Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Posted: May 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Dancing on Screen in Lockdown, May 7, 2020

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bennelong, Dance on Screen
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong (photo: Daniel Boud)

What is the purpose of viewing on a screen dance that is made specifically for the live intersection of stage and audience? In these times of lockdown there is a deluge of choice from UK and international companies, artists and venues that are seeking visibility, relevance and attention. 

With so much to watch, it’s how and when we access it (convenience) as well as what and why we access (taste) that makes the demand on our attention even more pressing. As our menu explodes and our time feels even more finite than usual, the paralysis of choice is real. Attention is the main currency – those who are demanding it and those to whom we want to give it. Sat alongside us (2 metres away) are the rampant, ever-present inequalities and biases that have simply shape shifted from the old world to the new.

Dancing on screen is presentation as restriction. We see the taste, bias and preference of the editor and those behind the camera (who are often uncredited) and the screen is unrelenting; it does not let our eyes rest. Work is captured, edited and our gazes directed to only one body, one face or one part of the stage at a time. We are being told what to watch, where to watch, how long to linger. Whilst we are restricted to our homes we are also being restricted in what/who/how we watch; our choice is to watch or not watch, absorb all or miss part of the visuality. 

Whiteness is everywhere on our screens and the curational choices made by venues/festivals have not changed. A lot of the performances are free for audiences to access, but what aren’t talked about are the woeful and insulting payments that some venues/festivals are offering artists to stream/publish/present their content in lockdown which won’t even cover buy-outs or music rights coverage. Whilst onlineness makes geography and the costs of travel/tickets disappear, there is a divide between those who have access to the necessary devices and a stable internet and those who don’t, between those who have the time and freedom to access the works and those who don’t.

These initial seven weeks have made a mockery of the notional seasons that venues have imposed up to now. The touring windows of October, November, February and March for certain types of work are an arbitrary choice that has been demolished and rendered meaningless; and I wonder whether the old world will look to reinstate these boundary markers moving forward from 2021.

Over this lockdown time I’ve watched the equivalent of one screened event a week; these are works that I hadn’t seen previously either for geographical reasons, because I missed them when they were originally touring or because they are companies I’ve not seen live before:
In Loco Parentis by Vincent Dance Theatre, presented by Pavilion Dance South West
Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy (aka Babson), broadcast by France.TV
Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company, presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company 
Dust by English National Ballet, presented by English National Ballet
Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre, presented by the Sydney Opera House

All five are existing stage shows that have been recorded (with more or less skill) and are not current corona commissions. (One of the new HOME MCR commissions by Bryony Kimmings caused some theatre beef earlier this week with a three-star review by Broadway World followed by responses from Kimmings as well as other critics and the Twittersphere.) 

In Loco Parentis (ILP) by Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) was screened on Thursday April 9 and was billed as the ‘Digital Premiere’ by PDSW. The work was filmed at Worthing Theatres in March 2020, and was available only between 7pm and 11pm that night with a pre-recorded post-show discussion with Charlotte Vincent, Artistic Director of VDT (director and designer of ILP), Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School and Louise Michelle Bomber, Director of TouchBase. 

ILP self describes as a reflection ‘on the universal human need to be safe, to feel looked after and to belong. Movement, strong visual imagery and spoken word combine to explore the cycles of rupture and repair that drive children into care and the impact this has on their young lives. Critically acclaimed for translating real-life testimonies into beautifully crafted performance work, Vincent Dance Theatre shed light on the extraordinary resilience of care-experienced young people, their parents and carers demanding their stories be heard.’ 

ILP was captured by a multi-camera team; the screening offered different angles (and heights), lingering focus and attentions with a sensitivity that aligned wholeheartedly with the delicate nature of the themes explored in the work. At a shade under 90 minutes, the presentation of the work was exquisite; it was an exercise in choice and movement which aided my attention as a viewer, matched the authorial flow, and macro/micro’ed the stage, performers and puppets when necessary. No other UK company from my watch list has come close to this detail, audience consideration and approach to their camera and audio set up. It cannot be overstated how important it is to get the tone of the edit and the cuts right when re-presenting live work on screen without the mechanics of the recording getting in the way.

The multi-generational cast of five — Robert Clark, Aurora Lubos, Janusz Orlik, Kye and Tia — played out a heart-breaking tale of documentary dance theatre showing the highly complex system in which care-experienced children exist and its accompanying stigma. Choreographically and theatrically the work deals with multiple notions of support (or lack thereof); the duets between the two younger members, Kye and Tia, and their respective adults hit hardest as they do not have the professional polish, whilst the wider group exchanges where the cast brushes past and wipes away histories and memories on the double decker chalk board establish the tone and power dynamics well. 

ILP is impactful in the domestic presentation; it has some graceful puppet work but tends to overuse slow motion to the point of saturation (taking up what seemed like a third of the 90 minutes). This consistent emphasis of slow speed mainly ritualises and highlights the violence and domesticity authored by the adults as a party spirals out of control into coke snorting, bottle smashing carnage whilst the children hide away under the tables. Even if the performers execute their descent into stupor with exemplary control, the combination of slow motion and screen viewing meant my attention drooped as each scene became predictable and dragged time out unnecessarily.

ILP is the fourth in the series by VDT that translates real life testimonies into crafted performance work; Vincent’s signature visual and tonal quality is still strong (and it’s nearly 20 years since I saw their Caravan of Lies when they toured to University College Scarborough) but it feels like this current series that works less from an abstract concept and more from a base of lived experience suits the weight and current direction that VDT are pursuing. 

I watched Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy on Friday April 24; it had originally been broadcast by France.tv in December 2019 and remains available to view online for free till December 2020. It was filmed at Espace 1789 in St Ouen, and alongside Queen Blood there is a wealth of other French, France-based and international dance work that is available year-round (in or out of lockdown) on France.tv should you wish to continue to explore. 

Queen Blood self describes as: ‘Femininities through house dance. Ousmane Sy (aka Babson) made his debut in hip-hop in the 1990s and quickly became a representative of house dance, into which he integrated the Afro-house spirit with gestures inspired by traditional African dances. With Queen Blood, the choreographer continues his creative work on house dance through a show that explores what femininity can be: in dance, gesture, that assumed or suffered, etc. The seven dancers from the four corners of hip-hop respond with virtuosity through personal journeys danced in distinct musical universes (acoustic and electronic). A demonstration of grace and power to live in replay on France.tv.’

This was the only broadcast that acknowledged the dancers and screened their names with a short snippet of them warming up prior to the performance starting and credited the production team; so I know this was directed by Josselin Carré and produced by La Belle Télé. It was a simple gesture but for those who are not familiar with the dancers, knowing their names before the performance creates a relationship and offers a respect that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

Queen Blood is a remarkable and emotionally rich work manifested by seven exceptional performers — Nadia Gabrieli-Kalati, Linda Hayford, Nadiah Idris, Odile Lacides, Cynthia Lacordelle, Audrey Minko, and Stéphanie Paruta. It’s a portrait of femininities which has house dance at its choreographic core but branches out to include dozens of other Hip Hop dance vocabularies executed with acres of style, deep clean technical execution and a sense of community and strength that echoed a pressing need in these times of lockdown.

