Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Posted: May 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Dancing on Screen in Lockdown, May 7, 2020

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bennelong, Dance on Screen
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong (photo: Daniel Boud)

What is the purpose of viewing on a screen dance that is made specifically for the live intersection of stage and audience? In these times of lockdown there is a deluge of choice from UK and international companies, artists and venues that are seeking visibility, relevance and attention. 

With so much to watch, it’s how and when we access it (convenience) as well as what and why we access (taste) that makes the demand on our attention even more pressing. As our menu explodes and our time feels even more finite than usual, the paralysis of choice is real. Attention is the main currency – those who are demanding it and those to whom we want to give it. Sat alongside us (2 metres away) are the rampant, ever-present inequalities and biases that have simply shape shifted from the old world to the new.

Dancing on screen is presentation as restriction. We see the taste, bias and preference of the editor and those behind the camera (who are often uncredited) and the screen is unrelenting; it does not let our eyes rest. Work is captured, edited and our gazes directed to only one body, one face or one part of the stage at a time. We are being told what to watch, where to watch, how long to linger. Whilst we are restricted to our homes we are also being restricted in what/who/how we watch; our choice is to watch or not watch, absorb all or miss part of the visuality. 

Whiteness is everywhere on our screens and the curational choices made by venues/festivals have not changed. A lot of the performances are free for audiences to access, but what aren’t talked about are the woeful and insulting payments that some venues/festivals are offering artists to stream/publish/present their content in lockdown which won’t even cover buy-outs or music rights coverage. Whilst onlineness makes geography and the costs of travel/tickets disappear, there is a divide between those who have access to the necessary devices and a stable internet and those who don’t, between those who have the time and freedom to access the works and those who don’t.

These initial seven weeks have made a mockery of the notional seasons that venues have imposed up to now. The touring windows of October, November, February and March for certain types of work are an arbitrary choice that has been demolished and rendered meaningless; and I wonder whether the old world will look to reinstate these boundary markers moving forward from 2021.

Over this lockdown time I’ve watched the equivalent of one screened event a week; these are works that I hadn’t seen previously either for geographical reasons, because I missed them when they were originally touring or because they are companies I’ve not seen live before:
In Loco Parentis by Vincent Dance Theatre, presented by Pavilion Dance South West
Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy (aka Babson), broadcast by France.TV
Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company, presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company 
Dust by English National Ballet, presented by English National Ballet
Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre, presented by the Sydney Opera House

All five are existing stage shows that have been recorded (with more or less skill) and are not current corona commissions. (One of the new HOME MCR commissions by Bryony Kimmings caused some theatre beef earlier this week with a three-star review by Broadway World followed by responses from Kimmings as well as other critics and the Twittersphere.) 

In Loco Parentis (ILP) by Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) was screened on Thursday April 9 and was billed as the ‘Digital Premiere’ by PDSW. The work was filmed at Worthing Theatres in March 2020, and was available only between 7pm and 11pm that night with a pre-recorded post-show discussion with Charlotte Vincent, Artistic Director of VDT (director and designer of ILP), Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School and Louise Michelle Bomber, Director of TouchBase. 

ILP self describes as a reflection ‘on the universal human need to be safe, to feel looked after and to belong. Movement, strong visual imagery and spoken word combine to explore the cycles of rupture and repair that drive children into care and the impact this has on their young lives. Critically acclaimed for translating real-life testimonies into beautifully crafted performance work, Vincent Dance Theatre shed light on the extraordinary resilience of care-experienced young people, their parents and carers demanding their stories be heard.’ 

ILP was captured by a multi-camera team; the screening offered different angles (and heights), lingering focus and attentions with a sensitivity that aligned wholeheartedly with the delicate nature of the themes explored in the work. At a shade under 90 minutes, the presentation of the work was exquisite; it was an exercise in choice and movement which aided my attention as a viewer, matched the authorial flow, and macro/micro’ed the stage, performers and puppets when necessary. No other UK company from my watch list has come close to this detail, audience consideration and approach to their camera and audio set up. It cannot be overstated how important it is to get the tone of the edit and the cuts right when re-presenting live work on screen without the mechanics of the recording getting in the way.

The multi-generational cast of five — Robert Clark, Aurora Lubos, Janusz Orlik, Kye and Tia — played out a heart-breaking tale of documentary dance theatre showing the highly complex system in which care-experienced children exist and its accompanying stigma. Choreographically and theatrically the work deals with multiple notions of support (or lack thereof); the duets between the two younger members, Kye and Tia, and their respective adults hit hardest as they do not have the professional polish, whilst the wider group exchanges where the cast brushes past and wipes away histories and memories on the double decker chalk board establish the tone and power dynamics well. 

ILP is impactful in the domestic presentation; it has some graceful puppet work but tends to overuse slow motion to the point of saturation (taking up what seemed like a third of the 90 minutes). This consistent emphasis of slow speed mainly ritualises and highlights the violence and domesticity authored by the adults as a party spirals out of control into coke snorting, bottle smashing carnage whilst the children hide away under the tables. Even if the performers execute their descent into stupor with exemplary control, the combination of slow motion and screen viewing meant my attention drooped as each scene became predictable and dragged time out unnecessarily.

