A preview of Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act at The Playground Theatre

Posted: January 21st, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Preview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A preview of Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act at The Playground Theatre

A preview of Christian Holder’s Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act, January 17

Naomi Sorkin
Naomi Sorkin (photo: Gail Hadani)

The creative path to Christian Holder’s Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act, which opens at The Playground Theatre on January 23 and runs until February 15, is a reflection of the forces that shaped the life of its eponymous central figure. Rubinstein was born in Russia of wealthy Jewish parents who died when she was young, so she was brought up by an aunt in St. Petersburg. Determined to make a career on the stage, she created a scandal by appearing as Salomé in the play of Oscar Wilde, but her powerful stage presence and erotically charged mime attracted the attention of Serge Diaghilev. Invited to join his Ballets Russes, Rubinstein worked with choreographer Mikhail Fokine and costume designer Léon Bakst to create the roles of Cléopâtre, and later Zobeide in Scheherezade for the first two Diaghilev seasons in Paris. She fell out with Diaghilev soon after, but she remained in Paris, using her wealth to start and maintain her own company. She continued her association with Fokine and Bakst in commissioning Le Martyre de saint Sébastien from Claude Debussy (with text by Gabriele D’Annunzio) and Boléro from Maurice Ravel. Later she produced Ravel’s La Valse, which Diaghilev had commissioned but rejected. In World War I she served the Red Cross in France (wearing an outfit designed by Bakst!) and on the advice of her lover, Lord Moyne, she moved to London in 1939 where she worked for the British Legion. After the war, she returned to Paris and retired to Vence where she lived as a recluse until she died in 1960.

Three years later, a young Christian Holder won a scholarship to study with Martha Graham in New York. Born in Trinidad and raised in England, Holder was supposed to return to London after his studies but his talent was spotted by Robert Joffrey who invited him to join his company, where he was to become one of its iconic dancers. Soon after Holder joined Joffrey Ballet, Naomi Sorkin, born of Russian Jewish parents in Chicago, joined American Ballet Theatre where she ascended through the ranks to become a principal dancer known for her lyricism and dramatic expression. The founder and editor of Dance Magazine, the late Bill Como, once suggested to her that she would be perfect in the role of Ida Rubinstein. In the 80s Sorkin left New York for London after Lynne Seymour encouraged her to join Lindsay Kemp’s company; she created the ballerina in his Nijinsky and played Hermia in his Midsummer Night’s Dream. She has lived in London ever since. 

After leaving Joffrey Ballet, Holder remained in New York as dancer, choreographer and costume designer before returning to London ten years ago where he renewed his friendship with Sorkin. Finally, sixty years after Rubinstein’s death, they are able to combine their talents and experience to vindicate Como’s intuition; Holder has written the book and Sorkin embodies the legendary diva.

The theatrical device of Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act is deceptively simple. A reporter, Edward Clément, (Adam Clayton-Smith) interviews Rubinstein in the last year of her life despite the efforts of her personal assistant Soretto (Kathryn Worth) to protect her privacy. Clément’s research mixed with his natural charm evokes in Rubinstein a flood of memories and reflections that transform her spirits and allow us to enter vicariously her historical and artistic milieu. Woven into these memories are the figures of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Marco Gambino), her lover Romaine Brooks (Kathryn Worth), and the composer Maurice Ravel (pianist Darren Berry). Diaghilev’s disembodied voice-over can be heard with one of Matthew Ferguson’s video projections and we hear Lord Moyne through his love letters to Rubinstein. 

As the interview becomes more intimate, Rubinstein asks Clément: “Do you believe in destiny?” It’s a question that threads as surely through Rubinstein’s life as through the peripatetic process of the production; it also provides the catalyst of the play’s dramatic dénouement.  

I saw a run-through in a studio at the end of a heavy week of rehearsals but Sorkin’s interpretation of Rubinstein, abetted by her cast, shines through. What Holder has done is to allow dance and theatre to release a dynamic sense of Rubinstein’s life from the historical facts of her biography. All that remain to be completed are the colours and textures that David Roger’s sets and costumes, Charles and Patricia Lester’s textiles and Charles Morgan Jones’ lighting will provide when the production at The Playground Theatre opens on Thursday. 


