Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Posted: December 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System – Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, October 22

Out of the System, Jonzi-D, Aeroplane Man
Jonzi-D in Aeroplane Man (photo: Chris Nash)

Out of the System is a guest-programmed section of Dance Umbrella; for the past three years it has been curated with characteristic flair by Freddie Opoku-Addaie who described it in 2017 as ‘the presence of diverse dance cultures within vocational and non-vocational structures outside the regular framework of dance presentation’. Two years later Out of the System has worked its way into the system with the Big Pink Vogue Ball at Shoreditch Town Hall and a mixed bill at, and presented in partnership with, Bernie Grant Arts Centre. With five artists over four works, the mixed bill consists of small-scale works with large-scale themes of identity and racial politics that Opoku-Addaie characterises in public transport terms (influenced by his commute on a No. 26 Routemaster bus between Waterloo Station and Hackney Wick) as telling ‘complex journeys that are routed in the shared struggle, continuous stop/start but dealt with a crafted overview of human fortitude.’

Theo TJ Lowe (THÉO INART) has worked with Hofesh Schechter and Akram Khan, among others, and this shows in his compelling presence on stage in his solo, Fragility in Man – Part 1. He makes his entrance through the doors of the theatre on to the stage that resembles a bare waiting room with three chairs; ill at ease, he takes a seat like a patient waiting to be examined or, more ominously, a suspect about to be interrogated. There is something simmering or explosive in his succession of halting gestures and periods of stillness that respond to human commands, the barking of dogs or the cocking of a gun. The trauma of past violence extends out from behind his eyes to land somewhere on a vertical plane between us, like a two-way mirror; he shines a light on the audience but sees only his own reflection. Even behind a superhero mask he cannot hide his vulnerability because he is turned inside out; when he exits through the same doors he entered, he leaves behind him the fragile landscape of his being. 

Like Lowe, Becky Namgauds turns herself into an exhibit, Exhibit F, tracing figures back and forth across the stage with her swirling, naked torso and long hair like a brush gradually filling in the paper with lines and colour. She is not so much building up a figure — the space is not like paper and releases the image as soon as it has passed — so much as laying down her emotional ground in repetitive patterns. What is exhibited and what is not is the constant issue in Exhibit F in which costume, movement and Michael Mannion’s lighting are fluid factors. Namgaud’s work, according to the program, deals with ‘recurring themes of feminism, femicide and the environment.’ There is no object in Exhibit F; it is its own constantly transforming subject. 

Breaking the solo format, Ffion Campbell-Davies enters at the start of Beyond Words, vocalising high on the shoulders of Tyrone Isaac-Stuart while he blows a cool saxophone below. Beyond Words questions the framework of a colonial approach to black dance through ‘a journey between two people communicating matters of the heart’. Beginning as a procession, it disintegrates to the sound of machinery into images of physical oppression and struggle that lead to questions of self-worth and respect. Campbell-Davies and Isaac-Stuart confront a broad canvas of history and social significance, from ancestry and tribal affinity to the idea of home, with a sense of residual frustration. At the end, perched once again on Isaac-Stuart’s shoulders, Campbell-Davies asks the audience, ‘Who are you standing on?’ It’s a question, ironically, that Opoku-Addaie’s curation over the last three years has set out to answer. 

Jonzi-D’s Aeroplane Man, created in 1999 ‘but sadly still resonating today’, is founded on a similar frustration but ends in a more measured affirmation. His finely-honed parable of identity and cultural politics pulls no punches and makes its point in keen satire and brilliant mimicry. Born and bred in the East End of London, he is both pilot and passenger traveling in his Adidas trainers to search for his ‘own country’ at the unceremonious urging of one of his white colleagues. His air miles take him from Grenada (‘my mother’s land, not my motherland’), to Jamaica, the Bronx and Zululand, but wherever he lands he finds he is not quite genuine enough. With the running refrain of ‘Call up Mr. Aeroplane Man, Yeah Man, Yeah Man’, he returns to London to discover ‘this brown frame has found his name.’ 


MuzArts Triple Bill of Clug, Cherkaoui and McGregor at The London Coliseum

Posted: December 23rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on MuzArts Triple Bill of Clug, Cherkaoui and McGregor at The London Coliseum

MuzArts Triple Bill of Edward Clug, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wayne McGregor, The London Coliseum, December 7

MuzArts McGregor Mugler Clug Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Edward Watson and Olga Smirnova in McGregor + Mugler (photo: Sasha Gusov)

The second London program from MuzArts is a triple bill comprising the choreographic work of Edward Clug, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wayne McGregor. In terms of dancers it’s a mix and match program with principals of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky working alongside first soloist Katja Khaniukova from English National Ballet, principal Edward Watson of the Royal Ballet and five dancers from SNG Maribor Ballet. 

