Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Some thoughts about dance in 2019, December 31

Bodyless thoughts on dance
Bodyless (photo: Hsin-Chien Huang)

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and work that have settled in my 2019 memory bank. It was a year when we had the UK Dance Showcase — which I will come back to later — and when so many artists created work in response to institutional power and epistemic violence.

Wendy Houstoun’s Hell Hath No Fury at Wainsgate Chapel, Hebden Bridge (part of Wainsgate Dances in June) took us to her Sunday school pulpit of philosophy and rage whilst delivering us from evil in a ferociously hilarious 45 minutes of wordplay and image making. Aided by the servitude and deferential bell ringing of Charlie Morrissey, Houstoun was our High Priestess, our sermon giver offering hope, hula hoop skipping, and water to those in need; as she commanded the audience to sit, stand and listen in our pews to ripostes against the 2019 political landscape she was swift and rapier-like. With Hell Hath No Fury Houstoun has demonstrated (and built upon from her previous works 50 Acts and A Pact With Pointlessness) her gift for rhythm, distillation and an ability to hold attention; she captures a mood of how some people are feeling and lampoons it. Wainsgate Chapel as a site of performance and Houstoun as prophet is an immaculate combination; in the age of fracturing communities and the slow death of theatre buildings I imagine a world where Hell Hath No Fury is a 2020 version of a mystery play travelling to chapels, churches and cathedrals across the country, a liturgical drama serving to shame our morally unanchored institutions of power.

Bodyless, directed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is a single-person 31-minute VR experience I saw at the Phi Centre in Montreal (part of an exhibition of VR work from Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Olafur Eliasson) in November. Bodyless is based on Huang’s memory and set during Taiwan’s martial law and colonial period of the 1970s. The repression and control of people through old (and new) technologies blended with pervasive digital surveillance to ensure this has a relevance now; what Bodyless achieves that no other VR art work I’ve encountered so far has done, is the technological holy trinity of embodied encounter, emotional narrative investment and graphical fidelity. As we move round a dark and oppressive system, we encounter multiple timeless episodes/scenes where we find bodies in differing states of control; polygon-twitching bodies in cells with rewilding plants growing through the bars, faded newspaper portraits of people who have been deliberately missing-ed or dozens of limp and floating bodies in a hospital or boarding school with limbs defying gravity. The intimacy of VR as a single-person experience heightens emotions as you glide, ooze, sink or float through landscapes; the fact that you have a level of agency, an ability to move, look at and focus where you want embodies this act of witnessing bodyless-ness in action. We see how people are erased from a society, and the emotional distancing that VR and screen-based work usually causes is dissolved by Hsin-Chien Huang in this fantastical response to the memory of trauma. 

From the macro power portraits of Hell Hath No Fury and Bodyless to a micro power portrait of Black male mental health, Elephant In The Room by Lanre Malaolu at Camden People’s Theatre in April is proof that Malaolu (supported by dramaturg Season Butler) has created a work of total theatre. We meet man, a multi-charactered everyman in control of his external body, but this control does not extend to his internal mind. Malaolu has a Hip Hop dance technique and execution that sparkles in its clarity; his physicality is accompanied by a command of language and a dexterity in verbal delivery that would cast long shadows at the RSC. He is wav(er)ing and popping; the use of these Hip Hop dance vocabularies is a fine foil for the wider debate around mental health: scrambled muscles that erupt and contract, dispersing clotted brain fog and bringing forth windows of clarity only to close again. Stability and control are bywords for mental health, and if you’re experiencing low level depression GPs recommend activities and inhabiting the types of spaces that Malaolu offers up in multiple scenes: football (exercise), Nando’s (food), barbers (community) and gym (self-worth). From a frozen barber, moving only his eyes and wrist with an imaginary shaver to a magnetic slapping of limbs and his back onto and into the floor and wall to an almost motionless slouch in a chair talking about too chewy chicken…Malaolu has the smarts and this work could and should have an international life like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles. What Malaolu achieves is a transference of a heavy feeling and an internal spiralling which are sometimes impossible to give shape to; the 70-minute work whistles by and it is the monstrosity of his attack, physical commitment (which bordered on the painful), multiplicity of voices and choice of stillnesses and excesses of movement that made this a highly satisfying evening that has the ability to stimulate further discussions in this terrain.

