Rambert2: Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: November 19th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert2: Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells

Rambert2, Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells, November 5

Rambert2, Vivian Pakkanen, Sama, Andrea Miller
Vivian Pakkanen in Sama (photo: Stephen Wright)

This second year’s program of Rambert2 at Sadler’s Wells shows a sophistication and artistry, both in terms of choreography and interpretation, that one would expect of the main company, so it is worth remembering that Rambert2 is the practice component of an MA in Professional Performance Studies that Rambert School offers students through the auspices of the University of Kent. The quality of dancers is high because the Rambert brand can attract a large number of applicants to the course. One of last year’s students, Salomé Pessac, is now in the main company which gives an idea of the level of proficiency on offer. There is also an interesting transatlantic connection — four of the thirteen dancers and two of the three choreographers this year are American — through Rambert’s artistic director, Benoit Swan Pouffer.

Choreographer Jermaine Maurice Spivey has spent time in Crystal Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, which is an indication of both his quality as a dancer and his good fortune in witnessing a bourgeoning choreographic talent at work; furthermore, he has deconstructed and reconstructed Pite’s works in order to set them on other companies. In Terms and Conditions, Spivey is experimenting with ideas of his own; he develops the work in sections, choreographically and musically, that are structurally connected but not yet coherent. It starts with words that are manipulated verbally and choreographically with an initial cue from Emily Gunn. A seated Nathan Chipps repeats the word with a variety of inflections and intonations while opposite him in another chair Minouche Van de Ven improvises movement to them. Costume designer Noemi Daboczi’s idea to embed flexible mirrors in the back of her white overalls initiates another section; the dancers later remove them and place them over their faces. It’s a visually arresting idea but doesn’t seem to lead anywhere and is quite impracticable in a section of Spivey’s head-tossing choreography. A final section relies on the repetition of a circular pattern with the dancers taking it in turns to lie like a victim at the centre while the others walk or run around. Terms and Conditions is an articulate study for a promising, but as yet unfulfilled contract. 

Sin is a duet taken from the 2010 Babel by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. Based on the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, it is a narrative with a straightforward formal structure that gradually inverts its opening position over its sinuous course. The connection between Prince Lyons as the male figure and Van de Ven as the female is intense and dramatically coherent; they could be complementary elements of each other in an internal battle for survival or separated as incompatible egos within a couple. From its title, Sin could also be understood as the story of Adam and Eve and the choreography uses snake-like imagery throughout. Whatever the interpretation, the two performers manifest a fateful attraction to each other that oscillates in a riveting yin-yang altercation between power and subversion. Adam Carrée’s lighting plays its own dramatic role that includes a large reflective surface descending obliquely from which the performers cannot hide. 

In her programme note for Sama, choreographer Andrea Miller, who is the artistic director of New York-based Gallim Dance, writes: ‘There are essential, ambiguous and complex elements of our humanity that can only be accessed through our physical experience.’ With its inherent capacity for physical embodiment, dance is fertile ground for elaborating the importance of our bodies in social discourse. For Sama, Miller and her creative team — lighting designer Paul Keogan, costume designer Hogan McLaughlin and composers Vladimir Zaldwich and Frédéric Despierre — delve deep into the realms of imagery and imagination to conjure up a paeon to physical expression, a sensuous and tangible whirl of theatrical and circus arts that the dancers elaborate with infectious abandon. At the heart of Sama is a lament for what Miller fears to be ‘the beginning of an apocalypse of the body’; at the beginning is an enactment of an Eastern parable and at the end a lullaby that follows an exultant jump into darkness by the dancers. Within this framework, perhaps the most significant role is for a young woman whose clearly articulated detachment could well be ‘the still point of the turning world’ from which all energy arises. Miller created it for Vivian Pakkanen but due to a last-minute illness she was replaced by an undaunted Artemis Stamouli from the previous cohort of Rambert2. That kind of coolness under pressure is what Sama celebrates.


Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Posted: November 8th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Snape Maltings, November 1

Richard Alston, Final Edition
Joshua Harriette and Monique Jonas in Brahms Hungarian (photo: Chris Nash)

There is a natural link between Richard Alston and Snape Maltings through his long association with the music of Benjamin Britten, while his particular style of dance relishes the space afforded by the extraordinary stage area with its brick walls as precipitous as a cathedral nave and as expansive as a concert hall. Alston’s aesthetic seems to value the sanctity of choreography and music without wanting to divert too much attention from it, presenting his company like an orchestra on a concert platform — which is why Snape Maltings works so well for him. For the theatrical element, lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli washes the brick walls with colour while she enhances the clarity of the dancers against the grand scale of the space. But as soon as she inserts her own individuality, as in the rectangle of light she creates for Ellen Yilma and Jennifer Hayes at the end of their duet in Shine On, the image of a tomb seems too overtly representational for Alston’s choreographic imagery. Costumes for the men tend towards a puritan ethic, casual and utilitarian without embellishments, elegant variations on tracksuit pants and sleeveless tops, where bare arms show off Alston’s love of drawing and carving figures in space. The women are more colourful, especially in Brahms Hungarian where Fotini Dimou’s floral patterned dresses move around the body with a joie de vivre inherent in Brahms’ folk-inspired music. In Voices and Light Footsteps, Peter Todd’s costumes and associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s lighting work together like a painting, where Alejandra Gissler’s red dress is the dynamic equivalent of one of JMW Turner’s painterly red marks. 