The camera choices, editing and knowledge of the choreography (to capture emotion and angles not seen by the in-theatre audience) revealed nuances, bodily and facial details alongside relational connections between the performers that aligned with Sy’s intentions. There were dozens of moments of satisfying innovation, from using the wings of the stage as centre and reframing the centre as edge (with the support of Xavier Lescat’s lighting design) to a reworking of the one of the original Hip Hop dances — the running man — to the running woman alongside an activist stillness (still so rare in Hip Hop): all the performers down stage in a line with a number of devastating solos played out to Nina Simone’s Four Women. 

As I watched Queen Blood on the screen take up space, play with edges, be political and present choreography that sits in and emerges from the body with such finesse, strength and fluidity by seven incredible Black female dancers I felt something shift; this is a work that was created, performed and edited so well that I will watch it again and again. Queen Blood is quite simply a remarkable work.

Not all work screened since lockdown has the quality, care, attention, cohesion and technical prowess that In Loco Parentis and Queen Blood have. I watched Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company (JVC) on April 13. It had been recorded at Sadler’s Wells and was screened across the Easter weekend on their Vimeo page; below their video was a full cast and creative team including roles like sound advisor (Peter Hall) to graphic design (Ranaan Gabriel) — a crediting of every single role that went into making the work that was absent from a lot of the other screened presentations.
Pinocchio is based on the original book by Collodi and performed by Vardimon’s multi-talented dancers. ‘Pinocchio brings to life the famous marionette as he embarks on a fantastic journey to become a human boy. Showcasing Vardimon’s uniquely theatrical choreographic and directorial style, Pinocchio combines physical theatre, quirky characterisation, innovative technologies, text and dance to examine the idea of what it means to be human.’

My previous encounter with JVC was a positive one over five years ago with a trip to the Winter Gardens in Margate to see Maze presented with Turner Contemporary. Pinocchio was somewhat like Twitter — in desperate need of an edit button. Although Guy Bar Amotz is listed as dramaturg, responsible for the video and jointly responsible with Vardimon for the set design, I cannot see how so many aesthetic, choreographic and narrative clashes made it out the studio.

Across the 90 minutes there’s some really naff technical execution mixed in with credible theatrical illusion; the wind wafting scene of shaking a newspaper and wiggling your pockets alongside opening and closing an umbrella is primary school terrible but one minute later there is a brilliant raft scene that looks like David Lloyd is sailing across the stage in mid-air. Whilst Pinocchio’s trip to the marionette theatre is aligned with the narrative and brilliantly executed, featuring a weight and pulley system duet, it was followed by an inexplicable mash-up of Crazy in Love by Beyoncé full of commercial routines that felt entirely alien to the world conjured up before it.

One of the mistakes that Pinocchio makes is that there is no adjustment in light levels (which need to be higher for work that is screened) so there were oodles of darkness where we could hear the sounds of…knees? feet? bodies? doing something in relation to the floor but which were impossible to see on screen. When we could see the choreography it was Maria Doulgeri as Pinocchio leading the eight-person ensemble (with everyone else playing multiple roles) who was highly watchable, all putty-kneed as she grew from wooden boy to angsty teen.

In 2015 Maria Campos and Guy Nader came up with the concept and performance, Time Takes The Time Time Takes, that I saw in India at the Attakkalari India Biennial in 2017. Campos and Nader created a number of embodied mechanisms via five performing bodies that echoed, measured and represented time. They also created a sequence of movement (see this video at 2:25) that I had never seen before. This very same sequence reappeared in Pinocchio (which premiered a year later) and I’m unsure if there’s a link between the two creative teams, if it was morphic resonance or a just a bit of choreographic kleptomania.

Akram Khan’s Dust was presented by English National Ballet (ENB) on Facebook and YouTube as part of their #WednesdayWatchParty season from 7pm on April 29 to 8pm on May 1; it was originally recorded in October 2015 at Milton Keynes Theatre. Dust self describes as ‘Created to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’, as dancing full of pain and power’ (The Independent) ‘with a pounding soundtrack and atmospheric lighting, it grabs you from the start and does not let go.’ 
Performed as part of ENB’s larger evening of work entitled Lest We Forget, it was in essence a live, 25-minute ballet audition for Khan. In a press release issued by Sadler’s Wells in 2018 it said Dust ‘led to an invitation to create his own critically acclaimed version of the iconic romantic ballet Giselle.’

With the opening scene of the single clap of dust from the corps I’m reminded that colour runs were really in vogue in 2014 when Dust was created. The film capture was terrible: so much camera work covering the whole stage when it was just the duet, or dancers taking up 10-15 percent of the screen while the rest of it was empty blackness. In the edit there were close-ups in the wrong position, dodgy framing and a considerable amount of time focused on Tamara Rojo.

Khan acknowledged on ENB’s website that this was the first time that he had worked with ballet dancers; is it coincidence that Khan’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry, was creative producer at ENB from 2013-2017 or was it merely brilliant expansionist work on Khan’s behalf? Whilst there were no pointe shoes in evidence, it felt like ENB was cosplaying as a contemporary dance company using Khan to gain traction, trying to shift the dusty perceptions of ballet as an elitist dance form and using a tenuous relevance to the World War I centenary celebrations to dump money into shallow fireworks.

Whilst ENB and the dusty Khan corps felt flimsy and opportunistic, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong presented by Sydney Opera House as part of their From Our House To Yours season, premiered on YouTube on April 15 (available until May 5) demonstrating how a large-scale work that has a specific history and geography can be approached and sensitively handled.

Bennelong self describes as ‘… the story of one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal figures: Woollarawarre Bennelong. He was a senior man of the Eora people from the Port Jackson area in Sydney who was responsible for establishing a means of communication between his people and the British. With extraordinary curiosity and diplomacy, Bennelong led his community to survive a clash of cultures and left a legacy that reverberates through contemporary life. In a unique Australian dance language, the company celebrates the continuation of life and culture through the power, artistry and passion of the country’s most outstanding dancers. With its immersive soundscapes and exquisite design, Bennelong will leave you in awe of Australia’s history – and its power to repeat.’ 

For some context, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. It was started in 1989 by Carole Y. Johnson, the energetic founder of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, along with NAISDA graduates and Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone. Their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is at the heart of Bangarra, with a repertoire created on Country and stories gathered from respected community Elders.

In tackling the complex and real-life story of Bennelong, the challenge for artistic director Stephen Page was how to distil the story of a real person who lived over 200 years ago. What he attempted was to give a whistlestop wikipedia tour of the keyframes of Bennelong’s life and his relationship to the British colonial party led by Governor Arthur Phillip, who arrived in late 1789.

Whilst the camera set-up and edit was more skilled than Dust, it didn’t achieve the integration and invisible magic of either In Loco Parentis or Queen Blood, but at least we saw what we needed to see when we needed to see it. The set pieces were played out in naturalistic bodily movement which occasionally burst in textbook Modern Dance emoting. We saw Bennelong and his community being invaded by the British Royal Navy whilst a remix of Rule Britannia played, and a female elder prophet walking through a smoky portal suggesting things might be unwell. We heard the word smallpox on the soundtrack and saw writhing bodies convulsed in pain, and in the final act we saw Bennelong come back to his home only to be locked up in a mirror-blocked house built slowly by his community as the ultimate ostracization.

