist on the edges. Cunningham is using the considerable privilege of an MIF frame to show what is possible when you invest in disabled artists by bringing to the fore an exquisite team. Dan ‘Hounddog’ Daw belongs on the catwalk, from blending the heel-to-toe walking assessments for motor control to strutting the stage wearing little more than a gold spangled jacket and tight boxers. Tanja ‘Wooden’ Erhart is totally compelling, drawing our eyes through the quality of movement and charismatic presence. Shanti Creed (costume designer) is a rhinestone monster and had an absolute ball with the jump suits, capes and belts, but it was the attention to detail in Erhart’s red diamante crutches and deep red satin kneepads that was most satisfying, even if they only made a couple of appearances. 

BSL interpreter Amy Cheskin was also on stage with all four performers; she is an electric stage presence in her own right adding value for those who are BSL users and those who aren’t. As an interpreter she has an incredible transparency in how quickly she is able to communicate; there’s no latency in the signs. Whether we’re hearing from Black Elvis on voiceover or Hounddog Daw conducting a live/fake interview on stage with an unsuspecting audience member she quietly appears next to the performer and delivers an embodied BSL that matches the emotive tone and delivery of the performers; we even learn the sign for Elvis which looks like you’re pulling a quiff with your right hand. 
There are enough nods to and affection for the King, tribute artists and the Porthcawl Elvis Festival that ensures the work isn’t taking from or using the culture for cheap laughs; there is care in buckets on how the performers are with each other and how they interact with the audience. Cunningham is an artist with a rich enough vein of works (Guide Gods, Give Me A Reason to Live and The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight) that could spawn their own tribute artists; I would love to see “Care Clunningham” mining the best bits of these existing works into a new evening.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

Posted: May 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

The Rite of Spring – reimagined by Seeta Patel, The Place, May 18

Seeta Patel, The Rite of Spring
The six dancers in Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Last Summer at Tanzmesse I saw an eight-minute excerpt of Seeta Patel’s reimagining of The Rite of Spring; nine months later I’m here at The Place to see how it has grown. Patel is presenting the completed work with six dancers alongside two shorter and complimentary works that establish the relationship between western classical music and group bharatantyam choreography. Celine Lepicard ably performs Bach’s cello suite 1 and a seven-minute group bharatanatyam and contemporary dance choreographed by Patel on alumna from the National Youth Dance Company and Kadam Dance readies the eye and ear palette for what is to come.

There have been over 200 choreographic attempts at matching Stravinsky’s score since it premiered in 1913; it’s a choreographic equivalent of scaling Everest or circumnavigating the globe — there’s a psychology in a certain type of person to see if they’re able to endure, match and conquer it whilst marking their own place in dance history. (Having only seen Marie Chouinard’s version at the Attakkaalari India Biennial in 2017 I do not have Rite fatigue).

At the moment there’s at least two other versions circulating in the UK: Jeanguy Saintus’s interpretation for Phoenix Dance Theatre and Yang Liping’s version but Patel’s is the first time in 106 years that bharatanatyam has been used. As a side note, when I listen to Rite I cannot avoid thinking about how the musical thief John Williams appropriated a number of the key Stravinsky/Rite passages, so even you’ve not heard Stravinsky’s version in full, you’re likely to have heard Williams’ lift in Star Wars (The Dune Sea of Tatooine).   

With Ash Mukhurjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam as the dancers, Patel has brought together the Avengers of classical and contemporary bharatanatyam; this suite of highly skilled performers deals with and executes the choreographic complexity demanded of them with a finesse and grace that makes visual music. The score envelops the auditorium and although it is played too loud, distorting slightly, you feel it surrounding you; the music is in you as you attempt to take in all the visual information. The dancers are pin sharp, have been rehearsed exceptionally and deliver thunderous synchronised foot work; it’s one body echoed across six as they duet with the weight of history and the music. One of the most impressive aspects is how the dancers travel; they gobble up the width of the stage with ease; if you were to trace the dancers on a Strava map they’d have covered miles by the end of the work. 

The visual composition, anatomical layering and choreographic cannon is satisfying and demonstrates for the first time that bharatanatyam can be a group dance form; imagine a miniature corps de bharatanatyam. If the dancers are the Avengers then Patel is Nick Fury — the architect of this work bringing together the finest dancers from across Europe but with Patel’s ambition and skill they level up again, combining to deliver a work that marks a shift in the UK bharatanatyam ecology. This Rite of Spring is begging for a bigger stage, with double/treble the dancers and live orchestral accompaniment and could easily tour internationally for the next five years.   

