Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Three Programs at Sadler’s Wells, September 4-14

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations (photo: ©Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated 60 years of life last year and the three programs the 33-strong company has brought to Sadler’s Wells in London focus on that celebration. The opening program is about Ailey himself, reflected either in Rennie Harris’s two-act Lazarus or represented in Ailey’s own early signature work, Revelations. Revelations is the ground, both figuratively and biographically, on which Ailey built his choreographic expression; he endowed it with vivid characterisation, joyous vitality and by anchoring it in traditional spirituals created a work that was politically and socially significant for its time. Revelations has rightly become synonymous with Ailey and it has pride of place at the close of each program. While the juxtaposition of Lazarus and Revelations neatly bookends the history of the Ailey company, there is a certain duplication in Harris’s narrative. For him to return to images of the slave trade in the first part is to repeat what Ailey achieved more evocatively through his association with spirituals in Revelations; in the second act, Harris simply substitutes hip hop for Ailey’s jazz rhythms as the contemporary expression of vigorous joy. There is also a distance between the two works that reflects on the treatment of African American culture over the past sixty years; it is the distance between Ailey’s trailblazing efforts to challenge racial discrimination in American society and the company’s current corporate identity. The year before he died, Ailey summed up his vision to dance critic Anna Kisselgoff: “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that colour is not important.” Sixty years on, the question could well be asked how the company is serving this vision.

The question of legacy is one that any dance company has to face when it loses its founding choreographer, and modes of continuation differ widely. Alongside his own works, Ailey in his lifetime was keen to present the works of other choreographers of any race, so the continuation of a repertory system within the company is consistent with his direction. The problem is how to deal with his own repertoire without his vital intervention. When Merce Cunningham decided controversially not to leave his company to function without him, perhaps he did not to want his works to define him beyond his direct control. While at the time of Ailey’s death in 1989 the decision to protect the company’s legacy in its existing form was wise given the socio-political environment, the further away Ailey’s works are from his rigorous influence the less representative they are of his unique spirit. Perhaps this is why, but for Revelations, the present London repertoire is entirely the work of other choreographers. It’s as if the anniversary celebrations are less about Ailey than about the continuation of the company he created, one that on this showing appears to have swallowed its founder almost without trace.

In the second program, the company presents works by Jessica Lang, Ronald K. Brown, and company artistic director, Robert Battle. Lang’s EN, dressed in white like the Take Me To The Water section of Revelations, is the one work that doesn’t address the company’s inherent culture; it is an abstract work that shows off the company — especially Jacqueline Green and Jacquelin Harris — but is not specific to it. Brown describes his The Call as ‘a love letter to Mr. Ailey’; it reaches back into Ailey’s choreographic influences, is replete with quotes from his work, and ends in the circle of light with which Revelations begins. It falls somewhere between a tribute and a pastiche without managing to reach the heart of its inspiration. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, was created in the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and arguably reflects that political climate in its frenetic dynamic. Battle calls his quartet a ‘modern day Rite of Spring’ and its folkloric rhythms and angularity derive almost certainly from Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring that presaged uncannily the devastation of the First World War. There is no sacrificial maiden here, however; in this kind of setting we are all victims.

Battle’s other work in London is Ella, a duet for two men that tries to match its choreographic gesture to the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing Airmail Special. It’s a tall order and succeeds only partially; it’s a party piece that showcases the thrillingly intricate dynamics of its performers (Daniel Harder and Renaldo Maurice) but fails to capture the full range of Fitzgerald’s vocal pyrotechnics. 

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Ounce of Faith could also be a paean to Ailey in its celebration of the influence of a teacher in a child’s heart. Undoubtedly sincere, the work’s exuberance is mitigated by a superfluous spoken text. Anna Pavlova once remarked that if she could explain something in words she wouldn’t need to dance it. Moultrie’s text is clear but his choreography waffles. Jamar Roberts’ Members Don’t Get Weary is inspired by the recording of two liquid blues numbers by John Coltrane, Dear Lord and Olé. Roberts is a longstanding member of the Ailey company and his body instinctively understands Ailey’s response to music; he seems to arrive at his own choreography from the inside and his dancers relish the opportunity to embody it.   

And so to Revelations. It’s a work you can’t help but appreciate although after seeing it at the end of each program the appreciation gives way to a mildly cloying sense of familiarity. Much has been said of Ailey’s theatricality, his ability to draw an audience into his embrace, but when this emotional effect is pre-empted by a conscious desire to please its authenticity is undermined. For an audience, it’s the difference between being profoundly moved and being entertained.  