ILP is the fourth in the series by VDT that translates real life testimonies into crafted performance work; Vincent’s signature visual and tonal quality is still strong (and it’s nearly 20 years since I saw their Caravan of Lies when they toured to University College Scarborough) but it feels like this current series that works less from an abstract concept and more from a base of lived experience suits the weight and current direction that VDT are pursuing. 

I watched Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy on Friday April 24; it had originally been broadcast by France.tv in December 2019 and remains available to view online for free till December 2020. It was filmed at Espace 1789 in St Ouen, and alongside Queen Blood there is a wealth of other French, France-based and international dance work that is available year-round (in or out of lockdown) on France.tv should you wish to continue to explore. 

Queen Blood self describes as: ‘Femininities through house dance. Ousmane Sy (aka Babson) made his debut in hip-hop in the 1990s and quickly became a representative of house dance, into which he integrated the Afro-house spirit with gestures inspired by traditional African dances. With Queen Blood, the choreographer continues his creative work on house dance through a show that explores what femininity can be: in dance, gesture, that assumed or suffered, etc. The seven dancers from the four corners of hip-hop respond with virtuosity through personal journeys danced in distinct musical universes (acoustic and electronic). A demonstration of grace and power to live in replay on France.tv.’

This was the only broadcast that acknowledged the dancers and screened their names with a short snippet of them warming up prior to the performance starting and credited the production team; so I know this was directed by Josselin Carré and produced by La Belle Télé. It was a simple gesture but for those who are not familiar with the dancers, knowing their names before the performance creates a relationship and offers a respect that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

Queen Blood is a remarkable and emotionally rich work manifested by seven exceptional performers — Nadia Gabrieli-Kalati, Linda Hayford, Nadiah Idris, Odile Lacides, Cynthia Lacordelle, Audrey Minko, and Stéphanie Paruta. It’s a portrait of femininities which has house dance at its choreographic core but branches out to include dozens of other Hip Hop dance vocabularies executed with acres of style, deep clean technical execution and a sense of community and strength that echoed a pressing need in these times of lockdown.

The camera choices, editing and knowledge of the choreography (to capture emotion and angles not seen by the in-theatre audience) revealed nuances, bodily and facial details alongside relational connections between the performers that aligned with Sy’s intentions. There were dozens of moments of satisfying innovation, from using the wings of the stage as centre and reframing the centre as edge (with the support of Xavier Lescat’s lighting design) to a reworking of the one of the original Hip Hop dances — the running man — to the running woman alongside an activist stillness (still so rare in Hip Hop): all the performers down stage in a line with a number of devastating solos played out to Nina Simone’s Four Women. 

As I watched Queen Blood on the screen take up space, play with edges, be political and present choreography that sits in and emerges from the body with such finesse, strength and fluidity by seven incredible Black female dancers I felt something shift; this is a work that was created, performed and edited so well that I will watch it again and again. Queen Blood is quite simply a remarkable work.

Not all work screened since lockdown has the quality, care, attention, cohesion and technical prowess that In Loco Parentis and Queen Blood have. I watched Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company (JVC) on April 13. It had been recorded at Sadler’s Wells and was screened across the Easter weekend on their Vimeo page; below their video was a full cast and creative team including roles like sound advisor (Peter Hall) to graphic design (Ranaan Gabriel) — a crediting of every single role that went into making the work that was absent from a lot of the other screened presentations.
Pinocchio is based on the original book by Collodi and performed by Vardimon’s multi-talented dancers. ‘Pinocchio brings to life the famous marionette as he embarks on a fantastic journey to become a human boy. Showcasing Vardimon’s uniquely theatrical choreographic and directorial style, Pinocchio combines physical theatre, quirky characterisation, innovative technologies, text and dance to examine the idea of what it means to be human.’

My previous encounter with JVC was a positive one over five years ago with a trip to the Winter Gardens in Margate to see Maze presented with Turner Contemporary. Pinocchio was somewhat like Twitter — in desperate need of an edit button. Although Guy Bar Amotz is listed as dramaturg, responsible for the video and jointly responsible with Vardimon for the set design, I cannot see how so many aesthetic, choreographic and narrative clashes made it out the studio.

Across the 90 minutes there’s some really naff technical execution mixed in with credible theatrical illusion; the wind wafting scene of shaking a newspaper and wiggling your pockets alongside opening and closing an umbrella is primary school terrible but one minute later there is a brilliant raft scene that looks like David Lloyd is sailing across the stage in mid-air. Whilst Pinocchio’s trip to the marionette theatre is aligned with the narrative and brilliantly executed, featuring a weight and pulley system duet, it was followed by an inexplicable mash-up of Crazy in Love by Beyoncé full of commercial routines that felt entirely alien to the world conjured up before it.