Devam, Subramaniam and Mukhurjee leave the eyes tired after darting in between where we spend our attention. Patel’s composition delivers wave after wave, and it’s a relentless first half that is unforgiving in its attack. The second half wanes a little in impact as The Sacrifice demands an alternate energy and concentration but it is still a joy to watch and a welcome addition to the choreographic canon. Cyril W. Beaumont — a British book dealer, balletomane, and dance historian — saw each and every one of Nijinsky’s performances in the Ballet Russes’ 1913 London season (which included Nijinsky’s original Rite of Spring) and said: “The chief attraction for the season was to be Nijinsky, presented as a strange, exotic being who could dance like a god. His slanting eyes and his finely-chiselled lips were to be emphasized with grease-paint; his roles were to be of the most unusual type.”  

There is a relationship that warrants further exploration around new classicism and the exoticisation of how Nijinsky was written about and presented, what Patel has done with her re-imagining and how it has been written about in terms of ‘otherness’.

Dance is always presented in a context and Patel’s context needs wider acknowledgement. She is performing and touring in Not Today’s Yesterday, a contemporary solo work co-authored and choreographed with Lina Limosani; she developed in partnership with Gandini Juggling an award-winning work Sigma in which she’s a central pillar; she has co-developed The Natya Project with Shane Shambhu and Magdelene Gorringe — a training programme for younger bharatanatyam dancers in response to the lack of dancers in the profession — and she is still creating/touring her own classical evening of works. If she were male with a name like Khan, McGregor or Shechter she’d have her own choreographic centre, be heralded as a UK pioneer with regular funding to match. 


Ian Abbott at Dublin Dance Festival 2019

Posted: May 25th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Dublin Dance Festival 2019

Dublin Dance Festival 2019, May 15-17

Dublin Dance Festival, Oona Doherty
Oona Doherty and Valda Setterfield in Inventions (photo: Ewa Figaszewska)

Dublin Dance Festival 2019 is the penultimate edition under the curational control of Benjamin Perchet. Now in its 15th year, DDF is Ireland’s premiere contemporary dance festival, something akin to London’s Dance Umbrella: a city-wide festival with multiple partners and scales of work and a mixture of local and international guests. Sitting alongside Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas, Colin Dunne & Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Session, and Liz Roche’s I/Thou is a trio of works on consecutive nights that ask questions around gender and age. 

La Natura Delle Cose (LNDC) by Virgilio Sieni is a problematic work. Created in 2008, LNDC features four male dancers (Nicola Cisternino, Jari Boldrini, Maurizio Giunti, and Andrea Palumbo) and one female dancer (Ramona Caia). According to the program ‘Sieni draws inspiration from the great poem De rerum natura by Roman philosopher Lucretius to explore “The Nature of Things”, portraying a character moving through the entire cycle of life in one hour. In a performance of overwhelming beauty, five dancers offer a counterpoint to what Lucretius believed to be the chief cause of unhappiness: the fear of death. Moving as a single body, they create a rich visual poem that presents the masked character of Venus at three stages of life. First as an eleven-year-old girl, she moves with graceful fluidity, borne aloft by the four male dancers. Later she explores the world as a two-year-old baby and finally she is an eighty-year-old woman, her descent complete.’  

The reality is you have four men controlling, manipulating, positioning and restricting a female performer, pulling her legs apart, marking their hands on her body, and pawing her in three 20-minute scenes as she wears the masks of a teenage girl, a toddler and an 80-year-old woman. Caia is a gifted mimic, embodying the physical traits and stereotypical movements at all three stages of life; we see the toddler tantrum through rigid legs and resistance alongside the grace and subtle flow of the older body. There might be an alternative way to view this work as there was a little skill in not allowing Caia to touch the floor as the men caught, lifted and carried her around the stage in the opening scene. However, female bodies on stage are always political; what you do with them and how you frame them is a choice. When you choose to cover the female performer’s face for the entire performance while the men remain unmasked and give men total control, you are adopting a position of male power. The lack of awareness from both the choreographer and the festival that the work can be read in this way is startling; my response was not in isolation as conversations with other audience members across the festival identified levels of discomfort with and questions about the work presented. 