Helen Cox, Bodies in Space at the Bloomsbury Festival

Posted: December 25th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Helen Cox, Bodies in Space at the Bloomsbury Festival

Helen Cox, Bodies in Space, Bloomsbury Festival, Goodenough College, October 13

Bodies in Space
Natasha Arcoleo, Jordan Ajadi and Andrew Oliver in Bodies in Space (photo: Liz Gorman)

Dancers are often urged to ‘explore space’ in class, but choreographer Helen Cox has taken this encouragement far outside the walls of a studio in her new work, Bodies in Space, at the Bloomsbury Festival. Teaming up with composer Dougie Brown, she has choreographed a trio to the sounds of the stars. Actually, as Professor Fabio Iocco clarified in a post-show talk, we can’t hear the stars because there are no molecules in space through which sound can vibrate, but there are recordings of light emitted from stars far beyond our solar system captured by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. What Brown has done is to take two available sources of this data, mapped their topographical qualities and then processed the results with reverb and granular synthesis to produce what to the layman’s ears is the sound of the stars. It’s not quite as catchy as Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive, but all the more affecting for being close to the real thing. Adding movement to this sonic sense of mystery, three dancers — Natasha Arcoleo, Jordan Ajadi and Andrew Oliver — move with planetary suspension through a subtly darkened space in a hall of London House (part of Goodenough College in Bloomsbury), displaying in equal measure both a resistance to, and a celebration of gravity. Having seen Cox dance previously, this is the way she moves, but while Bodies in Space is the first time she has remained on the outside of a creation, the transposition clearly has not affected her choreographic intuition.

The audience is seated on four sides of the open floor, delineating the physical perimeter of the hall but not limiting the kind of spatial universe the dancers imagine as they ease slowly around and in between each other maintaining contact through slender wooden batons stretched between their index fingers with just enough pressure to keep them in place. It’s like linking stars with lines to make a classical astrological figure, but the stars are constantly moving; a dancer may drop a baton but the elastic geometry of the trio is simply suspended until the baton is retrieved and replaced. 

It’s the first of a series of choreographic ideas Cox created during an intense two-week period in the studio, in which she plays with the central axis of body movement that arises from stillness and silence. Against Brown’s otherworldly soundscape there is a stealth in the dancers’ articulation, a feline quality that is a mark of muscular control and articulation. Exploring this further in a series of duets, trios and inter-related solos, Cox is clearly inspired by the subject and its intimate relationship to dance; her imagery weaves celestial figures with choreographic form. Arcoleo’s solo starts with swirling circular patterns within the body that expand out into the curvature of the trunk and limbs, while Ajadi seems to flow through the ether, measuring space with his hands in a fluid articulation that knows no boundaries. After a trio in which the dancers move in orbits around each other, Oliver’s solo conjures up the smooth working of an exploratory space arm extending from the fulcrum of his shoulder. They are all visual ideas that have a natural coherence, and in combination with Brown’s soundscape and the sombre lighting of the hall, Bodies in Space gives a corresponding impression of suspended time.

With such a short period of gestation — all too frequent in the socio-political context where space and time equal money — it is such a pleasure to see the distance travelled from Cox’s initial movement ideas in a studio to the outer reaches of the universe and back to this Bloomsbury Festival venue in the heart of London. 


A politically correct Nutcracker for the end of 2019?

Posted: December 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Concept, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A politically correct Nutcracker for the end of 2019?

A Politically Correct Nutcracker for the end of 2019?

Nutcracker backdrop
Nature’s backdrop for the first act Snow scene from Nutcracker (photo: Glenn Jacobson)

With the waves of the debate on political correctness in ballet whipped up in a storm of indignation, perhaps it’s time to change the scenario of one of the more controversial productions. For example, the national characteristics Marius Petipa chose to portray in Nutcracker, which no doubt had their special significance in the Imperial Russia of 1892, correspond remarkably well to the current political landscape for which Tchaikovsky’s score might once again be appropriated. 

Petipa did not choose to portray the English in Nutcracker, possibly because the country at the time did not have a tradition of classical ballet. That, of course has changed, as has the recent political climate in the country. The first act of the ballet is set at a merry Christmas party in a wealthy family home. Given the Christmas present we have received in the election, it is tempting to see Boris Johnson in the patriarchal role with his latest paramour entertaining his Conservative friends while Etonian schoolboys run around creating mischief with their toy trumpets and miniature JCB diggers. Jeremy Corbin is in the avuncular role of Drosselmeyer who gives Clara the magic gift of speaking truth to power. Armed with this incalculable gift, Clara, who grows up to be Greta Thunberg, defeats the forces of Machiavellian duplicity and in the transformation scene the Christmas tree grows and multiplies as a symbol of reforestation. However, the melting ice caps of Lev Ivanov’s snow scene at the end of Act 1 are a stark reminder of the current state of our natural environment. 