One of the mistakes that Pinocchio makes is that there is no adjustment in light levels (which need to be higher for work that is screened) so there were oodles of darkness where we could hear the sounds of…knees? feet? bodies? doing something in relation to the floor but which were impossible to see on screen. When we could see the choreography it was Maria Doulgeri as Pinocchio leading the eight-person ensemble (with everyone else playing multiple roles) who was highly watchable, all putty-kneed as she grew from wooden boy to angsty teen.

In 2015 Maria Campos and Guy Nader came up with the concept and performance, Time Takes The Time Time Takes, that I saw in India at the Attakkalari India Biennial in 2017. Campos and Nader created a number of embodied mechanisms via five performing bodies that echoed, measured and represented time. They also created a sequence of movement (see this video at 2:25) that I had never seen before. This very same sequence reappeared in Pinocchio (which premiered a year later) and I’m unsure if there’s a link between the two creative teams, if it was morphic resonance or a just a bit of choreographic kleptomania.

Akram Khan’s Dust was presented by English National Ballet (ENB) on Facebook and YouTube as part of their #WednesdayWatchParty season from 7pm on April 29 to 8pm on May 1; it was originally recorded in October 2015 at Milton Keynes Theatre. Dust self describes as ‘Created to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’, as dancing full of pain and power’ (The Independent) ‘with a pounding soundtrack and atmospheric lighting, it grabs you from the start and does not let go.’ 
Performed as part of ENB’s larger evening of work entitled Lest We Forget, it was in essence a live, 25-minute ballet audition for Khan. In a press release issued by Sadler’s Wells in 2018 it said Dust ‘led to an invitation to create his own critically acclaimed version of the iconic romantic ballet Giselle.’

With the opening scene of the single clap of dust from the corps I’m reminded that colour runs were really in vogue in 2014 when Dust was created. The film capture was terrible: so much camera work covering the whole stage when it was just the duet, or dancers taking up 10-15 percent of the screen while the rest of it was empty blackness. In the edit there were close-ups in the wrong position, dodgy framing and a considerable amount of time focused on Tamara Rojo.

Khan acknowledged on ENB’s website that this was the first time that he had worked with ballet dancers; is it coincidence that Khan’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry, was creative producer at ENB from 2013-2017 or was it merely brilliant expansionist work on Khan’s behalf? Whilst there were no pointe shoes in evidence, it felt like ENB was cosplaying as a contemporary dance company using Khan to gain traction, trying to shift the dusty perceptions of ballet as an elitist dance form and using a tenuous relevance to the World War I centenary celebrations to dump money into shallow fireworks.

Whilst ENB and the dusty Khan corps felt flimsy and opportunistic, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong presented by Sydney Opera House as part of their From Our House To Yours season, premiered on YouTube on April 15 (available until May 5) demonstrating how a large-scale work that has a specific history and geography can be approached and sensitively handled.

Bennelong self describes as ‘… the story of one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal figures: Woollarawarre Bennelong. He was a senior man of the Eora people from the Port Jackson area in Sydney who was responsible for establishing a means of communication between his people and the British. With extraordinary curiosity and diplomacy, Bennelong led his community to survive a clash of cultures and left a legacy that reverberates through contemporary life. In a unique Australian dance language, the company celebrates the continuation of life and culture through the power, artistry and passion of the country’s most outstanding dancers. With its immersive soundscapes and exquisite design, Bennelong will leave you in awe of Australia’s history – and its power to repeat.’ 

For some context, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. It was started in 1989 by Carole Y. Johnson, the energetic founder of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, along with NAISDA graduates and Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone. Their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is at the heart of Bangarra, with a repertoire created on Country and stories gathered from respected community Elders.

In tackling the complex and real-life story of Bennelong, the challenge for artistic director Stephen Page was how to distil the story of a real person who lived over 200 years ago. What he attempted was to give a whistlestop wikipedia tour of the keyframes of Bennelong’s life and his relationship to the British colonial party led by Governor Arthur Phillip, who arrived in late 1789.

Whilst the camera set-up and edit was more skilled than Dust, it didn’t achieve the integration and invisible magic of either In Loco Parentis or Queen Blood, but at least we saw what we needed to see when we needed to see it. The set pieces were played out in naturalistic bodily movement which occasionally burst in textbook Modern Dance emoting. We saw Bennelong and his community being invaded by the British Royal Navy whilst a remix of Rule Britannia played, and a female elder prophet walking through a smoky portal suggesting things might be unwell. We heard the word smallpox on the soundtrack and saw writhing bodies convulsed in pain, and in the final act we saw Bennelong come back to his home only to be locked up in a mirror-blocked house built slowly by his community as the ultimate ostracization.

Choreographically and camera wise we saw both a literal and metaphorical capture of those big emotional moments across time in textbook story dance; the most important thing the performance did was to present a history, give a platform to and challenge some of the colonial history erased from contemporary British contexts. There’s no doubt that the story of Bennelong needs to be told, taught and discussed, but in this case and in general, history isn’t neutral and we shouldn’t adopt a neutral perspective. 
Viewing through the single lens of the screen, I was left unsure how to feel about any of the parties involved. Nor was Page’s perspective on this history clear. Across its 90 minutes we were unable to see it either from the point of view of Bennelong and his emotional journey, from the position of his original community, or through the eyes of the British colonisers. 