Images Ballet Company 2019 at Lilian Baylis Theatre

Posted: September 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Images Ballet Company 2019 at Lilian Baylis Theatre

Images Ballet Company at Lilian Baylis Theatre, June 19

London Studio Centre classical Images Ballet Company
Images Ballet Company 2019 (photo: Johan Persson)

Finding a fresh end-of-year performance repertoire for students in the final year of London Studio Centre’s classical ballet strand is fraught with compromise. While classical ballet may be central to the curriculum, the classical form in contemporary performance is subject to various challenges, from inadvertent misunderstanding to intentional mishandling. With four new works to commission for her London Studio Centre students, Images Ballet Company artistic director Jennifer Jackson is well suited to navigating the hazardous paths to its realization. Having been a soloist in the Royal Ballet and subsequently experimented in choreographing the classical form and engaged in teaching its essentials ever since, she knows how to stand her ground and is not one to follow trends. She is careful to avoid, for example, the existential threat to the classical form at her former company arising from the dis-location of the body in the choreography of Wayne McGregor. Nevertheless, she faces two issues that this end-of-year performance aims to resolve. The number of choreographers working in the classical idiom is as limited as her budget so while she can at times access the talents of some of her more experienced colleagues, she must judge the input of less well-established choreographers to make up a program that will show off the quality of her dancers to their highest standards. That Jackson succeeds in balancing these competing demands is testimony to her skill in the artistic equivalent of realpolitik.  

One aspect of the performance Jackson has developed during her tenure at London Studio Centre is the musical through-line. This year composer and percussionist Martin Pyne provides not only a virtuosic composition for Mikaela Polley’s Interplay that he performs on stage, but a witty trio with himself on a mini-piano and two dancers that is performed during the intermission as an impromptu work in itself. Pyne begins Interplay seated behind his drum kit on an empty stage, giving us a foretaste of rhythmic patterns and percussive sounds for the choreography to follow. If Polley is conversant with classical technique, the forms and underlying rhythms she has chosen for the dancers are no match for Pyne’s virtuosic playfulness. Unlike the tradition in Indian classical dance, its western counterpart lacks the training of an integrated, percussive dynamic between musicians and dancers; although the interplay is present in the communication between Pyne and the dancers, the choreographic effect falls short of its promise. At the end, the gradual dismantling of the drum kit by the dancers while Pyne continues playing undaunted is a gem of musical and virtuosic wit.

Andrew McNicol’s Mirrors is a trio, a welcome relief from the habitual form of end-of-year performances where everyone appears in all the works. McNicol trained at The Royal Ballet School where he won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Competition and clearly has an understanding of classical technique. Mirrors, to the third and fourth movements from Ravel’s Miroirs for solo piano, is an impressionistic portrait of three women that never quite frames them. As long as dance is the physical expression of emotions it cannot be abstract, but if the expression is not clear the choreography will be bewildering. Mirrors has no story but its spatial and gestural intent is dissipated in this lack of clarity. 

One of the misunderstandings about classical choreography is the over dependence on the signification of its shapes; just as music exists in between notes, dance happens in between shapes. Cameron McMillan’s On Lineage relies on classically trained dancers’ shapes in movement but leaves out the dance. The choreography is perhaps too influenced by Ezio Bosso’s saccharine music (from Six Breaths and Music for Weather Elements) that uses successions of chords in a similar way. It is the kind of work, however, that can bring individual presence into relief, as is the case with Daisy Bishop, whose transformation as a performer from last year is testament to the value of Jackson’s tenure at London Studio Centre. 

It is Ashley Page’s Meadowdown that finally sets the dancers free as if the previous works had been a preparation; with a strong sense of classical technique within a contemporary form, Meadowdown soaks up the selection of music from Benjamin Britten’s lively Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra and translates it into a dynamically rich choreography that sets the stage dancing. Page writes that the work has been created ‘to reveal the students as they discover themselves in performance’ and that’s exactly what it does.  


Bongsu Park’s Dream Ritual at The Coronet Theatre

Posted: August 4th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Bongsu Park’s Dream Ritual at The Coronet Theatre

Bongsu Park and Jinyeob Cha, Dream Ritual, The Coronet Theatre, July 3

Dream Ritual, Bongsu Park
Jinyeob Cha in Dream Ritual (photo: Quan Van Truong)

The idea of buying and selling dreams is part of Korean culture that goes back to the Samguk Sagi, Korea’s oldest surviving chronicle of its history. Derived from the notion of a dream as a conscious manifestation of a universal unconscious, one person’s auspicious dream can become a transferable asset to another, and thus subject to a ritual form of barter. Dream Ritual, a solo dance piece conceived and directed by Bongsu Park and choreographed and performed by Jinyeob Cha, is both an illustration of this process and, through Park’s Dream Project, a prelude to an upcoming auction of dreams with the profits going to charity. 