Cardiff Dance Festival hosted Montreal-based Daina Ashbee in residence during the festival in November and over the course of her stay in Wales Ashbee spent some time researching a new work, J’ai pleuré avec les chiens, which will be ready in 2020 as well as remounting and recasting her 2016 work When the ice melts, will we drink the water? We saw around 50 minutes of When the ice melts…performed by Lorena Ceraso in Chapter Arts Centre Studio. With Ceraso on the floor, back flatted and knees triangled, we understand early that her pelvis lies at the root of the work and at the centre of this bodily discourse on survival and endurance. Time is experienced slowly and there is a sparse choreographic landscape but one that is littered with violence, perceptions of the female body and sexuality. Slow quarter-turn rotations at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock see Ceraso address all sides of the audience with her ascended and descended pelvis, flickering edges and glacial eyes, but as she presents each suite of movements four times we witness multiple angles, new and unseen details that were previously hidden from view. When the ice melts…was named the best dance piece of the year at Montreal’s 2016 Prix de la danse awards and in the intervening years it has only gathered relevance with the attention drawn towards violence against women from the #MeToo movement; what it does is build an atmosphere that is so charged and so unpleasant that silence blankets the audience — we barely breathe as we pay attention to every sound and movement emitted from Ceraso’s body. The feelings of anxiety created by the work echo the pressure and internal questioning of should/will/how do we speak of violence against women when we are unsure of what it is we need to say or do in response to it.  

Violence towards women was consistently visible in a lot of the works I saw by female choreographer’s in 2019; another example (and a rare one because it is made for outdoor settings) was the 30-minute Scalped by Initiative.DKF. Created by Damilola DK Fashola and Wofai, with movement direction and writing by Fashola, Scalped was part of the opening night 
of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in Woolwich in June. ‘For black women one of the most common shared experiences is a passive but ever-present scrutiny. From what you wear to the way you walk, and most especially hair. Whether permed, braided, or in locs, black hair is political.’ Scalped is a work that demands your attention, holds it and then brings you in, which is credit to the company in the context of outdoor presentation when there are dozens of other distractions to compete for your eyes. Patience James, Audrey Lobe, Bubsy Spence, DK and Bimpe Pacheco climb, frame, pose and move around their scaffold set and wheeled boxes telling stories of discrimination, can-I-touch-your-hair violence and desire for freedom. The choreography is big, the performances are huge and the company is rightfully taking up space and presenting politically and narratively strong work in public spaces; Scalped is relentless in its power and energy and forces audiences to at least think about the discrimination consistently faced by Black women in British society. Representation and visibility is crucial and Scalped is one of the very few outdoor works made and performed by Black artists in the UK; Fashola has written and directed a new work Fragments of a Complicated Mind which runs at Theatre 503 in London from January 21 to February 1, and this interrogation of race, religion, sex and cultural expectations is sure to see her star shine even brighter.

Creative responses to institutional power do not always have to be heavy or filled with activist sensibilities; they can achieve just as much from a position that sparks joy, refreshes perspectives and brings people together socially. The Box of Delights by 2Faced Dance Company is a fine example of that (full disclosure: I work with 2Faced Dance Company as Executive Director and had a small performance role in the work). Running for seven nights from December 17-23 as part of their 20th Anniversary programme, what co-directors Tamsin Fitzgerald and Tim Evans have created with The Box of Delights is something that I’ve not seen before from a company in the UK; with the first act of 50 minutes taking place outdoors at night at over 20 locations and performance interventions throughout the historic centre of Hereford, they guided an audience of 80 towards The Green Dragon Hotel for a second act which contained a meat or vegan three-course meal prepared by executive chef Simon Bolsover and the continuation of the narrative taking place over 1hour 45 minutes. The seamless shift of the narrative and audience experience from outdoor to indoor, altering perceptions of place alongside the inclusion of food, is an innovative model for presenting work and place-making which suits audiences, performers and companies alike.