The inequality of platforms is as rife in screen land as they are in stage town; at the time of watching I took note of the viewing figures: In Loco Parentis achieved 168 views, Bennelong 3,021 views, Pinocchio 2,165 views and Dust 2,800 views (there were no figures available for Queen Blood). What is still more illuminating is that in the rush to present work there is a lack of nurturing of the community/audience who engage with the work, or an understanding about how audiences commune and behave online. 

When some video games are released, a Community Manager is often employed who is responsible for the community that grows around the game. This person attends events, writes newsletters, organises social media, sets up live streams and finds the best way of dealing with criticism; community managers know the fans best. Imagine something like this for either a production or a specific role in a theatre. Although the technology of online delivery obviates the need for an intermission, there was no offer for people with access requirements of alternative forms of viewing/experiencing like audio description or sign language interpretation; there were no warnings of strobes/lighting effects and there were no content trigger warnings before the performances. This is irresponsible and highlights the naivety and lack of care and attention that venues/companies are currently giving to their online audiences.

As a postscript — it didn’t involve watching dancing on screen, but did build a community, was highly curated and properly joyous — I want to highlight sync watch party #1 that was organised by Tayyab Amin and Gabrielle de la Puente: two hours of watching some of the weirdest, wholesome and obscure videos on YouTube including the Tyne and Wear Metro The Musical, the 2017 Blade Sports World Knife Cutting Championship Final and How to Build a Hamster Aquarium


Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

Posted: April 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

On portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre, Spring 2020

Hip Hop Theatre. Botis Seva's BLKDOG
Shangomola Edunjobi in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

This early 2020 reflection on portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre presented across England was originally going to be longer; I had planned to feature eight works presented in different part of the country — in itself an indication of the community’s rude health — that could inspire a wider conversation around similar themes. But with coronavirus taking hold of and effectively shutting down the social fabric, my plan has been reduced to four pre-coronavirus works: Caravan Social Night 7 – The Soulquariains Tribute Edition by Caravan/Chris Reyes at Richmix on January 25; Far From the Norm/Botis Seva’s BLKDOG at Warwick Arts Centre on February 11; Company Nil/Daniel Phung’s Blowin’ in the Wind at Richmix on February 14, and Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme presented by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Vaults on March 14. Those I was unable to include are Artists 4 Artists showcase in Gloucester presented by Strike A Light featuring Happy Father’s Day by Dani Harris-Walters; Fig Leaf by Joshua ‘Vendetta’ Nash, and Man Up by Kloe Dean on March 17, and Born To Manifest by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Courtyard, Hereford on March 26. 

There are a number of journal articles and books looking at masculinity, Hip Hop culture and dance; some of those that have informed my thinking are: Toby S. Jenkins A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture from 2011’s Journal of Black Studies; Sara LaBoskey’s Getting Off: Portrayals of Masculinity in Hip Hop Dance in Film from 2001’s Dance Research Journal; Mina Yang’s Yellow Skin, White Masks from 2013’s Daedalus, and Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón’s Graffiti Grrlz published by New York University Press in 2018.

Sat amongst this, the Producer/Writer Tobi Kyeremateng (@bobimono) published a three-tweet thread on March 1 which feels more reflective of the dialogue, complexity and intersectionality currently in play at the edges of masculinity and race and although she wasn’t explicitly citing Hip Hop dance theatre it could be read in that way: 

“i’m more and more certain that i’m really not interested in creating or producing work on “the Black experience” that isn’t specific in its focus, pushes Blackness into a monolith or isn’t saying anything new or different or interesting. 
“afros, growing up in ends, road life, knife crime, Black girl magic, masculinity – all incredibly nuanced, but it doesn’t feel like artists are being challenged to push themselves to think about different and creative ways we can talk about these topics”
“also don’t care for respectability work either lol like two ends of the same spectrum”   

In early 2019 Botis Seva talked about the influence — on the early incarnations of his BLKDOG — of Sally Brampton’s compelling and graphic Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression; in it she charts reflectively a depiction of her own isolation, incarceration, addiction and patterns of repeated abusive behaviour (which feels even more resonant in our current situation). This book influenced some of the original thinking and continues to inform the choreographic axis of the now-70-minute version of BLKDOG, co-produced by Sadler’s Wells.

After winning the April 2019 Olivier award for the 20-minute version, the task facing Seva was to build, flesh out and construct this first of seven performance dates across England in Spring 2020; it is framed as ‘Botis Seva’s BLKDOG’ and not as authored collectively by his company, Far From the Norm. This foregrounding of founder and prominence of the auteur/creator/name is a growing London trend (hello Tony Adigun’s Avant Garde Dance and Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance) which in some way feeds a masculine ego — I don’t see Kloe Dean’s Myself UK Dance Company or Vicki Igbokwe’s Uchenna Dance — whilst backgrounding all the other people in the company who have fed into the process.