Alston’s choreographic style, derived from his two major influences of Sir Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham, combines a sparse but reverent classical technique with a romantic, flowing use of the upper body; his vocabulary is not broad but the interest and integrity of what we see is supported by his impeccable musicality that in turn demands the same of his dancers. Personality makes up for a lot in the present company, but musicality is not what it was when the likes of Liam Riddick and Oihana Vesga Bujan were performing, though Elly Braund is still there as a valuable guide. In watching the dancers there’s a suggestion of too much tension in the arms that at speed does not support Alston’s flow of the upper body, and a tendency, especially among the men, to land too heavily. There is something sensuous about soft, pliant landings that goes a long way towards bringing the choreography and the music seamlessly together.  

Over several years Alston’s company has had its portion of Arts Council funding to The Place — where it has been resident for the past quarter of a century — successively reduced to the point he feels he cannot run the company to the standards he needs; the present tour is called Final Edition. On the program is a relatively new repertoire, with two works from this year (Voices and Light Footsteps, and Shine On) and two from 2018 (Detour, and Brahms Hungarian). Voices and Light Footsteps, to a selection of Monteverdi madrigals, balli and sinfonia, sees Alston’s choreographic invention soaring with the music, creating a series of courtly dances that sweep up the voices into the air; there is a joy about the work that belies the tumultuous year in which it was created. Lawrance’s Detour, played out to a percussive score by Akira Miyoshi for solo marimba, is a contrast both in its dynamic pace and in the predominance of masculine energy; it features whipping arms and legs in a fast and furious choreography with brute overtones of anger and frustration.

Shine On, to Britten’s early song cycle On This Island for piano and voice (performed respectively by Jason Ridgeway and Katherine McIndoe), is clearly dark in tone, drawing its choreographic line from WH Auden’s poetry that begins with a fanfare (Let the florid music praise!) and turns through the haunting Nocturne to irrevocable loss (As it is, plenty). The symbolism is evident, and yet Alston returns in the finale to the opening musical fanfare with the dancers finishing in a reverence towards the public. Alston dedicates the work to Lizzie Fargher ‘whose enthusiasm for dance (and music) has sustained and encouraged me every time I have been to Snape and to Dance East.’

In closing the program with Brahms Hungarian Alston shows his undefeated spirit with a suite of dances to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for solo piano that Ridgeway plays with gusto. As Alston remarked stoically after the final applause, “I love this place and I’m not going to say goodbye!”


Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou at Lilian Baylis Studio

Posted: November 1st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou at Lilian Baylis Studio

Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou, Why should it be more desirable for green fire balls to exist than not?, Lilian Baylis Studio, October 23

Georgia Vardarou
Georgia Vardarou in Why should it be more desirable for green fire balls to exist than not? (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Dance Umbrella last year, the three successive artistic directors each invited an established artist from their respective era to nominate a ‘choreographer of the future’ as part of a new commissioning project, Four by Four. One of those established artists, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, chose Georgia Vardarou, which is how her new work, Why should it be more desirable for green fire balls to exist than not?, has received its world première at Lilian Baylis Studio as part of this year’s festival. Anyone who has seen De Keersmaeker’s work knows her as a choreographer who has released the spatial language of movement from its reliance on narrative, writing dance rather than using dance to write. Vardarou, who trained at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels and was a member of De Keersmaeker’s company, is clearly a kindred spirit. The title of her work derives from an observation by Carl Jung in his study of the phenomenon of UFOs that it is more desirable for something to exist than to not exist. In her programme note Vardarou extends this idea: ‘If we assume that this kind of desire is part of the mechanism of watching dance then we could also assume that while watching dance we are constantly searching for something, consciously or unconsciously.’ It is this kind of philosophical questioning of dance language, with its potential for unearthing new pathways for seeing and feeling dance, that is so refreshing — and uniquely European. Vardarou’s collaborator on this project, photographer David Bergé, is similarly engaged in questioning his medium. As curator Laura Herman has noted, Bergé is ‘not especially interested in questions of representation — in solidifying time into images — but rather in understanding how the act of looking, traversing, framing, composing, or pointing to is deeply entrenched in dynamics of appropriation and articulation.’ If Bergé questions what happens between photographer and viewer, Vardarou questions where the dance is happening between performer and audience. 

Vardarou enters a stage that already suggests a cognitive framework; one of Bergé’s close-up photographs of a rock surface is projected over a large black frame on the back wall so that part of the image is inside the frame while the rest bleeds beyond it. The same image is simultaneously projected at an angle on one of the side walls, distorting its optical frame. On opposite sides of the stage there are two delicate piles of space-foil material, one coloured gold, the other copper. At first Vardarou stands quite still in the corner, as if deciding how to negotiate these elements, until she begins a silent movement dialogue between herself and the audience with the confidence of one whose mind is clear; hers is a lucid form of thinking-as-movement. 