The aforementioned works are some of the great ones I saw across the year, but it wasn’t all as good as this. The first outing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Bristol Old Vic in April was both under and over baked at the same time; their portrayal of excess felt muted and duller in comparison to their previous successive portraits of excess in SEXBOX and Da-Da Darling. Rosie Kay Dance Company premiered the scaled-up version of 5 Soldiers…10 Soldiers (complete with 10 dancers) on the main stage at Birmingham Hippodrome in May which saw a dull 30-minute prequel tacked on to the previously successful 60-minute 5 Soldiers. The first half was meant to show the time getting in the army, but emotionally, physically and tonally it mirrored the second half leaving me questioning its purpose. The work clearly resonated with people who had a personal connection to, and involvement with, the army, but as a work at this scale, when the company hasn’t presented in this size auditorium, why would we expect it to be good immediately? Maybe after three or four shows when they understand that the intimacy, nuance and detail that made 5 Soldiers so good needs to shift considerably for grander and less subtle inferences. However, the work I had most trouble with this year was Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer by Shane Shambhu at Gloucester Guildhall, part of Strike A Light’s festival in March. In a year when there have been so many works of dance, performance and theatre exploring the effects of immigration/race/displacement/othering like Demi Nandra’s Life is No Laughing Matter, Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement, Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much or Rachael Young’s Out, Shambhu’s Confessions is a lite and frothy idiot’s guide to bharatanatyam made for White people. Peppered with anecdotes about his relationship to Indian dance and performing his arangetrum, it asks little of you and there’s little empathy, emotional investment or calls to action. Shambhu is a likeable mimic, scatting between citizenship issues and the physicalities of his family members, and while the work is well constructed it plays into the self-exoticisation that so many contemporary bharatanatyam creators attempt to repel. There are short bursts of 10-15 seconds of classical movement, which are not the cleanest and he is sometimes out of breath when coming out of a movement sequence straight into speech. There’s a nice reveal towards the end, an emotional hit that shows a duality: that this is part of him and that he wants to reject it but is unable to because it has partially formed him and how he is in the world.  

…and back to the UK Dance Showcase, phase two of the Surf The Wave project conceived by Deryck Newland before he left PDSW in February 2017. The UK Dance Showcase was curated by 11 people and of those there were no women on the committee who weren’t white, there was nobody who worked in an organisation north of Salford, there were no people with a disability, no female artists and no producers. Surf The Wave is ‘the major project led by PDSW, on behalf of the National Dance Network (NDN)’ but it is telling how the other 26 members of NDN have been very public in distancing themselves from the project and choose/chose not to publicly or privately acknowledge the reality, successes or failures of Surf The Wave. 

Artists and producers are always in the position of least power, least resources and least privilege in their relationships with institutions, and what has been heartening in 2019 is see how they have spoken up, back to, and in solidarity with others while forging new alliances en route. The relevance of the majority of cultural institutions and how they behave in society and with their community demonstrate at best a wilful ostriching ignorance of how society is shifting and at worst a consistent and harmful contribution that perpetuates outmoded thinking, broken systems and systemic bias.  

With the total funds raised at more than £1million — on top of the other public subsidy added to the total from the time spent by salaried organisations across the UK — the narrative presented back to NDN and to other funders has been that some of the artists who attended the event have achieved some positive outcomes, built tours and new relationships. While this is brilliant for those artists who presented/pitched work that appealed to small-scale, non-dance specialist arts centres across England, the active choice not to invite international programmers rendered the entire narrative as a sweet set of Tory Leadership/Brexit analogies (taking back control of our borders/exports), and conservative leadership breadcrumbs (Jeremy Hunt’s I’m an Artist as Entrepreneur) that beggars belief. What has not been reported is the anger, frustration, bitterness and experiences of unprofessionalism in the way artists who were ‘selected’ were engaged in the lead-up to the event. Delaying the timeline of announcing selected artists (ensuring artists missed funding windows to apply for support to enable their presence at the event), offering fees to present the work, reneging on that offer and then offering a lower one to the same artists or selecting work that is not in a touring window and expecting artists to absorb the costs of remounting it, were some of the examples (there were many more) of how artists were treated. While it is acknowledged that those who programme work congratulated the PDSW team on a well-organised showcase event, the structural debris of damaged and fractured relationships has mirrored our political situation. Those holding power are ever more desperate to preserve old models and thinking, whilst those in receipt of the email vacuum of silence are left to wonder how to engage in the future.