BLKDOG self describes as: ‘A genre-defying blend of hip hop dance and free-form anticsexploring the inner battlefield of an ageing artist trying to retain his youth. Performed by Seva’s powerhouse company, Far From The Norm, BLKDOG searches for coping mechanisms in the ultimate hunt for acceptance. Vital and gripping, BLKDOG is Botis Seva’s haunting commentary on surviving adulthood as a childlike artist.’ 

There are two tracts that BLKDOG explores; isolation as violence and, leading off from that, dance as violence on the self. A body placed in isolation deteriorates physically and emotionally; it fractures and is unable to heal. Shoot the Damn Dog offers an account of personal proximity to trauma, whereas BLKDOG offers an account of personal proximity to isolation. As an accompanying text — although Seva doesn’t foreground it in the programme notes or marketing copy — Shoot the Damn Dog is an illuminating portal for his thinking. With six dancers on stage (Jordan Douglas, Joshua Nash, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi, Naima Souhair and understudy Hayleigh Sellors, who replaced the injured Ezra Owen with 24 hours’ notice), BLKDOG is a work of two states and two halves that is clearly still in progress; with a second half dressed in dinosaur onesies and crowns (courtesy of Ryan Dawson Laight) straight out of Where The Wild Things Are, the first half is visually reminiscent of fresh 1970s asylum threads with bespoke quilted hoods. 

Seva has honed and expanded some of the choreographic palette and visual devices (gun toting/pointing and the duckwalkesque ‘nibbles’ that scuttle) from Madhead, his commission for the National Youth Dance Company in Summer 2019. The first half is the foundation of the original Olivier award-winning work demonstrating some of Seva’s core strengths: building rich and interesting choreographic movements that challenge the preconceptions of the dancing body. I like this focus on the half space. If level 1 is work/bodies on the floor, and level 2 is full verticality, there are oodles of sequences where the dancers are existing at level 1.5, demonstrating a gluteal strength and a bodily duality that is neither one thing nor the other —  ready to spring or ready to collapse. It is this space that Seva likes to inhabit as he deflects choreographic boxes and boundaries into which his ‘free form antics’ do not neatly fit.

Long-term music collaborator Torben Lars Sylvester (Seva’s whole creative team is male apart from producer Lee Griffiths) spoke in the post-show conversation of the process of one-upping each other, finding patterns, inflexions and musicalities that the dancers could ride and that would in turn cause him to build extra tracks and layers into the score to create an additional mood for the dancers. Thinking back on the work three days later (when I wrote this and now six weeks later in revisions) I cannot recall the score or any of the emotional drivers behind it.

The proximity of choreographic isolation in both time and relationship for each dancer ensures they do not infect those around them; like a virus they remain immune to each other. There is no being influenced or influencing, and apart from the last 10 minutes when Jordan Douglas really shines brighter, hits harder and erupts, the cast of six are diminished and muted; either in their cumulative number or choreographic difference. We have six ones, rather than one six. 

If this is the first time you’ve seen Far From the Norm in a theatre — and for those non-London audiences it is quite possible — what you will encounter is a band of dancers who are fiercely committed and deliver a slippery blend of choreographic putty under the guidance of the good ship Seva. The first time you see a Norm it is refreshing; you’re in the presence of a set of dancers that don’t look like Hip Hop, don’t look like contemporary dance and don’t look familiar — they are defined by what they are not. Seva is isolating himself from easy choreographic definition and at the same time making a choreographic lineage hard to attribute or to see where the seeds of his influence(s) will fall next. 

Heavy is the Head is the last track before the show begins and Ultralight Beam is the first track after the no-bow; we have BLKDOG as the filling in a Kanye and Stormzy masculinity sandwich. However, having seen six of his works since 2015/16, including his break-out work Rek, it feels like Seva’s choreographic language is intact; he still has a knack of creating unusual moments, motifs and visual food, but (I may be incarcerated by my/his own expectations) five years down the road his ability to sustain interest, to shift a mood or shake a mono dynamic, to think of an audience as a complex layered entity able to receive multiple signals and modes of address, needs further development. He’s in his own suburbs. 

It’s worth reiterating that this was the first show of the tour that should (coronavirus permitting) continue touring into Autumn 2020, and as a work tours and beds in with new audiences it will shift and be modified. I look forward to meeting BLKDOG again at a later junction.

Presented and commissioned by Chinese Arts Now, Daniel Phung/Company Nil’s work Blowin in the Wind self describes as: ‘…a powerful and dynamic dance theatre piece addressing the complexity of the current patriarchal society, it challenges our perspective on ‘power’. Four characters who are forced to place their ‘power’ within patriarchy, use mind blowing Contemporary and Hip Hop dance (emphasis is mine) to take you through multiple episodes of masculinity: Sensitivity, emotion, conflict, aggression and adolescence. It is an emotional response to these following questions: What is masculinity? Does masculinity exist? What is cultural masculinity? Does cultural masculinity exist?’