Choreographically and camera wise we saw both a literal and metaphorical capture of those big emotional moments across time in textbook story dance; the most important thing the performance did was to present a history, give a platform to and challenge some of the colonial history erased from contemporary British contexts. There’s no doubt that the story of Bennelong needs to be told, taught and discussed, but in this case and in general, history isn’t neutral and we shouldn’t adopt a neutral perspective. 
Viewing through the single lens of the screen, I was left unsure how to feel about any of the parties involved. Nor was Page’s perspective on this history clear. Across its 90 minutes we were unable to see it either from the point of view of Bennelong and his emotional journey, from the position of his original community, or through the eyes of the British colonisers. 

The inequality of platforms is as rife in screen land as they are in stage town; at the time of watching I took note of the viewing figures: In Loco Parentis achieved 168 views, Bennelong 3,021 views, Pinocchio 2,165 views and Dust 2,800 views (there were no figures available for Queen Blood). What is still more illuminating is that in the rush to present work there is a lack of nurturing of the community/audience who engage with the work, or an understanding about how audiences commune and behave online. 

When some video games are released, a Community Manager is often employed who is responsible for the community that grows around the game. This person attends events, writes newsletters, organises social media, sets up live streams and finds the best way of dealing with criticism; community managers know the fans best. Imagine something like this for either a production or a specific role in a theatre. Although the technology of online delivery obviates the need for an intermission, there was no offer for people with access requirements of alternative forms of viewing/experiencing like audio description or sign language interpretation; there were no warnings of strobes/lighting effects and there were no content trigger warnings before the performances. This is irresponsible and highlights the naivety and lack of care and attention that venues/companies are currently giving to their online audiences.

As a postscript — it didn’t involve watching dancing on screen, but did build a community, was highly curated and properly joyous — I want to highlight sync watch party #1 that was organised by Tayyab Amin and Gabrielle de la Puente: two hours of watching some of the weirdest, wholesome and obscure videos on YouTube including the Tyne and Wear Metro The Musical, the 2017 Blade Sports World Knife Cutting Championship Final and How to Build a Hamster Aquarium


Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

Posted: April 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

On portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre, Spring 2020

Hip Hop Theatre. Botis Seva's BLKDOG
Shangomola Edunjobi in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

This early 2020 reflection on portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre presented across England was originally going to be longer; I had planned to feature eight works presented in different part of the country — in itself an indication of the community’s rude health — that could inspire a wider conversation around similar themes. But with coronavirus taking hold of and effectively shutting down the social fabric, my plan has been reduced to four pre-coronavirus works: Caravan Social Night 7 – The Soulquariains Tribute Edition by Caravan/Chris Reyes at Richmix on January 25; Far From the Norm/Botis Seva’s BLKDOG at Warwick Arts Centre on February 11; Company Nil/Daniel Phung’s Blowin’ in the Wind at Richmix on February 14, and Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme presented by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Vaults on March 14. Those I was unable to include are Artists 4 Artists showcase in Gloucester presented by Strike A Light featuring Happy Father’s Day by Dani Harris-Walters; Fig Leaf by Joshua ‘Vendetta’ Nash, and Man Up by Kloe Dean on March 17, and Born To Manifest by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Courtyard, Hereford on March 26. 

There are a number of journal articles and books looking at masculinity, Hip Hop culture and dance; some of those that have informed my thinking are: Toby S. Jenkins A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture from 2011’s Journal of Black Studies; Sara LaBoskey’s Getting Off: Portrayals of Masculinity in Hip Hop Dance in Film from 2001’s Dance Research Journal; Mina Yang’s Yellow Skin, White Masks from 2013’s Daedalus, and Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón’s Graffiti Grrlz published by New York University Press in 2018.

Sat amongst this, the Producer/Writer Tobi Kyeremateng (@bobimono) published a three-tweet thread on March 1 which feels more reflective of the dialogue, complexity and intersectionality currently in play at the edges of masculinity and race and although she wasn’t explicitly citing Hip Hop dance theatre it could be read in that way: 

“i’m more and more certain that i’m really not interested in creating or producing work on “the Black experience” that isn’t specific in its focus, pushes Blackness into a monolith or isn’t saying anything new or different or interesting. 
“afros, growing up in ends, road life, knife crime, Black girl magic, masculinity – all incredibly nuanced, but it doesn’t feel like artists are being challenged to push themselves to think about different and creative ways we can talk about these topics”
“also don’t care for respectability work either lol like two ends of the same spectrum”   

In early 2019 Botis Seva talked about the influence — on the early incarnations of his BLKDOG — of Sally Brampton’s compelling and graphic Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression; in it she charts reflectively a depiction of her own isolation, incarceration, addiction and patterns of repeated abusive behaviour (which feels even more resonant in our current situation). This book influenced some of the original thinking and continues to inform the choreographic axis of the now-70-minute version of BLKDOG, co-produced by Sadler’s Wells.

After winning the April 2019 Olivier award for the 20-minute version, the task facing Seva was to build, flesh out and construct this first of seven performance dates across England in Spring 2020; it is framed as ‘Botis Seva’s BLKDOG’ and not as authored collectively by his company, Far From the Norm. This foregrounding of founder and prominence of the auteur/creator/name is a growing London trend (hello Tony Adigun’s Avant Garde Dance and Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance) which in some way feeds a masculine ego — I don’t see Kloe Dean’s Myself UK Dance Company or Vicki Igbokwe’s Uchenna Dance — whilst backgrounding all the other people in the company who have fed into the process.

BLKDOG self describes as: ‘A genre-defying blend of hip hop dance and free-form anticsexploring the inner battlefield of an ageing artist trying to retain his youth. Performed by Seva’s powerhouse company, Far From The Norm, BLKDOG searches for coping mechanisms in the ultimate hunt for acceptance. Vital and gripping, BLKDOG is Botis Seva’s haunting commentary on surviving adulthood as a childlike artist.’ 

There are two tracts that BLKDOG explores; isolation as violence and, leading off from that, dance as violence on the self. A body placed in isolation deteriorates physically and emotionally; it fractures and is unable to heal. Shoot the Damn Dog offers an account of personal proximity to trauma, whereas BLKDOG offers an account of personal proximity to isolation. As an accompanying text — although Seva doesn’t foreground it in the programme notes or marketing copy — Shoot the Damn Dog is an illuminating portal for his thinking. With six dancers on stage (Jordan Douglas, Joshua Nash, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi, Naima Souhair and understudy Hayleigh Sellors, who replaced the injured Ezra Owen with 24 hours’ notice), BLKDOG is a work of two states and two halves that is clearly still in progress; with a second half dressed in dinosaur onesies and crowns (courtesy of Ryan Dawson Laight) straight out of Where The Wild Things Are, the first half is visually reminiscent of fresh 1970s asylum threads with bespoke quilted hoods. 