Radio & Juliet is Clug’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s tale in choreography and film to a selection of early songs from Radiohead; the play on words in the title points to the emotional core of the work and indicates its primary perspective. In this version, Juliet has not taken her own life but is slowly piecing together the emotional turmoil of the recent tragic events. Using three sections of film to contextualise and weave the narrative together, Clug begins with a hand-held sequence — accompanied appropriately by Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack — that enters a palatial apartment to find Juliet in a black bodice lying alone in a rumpled bed. There’s a flashback of an angry argument, perhaps with her father, before she sits in front of the window to contemplate. Her thoughts find form in Clug’s fast-paced and clinically precise stage choreography. A procession of six men dressed in dark suits with jackets open over bare chests introduces the cast of characters without identifying them, though Mariinsky principal Denis Matvienko’s muscular presence and technical proficiency signal him out as Romeo while the identities of the others are suggested through their subsequent actions. Khaniukova takes her place in this macho environment as Juliet herself might have done, her stage character portrayed in controlled, physical sensuality and in her headstrong determination to follow her heart. This is where Radiohead’s playlist gets under the skin of the entire production; Clug’s choreography, Tomaž Premzl’s lighting and Leo Kulaš’ costumes all combine to visualise the visceral forces of jealousy and hatred that tear relationships apart, while the music provides an emotional anchor inside Juliet’s head that holds them together. Towards the end the camera revisits Juliet’s apartment; still in her black corset she is lying in her bath with eyes closed, remembering Romeo’s final moments that she plays out briefly on stage. The camera remains for a last wistful look around the empty rooms before leaving by the way it had entered. 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun features Bolshoi Ballet principals Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin in this tale of sexual arousal that Vaslav Nijinsky first choreographed in 1912 to Claude Debussy’s score, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, after the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Cherkaoui uses the same score with additional musical inserts by Nitin Sawhney. As Lopatin’s appearance in the Zakharova program showed, he has a fine classical technique but in Faun he undresses the classicism for a more pliable, plastic form, providing a poignant reminder of Nijinsky’s own chameleon propensity. In the opening solo Lopatin’s body exudes the lecherous and lascivious passions of the faun in the narcissistic, introverted enjoyment of movement and space. When Stashkevich arrives on stage, as imagined in Hussein Chalayan’s pastoral tunic, she looks more chaste but the subsequent rapture of the choreographic language blends both bodies in a shared jouissance.

Wayne McGregor claims responsibility for choreography and direction in the world première of McGregor + Mugler, while Manfred Thierry Mugler takes on the art direction and costume design. It is the latter that predominantly occupies our eyes while McGregor’s choreography — never strong in classical content or partnering — succeeds in making Edward Watson and the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina Olga Smirnova look as if they are performing a pastiche of an under-rehearsed pas de deux to tracks by Holly Herndon and Nils Frahm. While Watson is clearly not at his best, Smirnova is at the height of her career but she has trouble emerging from McGregor and Mugler’s framework. Mugler’s design of the flesh-like bodysuits, face masks, top knots and various reflective helmets, breast pieces, cod pieces, shin pads and amulets, effectively hides the dancers, and by making the masks so indistinguishable from their faces — certainly from a viewpoint halfway back in the stalls — we see no difference when they ritually exchange them. Perhaps that’s the point. The sophistication of Lucy Carter’s lighting is caught up in the pretension of its context, contributing to a spectacle in which the dancers are unwitting appendages to the hubris of its creators. 


Greta Gauhe and Alka Nauman at Chisenhale Dance Space

Posted: December 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Greta Gauhe and Alka Nauman at Chisenhale Dance Space

NOWhere & Be Fruitful and multiply at Chisenhale Dance Space, November 30

Alka Nauman, Be fruitful and multiply
Leilah Simone Williams, Keity Pook, Lucie Palazot and Shum Pui Yung in Alka Nauman’s Be fruitful and multiply (photo: Anna Jockymek)

As the first of two works on this evening’s program of new choreography by Greta Gauhe and Alka Nauman at Chisenhale Dance Space, Gauhe’s NOWhere is a timely examination of ‘issues of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment.’ Gauhe has taken an autobiographical approach to structure the personal narratives of her dancers from four different countries on two continents, who express their stories through spoken word and dance. Dance theatre is the performative equivalent of mixed media or collage in the visual arts where one medium is juxtaposed with another so as to bring out a new meaning or metaphor in the whole. What Lloyd Newson’s verbatim theatre or Luca Silvestrini’s confessional theatre — not to mention Pina Bausch’s tanztheater — have all shown is how spoken word and dance can strengthen each other to create dramatic, sometimes surreal scenarios that express ideas physically, visually, intellectually and emotionally. In NOWhere, however, the notion of juxtaposition is replaced by a convergence between dance and spoken word that unfortunately blunts the impact of both; the stories don’t stand out as much as they should, and the dance is lost in trying to frame them. Through this subtle transfer of focus, even the sinister signification of the naked light bulbs at the beginning becomes an artful approach to lighting by the end. Between the ‘hostile environment’ of the current government and the #MeToo campaign, stories of racial or sexual discrimination and harassment need to be called out with a force that arouses our sense of outrage and empathy; resistance to the established order is one of art’s primary functions. In its urgent call for action in the present time and place, NOWhere needs a stronger emphasis on the stories at its heart; they are too often inaudible through a problem either of acoustics, of weak diction, or of voices having to compete with Andy Trewren’s electronic keyboard accompaniment. 

