Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Posted: May 20th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring

Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring, The Place, May 17

Seeta Patel Rite of Spring
Sooraj Subramaniam in Seeta Patel’s Rite of Spring (photo: Joe Armitage)

In 1913, when Vaslav Nijinsky was starting to choreograph a new work by the young composer Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev hired a eurythmics student, Marie Rambert, to assist his protégé with counting the score. The new ballet was The Rite of Spring which famously premiered in Paris in May of that year. After a mere eight performances, Nijinsky’s choreography was lost for almost 70 years until Millicent Hodson painstakingly reconstructed it for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, but since the latter half of the twentieth century Stravinsky’s celebrated score has become a rite of passage for choreographers eager to challenge the rich complexity of its musical structure. Seeta Patel is the latest to tackle the score but she is perhaps one of the first to formulate her response through the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. It’s a revelation. 

Patel is known for her exquisite solo work but she has also devoted her considerable artistic intelligence to dealing with issues of identity that affect her as an artist and Bharatanatyam as a traditional dance form, from her film with Kamala Devam, The Art of Defining Me, to her dark cultural fable created with Lina Limosani, Not Today’s Yesterday. While her work remains firmly anchored in the Bharatanatyam technique, she has also begun to explore collaborations with complementary art forms, notably in Sigma with Gandini Juggling where her mastery of both rhythm and gesture complement the mathematical precision of the jugglers. In the process she is subtly moving Bharatanatyam away from its original context to reinvent it in a contemporary idiom. This process has reached a new level of maturity in her re-imagining of The Rite of Spring; everything she has struggled to achieve has come to fruition.  

Patel approached what she calls ‘this beast of a score’ by studying Stravinsky’s rhythms with pianist Julien Kottukapilly which she then translated into a carnatic vocabulary with which her dancers could identify. This attention to a score until it becomes embodied — similar to the way Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker approaches her work — is to enter into the music by the same door as the composer; only then is it possible to deliver a response that is true to its structure. To see Patel’s choreography is to hear The Rite of Spring in a new cross-cultural perspective.

The original score is subtitled ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts’, a scenario devised by Nicholas Roerich who also designed the original costumes and scenery. Patel initially follows Roerich’s outline; in the first part, she writes, ‘the excitement is palpable, the dancers still youthful and full of hope, being pushed and pulled by the energy around them.’ The energy is in the music and Patel opens up a dynamic spatial world within it by defining geometric pathways for her dancers. From the opening languorous poses that pay homage to Nijinsky’s faun she builds up the suggestion of a community waking up and setting out into the fields in a spirit of worship. Using Bharatanatyam’s vocabulary of complex rhythmical coordination punctuated by eloquent hand gestures, facial expressions and precise percussive footwork her six dancers — Ash Mukherjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam — make the intricacy of the musical textures and rhythms visible while maintaining their ritual allusions. 

Separating the two parts of the score with a brief vocalised interlude, Patel then inverts Roerich’s idea of the Chosen One as sacrificial victim; it is the community who chooses a leader to whom they cede their autonomous power. The tall, imposing Subramaniam is deified, wrapped in blood-red trappings and at the score’s final chord of sacrificial exhaustion he is the one remaining upright spiralling slowly into his trailing adornments as the community crouches behind him in his shadow. 

The setting for this re-imagining is a bare white stage with a white backdrop; the element of scenery is subsumed in Warren Letton ’s subtle washes of colour and in the luminous silk costumes and elaborate makeup of Jason Cheriyan and Anshu Arora. So closely do all the elements of this creation align with the music that it appears effortless; whatever orchestral forces Stravinsky throws at her, Patel transforms them into a field of light. 

The evening begins with Patel’s Dance Dialogues, a short choreographic conversation between six young performers trained in either Bharatanatyam or contemporary dance. The music is by Talvin Singh with live accompaniment by cellist Celine Lepicard who bridges the two choreographic works with a recital of Bach’s first cello suite. 


Rosas: Mitten wir im Leben sind at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: May 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rosas: Mitten wir im Leben sind at Sadler’s Wells

Rosas and Queyras in Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten, Sadler’s Wells, April 24

De Keersmaeker, Queyras
Marie Goudot and Jean-Guihen Queyras in Mitten wir im Leben sind (photo Anne Van Aerschot)

There are not many dancers or choreographers who understand music so well that they can make it visible and, through the body, visibly sensual. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is one of them. She has worked with many kinds of music, from ars subtilior to John Coltrane to Steve Reich but has been preoccupied recently with scores by Johann Sebastian Bach. Mitten wir im Leben sind is built around the performance by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras of all six of Bach’s Cello Suites partnered by three male (Boštjan Antončič, Julien Monty and Michael Pomero) and two female dancers (Marie Goudot and De Keersmaeker herself). The partnership between choreographer, dancers and musician is intense and develops out of a desire to reach the heart of the music. As Queyras explains, “In the process of working Anne Teresa asked me tons of questions, everything I could give her in terms of analysis of the pieces, and once she had understood the root of the music, how it is constructed, that is when she planted the seed of her own choreography and then she created a new work…not something that matches but it’s like two works that you feel are very deeply interconnected.”