The focus of Bergé’s successive photographs begins in close-up to the point of abstract patterns, but gradually draws back to reveal their architectural context; the detailed rock pattern becomes the outlines of a wall that develop into a whitewashed building that only in the final moments — after Vardarou has left the stage — reveals its location high on a cliff overlooking a sheltered beach and the open sea. Similarly, Vardarou’s initial focus is on herself, the thinking subject, but over the course of the work she uses her consummate body syntax to pull out the focus gradually to include all the stage elements as she strategises how and when to resolve them. Using the stimuli of Bergé’s set and Ana Rovira’s lighting to underpin her choreographic pathway, we follow her decisions and her indecisions until she finally achieves her goal. 

Philosopher Brian Massumi has argued that ‘art is not illustrating a concept but enacting it’. The title of Vardarou’s work asks the kind of ontological question of dance to which her choreographic enactment is her response. Moreover, by separating her dance syntax from a comprehensive musical structure — although at one point she dances a delightful rhythmic path through a jazz track chosen by Laurel Halo — she urges us to ‘listen’ to her movement as a medium in its own right that can speak eloquently of phenomena, as did Jung, that resist precise logical definition. In Why should it be more desirable…? Vardarou restores the primacy of dance by inserting into the space between performer and audience — where the dance happens — an ambiguous dimension in which we can search, consciously or unconsciously, for what we desire.  


Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Posted: September 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone, September 12

Emma Gladstone, Dance Umbrella
Emma Gladstone (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

NM I read there’s a through-line to the 2019 Dance Umbrella festival focusing on ‘the emotional, intellectual and sensual power of the body’. I wonder if this focus is the result of the works you have chosen or if it is a pre-selected theme for this year?

EG I suppose I do like works that have structural concepts within them. Lucy Guerin’s Split is an example; it’s a pure dance piece but there’s a very clear structure of space and time in it that I think is not only a fabulous invention but also a guide to our watching. I feel there is more intellectual power and association and suggestion and connection in dance than people sometimes think. That’s why we do all the debates and talks during the festival; I think choreographers are such intelligent beings and so wide in their thinking and their invention that when they do find a way of working, or a particular discovery, it’s quite different from theatre. 

Dance Umbrella Lucy Guerin Split
Lucy Guerin’s Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

NM Do you think dance has a place in intellectual and political discourse? 

EG Yes, but I always think dance is not a good art form for facts, so you are always working more subtly and that includes the power of suggestion and connection for audiences while they are watching. There’s always going to be politics because of the body. But there are also many other things that can be revealed within the frame… 

NM Do you think they are revealed during the performance or in discussing and thinking about it afterwards?

EG Well, if you take Jérôme Bel’s Gala, for example, it’s a hugely political work because of the journey on which it takes us, how it addresses our prejudices or assumptions and I love that evolution of our headspace while we’re watching. There’s also a big thing about difference, when international artists bring different worlds or different perceptions. In Gregory Maqoma’s CION for this year’s festival, you will hear an African choir singing Ravel’s Bolero and it makes you appreciate difference, hearing one of those rather hackneyed bits of music that are ‘owned’ in the western canon, how they can be used and treated and still be effective and moving and powerful from another world. To me difference is always part of the politics: looking at difference, understanding difference, not being afraid of difference. I think it’s something the art form as a whole can do very well. There’s something much more interesting for me about works that are full of politics through suggestion rather than flag waving. 

Dance Umbrella Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma’s CION (photo: John Hogg)

NM Do you find this kind of content is more marked in works from outside the UK?

EG Oona Doherty is an interesting case for the questions of class and place she brings and reveals in her work (Hard To Be Soft at Southbank Centre and Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus at The Yard Theatre). I think as an artform dance can also exist for its strength and beauty like music. There’s a wonderful American artist, Theaster Gates, who said in response to a question about the validity of art in a context of deprivations within society, “Beauty is a basic service”. I think there is a total validity in work that is for the human spirit alone. I don’t wish to negate that, but there is also the potential for insipid or empty works in the same way. I do search for complexity that includes intellectual ideas in the choreography, but there are so many different ways these can be realised. 

NM What percentage of works that you see contain the ingredients you are looking for and find their way into your Dance Umbrella program?

EG I probably see about 180 works a year and there are usually 10 or 11 in a festival. But that 10 or 11 can include five or six commissions and then I don’t know what’s coming! These are artists I believe in who we’re keen to support and they’ll bring their work whatever it is, and we take that leap with them. For example, one of the works at the Linbury Theatre this year is Jacobsson and Caley’s reimagining of a Merce Cunningham piece, For Four Walls, and there are a couple of works in Freddie Opoku-Adaie’s Mixed Bill in his Out Of The System at Bernie Grant Arts Centre that are commissions. There are also two of the Four by Four Commissions, one chosen by Akram Khan — a new work by Mythili Prakash, Here and Now, at Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover — and the other by Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker — Georgia Vardarou’s Why Should It Be More Desirable For Green Fire Balls To Exist Than Not? at the Lilian Baylis Theatre. I think it is part of our job to support artists and trust in them. That’s part of the fun. You’re asking people to take that leap with you and you get to see something at the start of a journey. I love those works that make me leave the theatre in a different place from where I went in; that’s what I want an audience to feel.

Dance Umbrella Mythili Prakash
Mythili Prakash (photo: Jonathan Potter)

NM How do you see Dance Umbrella supporting the dance ecology in London? 