Park is a London-based Korean visual artist, while Cha is the artistic director of the Korean interdisciplinary dance performance group, Collective A. Together with electronic musician and producer haihm, Park and Cha have conceived Dream Ritual as  a kind of shamanistic ritual in contemporary dance form ‘in which omens of shared dreams are enhanced and elevated to the world of good spirits before ownership of the dream is transferred.’ 

The Coronet stage is hung with vertical strips of semi-transparent material that are burnished silver and red in Connor Sullivan’s lighting and, with a black reflective floor, suggest both different planes of reality and ritualistic levels of sublimation. Cha enters drawing with her a transparent curtain across the front of the stage behind which she begins to perform. Park uses the curtain as a screen on which she projects digitally magnified and multiplied projections of Cha’s face and body that intersect and interact with her figure behind it, creating Rorschach-like images and an array of diffractive silhouettes in a visual counterpoint to Cha’s choreography. While haihm’s spectral sound, and Cha’s soft, wave-like articulation and closed eyes allude to the dream state, the overlaying of Park’s imagery initially suggests the distillation of mythology as the currency of a symbolic transaction. Cha dances to a Korean account from the myth of Samguk Yusa of the first dream bargain, with projected English text, and then to contemporary dreams furnished by the public who had been invited to contribute through the project’s website. 

This airing of dreams, while consistent with the proposed aims of the project, weights the performance with an extensive use of narrative that is at odds with the condensed associative language and rarified psychic quality of both rituals and dreams. What begins as a ‘journey through the stages of sleep, and deep into the subconscious’, becomes engulfed in the prosaic intelligibility of dream-like stories and the digital virtuosity of the projected words and images. Dreams have the urgent reality of a symbolic message — which is why we attach such importance to them — and they impress themselves on our memory as photographic images. Dreams and rituals also have an incongruous, if not dark, quick-silver power; what Park has done is to portray this complexity too simplistically by overlapping floating letters, kaleidoscopic imagery and sound on Cha’s physical body. The effect dilutes the enhancement and elevation of dreams the creators had initially intended and thus weakens the relationship between audience and performance that is in itself a form of ritual transaction. 

As a visual artist, Park’s interest in ritual imagery extends beyond the performance into a photographic display and three video works. In the bar is a striking series of eight of her photographic prints with titles Ritual no. 1 through no. 8 whose mirrored forms of a manufactured dream aesthetic work better here as two-dimensional prints than as digital projections on stage. The video works — Lethe (2015), Internal Library (2017) and Cube (2011) — see Park experimenting with the layering of visual and choreographic art that foreshadows Dream Ritual but which suffer from a similar over-simplification of the unconscious by a reliance on the treatment of literal, narrative elements. 


Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Elixir Extracts Festival, Lilian Baylis Theatre, June 14-16

Elixir Extracts Festival
Company of Elders in Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Billed five years ago as a lifelong celebration of creativity, Elixir Festival focused on mature dancers, both professional and amateur, to counter the notion of ageism in a predominantly youthful dance culture. The format consisted of a mainstage mixed bill with professional and ex-professional dancers like Mats Ek, Ana Laguna, Dominic Mercy, as well as members of the original London Contemporary Dance Company, while the smaller Lilian Baylis theatre hosted two days of performances by amateur groups. The mix was inspiring if uneven — professionals who have danced for over 40 years at the summit of their field have a mastery of dance language that amateurs, however dedicated, rarely can. Two years later the next incarnation of Elixir followed the original format but the balance had changed; the mainstage show failed to duplicate the excellence of the first iteration while some of the ‘extracts’ next door were markedly more interesting choreographically and expressively. Despite Sadler’s Wells being a signatory to a European co-operation project that addresses ageism in dance (Dance On, Pass On, Dream On, or DOPODO), this year’s Elixir Extracts Festival — even the name suggests something is missing — retreats so far from its original idea that the distinction between professional and amateur has disappeared altogether and ageism in the dance profession has dropped off the radar; Elixir has become a yellow pages of over-sixties community dance in the UK. 

The quality of works on the program tends to suffer not so much from any low ability among the dancers but of choreography that fails to challenge their age. The one exception on Saturday was Dance Six-O’s performance of Liz Agiss’s Head In My Bag which, in Agiss’s inimitable language, ‘dumps age centre stage and kicks preconceptions into the long grass.’ Because Agiss is herself a performer of a certain age (though she has not been invited to previous Elixir festivals) she knows how to lift performance to a level that goes well beyond the demonstration of community and health benefits; she has an artistic vision that has no truck with the limitations of age. Her performers, with handbags on their heads, become a radical army of spirited individuals calling for the overturn of institutional myopia. 