It is difficult to know if Alka Nauman’s Be Fruitful and multiply is a polemic or a paean. Lying somewhere between the two, ‘the piece focuses on the ambiguous nature of plastic bags, on their elegance and ugliness…to reveal the absurdity of our attitude towards the environment.’ Nauman’s adoption of the absurd as a creative tool (it comes as no surprise that she cites the support of Eva Recacha) reveals its purpose in destabilising our response to the work, but the integrity of conception is such that this disruption is what makes it so effective. The stage is set with a tableau of four languidly posed women — Lucie Palazot, Keity Pook, Shum Pui Yung and Leilah Simone Williams — on one side in pastel t-shirts and pants and a pile of blue plastic bags on the other. Staring out over each other into the infinite distance, the four women inch their way in silence towards the pile with calculated reserve and control, creating bemused tension by maintaining the direction of movement while eliminating any sense of motive. When they reach the bags and start to explore their buoyant, pliant qualities in slow motion caress, the previous action is resolved but the future course of the work is once again in question. In Nauman’s absurdist construction, the negative environmental connotation of plastic bags loses its signification to one of aesthetics; the four women pose, balance and swing the bags like weightless jewellery on their arms and heads. They continue their reverie — with ever serene nonchalance — in padding their t-shirts with the bags, distorting their bodies to a bloated caricature, and later drawing them out as if by surgical procedure. By confounding reverence for the environment with devotion to one of its principal pollutants, Nauman satirizes our blindness to ecological destruction. The silence finally breaks with a recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Sileant Zephyri that is itself a musical fragment mourning the death of Christ and its effect on nature. The four women, with their heads covered in plastic bags, are poised individually in a final tableau. As they each lip-synch the recitative (sung by counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky accompanied by Ensemble Artaserse), a sense of calm descends, with only Yung’s hands and fingers showing any vestige of life. 

‘Let the winds be hushed, 
let the fields freeze,
the flowers and leaves will not
be drenched with the water they love. 
With the river dead
even the moon and the sun 
will be deprived of their own light.’

(Translation from the Latin by Pietro Lignola) 


Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Posted: December 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Richard Alston Dance Company, Alston At Home at The Place, November 28

Elly Braund in Alston's Red Run
Elly Braund in Richard Alston’s Red Run (photo: Chris Nash)

Richard Alston was one of the first dancers, along with Siobhan Davies, whom the dance enthusiast and philanthropist Robin Howard invited in 1968 to the building that would become The Place. Howard invited Robert Cohan to be the first artistic director of the school and to ‘form a dance company based on love’. Howard drew up a list of objectives for The Place, including ‘to use the universal language of dance to break down social, political, linguistic and other barriers’ and that ‘its standards should never, for any reason, be allowed to decline.’ It was left to Cohan to embody these objectives, both at the school and in London Contemporary Dance Company, and since the company’s demise in 1994 it has been the aim of Richard Alston’s resident company to maintain them. While keeping the school running, The Place has now seen the formation and dissolution of two resident companies, which is hardly an incentive to students in a performing art. Whatever the reason for closing Alston’s company, the cause is clearly not the company’s current form.

Alston At Home is a fifty-year perspective, from Alston’s very first choreography in 1969 — the solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly — to his latest, Bari, made for graduating students from London Contemporary Dance School. In between there is another early work, Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), something from the intermediate period, Red Run (1998), and two relatively recent works, Isthmus, made for Bob Lockyer’s birthday celebration in 2012, and Martin Lawrance’s Detour (2018). In addition, to mark the centenary of Alston’s mentor, Merce Cunningham, the evening includes two of the solos from the Cunningham Centennial Solos program presented earlier this year at the Barbican. The program is not only a retrospective but a clear mark of Alston’s appreciation to everything The Place has meant to him over the past 25 years. A visual artist of similar renown would be able to hold a retrospective in a single gallery over a period of time; as a choreographer, Alston’s retrospective extends over three programs in various venues, the last of which will be Sadler’s Wells on March 7 and 8 next year. 

What this program shows are Alston’s choreographic building blocks and their spatial development over time. The solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly has a simple structure with classically derived shapes and torsions and a clean sense of line. Set to Terry Riley’s music, there is a Cunningham influence in that what happens is what happens, no more no less. Two years later Alston approaches the adagio of Schubert’s quartet Death and the Maiden with more complexity; Blue Schubert Fragments is choreographed as if each of the six dancers is a solo instrument. Such emotional music can overpower a choreographic response to it, but here Alston extracts a spatial harmony from the integrated texture of the score.

In Bari, the folk-inspired music of South Italian pizzica has a buoyancy and energy — the traditional dance was conceived as an antidote to poisonous spider bites in the field — that the London Contemporary Dance School students relish. So does Alston, who smiles his way through the work with an infectious confidence. 

Alston contributed two works to Lockyer’s birthday bash in 2012, one of which was Isthmus, a quartet for two women and two men to Jo Kondo’s intimate, intricate score. The choreographic shapes are evocative of the earlier works but Alston’s adhesion to the musical rhythms creates a work with the rapid dynamics and sharp spatial patterns that define it. 