This is the first full-length work Phung has created, and these are some large claims and questions he attempts to answer with four performers in several episodes over 50 minutes. Either the questions are so grandiose that they are impossible to answer or are so simplistic that we’ve heard them before. There are a few nice sketches and motifs — mainly featuring Fern Grimbley who has a physical elasticity and watchabilty that warrants a deeper choreographic challenge — but a tender wrestling duet in which two people try to wear the same jacket is indicative of Blowin’ in the Wind’s facile representation. It offers a 2D stereotypical masculinity that belongs in the Daily Mail with little thread or authorial commentary. Despite a couple of nice lift sections and a solo for Grimbley that showcases what a fine dancer she is, the visibility of a Hip Hop choreographic language is hard to find and the throwing of paper aeroplanes into the audience and inviting their return is a fine but shallow attempt at audience engagement. I find myself leaning back to what Tobi said earlier around a need for nuance: masculinity is a big word, with a set of expectations alongside it; it isn’t a monolith. A smaller, tighter focus is needed if Blowin’ in the Wind is going to add to any future dialogue around masculinity and Hip Hop.

The possibilities offered by the choreographic, masculine Hip Hop dance theatre body are numerous; it can be expanded, reduced, presented in binary or opposition, it can be fragile, in mourning and in so many other different states. Yet I find it hard to recollect a Hip Hop dance theatre work made recently that offers either a new narrative or an alternate angle on masculinity without relying on what Yang calls: “…overt displays of masculine swagger and power, and built on a value system derived from the streets of corporeal risk-taking, competitiveness, and improvisation.” I am left yearning for the complexity, prowess, emotional strength and honesty of Kloe Dean’s Man Up which I wrote about last year and now consider a yardstick for other Hip Hop dance theatre works. So far nothing has come close. 

Caravan Social Night 7: The Soulquarians Tribute Edition was an evening presented by Caravan — a project founded by Chris Reyes — which celebrated the legacy of artists J Dilla, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, James Poyser (all who shared the Aquarius starsign) and the wider 90s Neosoul movement. Although definitely not a Hip Hop dance theatre work in itself, Caravan Social Nights are primarily events and fundraisers for Reyes’ other Hip Hop dance theatre work; they are a place for some of the community to gather, to showcase and see peers exercise different creative muscles, inviting and encouraging acts to bridge music, art, dance and improvisation with all the rich pollination that comes from them.

Comprising roughly five 20-minute stage sets (with a drinks interval between each), live painting by Isaac Bonan and Gatien Engo and hosted by the triple threat Ashley Joseph, the luxurious opener saw L’atisse Rhoden slow jam to Marli Artiste’s vocals and Vicky ‘Skytilz’ Mantey on drums; next up was Ben Ajose-Cutting (aka Mr Ben of The Locksmiths) with a playful set where he would control the various instruments/band members (including Turbo on drums) by lightly stamping an imaginary start/stop button in front of each musician as he layered/stripped away levels of funk and lyrics to lock to. There were other sets featuring T-Boy and Inga Be with a New-Style Hustle partner duet leading into an improvisation with Dani Harris-Walters, a work from Reyes himself, and Boy Blue’s Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy topping off the night spitting J Dilla’s Pause with a trio of male dancers.

Caravan is without doubt a valuable space for some of the Hip Hop community; the event was slick, full of original content and one of the few places to see artists trying something different without the pressure of their own brand. There was a consistent acknowledgement of Reyes as the driving force and focus of the night, shouted out by Joseph as the man who got the funding and who made it happen (not the producer of the event, Emily Crouch). 

However, what I found strange was that Reyes had a ft. in all of the stage works as well as his own set, whether that was taking over as conductor in Mr Ben’s locking stamp band, dancing in Ken’s work or improvving during L’atisse’s opener. While there’s respect for Reyes having made the evening happen and for bringing people together, when is that line crossed? When does the consistent presence of masculine ego draw focus away from the other acts? What signals does the continued attempt to assert a veneer of alpha status send to the audience and participants? 

Do people in Hip Hop dance theatre really want to talk about masculinity? Do they see how some may be perpetuating problematic behaviours of masculinity? Are they able to engage in the complexity that surrounds the question? Or is it a shallow and facile fundraising hook on which to hang a set of technically adequate routines whilst looking winsome and drawing attention to themselves?

In 2013, Just Us Dance Theatre (JUDT) set up Let’s Shine, a mentoring project to empower young Hip Hop performers and provide them with tools and opportunities to develop as artists and individuals. In the latest edition of the programme (which runs weekly) ten young men aged from 16 to 23 have worked with Joseph Toonga and Ricardo Da Silva to create and perform a response — entitled Let’s Shine, like the project — to Toonga’s work Born To Manifest. Part of the problem of not having seen Born To Manifest is that I’m unable to gauge the success of this 40-minute response by the seven Let’s Shine dancers, but since the original was inspired by first person accounts of young Black men from across London, there are multiple things that need acknowledging in such a political and socially resonant work. The lived experience and racial profiling that young Black men in London face is radically different from any other cultural or racial group; in 2018 43% of the Metropolitan Police’s Stop and Search targets were Black people who make up just 15.6% of the London population. In the same report it said that the likelihood of Black people being stopped is 4.3 times higher than White people. In 2018, 76% of homicide victims were male, with 62% being of African-Caribbean heritage aged under 25, and in relation to victims of knife injuries under the age of 25, 455 were White and 1,370 were ‘BAME’. 