Sunday’s program kicks back with a little more force, particularly from the Merseyside Dance Initiative’s Men! Dancing! performing Shoulder to Shoulder choreographed by MDI’s Jennifer Hale, and the PC*DC’s infectious finale, Your Invisible Balls Please. In the former, six men distil tension, aggression and resistance into a convincing choreographic form of mutual support, while the latter is a riotous refusal to go quietly led by the irrepressible Donald Hutera. It’s an apt message on which to close Elixir Extracts: in opting for the social value of older amateur dance over the artistic significance of mature dance, Sadler’s Wells is not so much challenging ageism in dance as avoiding the issue altogether.

In contrast to the two programs of extracts that are limited to around ten minutes each, Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship elderly amateur group, Company of Elders, celebrates 30 years of activity with a full-length evening of dance. With ages ranging from 60 to 90, the company can hardly be accused of ageism, but while its longevity supports the argument for older amateur dance, the range of its members’ abilities requires an approach to choreography that resolves the inherent limitations of its repertoire.

Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak bypasses this opportunity by proposing the final speech and subsequent disappearance of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, as subject. In wrapping the company in a narrative that is beyond the embodied experience of its performers, Seutin turns gestures of menace and violence into expressions of half-hearted complicity. The context of African dances emphasizes the ability of Monica Tuck but while this is a benefit for the audience it does little to carry the momentous events Seutin proposes; it’s a fine subject on the wrong company.

Clara Andermatt’s Natural 2019 approaches the company from within. It’s a reconstruction of a work Andermatt created on Company of Elders in 2005; fourteen years later seven members are still involved. It is ‘natural’ in the way it presents each person and transforms their experiences into dance theatre but while its confessional nature suits the company, the disparate abilities of its members limit the development of its choreographic form. If the artistic potential of the company is to develop in line with its flagship, repertoire status, ageism may prove to have a time limit. 


Arthur Pita’s The Mother at Southbank Centre

Posted: July 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Arthur Pita’s The Mother at Southbank Centre

Arthur Pita, The Mother, Queen Elizabeth Hall, June 20

Natalia Osipova in The Mother
Natalia Osipova in The Mother (photo: Anastasia Tikhonova)

Gerry Fox’s documentary about Natalia Osipova, Force of Nature Natalia, was originally conceived as a promotional film about Arthur Pita’s new work for Osipova and Jonathan Goddard, The Mother, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Story of a Mother. Fox started filming in 2018, and soon realised it would be a shame to limit the scope of the film to one work among many that Osipova was rehearsing or performing concurrently with Pita’s rehearsals. Force of Nature Natalia thus looks at a year in the life of Osipova as a dancer while spreading its biopic scope to her youthful background in gymnastics and ballet. Clips of those early years of burgeoning talent and promise, both in class and on stage with the Bolshoi, are enthralling, while a rehearsal with Natalia Makarova of La Bayadère at the Royal Ballet and a tantalisingly short extract from a performance of Giselle with Carlos Acosta are proof of her extraordinary ability to find the drama within classical ballet technique. Ballet developed its dynamism and virtuosity around an upright axis — its origin is in seventeenth-century court etiquette — and within its highly codified language the dramatic expression for an artist as gifted as Osipova arises out of the technique. Fox transitions from this stage of the ballerina’s fêted career to her desire to branch out into contemporary dance by filming her dancing body as it negotiates the work of choreographers Ivan Perez, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and Jason Kittleberger. But in a contemporary dance setting it’s as if Osipova’s emotional compass has been reset and is missing its true north. In charting the course from Giselle to The Mother, Fox unwittingly shows that no contemporary choreographer has yet managed to mine Osipova’s rich seam of expressivity in the way the ballets of Marius Petipa or Jules Perrot have done. Of those choreographers she has worked with, Pita’s predilection for narrative would seem to favour Osipova’s ability to inhabit a character on stage. Pita claims his form of narrative dance theatre is ‘worlds away’ from Osipova’s famous classical roles and that ‘Natalia is a very instinctive performer’. Both statements are true but it is Osipova’s technical prowess that frames that instinct. For her to express the drama of Pita’s narrative in a contemporary vocabulary she has to create a maelstrom of movement — as she does memorably at the very beginning of The Mother when she realizes her child has died, which she recapitulates at the end when she crosses the lake of tears (shades of Swan Lake) — but in between these moments her body is in motion but not moved. Apart from a Russian folk dance with Goddard, she seems in a constant state of transition between leaving her classical world and entering the contemporary one, and what we see too often are the vestiges of the former — her elevation, flexible extensions and exquisite articulation — without the evidence of the latter. 