I wrote a whole other piece (unpublished) about my experience at one of the Artist as Entrepreneur events but it follows a similar vein. Artists and producers are often encouraged by organisations and institutions of power to acknowledge their failures and mistakes in the creation and presentation of work — a growing focus and thematic consideration of a number of dance works including Epic Failure by Cultured Mongrel and The Unwanted by Shaper Caper. These and other works in development offer a personal, interesting and critical perspective on human fallibility, but until our organisations and institutions of power begin to acknowledge their own failure, or offer a public narrative about things which went well or not so well, then things will never change, and the power imbalance shall remain.


Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Posted: January 6th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018, December 31

Mele Broomes in VOID
Mele Broomes in VOID (photo: Jack Wrigley)

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”- Gabriel García Márquez

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and choreography that have settled in my 2018 memory bank. Shining brightest this year was the wealth of solo, female performance/ choreography/direction taking place outside London. 

Sitting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall to see VOID (a V/DA & MHz Production directed by Bex Anson and performed/choreographed by Mele Broomes) I was blasted for the first fifteen minutes by the ferocity of Broomes’ performance; VOID takes JG Ballard’s words, transfers them to a distressed body and leaves us in a visual glitchfield unable to settle. A deserved winner of the Total Theatre Award for Dance, VOID punctures the eyes and leaves us snagged in a net of inbetweenness. 

Unkindest Cut by Sadhana Dance made the windswept trip to Sidmouth Science Festival entirely worthwhile, spending 30 minutes in a pair of AV-filled shipping containers with Subathra Subramaniam looking at deliberate self-harm and mental health amongst young people. With Subramaniam’s intimate bharatanatyam solo I was gifted an intensity of subject and focus by the claustrophobia of the environment, the skilled AV collaborators (Kathy Hinde, Matthew Olden and Aideen Malone) and the repetition of gesture. 

I’ve previously acknowledged two works I saw in 2018: one at Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia, Première Stratagème’s Forecasting performed by Barbara Mattijevic (which is coming to The Place, London on February 26 and Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham on May 1 2019) and the other at Tanzmesse, Oona Doherty’s HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus. Both bear repeating as they’re exceptional works performed by two highly skilled and captivating women.

Parade by Tomoyo Okada was the standout solo performance at TPAM 2018 in Japan, delivered with lashings of integrity and wit; Okada spent her childhood walking along the Yokohama seafront and this walking-centred work is inspired by her memory of the Yokohama Port Centennial Parade over 50 years ago. Parade is a performative memorial delivered with a gentle fizz and confidence by a distinguished performer whom I could have watched all night.

Nestled alongside these solo works there are a suite of exquisite performances including Hannah Sampson (aided and abetted by Dave Toole) who delivered an emotionally devastating first half performance at Circomedia, Bristol during Stopgap’s recent tour of The Enormous Room. Restrained and nuanced Sampson brought her vulnerability to the fore connecting with audiences and delivering Lucy Bennet’s choreography with aplomb. Ladd, Light and Emberton’s Owain Glyndŵr Silent Disco descended on Abergavenny Castle to tell the story of Owain Glyndŵr — the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence with the aim of ending English rule in Wales — with a crate full of disco classics. With dozens of giddy families shepherded around Welsh heritage sites and headphoned, this family-friendly performance successfully demonstrated that rare combination of dance, heritage and audience interaction. It is also worth noting that The Hiccup Project’s Lovely Girls at Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol was an utter delight and landed a number of skewering blows to the patriarchy and reflects the reality and expectations on women in the 21st century. Although it was advertised as a work-in-progress,  its full 60 minutes had more material, comedy and charm than a lot of works that claim to be finished. Their Spring 2019 tour begins at Bath Spa Live on March 8 (International Women’s Day) and heads to Liverpool, Bridport, Exeter and Hereford with more dates to be announced.

There have been personal stinkers, too (which have garnered otherwise positive critical and audience response) including Lost Dog’s Juliet and RomeoAkademi’s The Troth directed and choreographed by Gary Clark and Barely Methodical Troupe’s SHIFT. I also saw a preview performance of Clark’s Wasteland— a sequel to his multi-award-winning Coal — at Cast, Doncaster; it is a carbon copy of his previous work fast forwarded a few years and transplanted to the 1990’s rave scene.