Some choreographers like Mark Morris ‘match’ their movement phrases to the music, but this is not the kind of musicality De Keersmaeker articulates; she finds her own way through a score with rhythmic intuition, mathematics and geometry. She devises movement from pedestrian, everyday motifs — my walking is my dancing is one of her mantras — and she infuses her choreography with ideas drawn from natural, social, ecological and political phenomena that are implicit in the work without attracting attention. Her settings are excavated rather than built up; the bare stage at Sadler’s Wells — a witness to countless performances as the body is an unlimited reservoir of memory — is reduced to what is needed: space and light. Yet through this pared-down, minimalist aesthetic — enhanced by the lighting of Luc Schaltin and costumes by An D’Huys — the rich significance of her work fills the space with the same amplitude as the music. The title of the work comes from a Latin hymn that Bach and his father, a Lutheran minister, would have known. The complete phrase is ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind, Mit dem Tod umfangen’, which means ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. This axis of life and death, of vertical and horizontal, is palpable in De Keersmaeker’s choreography within a distinctively architectonic site of invisible yet perceptible volumes that spiral around the stage.

The first three suites are vehicles for the embodied responses of, respectively, Pomero, Monty and Goudot to the abstractions of the baroque dances Bach included; following the opening prelude, De Keersmaeker joins in the allemande and leaves again for the soloists to develop the upbeat gigues, bourrées or minuets. The format of the fourth suite begins to change. The prelude features Antončič but Queyras interrupts the subsequent allemande and only returns to the music for the last few bars. For the sarabande he leaves Antončič alone on stage to dance the remaining two movements in silence; it’s an awkward juncture as we are suddenly aware of the body’s response to gravity without the buoyancy of the music. For the fifth Queyras returns and Antončič overlaps into the prelude but it is now the dancers who retreat, leaving Queyras alone in time and space. He plays the intimate sarabande while Schaltin projects his shadow on to a panel at the side, just in front of the proscenium. You hear the music and you see flattened on a plane the musician’s arms, fingers and torso moving in perfect harmony with the music. The image is not so much a goal as an extension of De Keersmaeker’s choreographic logic. It also underlies her rigour in developing our understanding of dance in relation to music, in stimulating through her own discoveries and realisations what she understands to be essential. In the final suite Queyras returns with all the dancers on stage; we are no longer aware of gravity but are free to fly in our spatial imagination to the sound of the cello and the sensuality of the dance. The edges of the stage space begin to dissolve as the dancers find their bearings around the six movements, resolving finally into a walking flock and ending with one foot slightly raised in an exultant suspension on the final reverberating chord.


English National Ballet, She Persisted

Posted: April 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet, She Persisted

English National Ballet, She Persisted, Sadler’s Wells, April 12

She Persisted
Katja Khaniukova and her feminine spirits in Broken Wings (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

The title of English National Ballet’s second program celebrating female choreographers, ‘She Persisted’, may have derived, as Sarah Crompton writes in the program, from a 2017 statement by US Senator Mitch McConnell, but it also neatly references the company’s first program from two years ago, She Said. One of those works reappears here — Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings — alongside Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) that ENB acquired in 2016. Although the program only partially addresses the persistently unanswered question of why there are not more new female choreographers in classical ballet, the one new work by company dancer Stina Quagebeur, Nora (after the character in Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House on which it is based), marks the arrival of a distinctive, independent voice. 

It is immediately clear at the opening of Nora that Quagebeur has a choreographic imagination and the lighting of Trui Malten enhances it. Between them they introduce Nora (Erina Takahashi) engulfed in black walking though a door of light followed by five ‘voices’ (Alice Bellini, Angela Wood, James Forbat, Francisco Bosch and Rentaro Nakaaki) whose turbulent gestures form a constant expressionist chorus of Nora’s state of mind. Louie Whitemore’s isometric set with its tubular frame and suspended beams provides just enough volume to contain the storm of emotions the choreography unleashes. Quagebeur, however, hasn’t yet evolved a vocabulary that fully matches her imagination; the narrative tends to pull her in one direction and the pressure to devise steps in another. When Henry Dowden as the banker, Krogstad, first appears it’s easy to mistake him for Nora’s husband, Torvald, and she gives Joseph Caley as Torvald too much convoluted movement to arrive at a single expressive gesture. The subtlety and eloquence with which Antony Tudor pared back his choreography to transform narrative into gesture may serve as a useful guide for her next (much anticipated) work. 