Seva has honed and expanded some of the choreographic palette and visual devices (gun toting/pointing and the duckwalkesque ‘nibbles’ that scuttle) from Madhead, his commission for the National Youth Dance Company in Summer 2019. The first half is the foundation of the original Olivier award-winning work demonstrating some of Seva’s core strengths: building rich and interesting choreographic movements that challenge the preconceptions of the dancing body. I like this focus on the half space. If level 1 is work/bodies on the floor, and level 2 is full verticality, there are oodles of sequences where the dancers are existing at level 1.5, demonstrating a gluteal strength and a bodily duality that is neither one thing nor the other —  ready to spring or ready to collapse. It is this space that Seva likes to inhabit as he deflects choreographic boxes and boundaries into which his ‘free form antics’ do not neatly fit.

Long-term music collaborator Torben Lars Sylvester (Seva’s whole creative team is male apart from producer Lee Griffiths) spoke in the post-show conversation of the process of one-upping each other, finding patterns, inflexions and musicalities that the dancers could ride and that would in turn cause him to build extra tracks and layers into the score to create an additional mood for the dancers. Thinking back on the work three days later (when I wrote this and now six weeks later in revisions) I cannot recall the score or any of the emotional drivers behind it.

The proximity of choreographic isolation in both time and relationship for each dancer ensures they do not infect those around them; like a virus they remain immune to each other. There is no being influenced or influencing, and apart from the last 10 minutes when Jordan Douglas really shines brighter, hits harder and erupts, the cast of six are diminished and muted; either in their cumulative number or choreographic difference. We have six ones, rather than one six. 

If this is the first time you’ve seen Far From the Norm in a theatre — and for those non-London audiences it is quite possible — what you will encounter is a band of dancers who are fiercely committed and deliver a slippery blend of choreographic putty under the guidance of the good ship Seva. The first time you see a Norm it is refreshing; you’re in the presence of a set of dancers that don’t look like Hip Hop, don’t look like contemporary dance and don’t look familiar — they are defined by what they are not. Seva is isolating himself from easy choreographic definition and at the same time making a choreographic lineage hard to attribute or to see where the seeds of his influence(s) will fall next. 

Heavy is the Head is the last track before the show begins and Ultralight Beam is the first track after the no-bow; we have BLKDOG as the filling in a Kanye and Stormzy masculinity sandwich. However, having seen six of his works since 2015/16, including his break-out work Reck, it feels like Seva’s choreographic language is intact; he still has a knack of creating unusual moments, motifs and visual food, but (I may be incarcerated by my/his own expectations) five years down the road his ability to sustain interest, to shift a mood or shake a mono dynamic, to think of an audience as a complex layered entity able to receive multiple signals and modes of address, needs further development. He’s in his own suburbs. 

It’s worth reiterating that this was the first show of the tour that should (coronavirus permitting) continue touring into Autumn 2020, and as a work tours and beds in with new audiences it will shift and be modified. I look forward to meeting BLKDOG again at a later junction.

Presented and commissioned by Chinese Arts Now, Daniel Phung/Company Nil’s work Blowin in the Wind self describes as: ‘…a powerful and dynamic dance theatre piece addressing the complexity of the current patriarchal society, it challenges our perspective on ‘power’. Four characters who are forced to place their ‘power’ within patriarchy, use mind blowing Contemporary and Hip Hop dance (emphasis is mine) to take you through multiple episodes of masculinity: Sensitivity, emotion, conflict, aggression and adolescence. It is an emotional response to these following questions: What is masculinity? Does masculinity exist? What is cultural masculinity? Does cultural masculinity exist?’

This is the first full-length work Phung has created, and these are some large claims and questions he attempts to answer with four performers in several episodes over 50 minutes. Either the questions are so grandiose that they are impossible to answer or are so simplistic that we’ve heard them before. There are a few nice sketches and motifs — mainly featuring Fern Grimbley who has a physical elasticity and watchabilty that warrants a deeper choreographic challenge — but a tender wrestling duet in which two people try to wear the same jacket is indicative of Blowin’ in the Wind’s facile representation. It offers a 2D stereotypical masculinity that belongs in the Daily Mail with little thread or authorial commentary. Despite a couple of nice lift sections and a solo for Grimbley that showcases what a fine dancer she is, the visibility of a Hip Hop choreographic language is hard to find and the throwing of paper aeroplanes into the audience and inviting their return is a fine but shallow attempt at audience engagement. I find myself leaning back to what Tobi said earlier around a need for nuance: masculinity is a big word, with a set of expectations alongside it; it isn’t a monolith. A smaller, tighter focus is needed if Blowin’ in the Wind is going to add to any future dialogue around masculinity and Hip Hop.

The possibilities offered by the choreographic, masculine Hip Hop dance theatre body are numerous; it can be expanded, reduced, presented in binary or opposition, it can be fragile, in mourning and in so many other different states. Yet I find it hard to recollect a Hip Hop dance theatre work made recently that offers either a new narrative or an alternate angle on masculinity without relying on what Yang calls: “…overt displays of masculine swagger and power, and built on a value system derived from the streets of corporeal risk-taking, competitiveness, and improvisation.” I am left yearning for the complexity, prowess, emotional strength and honesty of Kloe Dean’s Man Up which I wrote about last year and now consider a yardstick for other Hip Hop dance theatre works. So far nothing has come close. 

Caravan Social Night 7: The Soulquarians Tribute Edition was an evening presented by Caravan — a project founded by Chris Reyes — which celebrated the legacy of artists J Dilla, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, James Poyser (all who shared the Aquarius starsign) and the wider 90s Neosoul movement. Although definitely not a Hip Hop dance theatre work in itself, Caravan Social Nights are primarily events and fundraisers for Reyes’ other Hip Hop dance theatre work; they are a place for some of the community to gather, to showcase and see peers exercise different creative muscles, inviting and encouraging acts to bridge music, art, dance and improvisation with all the rich pollination that comes from them.

Comprising roughly five 20-minute stage sets (with a drinks interval between each), live painting by Isaac Bonan and Gatien Engo and hosted by the triple threat Ashley Joseph, the luxurious opener saw L’atisse Rhoden slow jam to Marli Artiste’s vocals and Vicky ‘Skytilz’ Mantey on drums; next up was Ben Ajose-Cutting (aka Mr Ben of The Locksmiths) with a playful set where he would control the various instruments/band members (including Turbo on drums) by lightly stamping an imaginary start/stop button in front of each musician as he layered/stripped away levels of funk and lyrics to lock to. There were other sets featuring T-Boy and Inga Be with a New-Style Hustle partner duet leading into an improvisation with Dani Harris-Walters, a work from Reyes himself, and Boy Blue’s Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy topping off the night spitting J Dilla’s Pause with a trio of male dancers.

Caravan is without doubt a valuable space for some of the Hip Hop community; the event was slick, full of original content and one of the few places to see artists trying something different without the pressure of their own brand. There was a consistent acknowledgement of Reyes as the driving force and focus of the night, shouted out by Joseph as the man who got the funding and who made it happen (not the producer of the event, Emily Crouch). 