EG One of the big decisions I made when I became artistic director was to bring over artists who are not already represented here. I felt liberated by the fact that most people don’t know most of the names most of the time, so it’s our reputation that we have to build through the quality of the work we present. Hopefully that means people will trust us and come to see fascinating artists because they appear under a banner whose quality audiences have come to value. Another decision was to stretch the diversity of choreographic expression as wide as possible, as with Charlotte Spencer’s Is This A Wasteland? in 2017 and Annie-B Parson’s 17c last year. 

Another thing we are doing this year in Croydon and at the Opera House is working with our partners to put a mixture of work in a single frame; this is where I feel most responsible in terms of curating, figuring out what sits next to what, how will the audience see it after seeing something else. I’m excited by Amala Dianor’s work, Somewhere in the middle of infinity, at the Linbury, because he is in such an interesting place and the diverse training and styles of his three dancers contrasts with what Merce Cunningham is doing with his solid, single technique at the other end of the bill (Sounddance performed by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine). That’s why I like the title of the program, The Future Bursts In, that is taken from a 1964 Observer review of Cunningham’s first London performances. We have to look at works differently now; there are no longer those kinds of monolithic techniques. 

Dance Umbrella Amala Dianor
Amala Dianor’s Somewhere in the middle of infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

NM How do you sift through the works you see to arrive at a Dance Umbrella program?

EG Apart from working on the diverse elements of age, culture, gender, and the geography of the city, I often invite those pieces I am not sure I liked at first, but which remain with me; they become milestones in my art journey of life. This is why I enjoy programming a festival rather than a venue; it’s the difference between the responsibility of programming year-round to develop a dance scene, with the growth over time of individual artists, and then the idea of a two-and-a-half week festival that’s about the new, the international. It’s a quite different focus, and it’s fun to play within that framework.

NM The geographical reach of the festival seems to have increased this year. 

EG Yes, this is the most we have ever attempted. We have added the Royal Opera House — though it’s not a first for Dance Umbrella — because of the mix of audiences and the strength of the technique of the dancers in the program. And, of course, there’s four different locations in Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover. We are also developing our partnerships with festivals around the UK and internationally though we only tour within London; Philippe Saire’s Hocus Pocus is going to six venues around the city. I love that. This year the festival will embrace a total of 23 locations. It’s a bit mad!

NM In terms of the future? 

EG This is my sixth year and I have no plans to be programming this festival years into the future. It’s a huge job, because it’s personal — art is personal; there’s no other way to do it. I love the job, and I love the team I am working with, but the scene is constantly changing and new, younger voices need to be heard. You can only reinvent your own wheel so many times. 

Dance Umbrella runs from 8 – 27 October. Here’s the full program.


Jaivant Patel, YAATRA at Blue Elephant Theatre

Posted: August 20th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jaivant Patel, YAATRA at Blue Elephant Theatre

Jaivant Patel, YAATRA, Blue Elephant Theatre, July 16

Jaivant Patel in YAATRA
Jaivant Patel in YAATRA (photo: Matthew Cawrey and Joe Armitage)

One of the beauties of watching dance is that the nature of time spent in the theatre expands infinitely when the performance is good (but by the same token, when the performance is not so good, time can simply stretch unsparingly between two points — entry into the theatre and departure from it — with little additional value). Jaivant Patel’s YAATRA, a meditation in two parts that offers ‘a fresh perspective on South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives, faith and spirituality’ is one of those works that expands time as it fluidly crosses national and gender boundaries, and on the tiny stage of Blue Elephant Theatre it defies space as well. 

Patel is a striking figure in whom aspects of male and female flow with assured ease and elegance; he also exudes a childlike joy and intensity in all he does that conflicts with the idea of ‘performance’. These qualities make his work unselfconsciously ‘in the moment’ and give his performance, despite the presence of an active creative team behind the work, a sense of inspired improvisation. If the rallying cry of LGBTQ+ is to challenge the notion of binary, Patel is its natural advocate.

There are two works on the program, the first, Awakening, a Kathak piece on which Patel collaborated with choreographer Nahid Siddiqui, and the second, Yaatra, for which Ben Wright, Shane Shambhu and Urja Thakore worked as mentors. The pairing displays two sides of Patel’s art but his ability to blur the distinctions between Kathak and contemporary dance suggests a unity rather than a diversity of form. It’s not that the technical details are lacking; Patel’s gestural and postural Kathak vocabulary is convincing while his musicality, even if he is dancing to recorded music by Hassan Mohyeddin, communicates the vibrant, rhythmic precision of the form. The unity derives rather from Patel’s presence as a traditionalist who questions tradition and a contemporary who invokes it. 

In Awakenings Patel subtly subverts Kathak by challenging the traditional notion that gods in Indian mythology can be non-binary, while their human interlocutors cannot. In Yaatra, he explores his contemporary practice in relation to traditional values, both mischievously — “Boys don’t wear scarves”, says a recorded motherly voice as he adjusts one around his shoulders — and sincerely as an LGBTQ+ man of faith living in a culture that has difficulty accepting the combination. Awakenings and Yaatra thus form a seamless narrative line that shuttles between past and present in which Patel is the constant — and consistent — narrator of his search for validation. 