Martin Lawrance’s Detour moves up the program order of the evening due to a last-minute replacement of an injured Elly Braund by Hannah Kidd. As a former dancer in the company and the current associate choreographer, Lawrance is clearly an important influence on Alston, and vice versa. Detour, created to Akira Miyoshi’s percussive Ripple for solo marimba, uses elements of Alston’s vocabulary but submits it to an aggressive, virile energy that wrenches it apart. Calm returns after the intermission, with the Cunningham solos that revel in space and chance; Siobhan Davies is perfectly attuned to it in her mysterious dialogue with the air around her while Kidd’s more grounded contribution joins the physical to the aleatory. 

Red Run jolts us back to the energy levels of Lawrance but in responding to Heiner Goebbels’ Nine Songs for Eleven Instruments Alston employs a sense of luxuriant and fast-paced playfulness that challenges the musicality and technical proficiency of the six dancers. It finishes, ironically for this occasion, with a suggestion of death. 


Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall

Posted: November 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall
Circus Circus Circus Symoné Certain Blacks
Circus Circus Circus promotional image of Symoné

Certain Blacks, Circus Circus Circus Festival, at Hoxton Hall, November 22

Certain Blacks ‘is an East London-based arts development organisation formed in 2015 to support the work of diverse artists. Circus Circus Circus, a new festival, aims to showcase the different and exciting work from a variety of performers, artists and musicians.’ This evening’s festival finale is produced in partnership with the artistic director of Upswing Aerial Circus, Victoria Amedume.

Hoxton Hall is one of five surviving nineteenth-century salon-style music halls in London and it is in remarkably good shape thanks to a long stint in the hands of the Quaker Community. It opened its doors in 1863 and lost its performance licence eight years later due to complaints by police. Sitting in the tall, narrow hall with its elevated stage, shallow stalls, and two levels of wrought-iron galleries on three sides, it is not hard to imagine a raucous nineteenth-century crowd, eating, drinking and smoking, packed in tight on a popular night, raising the roof with their laughter, cheers and applause and spilling out afterwards into the slumbering, smoky streets. 

Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall reimagines this past in the present through the diverse skills of the performers and their stand-up chairman, ‘eyes on me’ Athena Kugblenu. Specialty acts were always a part of music hall, and these included aerial acts, drag artists, stilt walkers and jugglers as well as comedy routines and songs; Circus Circus Circus has a smattering of each, with acts that are either extracts from longer works, like Out of Order’s Once Standing, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram and Symoné’s Utopia, or scratch performances like Joana Dias’ 89 and both of Amelia Cavallo’s routines. 

Contemporary circus struggles with the use of narrative; while dance brokered a deal with narrative from its beginnings, circus has yet to sort out its relationship with it; either the apparatus is too obtrusive for the narrative, or the narrative is too artificial for the apparatus. Once Standing is a contemporary fusion of physical theatre and circus that imagines the behaviour of the last two people on earth. In its opening, performers Angeliki Nikolakaki and Jesús Capel Luna, both wearing little more than gas masks, create a convincing image of near extinction through the play of acrobatic strength and articulation, but when they move to the silks the circus arts leave the narrative hanging. The next two sections, however, work beautifully as narrative imagery integrated with the means. In one, Luna dressed in a fur coat dances on a precariously balanced skate board while Nikolakaki in a red tulle bodice and skirt plays a restless interpretation of Chopin on a keyboard, and in the second Nikolakaki is rooted to the floor by Luna’s coiled body at her feet as her sinuous upper body finds the yearning tone of both Janis Joplin’s vocals and Sam Andrew’s solo guitar in Summertime. The final section returns to the imagery of the opening with various props and masks but an abrupt curtailment of Ravel’s Bolero robs the work of its apocalyptic climax. 

Amelia Cavallo, aka King Tito Bone, comes closest to the spirit of music hall as ‘first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an enduring embrace.’* Cavallo, ‘your average, blind bisexual drag king’ with green glitter eyebrows and goatee, engages the audience with the force of her fearless personality and self-deprecatory humour in both works. The first is a brilliant parody of ‘I will always love you’ directed in fine voice to her white cane, that ends (in true music hall tradition) as a risqué conversation, and the second a flawless ‘fitness routine’ on silks that guides us irreverently through the feel and experience of every step and preparation as if we are the unsighted. 

In between Cavallo’s two acts, Joana Dias’ work-in-progress, 89, focuses on her aerial hoop skills where the intertwined flowing lines of the Arabic numbers 8 and 9 aptly describe the circular arabesques she creates. As a former ballroom champion and singer in her native Portugal, Dias draws together the quality of her motion and the emotion of her Fado accompaniment in a rich aggregate form that leaves any narrative to the imagination of the audience. 

After an intermission, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram is another example of narrative and circus paraphernalia crossing over but not binding together. Both Sadiq Ali and Hauk Pattison are adept at the Chinese pole but using it within an ‘exploration of a gay man’s narrative’ is not an obvious association. The opening of The Chosen Haram sketches the gay context between the two men but their subsequent agility on the poles does not corroborate it. Perhaps the extract does not do justice to the full work. 