Sat alongside these statistics and lived realities, this 2017 study — Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability — published by the American Psychological Association says: “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men’s physical size may play a role in this process. The results of seven studies showed that people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men.” Toonga has himself received some highly problematic language in previous reviews of Born To Manifest, like “Toonga, an imposing presence who wouldn’t look out of place at the Rugby World Cup”, which again plays into the inflammatory stereotype that is perpetuated by the majority of the UK media. This is only some of the societal context within which this work operates.

Let’s Shine attempts to provoke, make us answer questions on our own biases and pose deeper questions about masculinity and power. We are presented with examples of choreographic contagion as one dancer emerges from the bunch, delivers a dance popularised by the video game Fortnite in a swift Tik Tok burst and suddenly all seven are mimicking, summoning up a collective energy. Then it disappears as quickly as it manifested, only to be replaced by another authored by someone else and repeated. This cycle is a fine demonstration of the difference in the behaviour and psychology of a man on his own — what he would/could do and what he can/can’t do in comparison to the behaviour of a group of men when they’re together.

Arnold Tshibangu is an absolute stand out fizzing with a performance magnetism, focus and an ability to draw and hold our attention when he is on stage, like an echo of a young Ivan Blackstock; previously he was Tin Man in the 2017 version of ZooNation’s Groove On Down The Road. The other performer that had a cleanness in execution and a barrelfull of energy was Musa Mohamed aka Moose; knowing that Born To Manifest is a duet, I’d be interested to see if the pairing of Mohamed and Tshibangu could step up to the full work at a later date.

Choreographically Let’s Shine cycles through Hip Hop and funk styles; the stage is peppered with krump jabs and oodles of pops and muscular contractions. Though technically it’s not the cleanest in execution, the musicality, the energy passed between them, the sweat and believability masks any technical deficiency in the wider cast. With some animal noises on the soundtrack mixed with gorilla vocal imitation by some of the cast, we see a relationship between the krump jab and the gorilla chest pound — but which do we see, Gorilla or krump? Violence or expression? Again, Toonga and Da Silva are playing on the edges of our assumptions/stereotypes to intelligent effect. Some of the chorus and crowd scenes were a little wafty, filling air, and were too much of a distraction to the solo/duet focus, but this is a minor quibble. 

In creating Let’s Shine — both the work and the wider programme — JUDT have created an interesting model that is asking socially relevant questions about masculinity using Hip Hop dance theatre. It is a soothing antidote to the growing number of over-produced Hip Hop dance theatre works that feeds us empty calories or fail to adopt a political position. I’m not saying that all work needs to be about something or answering a societal need, but if you’re making a work that is autobiographical, it does not automatically make it about masculinity or femininity. If you’re making something lighter, for entertainment purposes, ensure your intention is clear and let audience know.

It feels somewhat ironic that seven out of the eight works on my list were authored by men; is this an (un)conscious positioning, creation and affirmation of their Hip Hop masculinity in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Is it a bias and set of active decision making in programming by venues to present men over women? We know this is a consistent problem across the wider dance industry, including the work Sadler’s Wells and Breakin’ Convention choose to present and tour.

I see few attempts, inquiries or acknowledgements from the England-based Hip Hop Dance Theatre scene to engage with different types of masculinities that intersect with communities of disabled, trans, gay or femme artists. There are conversations happening elsewhere around Hip Hop and masculinity including the two Minnesotan rappers Kyle ‘Guante’ Tran Myhre and Tony The Scribe and their nine-episode debut podcast season of What’s Good, Man? which self describes as ‘a podcast on men, masculinity, and culture. Featuring two hosts who sharpened their analyses in the worlds of Hip Hop, cultural organizing, and movement-building, it’s also a response to a specific call: men need to speak up more about issues like consent, gender violence, and sexism, especially with other men.’  What England-based artists are currently dealing with is a very narrow masculinity; if they’d seen each other’s work they could have had an active dialogue or hosted a wider discussion around their thoughts on masculinity and its relationship to Hip Hop.


Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse 2018

Posted: September 10th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse 2018

Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse, Dusseldorf, Aug 29 – Sep 1 2018


Oona Doherty

Oona Doherty in HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus (photo: Simon Harrison)