I have to admit to a small personal itch forming at the gap between how we look at, write about and respond to the work an artist has created, and the influence on that work of the institutions/organisations/venues that fund, support and champion it; they have a powerful steer and consume considerably more resource than the artists. The White Pube is a fine example of such cross-referential critical reporting/writing and it corresponds to my own feeling about a work with which I had a particular problem last year, Stillhouse’s SESSION at Bernie Grant Arts Centre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). 

SESSION is 45 minutes of live music from Empire Sounds (on keyboards, vocal, drums, guitars and laptop) driving the ears, feet and eyes of the assembled crowds with luscious afrobeats shaking the courtyard and concrete frontages of the venue accompanying 25 dancers drawn from two crews of Tottenham’s Steppaz Performing Arts Academy. Diamond Elite and Diamond Bratz deliver a suite of short commercial hip hop and afrobeat routines with a fine musicality. With the audience set up on three sides as cypher, members of Diamond Elite blur the edges of performance and stage by stepping in and out of the audience feeding their energy into the performance arena with the consistent hip hop cry ‘let’s go’ driving on their peers as the remainder of audience remains silent. 

Stillhouse choreographer Dan Canham has a history of guesting and spending extended periods of time in and with other communities to make his performance work; so SESSION isn’t out of context in the way he creates: 30 Cecil Street is a haunting solo made from the memories of ghosted pub goers in Limerick and Ours Was The Fen Country saw the last generation of East Anglian eel catchers share their memories through an impressive and evocative verbatim dance theatre quartet. This response is approached from a position of critical closeness. 

Judging by the marketing copy, this would appear to be the same for SESSION: ‘Made in collaboration with an extraordinary group of young performers SESSION is a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging. Still House join forces with Steppaz and North London’s afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds to create an exhilarating night of dance and live music where everyone is welcome. Dance performance, gig, social, and rave, SESSION moves across hip-hop, contemporary folk and afrobeats vocabularies to create a new movement that is all and none of these parts.’ The language frames SESSION along (in)side the Hip Hop community with the likes of Boy Blue Entertainment and Avant Garde Dance who bring young people to the heart of their shows because their training, position in the community and knowledge distribution is central to their ethos. 

But the very language of how things are described and who offers the invitation reveal an inherent system of power and privilege; the copy frames SESSION in what might be called an elite European Performance Makers League — companies like Campo, Gobsquad, Lies Pauwel, and Forced Entertainment who make work with teenagers/children as the central performers for the left-leaning, middle-class arts audiences. A more critical reading of the work might be, ‘SESSION is a concept of a transplanted white male choreographer invited and commissioned by LIFT to spend time in an unfamiliar (to him) North London borough with two partner organisations at multiple intervals over a three-year period. Out of these working sessions choreographer Canham has created a project that has a clear lineage from his previous work but treads a dangerous line around the edges of appropriation.’

The reality is that LIFT wouldn’t have commissioned or presented the work of Steppaz and/or Empire Sounds as companies in their own right or on their own terms; they needed the external frame and validation of someone like Canham to make it ‘marketable’. There can be no doubt that with all its LIFT scaffolding SESSION is a slick production. However, in every town there are hundreds of private dance schools and youth groups that exist outside the subsidised arts world creating ambitious productions and training opportunities. This is where the majority of young people first experience and consistently engage with dance over many years; however, the festivals and theatres that claim to be integral parts of their respective communities repeatedly ignore them. SESSION is in this sense a manufactured community, complete with a mandatory audience invitation to get up at the end to lean, bop and ankle shuffle with the performers until the music dims and the energy dissipates leaving a lukewarm fuzzy in your feet and head. After leaving the venue I noticed in the town hall next door an Afro-Caribbean wedding with guests and music spilling out onto the street; here was an example of joy, dancing, music and community that SESSION had attempted to recreate but would never be able to emulate.

A final thought on the most unusual performance of the year, at TPAM’s Steep Slope ShowcaseDogman’s Life by Office Mountain (directed and choreographed by Taichi Yamagata) featured a cast of eight performers who played out (entirely deadpan) a day in the life of dog/humans at work in an office. Presented in a polystyrene-tiled room with simultaneous English captions, the choreography offered stiff canine simulations mixed with low-key energy reflections on the culture of overworking and emotional repression in society. There are some images that once seen you cannot unsee and Dogman’s Life  had an absolute bucketful of them