Inventions by John Scott/Irish Modern Dance Theatre was considerably less problematic in its portrayal of women as it gave space for and a gift to Valda Setterfield and Oona Doherty; supported by Mufutau Yusuf, Ashley Chen and Kevin Coquelard, Inventions is ‘a new Bach-inspired dance work’ that ‘weaves new stories into an old ballroom setting, echoing the memory of dances past. In a series of duets Inventions focuses on two contrasting couples, one falling in love, the other falling into an abyss.’ Scott’s work is made in response to a tricky period in his life and the text and physicality has an urgency and clarity to it that come from a place of truth.

As a 60-minute suite of duets/solos with the occasional group moments we can smell the abyss, the rage and despair alongside the possibilities of redemption and hope. Scott has assembled five performers who are magnetic, engaging and infinitely watchable creating an environment in his studio that has unlocked something; to see exceptional dancers perform well is a moment of rare joy. 

At the age of 85 Setterfield is the anchor, orchestrating a sense of calm amongst the emotional debris left by the others; Doherty is an exceptional presence on stage, part wolf, part shark, part hawk and there is an internal menace and trauma that is married to an exquisite technical control. In her duet with Chen towards the end of the work, they slam, run, fly, hold and compete with each other; even though Chen is taller and heavier there is no doubt that the power lies with Doherty. 

Ensemble by Lucy Boyes and Robbie Synge is the result of a practice seven years in the making after Boyes challenged the status quo of the type of bodies people expect to see doing dance; with a startling bias towards bodies that are ‘professional’ and under 30 there is a dearth of middle-aged and older people on stage and in the mainstream media. Opening with a tightly choreographed 15-minute section we see Synge, Judy Adams, Angus Balbernie, Hannah Venet and Christine Thynne deliver an intricate set of floor work and knotted walking patterns to a driving score mixed by Matthew Collings. The remaining forty minutes comprises a series of duets between Synge/Venet and Adams/Thynne/Balbernie which foreground the ability and personality of the dancers. 

Ensemble is refreshing for its lack of artifice; we see the dancers on the side of the stage, wiping down, taking on water and waiting for their stage time. This isn’t an engagement or outreach project for older people, but a quietly radical space where bodies come together to transmit joy, lightness and an authenticity that is infectious and demonstrates how different bodies can tell a different story. It immediately subverts societal expectations of what bodies in their 60s and 70s can achieve with a demonstration of strength, intimacy and togetherness.


Ian Abbott’s final report from RISE 2019 in Findhorn

Posted: May 19th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s final report from RISE 2019 in Findhorn
RISE 2019
Janine Harrington’s Screensaver Series (photo: Andrew Lang)

RISE Festival 2019, part III: McPherson, Rhéaume, and Harrington

As RISE 2019 progressed across the weekend works started to talk to, frame and relay into each other; threads of Practice, Memory and Labour emerged and now, with a little distance, they have settled into an epilogic Findhorn glow. The approach, care and experience of audience/people and artist/people is central to the experience of RISE and a priority for the Dance North Scotland team; their attention to detail (from arrival packages to all artists of Findhorn bakery bread, milk, oats, jam, coffee and a tick comb) and curational consideration ensures this boutique dance festival remains a highlight of the UK festival calendar. 

After the international offerings from Canada and Taiwan on the opening night from Mandoline Hybride and Chang Dance Theatre, Saturday expanded and drilled down into the works that had a longer-term relationship with Moray, Dance North Scotland and a depth of practice with each other. 

We were privileged to see live excerpts of the process that Harold Rhéaume and Katrina McPherson are currently undertaking for their new collaboration Dix Commandements; fresh from a residency at Dance Base earlier in the week we saw some early rushes of films shot amongst the densely trafficked Edinburgh cityscape. Rhéaume and McPherson’s collaboration was reignited after a near 20-year gap when Priscilla Guy (from Mandoline Hybride) invited McPherson to Quebec in 2015 for the Cinédanse festival; it was here they rediscovered each other and continued their collaboration which saw the premiere of the screen dance work Paysages Mixtes at RISE. It’s an urgent work with a sense of collapse at its centre, with both Rhéaume and McPherson taking turns behind and in front of the camera. We see through their framing and choices of shots — around Moray and Quebec — how they’re rediscovering each other; in their moments together on screen their physical and emotional landscapes pop and you can almost taste their mutual distance and proximity. In a conversation with Harold Rhéaume during the festival, he shared some of his history and experiences in Quebec as well as his connection and relationship with McPherson. I distilled his conversation into this response:

harold and i

the way of 
her movement aesthetic 
chimes off camera 
with decades apart
developing togetherness practices 
finding foundational methods 
l
e
t
t
i
n
go of a 
career, friend, relationship
our frame dissolves
contained intimacy eruptions
questing for humanity 
performing our selves
grappling with processes
still the search
unveils by doing
conditional heart commandments
nestles tearing other