Broken Wings has not been repaired since its first outing three years ago. It has vivid colour and a rich score but it seems — in contrast to the lives portrayed — choreographically quite thin. Ideas like the gender-fluid array of men and the dancing skeletons are brilliantly conceived but outshine their narrative importance; Broken Wings is all about Frida Kahlo and yet she barely manages to emerge from her own story. The stage is dominated by Dieuweke van Reij’s mobile cube that serves as Kahlo’s home, hospital and tomb and its manipulation by the skeletons from one manifestation to the next interrupts rather than informs the narrative. Lopez-Ochoa has clearly built her choreography on the relationship between Khalo and Diego Rivera and although their intense love and fiery intellectual bond appears too much as the stereotype of boy meets girl, the impassioned performances of Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov give the broken wings an opportunity to fly. 

When it was announced that English National Ballet had obtained the rights to perform Pina Bausch’s Sacre du printemps it was a major coup, adding another level of prestige to the company’s profile under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. The challenges of performing the work at ENB, however, differ from those in Tanztheater Wuppertal; there the dancers are attuned to Bausch’s way of working whereas ENB’s broad repertory demands of its dancers a constant readjustment to its rigours. Bausch’s Sacre du printemps never was, nor can it ever be a trophy work. It marries savagery with lyricism to an extent the two qualities live within each other; there is no respite as one emerges from the other. Josephine Ann Endicott, who staged it for ENB, was one of the work’s original dancers. She describes the movements to Crompton as feeling ‘masculine and not pretty, but at other moments they are extremely soft, sensual and feminine. You run with your heart and forget all you have learnt before and just come out and be yourself. It has to be real. If you are not exhausted at the end, you haven’t danced it properly.’ This evening there are moments among the men — noticeably in the transitions to partnering the women — when this kind of commitment is missing, when the mechanics of performing a phrase get in the way of expressing it. The energy and focus of the women, however, continues to feed each other until Emily Suzuki takes on the mantle of the chosen one and pushes the limits of her endurance to a level of artistry the work demands. 


Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

Posted: April 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

The Merce Cunningham Centennial, Night of 100 Solos, Barbican, April 16

Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham (photo by Annie Leibovitz)

To celebrate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust live-streamed three shows in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London) that each presented 25 dancers performing 100 solos from the Cunningham repertoire. In London’s Barbican, where the Merce Cunningham company had performed regularly for the last 20 years of its life, Daniel Squire (with help from Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) arranged extracts from 54 works, the earliest being Dime a Dance (1953) and the latest Nearly Ninety (2009), to fit within a 90-minute format. The idea of presenting solos as a collage without the context of their parent works follows one that Cunningham had devised whenever the company performed in a non-theatrical venue like an art gallery or a gymnasium. Despite the paradox of creating this event in a proscenium theatre it nonetheless offers an opportunity to savour the extraordinary richness of Cunningham’s choreographic thinking over a fifty-year period. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1968, ‘Seeing Merce is always a very great pleasure.’

Denby had attended Cunningham’s very first program of solo dances in New York in April 1944, describing their effect as ‘one of an excessively elegant sensuality’ that contrasted with ‘one of remoteness and isolation’. These two qualities, both alone and in combination, could well define the range of solos chosen for the Barbican along with an all-embracing sense of playfulness and wit that point to one of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s work. In his last recorded interview with Nancy Dalva Cunningham responds with the nonchalance of accumulated wisdom to a question about what dance means to him: ‘We look out at life and that’s dance.’ 

The Cunningham company was famously disbanded as part of its founder’s legacy plan following his death in 2009, so although there are seasoned performers like Squire and Julie Cunningham on hand, this centennial celebration is staged with dancers who have never been part of Cunningham’s company even if some of them have studied his technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust explains that ‘in each city, a former dancer experienced in creating Cunningham Events will work with an associate stager and other Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni to impart the choreography to a new generation of dancers.’ There is more public relations than clarity in this statement as such luminaries as Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Catherine Legrand and Asha Thomas, while absorbing to watch, are hardly a new generation of dancers. Apart from sharing the centennial with a global audience (those who missed it can watch the live stream from all three cities online until July 19) Night of 100 Solos is also advance publicity as well as a preview for a raft of Cunningham performances later this year that the Merce Cunningham Trust has generously offered to companies and festivals free of licensing fees. In the UK these include Dance Umbrella, Rambert and the Royal Ballet; London, at least, will be spoiled for choice.  