Andersen’s tale follows the mother as she chases after Death to retrieve her child, bargaining along the way with a number of anthropomorphic spirits — the faceless Babushka, the Rose Gardner, the Ferryman, the White-Haired Witch and the Lover — who test her resolve by setting her monstrous tasks that emphasize the supernatural and psychic nature of her quest. Pita has Goddard play all these roles in an array of costumes — designed by Yann Seabra, aided by costume supervisor Giulia Scrimeri and made by Hania Kosewicz — but his quirky sense of humour morphs the supernatural nature of the original tale into camp extravagance that is at odds with Goddard’s dour muscularity. Andersen’s Rose Briar thus becomes Goddard the Rose Gardner in a long black dress and high heels snipping stems in her flower stall. So on the one hand you have Osipova as the harrowed mother dealing with the death of her child and on the other Goddard’s profusion of partners whose interaction revels in the comedic rather than in the psychological trajectory of mourning symbolised by the spirits. If Pita is using The Mother — not to mention Osipova’s reputation — as a sly send-up of the classical pas de deux, he is also trivialising Andersen’s dark tale. Seabra’s revolving set adds its own drole fairground mechanics to the mix while David Plater’s lighting and haze, especially as seen through the set’s opening doors, is profusely melodramatic. Frank Moon and David Price are the multi-instrumental two-piece band on either side of the stage who anchor a work that is otherwise in danger of shipwreck. 


Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place

Posted: June 24th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place

Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place, May 29

Lola Maury BROUHAHA
An image from BROUHAHA (photo: Alberto Ruiz Soler)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a brouhaha is ‘a noisy and overexcited reaction or response to something’, but the opening of Lola Maury’s BROUHAHA prompts an opposite reaction; as we sit on three sides of the stage at The Place waiting in the dark for what we think might be the beginning of the performance, nothing happens. Has something gone wrong? Then as we accustom our eyes to the darkness and our ears to the silence, we hear a prolonged whistled note from somewhere in the auditorium, and then another with eerie harmonics and the sound of Big Ben chiming in the fog. A sense of relief ensues as the notion of a beginning takes formal shape; the whistled harmonics are like reeds blowing in the night and from a single corner light we can ascribe their source to a trio of performers (Juan Corres Benito, Laureline Richard and Alexander Standard) arriving slowly on the still-overcast stage with rasping intakes of breath. What sounds come from the performers and what are embedded in Alberto Ruiz Soler’s ruminative, diaphanous score is difficult to tell, but Maury and her team seem to be setting up a theme of acclimatization that tests not only our senses but our expectations of what a performance might be. What we hear evolves into what we see: three evanescent figures flecked in silver slowly evolving under a brooding light. The trio naturally draws our focus but it is the scenic interplay of form, sound and light that vies constantly for attention. Ben Moon’s lighting corroborates Ruiz Soler’s growling collage of sounds while the layered forms of Cesca Dvorak’s gender-neutral costumes shroud the body in mystery. 

Maury’s description of the work as ‘a multi-layered experience; a sometimes chaotic, sometimes harmonious mess of sonics mashed, spliced and woven which chimeric sequences of movement’ seems almost too defined. The smooth articulation of the performers is independent of any known narrative and defies any recognisable relationships; whether it suggests amoebas expanding their reach in a protoplasmic effort to survive or simply an imaginative deconstruction of formality, the very ambiguity of the spectacle spawns inevitable attempts at interpretation that are never allowed to coalesce into a cogent frame. At one moment one could imagine three children playing in a field at night or be reminded of the tidal interaction of waves; on a more comprehensive scale, we might think of the work as relating to space and time in an era before our definitions of such notions began to measure, control, change and transform them. Or is Maury channelling a response to the Anthropocene by layering corporal landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes on to one another in a brouhaha of vertebrate chaos? 

While it is usual for dance movement to guide or be guided by the rhythm and melody of a score, Maury enlists Ruiz Soler’s soundscape to influence the dynamic shape and volume of her choreography. Integral to his rumbling leitmotif is the muscularity and vitality of extrinsic sounds — be it a music box, traces of ritual chanting or spoken word — entering the space as swirling matter that the performers imbue with their own articulation. But the relationship between performers and sound is porous; voices within the score imperceptibly manifest in the voices on stage and vice versa so that aural stimuli never appear long enough or clearly enough to generate a specific picture or image. It’s as if Maury and her creative team are keeping their own interpretive involvement as neutral as possible to allow the audience to see through the sound and to hear through the movement. BROUHAHA is clearly the fruit of a rich, organic collaboration and in bringing together its diverse threads, meanings and significations its performance is an acutely meditative experience.

Having taken us on this journey, it is the performers who assume the responsibility for resolving the brouhaha by vocalising, as it were, their own demise until the stage empties and falls silent. The audience’s applause is an abrupt reminder of space and time. 


Art Project Bora’s Double Bill at The Place

Posted: June 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Art Project Bora’s Double Bill at The Place

Art Project Bora, Double Bill, The Place, June 4

Art Project Bora
Art Project Bora in Somoo (photo: Kunu Kim)

Bora Kim, the artistic director of Art Project Bora and an accomplished performer in her own right, presents a double bill at the second edition of A Festival of Korean Dance at The Place. The two works are a solo for herself, A Long Talk To Oneself, and an ensemble for six female dancers, Somoo. To experience these two works is to be immersed in an unfamiliar world that Kim evokes by weaving together visual elements from her Korean heritage that reference and inform each other to create densely layered landscapes of cultural associations.