The theatre is evidently where Patel feels at home and can let go; in the relationship between himself and his audience he can — and does — hold court with evident delight and without fear of censure, even if he suggests — especially in Yaatra — that thespian freedom is no match for society’s prejudices. The stage is conceived as a spiritual locus, subtly lit by Joanne E L Marshall, with its overhead grid of small hanging bells that Patel can strike at arm’s length or set in motion, and Ryan Laight’s rich red tunic and complementary scarves establish Patel within a dual framework of traditional costume — replete with ankle bells — and gender fluidity. Patel is in his element, and it shows. At the end of Awakenings he lets down his long, black hair as if signalling the relaxation of one identity and preparing us for the next; it is still Patel, of course, but in Yaatra he takes on a more secular idiom while maintaining the signification of his cultural heritage.

He returns in his red tunic and ankle bells but with a bag over his shoulder that he sets down as if for a picnic. Out comes a banana that he will later eat with relish. Immersing us in his personal iconography, Patel luxuriates in the sense of time and space it provides, but throughout there is a sense of internal dialogue marked by Ali Harwood’s concise fragments of spoken word that act like signposts. Patel’s choreographic journey is one of coming to terms with himself and with choices he has made; one of Harwood’s ‘signs’ states, ‘So how we act becomes our skin.’ If Awakenings sees Patel supported by his cultural heritage, Yaatra sees him setting out on his own symbolic journey. The final upbeat rhythms and swinging bells read like an anthem of hope and Patel’s final gesture of emptying a scarf full of ankle bells on the floor one of relinquishing the confines of tradition. 


Shaun Parker & Company’s Little Big Man in Ramallah

Posted: August 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shaun Parker & Company’s Little Big Man in Ramallah

Shaun Parker & Company, Little Big Man, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, April 5

Shaun Parker & Company, Ivo Dimchev
Shaun Parker & Company with Ivo Dimchev in Little Big Man (photo: Prudence Upton)

What you see first in Shaun Parker’s Little Big Man at the Municipality Theatre in Ramallah City Hall is a fresh-faced, platinum blonde boy in baggy shorts and a maroon velvet jacket buttoned across his bare chest sitting casually with his legs dangling over the edge of the stage playing a small keyboard while humming and singing in a rich falsetto voice. The singer is in full control of his material and can improvise his words to include an invitation to latecomers to fill in the front rows; this is the inimitable singer/songwriter Ivo Dimchev. Finishing the song, he begins a new rhythmic introduction that the audience immediately accompanies with a hand beat. Dimchev stops, looks at the audience with a mixture of sternness and cheek and pulls one hand across his throat. The audience laughs and Dimchev resumes in silence. From that moment on he holds the entire audience within his grasp and the audience willingly accedes. 

Parker, the artistic director and choreographer of Shaun Parker & Company, changed the name of his work from King to Little Big Man for the company’s tour of the Middle East where it was felt judicious to avoid any disrespect or misunderstanding in the Kingdom of Jordan. Little Big Man (as it shall be known here) references the Y chromosome that is present only in the male of the species and determines the sex of offspring. The all-male cast — Josh Mu, Toby Derrick, Libby Montilla, Imanuel Dabo, Joel Fenton, Samuel Beazley, Harrison Hall, Robert Tinning, Damian Meredith and Alex Warren — finds itself inexorably trapped inside its masculinity as if Parker has put his men on a glass plate under a microscope and is allowing us to watch the biological process unfold. Crystalline choreographic patterns and intricate timing suggest the workings of sentient organisms but the presence of ten men in dinner jackets performing under an ornate chandelier against Penny Hunstead’s lush backdrop of potted palm trees transports the organic to the social and, with the emergence of male aggression, from the social to the political; Little Big Man is a gently satirical but resolute reminder of the inherent violence in masculinity and by extension in our current system of patriarchy. 

Parker is not the first choreographer to dissect male aggression, but in collaborating with Dimchev as composer and performer he presents an alternative running dialogue to masculinity that undermines it with the sensuality and beauty of androgyny. Dimchev is the catalyst for change; although he is on stage throughout the performance and remains aloof from the macho machinations around him, his presence weaves a spell on the ten men that by the end reduces them — and the audience — to emotional putty. Dimchev’s alchemy aside, Parker is careful not to caricature maleness too narrowly; the cast is sophisticated, charming, debonair and athletically accomplished, qualities we can easily admire. They lift, ride and leapfrog each other with childlike innocence, can scrum down with gentlemanly vigour and they explore homoerotic relations with candour. Parker strips them down to reveal their naked traits, and in the case of Derrick, his naked form as a focus of quintessential gender (for this tour full nudity has been scaled back to partial nudity). It is at this point that a spark of jealousy turns survival of the fittest into a self-fulfilling contest in which the biggest of the group picks on the smallest and smothers him. Violence erupts in the bonded cocks with head-butting and aggressive combat, all meticulously crafted, while Dimchev accompanies their antics with a beatific smile and lines like, ‘We’re living together’ and ‘Why do I love you?’ After a brief interlude in which the men disappear through the undergrowth where we can see them playing ritually, they return with more composure, collaboration and cooperation in an intricate choreographic layering of strength and softness until re-emerging traits of sadistic boot-camp behaviour result in a revolt, leaving two bodies on the stage. As the remaining men retreat around the ‘guardian angel’ of Dimchev, the victim gets up and lays his head on the body of his assailant: aggression turns to vulnerability in a monument to ambiguity. 