Rhéaume and McPherson had spent time filming some of Paysages Mixtes at Findhorn beach and  we saw it again during the presentation of Julie Cleves and Robbie Synge’s Passing Through; Synge (like McPherson) has spent many years based in the Highlands and his and Cleves relationship has been reoccurring with Dance North Scotland over multiple visits. You can read an in-depth interview about their relationship to practice, memory and labour here but after seeing the work for a second time Passing Through achieves a profundity, comfort and emotional resonance rarely seen in dance theatre; over the course of 50 minutes we are witness to two pals sharing parts of themselves and their relationship alongside the obstacles and objectification encountered as they continue to practice their practice. It makes me think of:

People as Comfort
Repetition as Comfort
Systems of Comfort
Architectures of Comfort
Body as Comfort
Place as Comfort

In opposition to those artists who already have a relationship with RISE and Findhorn, Jay-Lewin invited Janine Harrington to present two of her works (Screensaver Series and The Human Clock) at the festival. As a maker, choreographer and artist Harrington deals in precision and her practice is an embodiment of systems thinking in action. Screensaver Series, a quintet for five female performers, is a delicious way to spend 40 minutes; it’s an attention-hogging work of profound concentration, precision and connection. With an invitation to change your viewing position throughout the performance this living choreographic kaleidoscope sees the five performers tightly packed together delivering an evolving suite of visual patterning across a two-dimensional plane. As a work concerned with its own delivery it leaves space for our own reading; there isn’t something to get, miss or understand. Without the busy-ness and narrative aspiration that a lot of other dance works attempt, the work has an extra liveness. Seen from the front it is a symmetrical pulsing Rorschach that triggers thoughts and memories a little like cloud gazing; we all see something different but the stimulus is the same. However, if you move to either side you see the practice and labour; bodies that appeared and disappeared before are meaningfully held, supported and moved in and through Harrington’s choreographic score. By altering your own position slightly the system and thinking are uncovered. 

The Human Clock is a durational work that deals in labour and repetition; on a bright yellow tubular frame a number of laminated A4 paper numbers representing all the permutations of the 24-hour clock are lightly hung and continuously turned by a performer, displaying something akin to that which is recognisable as time. There is a close proximity to accuracy which is important as the work, although appearing simple in how it meets its audience, leaves a political and social residue with the thoughts it conjures as you spend time with it. The act of someone being paid to represent time, this labour of time would be a red rag to a lot of the red tops/mainstream media, when in fact The Human Clock catches people unawares, it snares them in as Harrington continues the turning and you see people engaging in conversation with her, sharing their memories and thoughts about time or you watch the repetitive turn of the numbers in quiet comfort and suddenly realise that 10, 15 or 30 minutes have passed. The Human Clock spent time in Inverness Railway Station, Findhorn Village, Moray Art Centre and other places throughout the week preceding RISE; glance at it for a second and you understand the mechanics and what will continue to happen…the comfort of anticipation, the familiarity of numbers turning that are slightly inside/outside time creates a soothing headspace amongst the rush and attention deficits we are faced with in our life. As a final act of closure The Human Clock coincided with the official closing marker of the festival. For the handful of artists and audience, as 17:29:00 turned to 17:30:00 this quiet act framed the dispersal of RISE’s temporary community.