The PR nature of Night of 100 Solos clarifies the choice of performers; we can expect to see them again later this year in a Cunningham work on one of three continents — hopefully with a contingent of company alumni too. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Ballet will deal with Cunningham’s work. While his choreography borrows from many sources that include the classical ballet canon his technique can prove challenging to classically trained dancers. In teaching the body to ‘move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering’ (to quote Denby again), his technique is more akin to the requirements of Astaire than to those of Petipa. Watching Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Joseph Sissens in their solos is to see a concentration on form struggling with the dynamics of freedom; Cunningham makes the body dance to its own rhythm and allows us to watch whereas classical ballet both relies on a musical score for its expression and demands our attention. Toke Broni Strandby in his solo with the chair and Jonathan Goddard in his soft shoe shuffle demonstrate how deliciously translatable Cunningham can be.

The influence on Cunningham of his creative and life partner John Cage, who died in 1992, was abundantly present in the sophisticated playfulness of the five musicians in the pit: Mira Benjamin (violin), John Lely (objects and electronics), Anton Lukoszevies (cello), Christian Marclay (turntables and objects) and coordinator Christian Wolff (piano, melodica, objects). To paraphrase Cunningham, what you’re hearing is what it is.


Diaghilev Exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

Posted: April 11th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Exhibition | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Diaghilev Exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

Diaghilev Exhibition, Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, March 29

Diaghilev program
A Ballets Russes program with a costume design by Picasso

Since his death in 1929 a great deal has been written about the influence of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the subsequent history of ballet, and major exhibitions like the one presented at London’s V&A in 2010 made available its vast collection of photographs, costumes and programs from the Diaghilev era. Just recently a private collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) in Wiltshire contacted the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum to see if it would be interested in displaying his personal collection of Ballets Russes ephemera accrued over more than half a century. The resulting exhibition — the first time it has been seen in public — is like entering the inner sanctum of a devoted collector, a personal and idiosyncratic ambience that curator Philippa Tinsley has thoughtfully reproduced. If there are few recognizable thematic threads running through the collection, Tinsley has not tried to impose them in the exhibition; the fascination for dance enthusiasts is in the unexpected treasures that the collection’s apparent randomness reveals. At the same time, the display offers those with a more superficial knowledge of the Ballets Russes an opportunity to deepen their understanding vicariously through the passionate eye of an erudite balletomane. 

The collection provides a vivid understanding of the passions Diaghilev’s company aroused and continues to arouse while at the same time giving a tantalizing glimpse of what items might still remain of that glorious era of ballet in private hands. Some of the objects on display, such as photographs and costumes, reveal their value at first sight; others, such as programs illustrated by the likes of Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, and albums of photographs like the rare Studies from the Russian Ballet by E.O. Hoppé and Auguste Bert (London: Fine Art Society, 1913), are treasures whose value is hidden under the cover: one wants to be able to leaf through them page by page, but understandably the preservation of the material overrides the ability to handle it (perhaps a next stage might be to digitize the collection and to make it available online). 

With careful timing and within the same space the Worcester City Art Gallery is also hosting a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition, Matisse: Drawing With Scissors that features 35 lithographic prints of cutouts from the latter part of the artist’s life. Henri Matisse was one of many artists who worked for Diaghilev; a photograph of him fitting Alicia Markova’s body suit with cutout shapes for Massine’s ballet Rouge et Noir beautifully synthesizes the seamless connections between the two shows. The adjacent rooms and their complementary exhibits reveal an approach to curating that is both unassuming and welcoming, giving visitors a chance to take in the displays at their leisure as if they, too, were in the shoes of the collector appraising his collection. Tinsley has also provided a context to the exhibition in the form of the 2005 film, Ballets Russes, directed and produced by Danya Goldfine and Dan Geller, played on a screen of domestic proportions in the corner of the room with three cinema seats from which to watch it. 

This Diaghilev exhibition is a wonderful achievement that highlights the importance of an art institution like the Worcester City Art Gallery at a time when funding is ever more scarce and the likelihood of cuts ever more daunting. But well-crafted and distinctive exhibitions like this, no matter how intimate, are what give value to the ideal of making a public display of a private obsession.

The exhibition Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Matisse: Drawing With Scissors runs at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum until April 27.


Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato in The Idiot at Print Room at The Coronet

Posted: April 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato in The Idiot at Print Room at The Coronet

Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato, The Idiot, Print Room at the Coronet, March 27

Teshigawara
Rihoko Sato and Saburo Teshigawara in The Idiot

The filigree hands, the clarity of imagery, and the silence of the movement; the light flickering like an old film, the layers of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Chopin and Schubert, the delirious dance and gesture: all these impressions remain vivid after seeing Saburo Teshigawara and Rihoko Sato in their adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In many ways it is a perfect match for the intimate auditorium of Print Room at the Coronet, an eerie evocation of the past carefully reconstructed, superimposed and reduced to its essentials. 

In distilling Dostoevsky’s complex novel to its emotional essence, Teshigawara has articulated the elements of his choreography — the body, the lighting, the musical collage and the costumes — as a poet articulates language or a painter colour to form a complex unity of expression. In using his body Teshigawara seems to bypass it, concentrating on the breath inside him and the air around him to sculpt his images. His body seems to perform with its own gravitational field suspended slightly above the dark floor which is what creates the impression of silence while the thrust of his gestures — or their retraction — creates the sound. Sato is deeply attached to the earth — the waltz is her domain — creating a contrasting dynamic in the performance that is elusive and yet sharply focused. Perhaps this is what Teshigawara meant when he said, ‘I knew it would be impossible to create a choreography taken from such a novel, but this impossibility has been key to our approach in creating something completely new.’

The central character in the novel, Prince Myshkin, is, according to Dostoevsky’s biographer Avrahm Yarmolinsky, ‘a man caught in a tangle of mad passions, yet preserving a childlike purity and sweetness…’ and as the novelist himself wrote, his aim was to ‘to depict a completely beautiful human being’.It is evident when we see him that Teshigawara has taken on the humble radiance of the prince’s qualities as well as the darkness of his epilepsy and has made them manifest without the literary preoccupation with plot; they have become a dance. We see him at first alone, fashionably dressed, making polite introductions to a room full of people we cannot see; we know they are all there but Teshigawara’s focus is solely on the meekness and innocent purity of Myshkin’s gestures. When he comes into contact with the dark, willful passion of Sato’s Natasya Filippovna — a woman who has known degradation and carries those wounds within her — we see a flickering narrative in which it is clear he falls in love with her but the meeting sets off an emotional maelstrom within them both that becomes the choreographic material for its tragic resolution. 

Teshigawara’s choreography embraces Dostoevsky’s dilemma of placing a hero who is saintly to the point of being simple within a society that is awash in the corruption of values. Yarmolinsky suggests the novel is autobiographical, that the image of Myshkin is ‘a light in the darkness to Dostoevsky, a shield against the powers of evil in his own soul’. In Teshigawara’s hands, light and darkness become a powerful theatrical metaphor that unite the lighting, the musical score and the costumes — Sato is in a long black period dress while Teshigawara wears a dapper white summer outfit —to portray Dostoevsky’s existential struggle with Imperial Russian society. At the beginning we hear a tremulous violin concerto over a murky stage where shadows scurry ominously like rats until the darkness suddenly recedes to reveal the childlike figure of Myshkin in a bright downlight bowing gracefully and offering greetings to the invisible guests; the entire background of the novel has been painted in these two brief but consummately crafted scenes. The subsequent tale of compulsive infatuation pits Myshkin’s serenity against Filippovna’s stubborn inability to accept it and ends with Myshkin sitting on the floor, as in the novel, with the body of Filippovna in an adjoining room. The performances of Teshigawara and Sato are, like everything else in this production, meticulously conceived and delivered with a passion that hides their construction under a rich, seamless canvas of emotions. 

While scholars may disagree on the literary value of Dostoevsky’s novel, Teshigawara’s choreographic rendering is an utterly compelling poetic vision that is nothing short of a masterpiece in its own right. 



Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland

Posted: March 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland

Mark Morris  Dance Group, Pepperland at Sadler’s Wells, March 21

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland (photo: Mat Hayward)

In May 1967 The Beatles created a ground-breaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick. In his book White Heat, Dominic Sandbrook described it as a ‘continuous stream of sound, its studio banter, steam organs, sitars and even farmyard barking, and its combination of cartoonish psychedelia, circus vaudeville, driving rock music and gentle ballads’ that was immediately hailed as an ‘imperishable popular art of its time’. Fifty-two years later it is difficult to hear its freshness in the context of its first outing, and yet it clearly forms an integral whole — one of the first concept albums — introducing the alter-ego Edwardian brass band with wit, colour and a musical daring saturated in the contemporary zeitgeist. In 2003 the magazine Rolling Stone placed it at the top of its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. 