In exploring her experience of living in a cult, the means Symoné uses in Utopian are an integral part of the story. Projected instructions for each of us to find, select, pass on, inflate and let go a balloon seem innocuous enough but Symoné makes her point by having us follow the instructions without questioning. Utopian has a longeur that expresses mind manipulation and altered realities; in relating her story she offers three options for each incident with the warning that maybe only one is true. Performed with Duane Nasis and Ruby Gaskell, Symoné mixes her narrative with elements of pole dancing, voguing and fluorescent rave culture while including her signature roller-skating and hoola-hooping. It’s an extended extravaganza that has a disquieting heart, as stimulating as it is sobering.

* John Major, My Old Man: A Personal History Of Music Hall (William Collins, 2013).


SUPERFAN’s Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre

Posted: November 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on SUPERFAN’s Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre

SUPERFAN, Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre, November 9

Nosedive, SUPERFAN
The cast of Nosedive (photo: Brian Hartley)

In Spring, 1967, Francis Warner, Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at St Peter’s College, Oxford conceived the idea of establishing a theatre in Oxford that would provide a platform for the work of writers, musicians, artists, performers and directors of the avant-garde and the staple diet would be new and experimental work. Warner asked Samuel Beckett if such a theatre could be named after him, to which he agreed. At the time it was supported by the leading composers, authors, artists and sculptors in the country. In 1976, St. Peter’s College passed on the management of the theatre to a charitable trust, known ever since as the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust and in 2003 the Trust launched an award ‘in particular, to help the development of emerging practitioners engaged in bold, challenging and innovative performance and, in general, to encourage the new generation of creative artists.’ The Award allows a company or individual to create a show either for the Barbican’s Pit theatre or a site-responsive show to take place in east London or the City. SUPERFAN, ‘a new contemporary performance company’ based in Scotland, is the winner of this year’s award and its new work, Nosedive, was presented at The Pit from November 7-16. 

On the face of it, there’s a disparity between the Award’s particular purpose of supporting ‘bold, challenging and innovative performance’ and SUPERFAN’s response, created and directed by Ellie Dubois and Pete Lannon. Nosedive’s proposition sounds interesting: ‘Pushing themselves to the limit, dancing with abandon, colliding into each other, children and adults perform feats and leaps that grow ever bolder, ever riskier, revealing an intricate bond of fear, resilience and recklessness.’ But in current stage performance politics, a work with ten-year-old children can neither be ‘ever riskier’ nor ‘reckless’; we need to set aside this kind of language and the publicity that simply corroborates it in order to measure the performance of Nosedive on its own terms. 

What we see as we enter the theatre is Rachel O’Neill’s set with its continuous white floor and backdrop and a wall of 80 lights like portholes on one side; it’s a clean, empty space with infinite potential, while its calmness is enhanced by Kim Moore’s sound design. Only later does this light wall, designed by O’Neill and programmed by Michaella Fee, come into its own, providing what is the most memorable and poignant moment of the work. The cast has two generations, with Michelle Ross, Nikki Rummer and JD Broussé as the three older performers and Albie Gaizley-Gardiner and Lachlan Payne are the ten-year-olds. The metaphor that runs through Nosedive of younger generations ‘standing on the shoulders’ of adults to prepare for their future is also explored in the choreography. After a blackout, the lights come up on Broussé lying in a pile on the floor as if he has crash landed — the original nosedive, perhaps, from which the narrative develops. His failing, flailing efforts to levitate have a slapstick quality that is aimed at the children of all ages in the audience. Ross and Rummer help him up and they all exchange acrobatic feats as a form of dialogue that sets the physical parameters of subsequent intergenerational exchanges. When the children arrive, they initially watch their elders performing but are gradually incorporated into the action; this is where Payne stands on Rummer’s shoulders for the first time, looking out into the future. The children ‘learn’ acrobatic skills from their elders in a spirit of trust and friendship that is mutual; it’s a solicitous Payne who rescues Broussé from another failed attempt to levitate. The children then practice their skills independently, approximating poses and positions in the image of their teachers while the teachers look on. The two generations are like past and present, constantly negotiating with each other until the present is strong enough to exist on its own. There’s a magical moment when Payne is left alone on stage, looking into that light wall as all 80 lamps are turned up. This small figure full of dreams is suspended momentarily in a bright but blinding future that he cannot yet discern. He turns and runs off. 

It is a moment that paradoxically transforms the work into something it isn’t. For all its intergenerational qualities, Nosedive hasn’t developed its core proposal convincingly from its egalitarian creative process in the studio — ‘embedded in playing lots of games and setting lots of tasks for each other’ — into a bold, innovative and challenging theatrical form.  


Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican

Posted: November 13th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican

Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican, October 18

Gregory Maqoma in Cion: Requiem of Ravel's Bolero
Gregory Maqoma and company in Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero (photo: John Hogg)

In a pre-festival interview, the artistic director of Dance Umbrella, Emma Gladstone, talked of ‘difference’ as a factor in her programming. “To me difference is always part of the politics: looking at difference, understanding difference, not being afraid of difference. I think it’s something the art form as a whole can do very well.” Gladstone was referring to Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero that Dance Umbrella presented at Barbican as part of this year’s festival.