However, what I found strange was that Reyes had a ft. in all of the stage works as well as his own set, whether that was taking over as conductor in Mr Ben’s locking stamp band, dancing in Ken’s work or improvving during L’atisse’s opener. While there’s respect for Reyes having made the evening happen and for bringing people together, when is that line crossed? When does the consistent presence of masculine ego draw focus away from the other acts? What signals does the continued attempt to assert a veneer of alpha status send to the audience and participants? 

Do people in Hip Hop dance theatre really want to talk about masculinity? Do they see how some may be perpetuating problematic behaviours of masculinity? Are they able to engage in the complexity that surrounds the question? Or is it a shallow and facile fundraising hook on which to hang a set of technically adequate routines whilst looking winsome and drawing attention to themselves?

In 2013, Just Us Dance Theatre (JUDT) set up Let’s Shine, a mentoring project to empower young Hip Hop performers and provide them with tools and opportunities to develop as artists and individuals. In the latest edition of the programme (which runs weekly) ten young men aged from 16 to 23 have worked with Joseph Toonga and Ricardo Da Silva to create and perform a response — entitled Let’s Shine, like the project — to Toonga’s work Born To Manifest. Part of the problem of not having seen Born To Manifest is that I’m unable to gauge the success of this 40-minute response by the seven Let’s Shine dancers, but since the original was inspired by first person accounts of young Black men from across London, there are multiple things that need acknowledging in such a political and socially resonant work. The lived experience and racial profiling that young Black men in London face is radically different from any other cultural or racial group; in 2018 43% of the Metropolitan Police’s Stop and Search targets were Black people who make up just 15.6% of the London population. In the same report it said that the likelihood of Black people being stopped is 4.3 times higher than White people. In 2018, 76% of homicide victims were male, with 62% being of African-Caribbean heritage aged under 25, and in relation to victims of knife injuries under the age of 25, 455 were White and 1,370 were ‘BAME’. 

Sat alongside these statistics and lived realities, this 2017 study — Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability — published by the American Psychological Association says: “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men’s physical size may play a role in this process. The results of seven studies showed that people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men.” Toonga has himself received some highly problematic language in previous reviews of Born To Manifest, like “Toonga, an imposing presence who wouldn’t look out of place at the Rugby World Cup”, which again plays into the inflammatory stereotype that is perpetuated by the majority of the UK media. This is only some of the societal context within which this work operates.

Let’s Shine attempts to provoke, make us answer questions on our own biases and pose deeper questions about masculinity and power. We are presented with examples of choreographic contagion as one dancer emerges from the bunch, delivers a dance popularised by the video game Fortnite in a swift Tik Tok burst and suddenly all seven are mimicking, summoning up a collective energy. Then it disappears as quickly as it manifested, only to be replaced by another authored by someone else and repeated. This cycle is a fine demonstration of the difference in the behaviour and psychology of a man on his own — what he would/could do and what he can/can’t do in comparison to the behaviour of a group of men when they’re together.

Arnold Tshibangu is an absolute stand out fizzing with a performance magnetism, focus and an ability to draw and hold our attention when he is on stage, like an echo of a young Ivan Blackstock; previously he was Tin Man in the 2017 version of ZooNation’s Groove On Down The Road. The other performer that had a cleanness in execution and a barrelfull of energy was Musa Mohamed aka Moose; knowing that Born To Manifest is a duet, I’d be interested to see if the pairing of Mohamed and Tshibangu could step up to the full work at a later date.

Choreographically Let’s Shine cycles through Hip Hop and funk styles; the stage is peppered with krump jabs and oodles of pops and muscular contractions. Though technically it’s not the cleanest in execution, the musicality, the energy passed between them, the sweat and believability masks any technical deficiency in the wider cast. With some animal noises on the soundtrack mixed with gorilla vocal imitation by some of the cast, we see a relationship between the krump jab and the gorilla chest pound — but which do we see, Gorilla or krump? Violence or expression? Again, Toonga and Da Silva are playing on the edges of our assumptions/stereotypes to intelligent effect. Some of the chorus and crowd scenes were a little wafty, filling air, and were too much of a distraction to the solo/duet focus, but this is a minor quibble. 

In creating Let’s Shine — both the work and the wider programme — JUDT have created an interesting model that is asking socially relevant questions about masculinity using Hip Hop dance theatre. It is a soothing antidote to the growing number of over-produced Hip Hop dance theatre works that feeds us empty calories or fail to adopt a political position. I’m not saying that all work needs to be about something or answering a societal need, but if you’re making a work that is autobiographical, it does not automatically make it about masculinity or femininity. If you’re making something lighter, for entertainment purposes, ensure your intention is clear and let audience know.

It feels somewhat ironic that seven out of the eight works on my list were authored by men; is this an (un)conscious positioning, creation and affirmation of their Hip Hop masculinity in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Is it a bias and set of active decision making in programming by venues to present men over women? We know this is a consistent problem across the wider dance industry, including the work Sadler’s Wells and Breakin’ Convention choose to present and tour.

I see few attempts, inquiries or acknowledgements from the England-based Hip Hop Dance Theatre scene to engage with different types of masculinities that intersect with communities of disabled, trans, gay or femme artists. There are conversations happening elsewhere around Hip Hop and masculinity including the two Minnesotan rappers Kyle ‘Guante’ Tran Myhre and Tony The Scribe and their nine-episode debut podcast season of What’s Good, Man? which self describes as ‘a podcast on men, masculinity, and culture. Featuring two hosts who sharpened their analyses in the worlds of Hip Hop, cultural organizing, and movement-building, it’s also a response to a specific call: men need to speak up more about issues like consent, gender violence, and sexism, especially with other men.’  What England-based artists are currently dealing with is a very narrow masculinity; if they’d seen each other’s work they could have had an active dialogue or hosted a wider discussion around their thoughts on masculinity and its relationship to Hip Hop.


Ian Abbott on Candoco double bill at Bristol Old Vic

Posted: March 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Candoco double bill at Bristol Old Vic

Candoco Dance Company’s Double Bill: Face In and Hot Mess, Bristol Old Vic, February 25

Candoco Dance Company in Yasmeen Godder's Face In with Clinkard's Hot Mess
Face In by Yasmeen Godder (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

In a deliciously niche piece of UK choreographic history, Candoco commissioned the works on the current double bill from Yasmeen Godder in 2017 and Theo Clinkard in 2019; back in 2008 when Clinkard was one half of the brilliant PROBE alongside Antonia Grove, it was PROBE who commissioned a short work from Yasmeen Godder in which Clinkard danced as part of their Magpie evening and it was the first time I encountered both these artists. 

Face In by Godder self describes as: ‘a sensual and disturbing ode to intimacy and imagination, expressed through striking images and daring uninhibited dance, set to an urban indie score.’ Set amongst Gareth Greens’ design of prisms of fruit-salad lighting projected on to white cycs on either side of the stage over 30 minutes, we’re introduced to solos, duets and trio islands of abstract partner work, contact and some lifts mixed in with plenty of Godder’s visual signatures of ripped/embellished costume (designed by Adam Kalderon) and big leary tongue pulling. 