On the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary, choreographer Mark Morris chose to celebrate it with his production of Pepperland that recently landed on the Sadler’s Wells stage as part of a Dance Consortium tour. Morris may well have felt that his own quintessentially post modern eclectic approach to dance — mixing pop cultural references with highbrow culture and merging genres, styles and dance vocabularies from classical ballet to contemporary dance, folk and music-hall — would prove a suitable match for the album’s own mix of genres; his past works like L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, All Fours and Crosswalk have an exhilarating, colourful dynamic and an intellectual vibrancy that has become his trademark.  

Pepperland opens on a spare stage marked by an electric blue backdrop that changes to lurid green, orange and pink for subsequent numbers. Designed by Johan Henckens and lit by Nick Kolin, the set also includes a low, static line of crushed silver foil mountains across the back of the stage that flicker in the changing light. The bright colours match and contrast with the stylishly sixties costumes (replete with sunglasses) by Elizabeth Kutzman. The dancers are initially introduced by taped announcement as some of the celebrities and historical figures like Shirley Temple, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Floyd Patterson in Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s album cover collage. Morris’s approach to gender is fluid and his grasp of mimicry exquisitely camp as the dancers parade in the dazzling light of a Hollywood set before joining hands in a Morris folk circle that coils on itself and then unfurls. It is already clear that the Beatles have taken a back seat to Morris, just as Ethan Iverson’s arrangements of the music for a jazz septet have little in common with the original album apart from the tunes; he includes some but not all the tracks and intersperses them with his own compositions. 

Morris’s movement and imagery flow effortlessly from 1960s dance floor steps to classical ballet, from Hollywood films to Broadway musicals, but his propensity for quotation has a sense of déjàvu; the references do not come from the diverse canvas of allusions that made the Sgt. Pepper album so conspicuously original but from Morris’s own works. Pepperland barely extends beyond the self-referential — and perhaps even the self-reverential — dulling the pace and invention of the work to a curiously one-dimensional continuum in which the punch and pun, the brashness and edginess of his earlier works are gone.

Morris is lauded as a musical choreographer but his translation of the textual imagination of a song like A Day in the Life borders on a game of charades on a summer’s day and renders not only the imagery of Pepperland but its musicality literal to the point of banality. Like the reprisal of the opening theme of Sgt. Pepper at the end, Morris finishes as he begins with a folk circle but unfortunately we haven’t traveled very far in between. 

Paul McCartney had suggested the idea of an alter-ego band for the new album to allow the Beatles to detach their celebrity from the creative process and reduce the risk of imitation. Morris, it seems, has no such inclination; he invokes his own renown so freely in Pepperland that his creativity becomes a parody of itself. 


Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Posted: March 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ultima VezMockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 1

Ultima Vez Mockumentary
Flavio d’Andrea, Anabel Lopez and the cast in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour (photo © Danny Willems)

Since he started his Brussels-based company, Ultima Vez, in 1986 the prolific choreographer, filmmaker and director Wim Vandekeybus has sought innovative approaches to dance and theatre beginning with his first work, What the Body Does Not Remember. One might say that he has established choreography as a form of discourse on a wide variety of subjects that preoccupy him — myth, belief, faith, subconscious desires, dreams, life and death. (In May the Brighton Festival will be presenting his latest work, TrapTown, that questions conflict and freedom). As in modernist architecture’s mantra of ‘form follows function’, each production takes on a form that grows out of the subject but Vandekeybus nonetheless remains true to a physical movement vocabulary that embodies tension and conflict, risk and impulse, intuition and instinct, passion and endurance. In his recent work, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, presented at Queen Elizabeth Hall, he draws on the different cultural traditions of his seven performers — Anabel Lopez, Maria Kolegova, Jason Quarles, Wouter Bruneel, Yun Liu, Flavio d’Andrea and Saïd Gharbi — to create an ironic, perhaps even caustic documentary of salvation.

In an era of unprecedented migration with its underlying plurality of faiths, Vandekeybus broadens the scope of Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour to include any religious remit that promises the kind of salvation where utopia and dystopia are interwoven. The set with its circular centre conceived by Vandekeybus and Meryem Bayram describes a nondescript place reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in which three men and two women have been saved as the ‘chosen ones’ and as in Stalker, there is no way out. It is into the midst of this circle, dominated by a transparent halo-like ceiling, that Bruneel, a big-bellied, lusty western psychologist in orange safety overalls, suddenly appears: his ‘corpse’ drops through the halo and lands with a thud on the ground. His body is ‘still warm’ and the community, already conversant with the notion of a saviour and convinced he is a sign of divine intervention, revives him. Ironically Bruneel’s unexpected arrival sets off a cacophonous dispute about belief, death and preparations for the next life. Even if the location of the space is indeterminate, we learn from Bruneel that the world as we know it is in a state of disintegration, suggesting this is a purgatorial staging post; hence the importance of signs that might lead to a possible way out.  