Like any work of integrity, Little Big Man raises as many questions as it answers; it has taken Parker five years, working with sporadic grants, to achieve this level of integration between genetic and psychological material and a dance theatre form that alternately thrills and soothes; it indicates a rare form of inspired collaboration. 


Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre

Posted: July 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre

Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see!, Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, July 11

Es Morgan, Mum, I'm in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre
Es Morgan in Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! (photo: Jemima Yong)

There is no space for wings on the tiny stage of the Marlborough Theatre so the entrance is from the audience up the steps at the front. Es Morgan is tall but when they step up on to the stage they dominate it like Leonardo’s renaissance man staked out inside a circle. Created by Morgan with dramaturgy by Charlie Ashwell, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! is part dance performance, part spoken word and part installation. It is also part of the Trans Pride season at the Marlborough Theatre which frames it more specifically within the trans/non-binary/intersex/gender genre. While this confines the performance to a familiar context, as an existential rant on current society Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! has a relevance that goes beyond it. In this sense the reference of costumes and makeup to drag are less important than the broader societal issues of transgender Morgan proposes in each element of the performance.

After a brief spoken word introduction, they close their eyes and perform an exquisite long-limbed, existential dance that takes up the entire stage (without much difficulty) as if the space is a cage that their body constantly explores in a hesitant dialogue of boundaries. In its eloquently mute articulation Morgan’s body establishes an inner world of gender fluidity while speaking volumes about their sense of alienation and disquiet. At this point Mum! looks like a contemporary dance performance and four of the audience, possibly feeling short-changed by the lack of drag, walk out just as Morgan’s eyes open and the dance comes to a close. Slipping off their shoes and tracksuit pants to reveal a long silky dress, Morgan reclines in the red inflatable armchair with a bottle of water and a microphone. ‘Gender is a construction site; so many slow men…I’m just a slab of meat looking for something real,’ they quip as they begin a carefully constructed, sinuous monologue delivered in a languorous tone that hides its cynical bite. It’s like words passing through a hall of mirrors, reflecting distortions of desires and fears in a lurid, panopticon society, somewhere between ‘Nietzsche and nurture’ in ‘a post-capitalist wet dream’. At the end of the monologue they leave us with an image of a supine Saint Sebastian pierced by plastic straws before abandoning us to what sounds like musical water while they apply a demon/angel face makeup in front of their pop-up mirror.

We’re half way through the show and this is the moment we are asked to close our eyes and surrender to Morgan’s suggestive tones, part guru, part new wave hypnotist with mischievous overtones. ‘Relax, get comfortable…you might want to lean into the person next to you.’ They guide us through an out-of-body visualization down corridors with closed doors, carpeted rooms and cartoon characters on screens until we open our eyes and we’re back in the Marlborough with Morgan the ‘marmite me’ in a black unitard stretched over their torso with red crosses over their nipples, standing bare legged at the microphone atop platform heels. The existential takes on the sensual in Morgan’s breathless catalogue of social and political chaos (‘Fascism has such a strong smell…’) in which the world’s oceans overflow and the last white male rhino disappears; death is never far away. It comes in the form of a roll of pungent Speedman Paper Fill that Morgan pulls out of a box — all 450 metres of it — and lets fall around them like a crinoline that continues to rise until they are embalmed in loose packaging. After death come the reminiscences, a fond recap from the safety of another dimension — the fourth? the fifth? — of all that Morgan espouses in the mess of the present. ‘Do you remember when gender became obsolete?’, they ask. We are not there yet, even if we knew what the destination might look like, but in broaching the possibility with a mixture of introspection, irreverent humour and sharp social commentary, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! makes us feel we’re on the journey together. 


DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Posted: July 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Dansox Inaugural Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, July 6-8

Dansox Summer School
Nicolas Lancret’s Mlle. Camargue dancing

The inaugural DANSOX Summer School, curated by Professor Sue Jones over a three-day weekend at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, brought together scholars, authors, critics and practitioners to share their knowledge of dance as a language on a multitude of levels. Alastair Macaulay, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, anchored each daily session with a talk about a major influence on our dance heritage — Marius Petipa, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham respectively — illustrated with extensive video footage. As a dance critic of long standing, Macaulay approached each body of work with a perspective that was rich in historical detail and, in the case of Cunningham, personal association. His interpretations were the fruit of repeated viewings and reflection, while he filled out the lives of their creators and interpreters with a propensity for vibrant and often amusing anecdotes. The broad canvas he painted each morning set the tone for the sessions that followed. 

After Macaulay’s lecture on Petipa, historian Moira Goff gave a talk on and a demonstration of baroque dance. While classical ballet steps (and their terms) derive from the French court, Goff displayed the form and dynamics of those steps from Feuillet’s notation, and how they developed from France to the English Restoration stage. She not only gave clues to the form of a performance from this era but showed how these origins of classical ballet technique lead us inexorably to Petipa’s vocabulary in the late nineteenth century. 