A Long Talk To Oneself is a spare, carefully nuanced work about the need to speak out on a subject on which society prefers to keep silent. What hovers in the unspoken background is the death of a grandmother in an unspecified conflagration. We don’t know why Kim can’t speak openly about it but we can feel in her tense, silent physical language the painful foreboding of a family secret. A shiny, transparent halter top adds to the horror by suggesting the high-temperature moulding of clothes to skin. Kim’s finely articulated vocabulary is perhaps the only way for her to mourn adequately and at the same time it reveals inner emotions that make her mourning eloquently tangible. The inability to speak out is suggested in a prologue to the work when dancer Jun-Whan Her takes his time to place a microphone on a stand at the front of the stage; the stand is carefully extended above his head and the microphone, once installed, faces down at an angle. He checks it with a heavy breath and walks off. Kim emerges from the darkness to a similar heavy breath, passing in stages through horizontal lines of side light that mark her painful journey; when she arrives at the microphone, she can only look up at it but her words come through her expressive face and hands with their doll-like detachment. It is as if in her mute recounting Kim has merged with the spirit of her grandmother. There is a recorded voice in Korean that links Kim’s stage presence with a film of herself projected on a screen behind her, adding images and strands of conversation on top of her gestural language. We can glean from the subtitles on Jae-Hyung Joo’s film the story of Kim’s grandmother but, according to the program notes, there are other stories ‘from her own experiences’ that are less evident. Nevertheless, A Long Talk To Oneself is an eerily beautiful evocation of dream-like states that come to an abrupt end when Her re-enters to bundle Kim under his arm and walk her off. 

Somoo is a quite different work, not only because Kim has choreographed on six women but also because the work is less autobiographical than auto-descriptive. ‘Named after a classical Korean mask, Somoo uses traditional Asian gestures to convey imagery of the female body through a feminist lens.’ There is no doubt that the female body as treated here is more specifically the female genitalia that are fantasized into living masks ‘through the collective memory of all the individual dancers with the twist of the choreographer’s own interpretation’. On her website Kim has two video extracts of Somoo in quite different settings. One of them is as we see it at The Place; the other (see above image) is on a stage covered in a shallow pool of water that acts as a partner in the imagery, both for its splashing and reflective qualities and its erotic association. The water in effect makes the choreography and the shapes flow with an abandon that is missing on a dry stage. 

Somoo sees Kim subverting traditional gestures and masks into her contemporary feminist perspective on the female body, but while her visual fantasies are evident, there is a difficulty in grasping the details of her interpretation. This is perhaps where a western audience is at a disadvantage; Kim’s use of indigenous cultural signifiers falls short of releasing their full signification and thus obscures the rich intent of her work.

Kim also plays with a false ending, an apparent closure to the performance with a line-up of bows and the expected applause, after which it continues. Whatever reasons there were for doing it, as a theatrical presentation it doesn’t work, leaving a sense of unease at the end of what is a welcome opportunity to reflect on cultural perspectives. 


The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre

Posted: June 19th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Installation, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre

The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre, May 28

The Breath Control Project
Caroline Wright in The Breath Control Project (photo: Rosie Powell)

The following review is based on a dress rehearsal of The Breath Control Project that we were fortunate to be able to attend.

Life starts and ends with a breath. Each breath is a personal individual action while its metaphorical associations with life-force, vitality and spirit encompass the very significance and course of life itself. However, we are hardly ever aware of the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the chest that the inhalation and exhalation of air causes, unless we engage in activities like sport that require large amounts of oxygen, or in cases where breathing becomes difficult and we struggle for air. The Breath Control Project, an interactive installation and choral performance by visual and performance artist Caroline Wright at the Coronet Theatre, explores this most fundamental of bodily motions that supports and defines all other movements through its rhythmic cadences. While ‘control’ describes a conscious effort, the overall project more specifically engages the audience’s imagination with the invisible and yet tangible presence of the breath as a vital element of life. Like lungs, Wright’s project comprises two connected chambers within the theatre. Notes is a sound installation on the stage of the main auditorium and Osmosis is performed in the adjacent small theatre with members of the locally recruited Breath Choir.  

For Notes a microphone stands centre stage facing an audience of transparent glass-blown tracheas suspended from the ceiling that oscillate in the light. Audience members are invited one at a time to stand in front of the microphone and produce a note using the full capacity of one breath. Each note is then collected in a sonic archive that digitally collates them as an orchestration that makes the breath palpable in this vocalized form. The work also has a social and scientific function: the data collected on each breath is correlated to current statistics on air pollution. 