The internal conflicts, cultural differences, and encounters between the characters are played out as physical and verbal commotions against a rumbling score by Charo Calvo in which Vandekeybus’s characteristic muscular idiom articulates their grief, desires, hopes and sense of resignation. Although a spoken text devised by Bart Meuleman and Ultima Vez predominates as the main expressive form in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, it is the heightened physicality of both voice and body that unleashes the full dynamics of the contradictory forces within the community. Lurking close to the surface of the bonds that tie the seven people in their precarious existence is a violence that threatens to destroy them. 

Vandekeybus’ timely reflection on the power of belief is based not so much on the presence but rather the absence of ‘the child’. We learn that Lopez is a mother whose son has died; early in the piece she is addressed as Martha. Gharbi, a blind seer who represents spiritual clarity, suggests she has to let go of her dead child if she wants him to forgive her. The deliberate conflation of her personal salvation with the biblical Martha’s acceptance of Christ’s resurrection is further corroborated when her son, once freed from her motherly love, is lowered down into the space like an effigy and immediately recognized by the community as proof of the saviour’s existence. Armed with this conviction they clamber enthusiastically over the audience to proselytize in their respective languages till they make their exit through the auditorium doors, leaving the blind Gharbi on stage communicating with the sound of his clicking fingers alone. Vandekeybus thus ends his provocative interrogation of faith with Gharbi’s quiet, meditative gesture that in its simplicity elicits a response from the audience without any misplaced belief or truth assigned to it.  

Mockumentary of A Contemporary Saviour is a reminder from continental Europe of the robust role choreography can play in philosophical debate. In this country we are not familiar with it being used in this way and it pushes hard, if uncomfortably, against a prevalence of aesthetic movement that risks limiting the art form’s full development. 


Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place

Posted: March 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place

Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place, March 2

Masui-Tirabasso
Publicity images for Léa Tirabasso and Yukiko Masui’s double bill

In a well-curated double bill of works by two choreographers each creates a context for the other. On the surface and in their treatment of their respective subjects Yukiko Masui’s Falling Family and Léa Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life of an Octopus are quite different, but each is based on a personal experience about the nature of life and death. The subsequent self-questioning creates a bridge between the works that allows us to confront mortality in ways that, as Masui writes, are ‘simply not expressible in speech.’ While Masui takes us into her Falling Family with a heightened sensibility that creates feelings of empathy, Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life Of An Octopus leads us through the confusion and corrosion of life’s breakdown with a confrontational performance that ends up counter-intuitively expressing an exhilarating sense of joy. 

Falling Family builds on the metaphor of dominoes; different arrangements of coloured tiles are used throughout the work while the four performers — Julie Ann Minaai, Annakanako Mohri, Daniel Phung and Yumino Seki — demonstrate within a loosely defined family structure their support for each other, their interdependence, and their disorientation and vulnerability when one of them is no longer there. As Masui writes, the work ‘taps into the dark, conflicted, emotional space that cracks open when we encounter a loved one’s illness, mental breakdown or even death.’ 

The subtlety of Masui’s conception reflects the passage of time in meticulously constructed moments that suggest rather than define until metaphor and narrative become so intimately entwined that they coalesce. She introduces us to the members of the family one by one in separate sections delineated by Ben Moon’s lighting and Ezra Axelrod’s spliced snippets of Japanese conversation. As the work unfolds, relationships begin to overlap and then build up in a choreographic layering in which the characters move with a resigned sense of self-control that their use of articulate gesture further refines; Mohri’s opening hand gestures of everyday life in Moon’s precise downlight sets the tone for the entire work. Seki’s quiet presence is the one that starts to retreat into itself; Axelrod’s score becomes plangent in its final evocation of drama, leaving Mohri — reflecting perhaps Masui’s own response — challenging fate in a final, uplifting solo of rage against the dying of the light. 

The visual contrast between Fallen Families and Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life Of An Octopus is marked. Nicolas Tremblay’s high-voltage lighting keeps the levels high on a white stage littered with black microphone cables while the subtle hues of Giulia Scrimieri’s costumes are replaced by bright splashes of coloured swimwear for the four extrovert performers: Caterina Barbosa in Prussian blue, Alistair Goldsmith in pink, Joachim Maudet in green and Rosie Terry Toogood in bright orange. Stark juxtapositions abound, perhaps none more so than that of the romantic third movement of Brahms’ second piano concerto with the flagrantly staccato, animalistic contortions of the performers (Gabrielle Moleta is listed as Animal Transformation Coach). But given the work is informed by Tirabasso’s own experience with ovarian cancer, such contrasts are not as virulent as might appear; the romantic notion of life that Brahms lays before us has no place in it for the contemplation of disease. 