Maqoma’s work is, as its title suggests, a requiem, but for whom and under what auspices? It is based on two novels by South African novelist and playwright, Jakes Mda: Ways of Dying (1995) and its sequel, Cion (2007). Both novels follow the life and trials of Toloki, a professional mourner who earns his living traveling from funeral to funeral in the South African townships during the country’s fractious transition from apartheid to democracy, interceding between the horror of politically motivated brutality and the efforts of individuals and communities to come to terms with it. In Mda’s sequel, Toloki travels to the United States to research the history of slavery, so in taking on this narrative Maqoma assumes a vast history of violence, from racial injustice to internecine wars both in Africa and elsewhere. He writes that ‘Cion’s message of death and its dire consequences must be communicated through a lament in order to tackle a universe where the age-old phenomena of greed power and religion result in unnatural deaths.’ 

While the thrust of aggression is global, rituals of mourning belong very much to the local communities in which they occur. ‘Cion is as in Zion, the African church’, writes Maqoma. ‘It is set in a graveyard, a church where the body is religion and the voices are personal.’ Maqoma’s role is like that of Everyman, placing himself in a specifically African setting with a group of spirits or mourners (eight members of his own Vyuhani Dance Company) and a quartet of superb vocalists — beatboxer Siphiwe Nkabinde, Sbussiso Shozi, Xolisile Bongwana and Thabang Mkhwanazi — who sing compositions in Isicathamiya by composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu. The opening of Cion sees a lone, bent-over figure shuffling his way across a darkened stage of crosses giving expression to his grief in stifled, plaintive a capella sobs. It is a prologue that builds a powerful sense of mourning, and when the single snare drum beat of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero begins, the juxtaposition of cultures is ripe for exposition and resolution. When the lights come up, however, only a vestige of that opening mystery remains. The setting of a graveyard by Oliver Hauser, the costumes of Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee and the exquisite lighting of Mannie Manim have the sophistication of a West End musical, while the figure of Mda’s Toloki ‘in his threadbare suite, cape and top hat’ is replaced by a stylishly dressed Maqoma whose movements in his five solos often exude the status of a pop idol; the itinerant mourner Toloki has become Michael Jackson. 

Maqoma is familiar with, and in, the West — he trained at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels and has toured widely outside South Africa to great acclaim (this is his third invitation to Dance Umbrella) — so he is well placed to combine his life experiences with his dancing and choreographic exploits. There is no doubting the sincerity of Cion’s conception and Maqoma’s desire to bring about catharsis, which he regards as ‘a universal grief that conquers the sadness continuing to permeate the living who are plagued by deaths that are not their own.’ By assimilating into this catharsis such a recognisably western piece of music as Ravel’s Bolero sung in Mahlangu’s arrangement by the a capella quartet, Maqoma suggests an imaginative conflation of the fate of his country with that of its colonial history. However, in Cion‘s translation of harrowing events from the South African townships to the Barbican stage there is a problem of theatrical signification; while the choral element maintains a powerful evocation that allows us to transcend difference, the choreographic and visual elements borrow too much from an overly familiar image of western contemporary dance — or even the classical tradition of soloist fronting a corps de ballet. Grief in artistic performance is always susceptible to a treatment that grants it exquisite form, but in the case of Cion there’s a risk the form inhibits the full realization of Maqoma’s catharsis.


Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Posted: November 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Dance Umbrella 2019, The Future Bursts In, The Linbury Theatre, October 25 

Amala Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné in Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

The title of this Dance Umbrella evening at the Linbury Theatre, The Future Bursts In, is adapted from Alexander Bland’s Observer review of Merce Cunningham’s first performance in London in 1964. He wrote, ‘Merce Cunningham and his company have burst on the British scene like a bomb…Here is heart-warming proof that it is an art with a future, opening up ranges of possibilities which stretch out of sight; it ought to be celebrated with champagne in every dancing academy in the land.’

Over fifty years later neither Cunningham nor his musical collaborator and life partner, John Cage, are still with us, but their legacy continues through the Merce Cunningham Trust. It is not only Cunningham’s works but the technique he developed and taught that are revered for the very reasons Bland identified. But history moves on and the future continues to burst in, not necessarily through a single figure or a monolithic technique but with fresh approaches to dance practice and to training. 

Amala Dianor is a Senegalese dancer currently based in Angers. Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity, is a beautifully crafted trio for performers whose techniques are grounded in hip hop but borrow from classical and contemporary dance. Theirs is a collaborative venture in which the three dancers — Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné — have come together to make a conversation of their diverse techniques. After calmly taking stock of the audience, they turn their focus inward, gently teasing out each other’s ability, admonishing each other and competing with each other’s vocabulary; it’s as if we are watching them through a window. We see their silent gestures and feel their choreographic affinity; we hear the tracks they choose from a score by Awir Leon but the music is for their own delectation, not ours. The pleasure is in seeing their ability to find effortless equilibrium and poise in their shared virtuosity. It is not so much the future bursting in as the dance diaspora reuniting with vestiges of the past to enhance the present. 