Researcher and author Julia Bührle provided more historical detail in her talk on two important dancing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Weaver in England and Jean-Georges Noverre in France. Each wrote a treatise that legitimized ballet d’action in terms of literary sources and Bührle cites Weaver’s 1717 spectacle, The Loves of Mars and Venus, and Noverre’s 1763 Medée et Jason as the forerunners of narrative ballet. 

Bringing us into the twentieth century, filmmaker Lynne Wake introduced her documentary, Queen and Béjart: Ballet For Life. Béjart took his choreographic inspiration from the music of Queen to celebrate the lives of those like Jorge Donn and Freddie Mercury who had died young as a result of AIDS. The documentary combines rehearsals by Béjart Ballet Lausanne (an outstanding cast directed by Gil Roman) with outtakes from 1997 footage by David Mallett of the first performance of Ballet For Life in Paris. Wake’s documentary is moving in both its filming and its editing (by Christopher Bird), and shows how the lineage of classical ballet has evolved from the confines of a royal court to a vast public arena.

Each day followed a similar pattern of synaptic sparks tying all the talks and demonstrations together. After Macaulay’s lecture on Balanchine, musicologist and dance researcher Renata Bräuninger gave an incisive talk on Balanchine’s musicality followed by Gabriela Minden’s exploration of Tamara Karsarvina’s experiment in gestural choreography (harking back to Weaver and Noverre) for J.M. Barrie’s 1920 play The Truth about the Russian Dancers, and by Maggie Watson’s paper on aspects of the pastoral in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe

While each talk revealed how much historical and theoretical research on dance is still waiting in the wings, Susie Crow offered a practical approach to the history and theory of the ballet class with the help of pianist Jonathan Still and dancers Ben Warbis and Ellie Ferguson of Yorke Dance Project. This vital focus on balletic training is linked to current teaching practice, which in turn drives the future direction of classical ballet. Keeping on the subject of practice, Jennifer Jackson and composer Tom Armstrong organised a workshop with dancers Courtney Reading and Gabrielle Orr on Sleeping Beauty, showing how their contemporary approach to both classical choreography and its musical score can generate a fresh interest in such iconic works. 

Following two talks by Fiona Macintosh and Tom Sapsford that linked dance and the classics, the final day continued with Macaulay’s lecture on Cunningham, and Sir Richard Alston’s demonstration, with dancer Elly Braund, of his relationship to Cunningham’s choreography throughout his dance career and in subsequent dances he created on his own company. The notion of classicism in dance was a theme throughout the DANSOX summer school and it concluded where it began with that most ‘classical’ of choreographers, Petipa. On hand was author and former dance critic, Nadine Meisner, to celebrate the launch of her Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master, ‘the first biography in English of this monumental figure of ballet history’, published appropriately by Oxford University Press. 


English National Ballet Emerging Dancer Award 2019

Posted: May 14th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Competition, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet Emerging Dancer Award 2019

English National Ballet, Emerging Dancer Award 2019, Sadler’s Wells, May 7

English National Ballet, Emerging Dancer Award 2019
Rentaro Nakaaki and Julia Conway in Flames of Paris (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

Appearances can be deceptive. On the cover of English National Ballet’s program for Emerging Dancer, the six contestants have been photographed by Laurent Liotardo (post production by Nik Pate) in various sharply delineated, sculptural poses. If the athleticism of these images were to represent the odds of winning, Shale Wagman and Rhys Antoni Yeomans would be in close competition for the prize. Even looking at them on stage as they enter with their respective partners for the pas de deux section, they embody the classical image of the male dancer; perhaps Yeomans has the edge in musculature. But shape is only one element of classical dance; moving between shapes in a rhythm that derives from music is another. Here both Wagman and Yeomans fail to follow up on the promise of their initial images. Wagman is lean and flexible — as he demonstrates abundantly in his contemporary solo — but since so much virtuoso male dance takes place in the air he needs to work on elevation. Yeomans has a better jump but while he can turn exquisitely on the ground he shares with Wagman a malfunctioning ‘spot’ in aerial tours. If ‘emerging dancer’ means the process of polishing rough potential into a physically expressive dancing body Wagman and Yeomans have applied the polish before the expression. Rentaro Nakaaki hasn’t yet arrived but his rough potential is exciting; there are times when his form shows through and he is not afraid to take risks. He has an arsenal of virtuoso steps that overflow with enthusiasm if not attention to line and shape and his character is refreshingly open. Even though he didn’t win he gained my vote for sheer ebullience in the process of emerging.

Liotardo’s photographs of the three women — Alice Bellini, Emilia Cadorin and Julia Conway — are less exciting and fail to distinguish the character of each; Cadorin’s and Conway’s are almost identical. Onstage, however, Conway emerges with the poise and control that deservedly earns her this year’s award. Interestingly she is paired with Nakaaki dancing a pas de deux from Vasily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris. It’s a size too big for Nakaaki at this point in his development but his youthful attack allows Conway to appear calm and assured in her own variations; he’s the storm and she’s its eye. Bellini is paired with Wagman in Victor Gzovsky’s Grand Pas Classique; he’s attending more to the audience than to her which unglues the partnership, but she has a lyrical quality that shines. Cadorin dances Coppélia with Yeomans who is a more boyishly attentive partner. On this occasion Cadorin’s spirit is strong but her upper back — and thus her port de bras — seems constricted so she cannot flow with the romantic sentiment in the music. 