Tirabasso’s metaphors derive from philosopher Thomas Stern’s essay, The Human and the Octopus, in which he takes his own illness as a starting point for discussing the relationship of mind and body, quoting on the one hand from Proust who sees the mind with which we identify as trapped inside the body of an alien — an octopus — and on the other from JM Coetze for whom the flesh of the body and its susceptibility to pain is an incontrovertible reminder of our humanity. In The Ephemeral Life of an Octopus, Tirabasso uses the dance body as a thick brush with which to paint these conflicting notions. 

Corrosive metaphors of physical breakdown are not unfamiliar in art but there is an undercurrent of wit in Tirabasso’s choreography, in her choice of music (including an original composition by Martin Durov), in the colour and light of the production and in the relentless play of healthy bodies in a compulsive setting of dis-ease that negotiates a path between spirit and flesh, between intellect and play that taken as a whole borders on an unequivocal celebration of life. 


Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bon Voyage, Bob… at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: February 24th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bon Voyage, Bob… at Sadler’s Wells

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Bon Voyage, Bob…, Sadler’s Wells, February 22

Au Revoir, Bob...
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Au Revoir, Bob… (photo: Mats Bäcker)

The two full-length works created last year on Pina Bausch’s company by choreographers Dimitris Papaioannou and Alan Lucien Øyen and presented recently at Sadler’s Wells mark a watershed in the company’s post-Bausch existence. Bausch died in June 2009 and while both the current works deal with her death they do so in inverse ways. In Since She Papaioannou creates a memorial to Bausch in which his half of the company (each choreographer has a cast of sixteen dancers) is working with him from the outside looking in. By contrast in Bon Voyage, Bob… Øyen has created a memorial in which his half of the company is still very much on the inside looking out. There is a clear sense that ten years after her sudden disappearance Papaioannou and Øyen have each allowed the company to publicly commemorate Bausch in works she has not authored, but their respective creative approach suggests that closure for the entire company has not yet been realised.

Øyen accepted without hesitation the invitation to choreograph a new piece for the company as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He knew Bausch’s work mostly through videos, and had only seen the company perform seven years after the choreographer’s death but, as Sarah Crompton observes in the program, his creative approach turned out to be close to Bausch’s own method of gathering material from the dancers and slowly weaving their different narratives into a work. Bon Voyage, Bob… is thus uncannily Bauschian in its shape and vocabulary, with her characteristic intersection of theatre and dance — so much so that Øyen’s cast gives the appearance of having choreographed much of the work themselves. Its form resembles a long psychoanalytical session in which the dancers replay the past in the present with an overwhelming sense of resignation; dreams fail to realize because ‘they have already been dreamt’. 

Alex Eales’ set is designed as the backstage area of an unseen work (presumably by Bausch) whose scenes revolve to be used as the backdrop to the company’s own existential drama; it is as if Bon Voyage, Bob… comes together whenever the dancers happen to be off stage. Andrey Berezin is the psychoanalyst in the first scene firing questions at Héléna Pikon sitting across from him at a table recounting the death of her brother. Throughout there is a feeling of guilt, helplessness, and disquiet as memories of dead brothers, dead fathers, and stories of loss become the displaced tropes of Bausch’s own death. Øyen structures the work as a linked ritual of obsequies that allows each of the sixteen dancers to express their feelings in solos of either verbal narrative or movement. It is especially poignant to see the older members of the company speaking Bausch’s gestures naturally through their bodies while the younger dancers who never knew her, such as Çaǧdaş Ermis and Stephanie Troyak, absorb them with stunning eloquence. 

However the ‘work’ of mourning that Bon Voyage, Bob… represents does not seem to have enabled what, in psychoanalytic terms, would be a ‘working through’ the suffering that can lead to new levels of freedom and expression. When Rainer Behr angrily assembles a pile of chairs shouting, ‘This is all our shit!’, the depth of pain ten years after the event is heartbreakingly palpable, but it is also clear how far Øyen has retreated from this deeply personal outpouring. And as if three hours of saying goodbye is not enough to make the point, he allows an empty chair to remain in the spotlight as the curtain falls around which the company reassembles for the bows.

The works of Papaioannou and Øyen leave us inevitably with questions about the current state of the company and how it will proceed. Papaioannou suggests a way forward with the creative adoption of Bausch’s incredible legacy of dancers in alternative forms, while Øyen offers a solution that too easily resembles the former company in a new theatrical image. While it is impossible to know what Bausch would have wanted for her company after her death, it is doubtful she would have wished for it to be trapped in forever looking back; and yet her legacy is so intimately related to her works that finding a way forward without her is still fraught with challenges.