Celebrating Cunningham’s legacy involves the more ticklish problem of looking back without the living presence of the man himself, who died in 2009. CCN Ballet de Lorraine presents two works to mark the centenary of Cunningham’s birth, a new commission by Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley, For Four Walls, based on a lost work of 1944, and a recreation of Sounddance from 1975. Jacobsson is the artistic director of CCN Ballet de Lorraine and Caley is its coordinator of research; both men worked closely with Cunningham as dancers in the 90s.

Members of CCN Ballet de Lorraine in For Four Walls (photo: Laurent Philippe)

All that still exists of Cunningham’s Four Walls — it had only one performance — is the piano score by John Cage, played here on stage by Vanessa Wagner. Jacobsson writes that ‘we choreographed For Four Walls not as a re-enactment of the original, but as a place that allows for our history with Cunningham to be reflected in it.’ The idea of reflection becomes an opening conceit as we see nine dancers transformed into a full company by floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels. When the full contingent of 23 dancers subsequently fills the stage, swelling the ensemble to the size of an opera chorus in a crowded studio, the conceit loses its effect. As an exercise in spatial awareness and choreographic prestidigitation, it is awe-inspiring but any sense of reflection on ‘our history with Cunningham’ is effectively curbed. 

After a short pause in which we watch the mirrors — and our own reflection in them — disappear behind the stage to be replaced by Mark Lancaster’s delightful flourish of a curtain with its tent-like opening, ten of the dancers return for Sounddance. Despite the pedigree of recreation by Meg Harper (from the original cast) and Thomas Caley, some of the classical rigidity Cunningham had encountered at the Paris Opera in 1975 and wanted to jettison in the creation of Sounddance seems to have crept in, either from the dancers’ exhaustion or a technical legacy of upper-body tension; they seem to be doing the movement rather than letting it happen, while entrances and exits are more circumspect than explosive.

In the same review, Bland imagined Diaghilev would have loved Cunningham for ‘talking in the language of today’. But what does ‘the language of today’ mean in a performance archive that is 44 years old? And wasn’t this the question Cunningham wanted to pre-empt as part of his legacy by planning the closure of his company and school after his death?


Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre

Posted: October 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre

Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre. 

Oona Doherty in Hard to Be Soft
Oona Doherty in Hard to Be Soft (photo: Luca Truffarelli)

In a welcome programming decision, Dance Umbrella includes two works by Belfast-based choreographer, Oona Doherty. One is Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick and the other is Hard to Be Soft at Southbank Centre. Doherty created Hope Hunt first, in 2016, but the two works are like cousins; the family resemblance is clear while the gene pool is shared. What binds them together is the common canvas on which they are created: life in Belfast. Doherty has lived in the Northern Irish city for the past 20 years and knows it intimately; she also has a proclivity for researching the rougher side of life. There’s a rawness to her work that has no truck with artifice; she’s not interested in translating her experiences into choreography but in embodying them on stage. At the same time her performance effortlessly channels the elements of violence and anger into a paradoxical sense of freedom; her gravitational pull to the floor is equalled by her quicksilver ability to rise from it. 

Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus is concentrated Doherty, serving as both inspiration and reference for Hard to Be Soft. The biblical figure of Lazarus, whom Jesus miraculously raised from the dead, serves for Doherty as an enduring metaphor to champion the disaffected male youth of Belfast she portrays. By juxtaposing the soundtrack of recorded confrontational conversations from the Belfast streets with seventeenth century choral church music — Allegri’s sublime Miserere — Doherty’s body is constantly charged with contrasting impulses; her gestures are imbued with the hurled aggression and frustration of the conversations, while they equally aspire, or ascend, to some finer, ineffable state reflected in the music. The pleasure of seeing the performance is how Doherty invokes these two inputs, sometimes separately and sometimes together but always playing between them like separate monodies that she combines into a harmonious line. She achieves this because she is a rare combination of accomplished dancer and mimic; her expressive facial features and gestures engage in the conversations we are hearing with candid clarity and make us laugh at the accuracy of her observation, and then her fluid dance body will overlay a response to the music to suggest a spiritual context. As a performer she is nowhere other than on the streets of Belfast and she draws us to them, and to their stories, with an immediacy as if we were there too. 

Hard to Be Soft broadens her canvas while maintaining the same metaphor; she describes it as ‘a physical prayer celebrating all that we have and an invocation for what we are missing.’ Doherty divides her performance into four episodes — ‘a cinematic sci-fi stations of the cross’, as she has called it — in which she performs the first and last episodes as solos, but has choreographed the middle two respectively on a group of sassy young women — The Sugar Army — and two bare-chested men — John Scott and Sam Finnegan — whose meaty presence is both a bid to bring the physicality of Belfast directly to the stage and a welcome provocation to dance conventions. Her two solos anchor the work in the singular imagery of Hope Hunt, providing both a prologue (Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise) and an epilogue (Helium) to the central sections. The Sugar Army is a bevy of teenage girls recruited from each city with whom Doherty has spent a couple of weeks discussing identity in relation to mediatised attitudes towards beauty. To a soundscape beat by David Holmes, the Sugar Army inhabits the prêt-à-porter choreography with their youthful personalities and attitudes that don’t, however, quite match the delightful cynicism of a Belfast woman who describes ‘dressing up the politics of conflict with glamour’. In the third section, Meat Kaleidoscope, the presence of Scott and Finnegan correlates the power dynamic between a father and son with an expletive-strewn recording of a growling argument that echoes broader political tensions. The size and weight of the men, like two equally matched wrestlers, create their own form of physical dialogue that poignantly embraces antagonism and understanding in equal measure. 