Whilst Laura Patay is highly charismatic (having also been the standout performer in Hetain Patel’s Let’s Talk About Dis) and Mickaella Dantas has a spiky energy, the rest of the company feel really lacklustre in their performance with Toke Broni Strandby struggling in particular. The uninhabited and sensual dance that we are meant to be witnessing and feeling is nothing but a false and fabricated physical frenzy and one that I simply do not believe; they attempt to build and sustain an energy on stage, attempt to create friction or disturbance but none of this transfers to me in the audience — if it ever really leaves their bodies. 

The all-White company are dialling it in and in some sense I can understand it; middle-class choreographic abstraction is dead, it’s dull, it says nothing, there’s no point to it and it’s an exercise only in ego. If this is the material you as a dancer have to work with, then you’ll deliver a certain level of professionalism, but I think you can tell if they really subscribe to either the choreographer or the intention behind the work. 

Clinkard’s Hot Mess self describes as ‘an unpredictable and anarchic performance set to an eclectic score by the award-winning Joe Newman of alt-J. Art installation meets dance piece in this explosive new work by the company that continues to expand perceptions of what dance can be.’ 

On his own website and social media channels, Clinkard offers lots of other contextual information around the work which is worth adding to the slim programme notes from the evening. He says: ‘It’s a piece full of doubt and actively unknowing and I’m genuinely filled with doubt and unknowing when witnessing it. We created an oddly exciting place of collapse and potential and watching these dancers navigate its demands is pretty thrilling. I hope it’s a dance that reflects the times were living in.’ Alongside this he also created:

Hot Mess. a Manifesto

Rejecting:                   Celebrating:
the stable                   the unformed
the fixed                     the unknown
the polished               the potential
the repeatable           the collaborative
the product                the unplanned
the heroic                   the process
the known                  the unexpected
the formal                  the failure
the ordered                the queer
the absolute               the precarious
the resilient               the disobedient
the known                  the messy

In 2019 Clinkard made nine new works for different companies; with Hot Mess I feel like the reservoir of his ideas and concepts have dried up. What we’re left with is the dregs of an alt-J b-side pushed through three effects modulators with seven pieces of dangling material in which the dancers thrash about in the opening scenes followed by half-finished Meyerholdian biomechanical gestures that are neither satisfying, explosive, nor instrumental in expanding perceptions of what dance can be. If I feel a sense of reluctance from the performers in Face In, in Hot Mess it is multiplied to infinity; they are certainly carrying out the manifesto and reject it all, but they also reject the majority of the audience who come to see the company; it is almost uncomfortable to sense the amounts of sighing and fidgeting in the audience. 

Candoco is not a company that is touring small-scale and indie black box studios; it’s touring mid-to-large scale theatres around the world and need work that is befitting those spaces and audiences. Hot Mess does not rise to the occasion. Although Clinkard undoubtedly achieves his manifesto (with a considerably heavy nod to Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto from 1965), it is at a cost to the company, and I cannot see Hot Mess staying in their repertoire for as long as works by Godder, Patel or Thomas Hauert. Titles can be revealing: in informal American usage, a ‘hot mess’ is ‘a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination’.

It’s really worth repeating for those in the back: middle-class choreographic abstraction is dead.


Ian Abbott on H2Dance’s Fest en Fest at Laban

Posted: February 22nd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on H2Dance’s Fest en Fest at Laban

Fest en Fest 2020 by H2Dance, Laban, 8 and 9 February

Fest en Fest Cry Me a River
Karen Røise Kielland and Katja Dreyer in Cry Me a River (photo: Knut Bry)

Fest en Fest is an international festival of UK/Nordic artists looking at notions of expanded choreography initiated and curated by H2Dance. Fest en Fest ‘makes space for artists and audiences to come together and present live works and ideas, to discuss, provoke, influence and be a force for change.’ This is the second edition and took place over a week in Colchester, Cambridge and London. I saw a number of works and attended a discursive lunch and round table with Janine Harrington and Grace Nicol in Deptford. Due to the storms that weekend, the performance of Phantasmagoric by Helgebostad/Berstad/Brun was unfortunately cancelled. 

Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source by Karen Røise Kielland/Katja Dreyer is a buoyant choreographic postcard offering an autofictional account of a joint expedition to the source of the River Styx via the side quests of multiple Greek mythological hero(ine)s. Kielland and Dreyer are a pair of affable performers busying themselves with their stage-based tasks related to casting effigies of multiple body parts in plaster whilst retelling their real life stories of meeting Odysseus, Cerberus and Echo on a 1500-mile adventure. 

With their direct address and small audience interaction (one member got a cast of their hand) it’s a work that raises a few chuckles at the word play and storytelling as Kielland and Dreyer relay their encounters; it feels that there’s enough presented for us to believe it is real…or real enough. It dabbles with the venn diagram of truth and non-truth whilst keeping their onstage labour legitimate. Sat alongside all of this is a long set-up for what is a delicious final set of images (no spoilers) and feminist commentary on the patriarchal histories, stories and collections that are so heralded in Western heritage institutions. The act of casting bodies and the residue of patriarchal statues that are littered throughout history tell a particular story of a particular body type from a particular stratum of society; Kielland and Dreyer’s gentle lampooning is a fine start to my Fest en Fest.

If audiences were trying to find traditional examples of ‘dancing’ and ‘choreography’ in Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source they would struggle, but Fest en Fest is clear in what it is and what it will present. ‘Expanded Choreography’ as a notion could be an alternative moniker for performance, live art or theatre. An ‘Expanded Theatre’ festival like Fest en Fest includes dance, music, and visual art in a widening boundary that encompasses other things. Fest en Fest is a festival. A festival of work from the UK and Nordic countries. It doesn’t need to indulge in a dance-will-eat-itself debate – let the work speak and get your ears ready for what it has to say.

Music For Lectures is a series of works by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion where they invite a speaker (this time Mette Edvardsen) to give a talk on a subject of their choice which is backed by the Burrows/Fargion ‘rock band.’ At 35 minutes Music For Lectures/every word was once an animal saw Edvardsen sat cross legged with microphone and script in hand, Burrows on drums, Fargion (Matteo) on bass guitar and egg shakers and Fargion (Francesca) conducting from a keyboard. 

Edvardsen’s text is a dry and stretched desert traipse through the pop science section of Waterstones picking up some sugary and shallow philosophy on repetition on the way; the rock band play simple chords and beats whilst Edvardsen speaks. For 35 minutes. With the audience sat at the end of Gaff@FuelTank bar, 40 people were subjected to the theory of the eternal return, to Flashdance and to Kierkegaard. It was thin, self-satisfying and could have been presented as a radio programme/podcast such were the levels of performativity or audience engagement; if I wanted a performed bibliography in the shadow of John Cage I would have gone elsewhere.

I do not subscribe to the cult of Jonathan Burrows. Having seen four of his works I cannot understand why a performance of quaint Englishness — a peacocking simplicity masked by pseudo intellectual academia — appears to be so well received by the cult which surrounds his work. His performance persona is like an English Poundland version of Matthew Goulish and Tim Etchell’s lovechild but has inherited neither their performance charisma nor their intellectual heft. 