Osmosis explores the more tangible aspects of breath that include an experience by Liam Wright of the harrowing discovery of each breath, hampered by disease, becoming insufficient and strenuous. This arc of experience helps to define the intrinsic relationship between breath and wellbeing, and by translating it into motions and sounds Wright underlines what medical sources recommend as an appropriate breathing practice, placing at one point a metronome on the floor to which the performers walk, inhale, exhale — and cough — on the beat. 

One of the memorable images is members of the Breath Choir, dressed in clinical white overalls and red rubber gloves, blowing each other a breath with their open hands as it were a gift or wish. It becomes like a game of tennis, with ever more strenuous attempts to serve and return the invisible substance with ever more ludic permutations. When the performers include members of the audience in the game we all enter into a circle of communal participation with our fragile environment and are asked to store a lungful of air in a transparent plastic bag. From this everyday action, the imagery extends to the harnessing of breath for playing a wind instrument (Carla Rees on flute) and singing, first with the Breath Choir and mezzo-soprano soloist Laura Wright (Caroline’s daughter), and then by Wright’s plangent rendering of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as she lies on a catafalque surrounded by our ritual offerings of surrogate lungs. Coming from the stillness, Wright’s voice sounds eerily miraculous, summoning up the sublime beauty that breath enables as well as the vulnerability of the present moment and of life itself. 


Cas Public and Kopergietery in 9 at the Linbury Theatre

Posted: June 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cas Public and Kopergietery in 9 at the Linbury Theatre

Cas Public, 9 at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, May 30

Cas Public
A publicity shot of Cas Public in 9 (photo: ©Damian Siqueiros)

With its recent refurbishment, the Linbury is now a theatre ideally suited for dance. The stage may be only slightly deeper than before but the visibility from the more sharply raked seating is what it should be, unobstructed; even when there’s action on the front of the stage it’s not obscured. This is the kind of theatrical environment needed for Cas Public’s new work, 9, because there is so much detail to take in at any one moment that only a full and uninterrupted view of the stage allows us to benefit from its full effect. 9 is a coproduction between Cas Public — its name derives from the company’s commitment to dealing with social issues and its conviction of the artist’s role in society — and Kopergietery, a performing arts space in Ghent. What links the two companies is their shared focus on creating works for young audiences; Kopergietery’s artistic director, Johan de Smet, is the dramaturg for 9

It’s not immediately obvious this is a performance for young audiences; such works tend to default to a language that underestimates youthful sophistication, but Cas Public’s founder and artistic director, Hélène Blackburn, rejects this approach. As she explains to Gerard Davis in a program interview: ‘I don’t think there’s that much difference between adults and children — the adult is a child who has grown up, while the child is an adult in the making. I don’t see why I can’t address my work to a multigenerational audience — lots of art forms like circus, music and the visual arts do it, so why not dance?’

Blackburn goes a step further in 9 by involving children in the performance. While the audience is entering the auditorium the five dancers (Alexander Ellison, Cai Glover, Robert Guy, Daphnée Laurendeau and Danny Morissette) engage the attention of children and invite them on to the stage (presumably there is a successful negotiation with the parents because everyone seems happy with the arrangement). The stage is covered in dozens of white liliputian chairs with a couple of tables around and through which stage technician Slim Dakhlaou guides a white, radio-controlled VW beetle. The dancers challenge the children in musical chairs and table chess until what looks like a preparatory intervention leads into the show itself when Glover takes off his hearing device — he has a cochlear implant — and puts it on a spotlit chair. The children remain on stage, implicated directly in the performance by the dancers or seated on the side.

Blackburn’s line of research for 9 starts with Glover’s hearing loss and his innate ability to dance — Blackburn thinks he dances better without his hearing aid — and continues through Beethoven’s deafness to an exploration of his Ninth symphony. The meaning of the work derives from a range of visual and auditory caesura that symbolise both the difficulty of hearing loss and the creative achievement in overcoming it. Martin Tétrault’s splicing of Beethoven’s Für Elise and his Ninth symphony brilliantly conveys the idea of music arriving in Beethoven’s head in halting, perfectly formed bars of sound that are sometimes distorted by low frequencies, and yet all the music’s power and joy are maintained. Emilie Boyer-Beaulieu’s quickly changing pools of light emphasize the fitful attempts at expression that Blackburn unites in her quicksilver gestural vocabulary derived from both classical ballet technique and sign language. Michael Slack’s stylishly casual black costumes keep all the attention on the action and, when shirts get loose, on the physical tension of the torso. The performance maintains a subversive sense of humour throughout — dancers on all fours barking at each other (and at the children) or Guy and Laurendeau snatching an embrace in the midst of a demanding unison sequence — that only enhances the tactile intricacy of the work. Kenneth Michiels’ film sequences of a young Belgian boy with hearing loss experimenting with his cochlear implant and his voice are full of humour and empathy in equal measure.