Given the physical and aural iconography of both works and the overt reference to Lazarus in each, it is hard not to acknowledge the religious signification of Doherty’s work that underpins the potential of the human body to unite earthly and spiritual opposites. Ciarran Bagnall’s set for Hard to Be Soft is made up of vertical steel columns that refer ambiguously to prison bars or cathedral architecture, while her lighting generates the upward aspiration towards the divine. Yet despite the religious allusion, there is no overt moralizing; Doherty’s earthy, streetwise persona consistently deflects it. The power of her work is in juxtaposing hard-hitting political imagery with a state of radiant belief. A line from the Helium section straddles the possibilities between the two: ‘What if Jesus came back? What if he was bricking your car on the Saintfield road?’


Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Posted: October 15th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place, October 12

Split, Lucy Guerin
Ashley McLellan and Lilian Steiner in Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Lucy Guerin’s Split, performed by dancers Lilian Steiner and Ashley McLellan at The Place as part of Dance Umbrella, is an enquiry into duality that is structured on a grid laid down in white tape with a corresponding division of time. For the opening section, the dancers move within a spacious rectangle to a pulsing, driving score by Scanner for a prescribed period. When the time is up — and while the musical engine idles patiently — the dancers stop to rest, towel down and then divide the rectangle into two equal spaces with more white tape. They perform the next section in just one of the two rectangles for half the amount of time. With Paul Lim’s lighting providing an additional delineation to each section, the dancers continue in a diminishing geometric space/time structure until they have only a tiny square in which to stand and a final brief moment in which to resolve the entire choreographic puzzle. There is a strict logic to the pattern of partitions — resembling that of a Fibonacci series without the guiding Golden spiral — that appears to sublimate the agency of the dancers. Despite Guerin’s choreographic depiction of a ‘diminishing world’ that ‘induces competition, negotiation, harmony and aggression’, there is little overt emotional intent from the dancers beyond the gestural language itself. 

In the first section, Steiner and McLellan perform an ever-expanding sequence of movements in unison, remaining in the same relation to each other without ever touching. The gestural expression extends out from the torso to the bodies’ extremities — especially the hands and fingers — as much as to the patterns on the floor. This harmonious relationship within an ample space can be seen as the ground of human identity, while the sheer volubility and intricacy of actions and reactions, of skipping, jumping, reclining and swirling in all directions — a tour de force for the dancers — shows the rich complexity of such ground. Within this apparent unity, Guerin introduces a singular contrast by choosing to clothe only one of her dancers. As she writes in the program, ‘Having one naked and the other clothed created a split in identity that intensified the piece. For me it gives seriousness and normality to the female body, which is such a site of commodification, exploitation, shame and shock.’ On the other hand, as John Berger wrote about the fine art tradition of the nude in Ways of Seeing, ‘She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.’ While Guerin’s choice may provide an apt choreographic duality, in the context of the theatre she cannot preclude a spectator reaction that recognizes in Steiner’s naked body the very attributes she rightly deplores and allows their formal presentation to distract from the work’s rigorous construction. It is telling that the authority of Steiner’s body appears less assured than McLellan’s, suggesting she may not have come to terms with the reflection of her nakedness in the spectator’s gaze; she wears her nakedness like a costume but is not yet reconciled to revealing herself forcefully through it. 

Given that Steiner remains as she is throughout Split, the polarity of naked and clothed becomes the guiding metaphor for other recognizable dualities Guerin develops — human/animal, coloniser/colonised, predator/prey, and master/slave — in subsequent sections that see an increasing inclination towards argument and examination, one memorably olfactory. Because McLellan is dressed, she comes across as the more dominant of the two women in images of aggression, while Steiner is inevitably seen as vulnerable. In their process of negotiation this works well, but when they swap antagonistic roles the duality is less convincing. Guerin’s structure and dramaturgy are most persuasive in showing that pressure from ever-diminishing space and time leads to ever-darker shades of behaviour. As Split develops, we see the individual increasingly at cross-purposes with herself — even if there are moments of respite and harmony — until Steiner’s enactment of disembowelling McLellan and eating her entrails suggests a profound existential crisis. 

It is hard to read the final gesture in terms of all that has gone before. Reduced to a tiny space, there is only room for the two women to stand tightly together, with McLellan behind Steiner. As McLellan tips backwards the lights are quickly extinguished, leaving her fate suspended in space. As a powerful dramatic gesture — reminiscent of Tosca’s launch from the battlements in Puccini’s opera — it is beautifully timed and executed, but it leaves the issue of duality curiously unresolved.