The second stage of the competition requires each dancer to perform a contemporary solo of their own choice. Presumably the idea is for the judges and audience to see another aspect of each contestant in terms not only of physical ability but of individual expression. Unlike the classical variations, here the choreography for the most part draws attention to itself, leaving the dancers in the passenger seat; when they are driving there’s a touch of indulgence, as in Wagman’s solo by Sofie Vervaecke, Peculiar Mind. Bellini needs a far more theatrical vehicle for her talents than CLAN B, Sebastian Kloborg’s spoof on La Sylphide, and although Yeomans chooses a great solo by Forsythe, he is left somewhat deflated in the middle by not hitting those glorious accents in Thom Willems’ lush, percussive score. Fabian Reimair’s BAM! for Cadorin doesn’t achieve its title’s promise for her by not giving her enough traction, partly a problem with Reimar’s own score. Nuno Campos gives Nakaaki the one work of the evening that seems tailored for him, showing him in a lean, introspective light; it’s called, appropriately, Own. Similarly Miguel Altunaga’s Untitled Code gives Conway a vehicle for her clarity of expression and keen gestural sense that she carries over from Flames of Paris

On its tenth anniversary the Emerging Dancer Award celebrates after an intermission with a performance by Francesca Velicu and last year’s award winner, Daniel McCormick in the pas de deux from Act III of Don Quixote. McCormick is a fine dancer but my eyes are drawn to a quality in Velicu that has been missing over the course of the evening: the ability to make the music visible. All Gavin Sutherland’s efforts in the pit directing the English National Ballet Philharmonic have been rewarded. 


English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

Posted: April 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

English National Ballet, My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty, Peacock, April 17

Illustration of My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty by Mark Ruffle

I attended the matinée of English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty at the Peacock Theatre with the daughter of a friend, Eva, who is studying ballet in Sussex; at 13 she appeared quite mature amongst the audience of little girls in tutus. When Sir Frederick Ashton first saw Anna Pavlova at the Teatro Municipal in Lima he was also 13. The experience of seeing Pavlova at that stage in his life, as he reminisced to John Selwyn Gilbert in 1971, ‘was the end of me. She injected me with her poison and from the end of that evening I wanted to dance.’ Pavlova did not distinguish between the ages of her audience; her indefatigable touring around the world gave anyone who wished the opportunity to experience the full extent of her artistry. 

In 1964 the Royal Ballet founded a touring group, Ballet For All, that was run by Peter Brinson as a means of introducing new audiences to ballet through a combination of history, analysis and performance. Developed from his lecture demonstrations, Brinson described the format as ‘presenting special programmes, called ballet-plays, which combine words with ballets, actors with dancers and musicians, to inform as well as entertain.’ The cast was made up of two actors, a pianist and six dancers from both the Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet companies. This group toured widely in small-scale venues, giving around 150 performances a year until the company closed in 1979. According to Jane Nicholas, a former Arts Council director, Ballet For All ‘became the most important proselytizing activity in the country in classical ballet.’

In devising the series of My First Ballet — to date there have been four productions based on Cinderella, Coppelia, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty — ENB is pitching classical ballet as an entertainment conceived for very young audiences. The series is a collaboration between the company and its school so it’s a pre-professional community outreach program by a major ballet company in this country. The format raises questions, however, on what is considered ‘entertainment’ and ‘educational’ at this target age. For example, although there is no artistic reason for doing so, the story has been adapted for easy viewing; the fairies Carabosse and Lilac are introduced as sisters casting spells on their dolls; Catalabutte is a court painter; the knitting needle becomes a rose, and Desiré and Bluebird are best friends. Ironing out the richness and imaginative scope of both the characters and the story — Lilac’s magical power turns her dolls into ballerinas while Carabosse’s can only create Dark Companions — is ironic given that Charles Perreault wrote his fairy tale with children (of all ages) in mind. And even in its simplified version this production overlooks why Lilac is not aware that her sister Carabosse has not been invited to Aurora’s christening. 

The production is hosted engagingly by Sebastian Charles, a master of ceremonies in contemporary dress who does a little bit of magic, narrates the story and translates the balletic mime into words, all of which are traditionally implicit in a full theatrical presentation. While the recorded extracts of Tchaikovsky’s score retain their customary importance, Charles’s intervention reduces the choreography and its interpretation by the dancers to a secondary role. In Ballet For All, even though the classics were abridged and danced to piano accompaniment, Brinson maintained the choreography of the full productions and his dancers were quite capable of performing it. ENB has eschewed both options; Antonio Castilla has arranged the choreography and the dancers are still in training. While this gives them a wonderful opportunity to gain stage experience and to hone their technique (though there were, as Eva remarked, some mistakes), they have not had time to acquire the faculty of taking an audience with them on their journey. Classical ballet is clearly so much more than the ability to execute steps and enchainements to music; the poison Ashton spoke of derived from the artistry of Pavlova herself and not from the works she danced that evening. 

So while the enthusiastic attendance confirms the quantitative success of My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty in fulfilling ENB’s goal to ‘bring classical ballet to a young audience’, the quality of the presentation suggests the imagination of a young audience is not ready for the sophistication of a mature production and the intoxication it may arouse. Nothing could be further from the truth.