All these elements are seamlessly linked together with such clarity of form that they inspire through their cumulative emotional charge; it’s choreography that imagines what it’s like to hear again and the exhilaration in the audience is palpable.

The company’s secret ingredient is Marq Frerichs, assistant to Blackburn and in charge of the dancers’ training. ‘I’m a Cecchetti guy,’ he says smiling, and it’s evident in the clean, fast footwork, and the impressive ballon that all the dancers manifest. 

Cas Public will be performing 9 this August at Edinburgh International Festival.


The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka

Posted: June 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Livestream, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka

The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka, May 19

Bolshoi
The principal characters in Edward Clug’s Petrushka (photo ©Bolshoi)

In London there is nothing quite like a live performance of classical ballet at the Royal Opera House, the Coliseum or at Sadler’s Wells, but when it comes to seeing the Bolshoi Ballet regularly there is nothing quite like dropping in to a local cinema to see a live-streamed performance. The final program of the Bolshoi’s current season is a double bill of Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite and a new version of Petrushka by Edward Clug. Even though the ballets were created in different political climates, both coalesce around a trio of characters in which one risks the ultimate price for freedom. Carmen is released from prison but becomes trapped in her torrid affair with both the corporal, Don José, and the torreador Escamillo; in Petrushka a manipulated doll declares his love for his Ballerina in an effort to establish his humanity.  

Alonso created Carmen Suite in 1967 for one of the Bolshoi’s greatest dramatic dancers, Maya Plisetskaya who, at 42, was looking for new expressive challenges; the public success of the ballet was so bound up with her performance of the role that, as compère Katya Novikova tells us, when she retired in 1987 Carmen Suite retired from the repertoire with her. It wasn’t until the appearance of Svetlana Zakharova in 2005 that the ballet was revived. Alonso’s choreographic style is minimal, requiring technical precision and dynamic shapes but the erotic effect of the narrative combined with the thrillingly percussive interpolation of Bizet’s score by Rodion Schedrin are embodied in the presence of the performers. The change in the principal role is more than a change in interpretation; classical technique has developed so far in the last fifty years that it has become a virtual proxy for dramatic intent. Plisetskaya’s performance of Carmen added dramatic expression to her technical prowess whereas Zakharova’s incorporates the drama of Carmen into the refinement of her technique. Applying Roland Barthes’ phrase ‘le grain de la voix’ to the body, Plisetskaya had a rough, almost feral quality that conveyed the character’s instinctive independence, whereas Zakharova has a smooth sensuality that is more individualistic than fiery. Denis Rodkin as Don José matches Zakharova in the elegant muscularity of his technique while Mikhail Lobukhin as Escamillo is more impetuous as if he has just returned from a bull fight. Vitaly Biktimirov as the Corregidor and Olga Marchenkova as Fate complete the main characters. Boris Messerer’s set under Alexander Rubtsov’s lighting is spectacular, a semi-circular performance area with tall-backed chairs on its raised rim that give it is a sense of a bull ring combined with a court chamber. An abstracted head of a bull is suspended over the action. The production, filmed by Isabelle Julien, lends itself beautifully to the cinema screen. 

In effect Clug has brought Petrushka back home. Although the scenario of the original version was worked out by Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois in St. Petersburg, Michel Fokine created the choreography in Rome and Paris for Diaghilev in 1911. Under Martin Gebhardt’s lighting, Marko Japelj’s set for this production uses the double symbolism of large-scale coloured Matryoshka dolls to represent the tents at the Butter Week Fair Benois so fondly remembered. As Clug explains in a written interview, ‘I aimed to bring back to life the same story told in a different choreographic language and set in a new theatrical aesthetic…I could feel the importance of Petrushka in Russian culture and even more in the people’s hearts…All the elements involved — sets, costumes, choreography and not least the music — carefully depict elements arising from the Russian folklore and tradition.’ If Benois and Stravinsky conceived Petrushka as the immortal Russian spirit evading its confines, Clug sees him more in contemporary psychological terms where woodenness is an inability to connect; his Petrushka ‘wants to overcome his condition and be able to feel, give and receive real emotions. We humans take this option for granted and so often we throw it away.’ It’s a fresh reading that gives a prominent role to Vyacheslav Lopatin’s Magician, an oppressor who masterminds the relationship between his puppets through the use of magic sticks. Petrushka (Denis Savin) is the rebel because he wants to elevate himself while the beautiful Ballerina (Ekaterina Krysanova) and the boorish Moor (Anton Savichev) succumb to their master’s control. The costumes of Leo Kulaš evoke the principal characters as humans who are reduced to being puppets but at the very last moment Clug casts doubt on who is free and who is being manipulated.