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.” – Milan Kundera


Ian Abbott’s second report from RISE 2019 in Findhorn

Posted: May 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s second report from RISE 2019 in Findhorn

Ian Abbott’s second report from RISE 2019, Findhorn, May 3

Mandoline Hybride in Singeries (photo: Svetla Atanasova)

As an afternoon prologue to RISE, the Federation of Scottish Theatre held one of their bi-annual Dance Forums (for the third time in Findhorn) bringing together independent artists, venue managers, producers and festival programmers from across Scotland to share information, updates and engage in a discussion on a particular theme. This year discussion turned around The Role, Potential and Impact of Festivals with provocations from Janine Harrington and Karl Jay-Lewin. Harrington spoke of her experience of performing at and experiencing a range of festival contexts and left an interesting residue as she spoke of artist-as-leader, referencing H2Dance’s Fest en Fest, making herself less tidy and more complicated whilst acting as a hernia inside an organisational structure to rupture and burst it. Jay-Lewin spoke of his tri-role as artist, creative director of Dance North Scotland and the curator of RISE, saying that the people — rather than the work he programmes — have to have a desire for more than just the gig; there has to be an urge for something beyond, maybe related to the ecological/spiritual nature of Findhorn alongside a desire for community. 

Jay-Lewin has been building a long-term creative relationship with Canada (and in particular Québec) and this year’s RISE presents Singeries (2016) by Mandoline Hybride alongside the world premiere of Paysages Mixtes / Dix Commandments by Scotland’s Katrina McPherson and Québec choreographer, Harold Rhéaume. 

Singeries self-describes as: ‘Two women try to stay true to themselves. Trapped in the middle of a videographic fresco in which their image is multiplied and shattered, they ape and compulsively replay their own image so that they don’t completely dissolve.’ As a 60-minute festival opener it is riddled with intrigue and a lo-fi menace. Catherine Lavoie-Marcus and Priscilla Guy, who are responsible for the artistic direction, choreography and performance, are almost static downstage left as we enter the Universal Hall to an exploded Schrodinger’s box with toys, clothes, screens, blinds strewn across the stage. Guy and Lavoie-Marcus are reminiscent of a pair of analogue troubadours cornered in a world not of their choosing. As diffuse light appears and disappears no shadows are cast by Guy and Lavoie-Marcus in their whiteout, reducing our understanding and visibility as they merge with the white televisual snow surfaces. Singeries is technologically tight, narratively precise and flits our attention between screen and human worlds; the visual detail and attention is bountiful with projections splitting across venetian blinds, bodies and alternate screens. 

In a conversation with Katrina McPherson in advance of the festival, she shared some of her history and experiences in screendance as well as her connection and relationship with Rhéaume. I distilled her conversation into this response: 

katrina and i
in the shadows of QuebecTaitFerness
the agency of dualauthoredimages
without end weeattheeastcoast
revealing invisiblepresences 
ourselvesrecorded

katrina and i
a m e l a n c h o l i c exuberance
crumbling legs 
c
o
l
l
a
p
s
e
shooting m y s e l f as a montage 
of female gaze
an e m b o d i e d layered e m p a t h y camera
older artists with big lives
a g a i n and a g a i n and a g a i n
pulling and cutting ourselves up 

katrina and i
an e p i c e n t r e built on margins
built on buster keaton
built on banff 
built on peter 
built on doug
built on simon
built on anna
built on moray
built on fred astaire 
an o f f c e n t r e built on commandments 

I will be in conversation with Rhéaume during the festival and will offer a response to him in my next piece.

Closing out the first night was the delicious hug that is Chang Dance Theatre’s Bon 4 Bon (2017) — one of the critical successes from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe — choreographed by Eyal Dadon that frames childhood and brotherhood through collective memories of mango. Having trained together at Taipei National University of the Arts, Bon 4 Bon is the first time the four brothers (Chien-hao, Chien-chih, Chien-kuei and Ho-chien) have performed on the same stage and there is a bodily ease that can only come from decades of sibling play, fighting and familiarity. Set to Blackbird by The Beatles and 666 by Bon Iver, these 30 minutes are laced with charm as we listen to each brother replay memories of their father, mango and Taiwan. There’s a lightness to Dadon’s construction and choreography which sits well on their bodies and transmits easily to our eyes whilst nestling in the squishy feels area of the audience — leaving me not only with Blackbird as an ear worm but thinking of childhood. 

We can immerse ourselves in Chang Dance Theatre performing and retracing memories, but with thoughts of childhood come thoughts of older age and I’d be interested to see how Bon 4 Bon looks in a decade or 25 years, when their bodies have changed, their lives altered and their emotional connections have deepened; there would be a richness and nuance that is unachievable in youth. Speaking with some of the artists and visitors at the festival this year the word comfort has been used a lot: RISE as comfort, Findhorn as comfort and now we can add Bon 4 Bon as comfort too.

Ian Abbott’s preview of RISE 2019 is here.