With Edvardsen the second, White, female frontperson (previously Katye Coe) in Burrows and Fargion’s collection, I don’t understand why or how her presentation is of interest in the live realm. Expanded choreography this is not. Expanded intellectuality this is definitely not. Burrows and Fargion expanded ego, 100%.

What H2Dance have done for this second edition of the festival is to extend it outside London, bringing a number of UK premieres to Cambridge and Colchester as well as attracting a set of artists and students from Laban for whom some of the work resonates/challenges assumed thinking. Fest en Fest has — in just two years — found a tribe of audiences, artists and programmers to attend this micro-festival that is artist run/curated and led. It is rich, full and divergent and although I had a strong response to Music For Lectures, I appreciate a work that makes me feel such a strong set of emotions. 

Leaving Laban I went back to thinking about Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source and how Kielland and Dreyer could expand their own repertoire and offer their take on other histories choreographically, from the Greeks to the Romans to the plague or the sealing of the Magna Carter in a series of alternative edutainment shorts looking at dance/history through a feminist autofictional lens.


Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Some thoughts about dance in 2019, December 31

Bodyless thoughts on dance
Bodyless (photo: Hsin-Chien Huang)

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and work that have settled in my 2019 memory bank. It was a year when we had the UK Dance Showcase — which I will come back to later — and when so many artists created work in response to institutional power and epistemic violence.

Wendy Houstoun’s Hell Hath No Fury at Wainsgate Chapel, Hebden Bridge (part of Wainsgate Dances in June) took us to her Sunday school pulpit of philosophy and rage whilst delivering us from evil in a ferociously hilarious 45 minutes of wordplay and image making. Aided by the servitude and deferential bell ringing of Charlie Morrissey, Houstoun was our High Priestess, our sermon giver offering hope, hula hoop skipping, and water to those in need; as she commanded the audience to sit, stand and listen in our pews to ripostes against the 2019 political landscape she was swift and rapier-like. With Hell Hath No Fury Houstoun has demonstrated (and built upon from her previous works 50 Acts and A Pact With Pointlessness) her gift for rhythm, distillation and an ability to hold attention; she captures a mood of how some people are feeling and lampoons it. Wainsgate Chapel as a site of performance and Houstoun as prophet is an immaculate combination; in the age of fracturing communities and the slow death of theatre buildings I imagine a world where Hell Hath No Fury is a 2020 version of a mystery play travelling to chapels, churches and cathedrals across the country, a liturgical drama serving to shame our morally unanchored institutions of power.

Bodyless, directed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is a single-person 31-minute VR experience I saw at the Phi Centre in Montreal (part of an exhibition of VR work from Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Olafur Eliasson) in November. Bodyless is based on Huang’s memory and set during Taiwan’s martial law and colonial period of the 1970s. The repression and control of people through old (and new) technologies blended with pervasive digital surveillance to ensure this has a relevance now; what Bodyless achieves that no other VR art work I’ve encountered so far has done, is the technological holy trinity of embodied encounter, emotional narrative investment and graphical fidelity. As we move round a dark and oppressive system, we encounter multiple timeless episodes/scenes where we find bodies in differing states of control; polygon-twitching bodies in cells with rewilding plants growing through the bars, faded newspaper portraits of people who have been deliberately missing-ed or dozens of limp and floating bodies in a hospital or boarding school with limbs defying gravity. The intimacy of VR as a single-person experience heightens emotions as you glide, ooze, sink or float through landscapes; the fact that you have a level of agency, an ability to move, look at and focus where you want embodies this act of witnessing bodyless-ness in action. We see how people are erased from a society, and the emotional distancing that VR and screen-based work usually causes is dissolved by Hsin-Chien Huang in this fantastical response to the memory of trauma. 

From the macro power portraits of Hell Hath No Fury and Bodyless to a micro power portrait of Black male mental health, Elephant In The Room by Lanre Malaolu at Camden People’s Theatre in April is proof that Malaolu (supported by dramaturg Season Butler) has created a work of total theatre. We meet man, a multi-charactered everyman in control of his external body, but this control does not extend to his internal mind. Malaolu has a Hip Hop dance technique and execution that sparkles in its clarity; his physicality is accompanied by a command of language and a dexterity in verbal delivery that would cast long shadows at the RSC. He is wav(er)ing and popping; the use of these Hip Hop dance vocabularies is a fine foil for the wider debate around mental health: scrambled muscles that erupt and contract, dispersing clotted brain fog and bringing forth windows of clarity only to close again. Stability and control are bywords for mental health, and if you’re experiencing low level depression GPs recommend activities and inhabiting the types of spaces that Malaolu offers up in multiple scenes: football (exercise), Nando’s (food), barbers (community) and gym (self-worth). From a frozen barber, moving only his eyes and wrist with an imaginary shaver to a magnetic slapping of limbs and his back onto and into the floor and wall to an almost motionless slouch in a chair talking about too chewy chicken…Malaolu has the smarts and this work could and should have an international life like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles. What Malaolu achieves is a transference of a heavy feeling and an internal spiralling which are sometimes impossible to give shape to; the 70-minute work whistles by and it is the monstrosity of his attack, physical commitment (which bordered on the painful), multiplicity of voices and choice of stillnesses and excesses of movement that made this a highly satisfying evening that has the ability to stimulate further discussions in this terrain.

Cardiff Dance Festival hosted Montreal-based Daina Ashbee in residence during the festival in November and over the course of her stay in Wales Ashbee spent some time researching a new work, J’ai pleuré avec les chiens, which will be ready in 2020 as well as remounting and recasting her 2016 work When the ice melts, will we drink the water? We saw around 50 minutes of When the ice melts…performed by Lorena Ceraso in Chapter Arts Centre Studio. With Ceraso on the floor, back flatted and knees triangled, we understand early that her pelvis lies at the root of the work and at the centre of this bodily discourse on survival and endurance. Time is experienced slowly and there is a sparse choreographic landscape but one that is littered with violence, perceptions of the female body and sexuality. Slow quarter-turn rotations at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock see Ceraso address all sides of the audience with her ascended and descended pelvis, flickering edges and glacial eyes, but as she presents each suite of movements four times we witness multiple angles, new and unseen details that were previously hidden from view. When the ice melts…was named the best dance piece of the year at Montreal’s 2016 Prix de la danse awards and in the intervening years it has only gathered relevance with the attention drawn towards violence against women from the #MeToo movement; what it does is build an atmosphere that is so charged and so unpleasant that silence blankets the audience — we barely breathe as we pay attention to every sound and movement emitted from Ceraso’s body. The feelings of anxiety created by the work echo the pressure and internal questioning of should/will/how do we speak of violence against women when we are unsure of what it is we need to say or do in response to it.  