Traveling into the second act on board her tiny carbon footprint, Clara visits first Spain for the climate conference and then some of the more flagrant polluters: Russia, China and (Saudi) Arabia. Three of the divertissements from the original second act are thus accounted for — along with possible lead roles and narratives — without the need for cultural exaggeration. The European community is the network of 28 (at this time of writing) countries under the skirts of Mother Ginger Brussels while the Mirlitons as the LGBTQ+ community continue campaigning for human rights. Clara has one last dream of saving the planet in a Waltz of the Flowers seen through the eyes of Extinction Rebellion before the Grand Pas de Deux features the President and First Lady of the United States against a backdrop of Thunberg as Person of the Year on the cover of Time Magazine. 


Svetlana Zakharova in Modanse at the Coliseum

Posted: December 11th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Svetlana Zakharova in Modanse at the Coliseum

Svetlana Zakharova in Modanse at the Coliseum, December 3

Svetlana Zakharova as Chanel in Bolshoi Modanse
Svetlana Zakharova as Gabrielle Chanel (photo: Jack Devant)

Svetlana Zakharova is the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet and the artistic director of MuzArts, the producer of this double bill, Modanse. The program includes two works — Mauro Bigonzetti’s Come Un Respiro (‘Like a Breath’) and Yuri Possokhov’s Gabrielle Chanel — in which Zakharova is the star accompanied by two male principals, two male leading soloists and fourteen artists of the Bolshoi Ballet. 

For Zakharova to present herself in a context that focuses the spotlight uniquely on her talents is in keeping with a culture of celebrity. When the Bolshoi first came to London in 1956 its undisputed star was Galina Ulanova but her artistry was subsumed in the ballets in which she appeared — Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Giselle; by all accounts her identity was not separate from the roles she played. The current double bill turns this notion of the star inside out; in both works Zakharova appears as herself. Bigonzetti’s Come Un Respiro eschews character for an abstract study of articulate lines and shapes — both of which suit Zakharova’s outstanding plastic ability — and while Possokhov offers Zakharova the opportunity to inhabit the life of the iconic Chanel, she fails, by her own admission, to take it. 

Come Un Respiro takes the breathless beauty of well-trained dancer’s bodies as the starting point of a physical puzzle that manipulates the classical lexicon into unconventional shapes and demonstrates, with a knowing sense of wit and playful eroticism, how such manipulations of the body affect its emotional expression. The program describes the work as ‘a modern reflection of the aesthetics of the Baroque period’; it rides on a recording of Handel’s Suites for Keyboard and is enhanced by the costumes of Helena de Medeiros. The men are bare chested in tights, and the women have stylish bodices with a baroque curlicue confection around their waists. Their arms and legs are laid bare like steely tendrils of an exotic plant with beautifully curved tips that can extend endlessly into languid shapes, hinge, cantilever or wrap themselves enticingly around their partners. Bigonzetti seems to love this show of sex more than he loves the pure pleasure of movement; his choreography too often manipulates shapes in place (with the exception of variations for Zakharova and Jacopo Tissi who refreshingly expand their shapes in space) that runs counter to the current of the keyboard suites. The effect of Come Un Respiro is overwhelmingly visual to the detriment of choreographic flow.  

When she was researching the subject of Possokhov’s new ballet, Zakharova visited Chanel’s apartment at 30, rue de Cambon in Paris. She writes that it was not what she expected to find; the Byzantine luxury of the furnishings confused her. In looking for Chanel, ‘at some point I started to lose her’, she continues. ‘I tried to find at least some similarity, but the more I sank into her image, the clearer I realized that there was nothing in common between us. And that thought freed me, unchained me, and gave me the freedom to invent my own Chanel…’ For Zakharova and Possokhov it is apparently immaterial in the creation of Gabrielle Chanel that the central character is irredeemably conflated with the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. There is no further need for biographical depth; Alexey Frandetti as librettist and director guides us through a timeline of events in Chanel’s early life that Possokhov uses as choreographic set pieces for his trio of principal characters: Chanel and two of her early, wealthy lovers, Étienne Balsan and the elegant Englishman, Arthur (Boy) Capel. While the Chanel-designed costumes are beautifully styled period reproductions, and Maria Tregubova’s sets and Ilya Starilov’s video projections make creative reference to contemporary taste, Ilya Demutsky’s score seems less concerned with finding flavours of French period music than in painting a contemporary portrait of the central character. Choreographically, Zhakarova’s two duets with Tissi as Boy Capel are the highlights but Possokhov tends to default to a traditional treatment of overwrought emotions. Boy Capel’s death in a car accident is perhaps the nadir of imagination, combining a grainy video projection of a car driving at speed along a narrow coastal road, stage lights momentarily blinding the driver (and audience) and a climax of Tissi performing a double tour to the ground not unlike Albrecht in Giselle. We do not learn very much in this sumptuous work about Chanel, but that is not its purpose; it’s about the legend, and as Chanel famously said, ‘Legend is the consecration of celebrity.’


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.