Violence towards women was consistently visible in a lot of the works I saw by female choreographer’s in 2019; another example (and a rare one because it is made for outdoor settings) was the 30-minute Scalped by Initiative.DKF. Created by Damilola DK Fashola and Wofai, with movement direction and writing by Fashola, Scalped was part of the opening night 
of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in Woolwich in June. ‘For black women one of the most common shared experiences is a passive but ever-present scrutiny. From what you wear to the way you walk, and most especially hair. Whether permed, braided, or in locs, black hair is political.’ Scalped is a work that demands your attention, holds it and then brings you in, which is credit to the company in the context of outdoor presentation when there are dozens of other distractions to compete for your eyes. Patience James, Audrey Lobe, Bubsy Spence, DK and Bimpe Pacheco climb, frame, pose and move around their scaffold set and wheeled boxes telling stories of discrimination, can-I-touch-your-hair violence and desire for freedom. The choreography is big, the performances are huge and the company is rightfully taking up space and presenting politically and narratively strong work in public spaces; Scalped is relentless in its power and energy and forces audiences to at least think about the discrimination consistently faced by Black women in British society. Representation and visibility is crucial and Scalped is one of the very few outdoor works made and performed by Black artists in the UK; Fashola has written and directed a new work Fragments of a Complicated Mind which runs at Theatre 503 in London from January 21 to February 1, and this interrogation of race, religion, sex and cultural expectations is sure to see her star shine even brighter.

Creative responses to institutional power do not always have to be heavy or filled with activist sensibilities; they can achieve just as much from a position that sparks joy, refreshes perspectives and brings people together socially. The Box of Delights by 2Faced Dance Company is a fine example of that (full disclosure: I work with 2Faced Dance Company as Executive Director and had a small performance role in the work). Running for seven nights from December 17-23 as part of their 20th Anniversary programme, what co-directors Tamsin Fitzgerald and Tim Evans have created with The Box of Delights is something that I’ve not seen before from a company in the UK; with the first act of 50 minutes taking place outdoors at night at over 20 locations and performance interventions throughout the historic centre of Hereford, they guided an audience of 80 towards The Green Dragon Hotel for a second act which contained a meat or vegan three-course meal prepared by executive chef Simon Bolsover and the continuation of the narrative taking place over 1hour 45 minutes. The seamless shift of the narrative and audience experience from outdoor to indoor, altering perceptions of place alongside the inclusion of food, is an innovative model for presenting work and place-making which suits audiences, performers and companies alike.

The aforementioned works are some of the great ones I saw across the year, but it wasn’t all as good as this. The first outing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Bristol Old Vic in April was both under and over baked at the same time; their portrayal of excess felt muted and duller in comparison to their previous successive portraits of excess in SEXBOX and Da-Da Darling. Rosie Kay Dance Company premiered the scaled-up version of 5 Soldiers…10 Soldiers (complete with 10 dancers) on the main stage at Birmingham Hippodrome in May which saw a dull 30-minute prequel tacked on to the previously successful 60-minute 5 Soldiers. The first half was meant to show the time getting in the army, but emotionally, physically and tonally it mirrored the second half leaving me questioning its purpose. The work clearly resonated with people who had a personal connection to, and involvement with, the army, but as a work at this scale, when the company hasn’t presented in this size auditorium, why would we expect it to be good immediately? Maybe after three or four shows when they understand that the intimacy, nuance and detail that made 5 Soldiers so good needs to shift considerably for grander and less subtle inferences. However, the work I had most trouble with this year was Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer by Shane Shambhu at Gloucester Guildhall, part of Strike A Light’s festival in March. In a year when there have been so many works of dance, performance and theatre exploring the effects of immigration/race/displacement/othering like Demi Nandra’s Life is No Laughing Matter, Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement, Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much or Rachael Young’s Out, Shambhu’s Confessions is a lite and frothy idiot’s guide to bharatanatyam made for White people. Peppered with anecdotes about his relationship to Indian dance and performing his arangetrum, it asks little of you and there’s little empathy, emotional investment or calls to action. Shambhu is a likeable mimic, scatting between citizenship issues and the physicalities of his family members, and while the work is well constructed it plays into the self-exoticisation that so many contemporary bharatanatyam creators attempt to repel. There are short bursts of 10-15 seconds of classical movement, which are not the cleanest and he is sometimes out of breath when coming out of a movement sequence straight into speech. There’s a nice reveal towards the end, an emotional hit that shows a duality: that this is part of him and that he wants to reject it but is unable to because it has partially formed him and how he is in the world.  

…and back to the UK Dance Showcase, phase two of the Surf The Wave project conceived by Deryck Newland before he left PDSW in February 2017. The UK Dance Showcase was curated by 11 people and of those there were no women on the committee who weren’t white, there was nobody who worked in an organisation north of Salford, there were no people with a disability, no female artists and no producers. Surf The Wave is ‘the major project led by PDSW, on behalf of the National Dance Network (NDN)’ but it is telling how the other 26 members of NDN have been very public in distancing themselves from the project and choose/chose not to publicly or privately acknowledge the reality, successes or failures of Surf The Wave. 

Artists and producers are always in the position of least power, least resources and least privilege in their relationships with institutions, and what has been heartening in 2019 is see how they have spoken up, back to, and in solidarity with others while forging new alliances en route. The relevance of the majority of cultural institutions and how they behave in society and with their community demonstrate at best a wilful ostriching ignorance of how society is shifting and at worst a consistent and harmful contribution that perpetuates outmoded thinking, broken systems and systemic bias.  

With the total funds raised at more than £1million — on top of the other public subsidy added to the total from the time spent by salaried organisations across the UK — the narrative presented back to NDN and to other funders has been that some of the artists who attended the event have achieved some positive outcomes, built tours and new relationships. While this is brilliant for those artists who presented/pitched work that appealed to small-scale, non-dance specialist arts centres across England, the active choice not to invite international programmers rendered the entire narrative as a sweet set of Tory Leadership/Brexit analogies (taking back control of our borders/exports), and conservative leadership breadcrumbs (Jeremy Hunt’s I’m an Artist as Entrepreneur) that beggars belief. What has not been reported is the anger, frustration, bitterness and experiences of unprofessionalism in the way artists who were ‘selected’ were engaged in the lead-up to the event. Delaying the timeline of announcing selected artists (ensuring artists missed funding windows to apply for support to enable their presence at the event), offering fees to present the work, reneging on that offer and then offering a lower one to the same artists or selecting work that is not in a touring window and expecting artists to absorb the costs of remounting it, were some of the examples (there were many more) of how artists were treated. While it is acknowledged that those who programme work congratulated the PDSW team on a well-organised showcase event, the structural debris of damaged and fractured relationships has mirrored our political situation. Those holding power are ever more desperate to preserve old models and thinking, whilst those in receipt of the email vacuum of silence are left to wonder how to engage in the future.

I wrote a whole other piece (unpublished) about my experience at one of the Artist as Entrepreneur events but it follows a similar vein. Artists and producers are often encouraged by organisations and institutions of power to acknowledge their failures and mistakes in the creation and presentation of work — a growing focus and thematic consideration of a number of dance works including Epic Failure by Cultured Mongrel and The Unwanted by Shaper Caper. These and other works in development offer a personal, interesting and critical perspective on human fallibility, but until our organisations and institutions of power begin to acknowledge their own failure, or offer a public narrative about things which went well or not so well, then things will never change, and the power imbalance shall remain.


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.