Tanzmesse 2018 is the first under the new directorship of Dieter Jaenicke. In his introduction he talks of this edition as one of change, a stepping stone towards something different in 2020: “Tanzmesse is going to change in the direction of an ideas fair where the most important topics (which are moving the international dance world) will be discussed and performed: topics like migration, democracy, on how to deal with the post colonial division of the world and its resources…from now on contemporary dance, contemporary ballet and urban dance will be presented on an equal level.”
Solos by Hodworks (Hungary) is a joyful, carefully crafted hour by Adrienn Hod with three exquisite performers (Emese Cuhorka, Csaba Molnar and Imre Vass). Hod has created a Generation Game prize belt of ever changing 4-6 minute solo choreographic scenes for an audience in the round. With each scene chained together by the end/start level of emotional intensity it’s an interesting way to view the range and versatility of the performers alongside the dozen or more miniature ideas that Hod wants to explore wrapped in a faux-fur creature singing big numbers from Cats and Disney classics, a gentle lingering hug for a single audience member, a hyper-inflated word stream outlining the trouble of the choreographic process or a sweet pepper eating trial. Solossits well in the late night cabaret slot of Tanzmesse and adds to the reputation of both Hod and Hodworks.
Crépuscule des Océans by Daniel Leveillé Danse (Canada) self describes as ‘a human tide, animated by opposing currents: busy, but at the same time on guard — concentrated to make no mistakes — resistant, ambitious and obsessive.’ The reality is a woeful 55 minutes in the 1200-seater Capitol Theatre of seven dancers, naked for 70% of the time, pairing up in small areas of the stage to repeat the same 8 minutes of out-of-time tippytoe-tensing, 80s-lungeing-with-pointy-fingers choreography to piano music by Jean-Sébastien Durocher. Heralded in the 1990s as the Canadian pioneer of presenting the unclothed body on stage, Leveillé’s concept or choreography appears not to have changed since; how ironic to be presenting this 11-year-old work on Jaenicke’s first program of ‘change’. As Crépuscule des Océans lurches on, one dancer makes three clear mistakes, forgetting the choreography and freezing in one group section and making two large stumbles elsewhere; as the audience leaves after a smattering of slow claps, there is angry talk of wasted time, the mistakes and the possibility of what could have been experienced on stage instead.
There is a suite of talks each day with one entitled The Future of Performing Arts Market featuring Sophie Travers (APAM), Jaenicke (Tanzmesse), Asa Richardsdottir (Ice Hot) and Alain Paré (Cinars): four current performing arts markets talking about their future? Unsurprisingly there is no real sense of what the future might look like because the speakers have no desire to erase their own presence and with no input from anyone outside a performing arts market there is no alternative perspective; the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. If the purpose of these events (the majority of which are still replicating near 30-year-old models) is to act as a meeting point, to stimulate new relationships and to ‘offer more space for communication, exchange and contact’ then we need voices from outside (in both programming and construction) to widen possibilities and ensure representation and intersectionality are considered at the centre of future editions.
In the Women’s Voices in Choreography talk, chair Andrea Snyder from American Dance Abroad highlighted the percentage of women represented in each part of the programme; it’s around a third. For every two performances or pitches by a male in the biggest dance trade fair in the world there is one by a female. This is unacceptable. Insightful contributions from the floor by Emma-Jayne Park (Scotland) and Annabelle Guérédrat (Martinique) as well as by Christine Bonansea (USA) on the panel are counterbalanced with some eyebrow-raising talk from other women in the room on how ‘women lack ambition and lack the ability to be strategic.’ There is a call for a consistent sisterhood that does not keep cutting each other down and a clear call for action in the Tanzmesse evaluation where we should demand an equal number of performances and programming slots for women as a minimum in future editions.
Alongside the talks programme there are some fifty 20-minute open studio/pitching slots over the two days where artists can offer a flavour of something new that is coming down the pipeline to generate interest in future international touring or building co-production partnerships. Seeta Patel presents a polished 8-minute excerpt of her bharatanatyam reimagining of The Rite of Spring that will tour the UK with 6 dancers from May 2019 and scale up to the Sadler’s Wells main stage with 12 dancers in 2021. Group bharatanatyam is a rarity and it is refreshing to see the intricate patterns multiplied and echoed across many bodies as the power and collective sound of the jattis leave me wanting to see and hear more.
HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus (HHATAIL) by Oona Doherty blasts the dusty roof off Tanzmesse 2018 and if the rarely-heard decibel level of applause and the length of standing ovation are anything to go by, then the Belfast-based performer/choreographer is about to collect some serious air miles. With the audience starting out on the street, sardined on the narrow paths outside the FFT Kammerspiele, an ageing Volkswagen blaring 90s UK dance music screeches to a halt, the driver pops the boot and out onto the concrete night floor lands Doherty. As she discovers her Bambi legs and staggers into and out of the crowd, up and down the road, the audience begins to absorb her, spits her out and takes her back, in an exchange of energy that stays charged till the end. Dressed in three stripes, Shockwaves hair and gold-chained neck, Doherty screams at us to get inside into the black as we are about to witness ‘a man who is many men telling his story, a hunt for hope as we are twisted and contorted with ideas of masculinity, morality and nostaligia.’ With HHATAIL we are in the arc of an eruption; Doherty coughs and conjures up words, memories and choreographies that bite and nestle under the skin offering us a glimpse of an underclass, of Belfast and of a resistance. As we continue to see the repeated crunch of her body biting the floor it is her energy and performance that stains the mind. Injecting a fire and spirit into the audience against the relentless Tanzmesse schedule and the wearisome neoliberal politics of the West HHATAIL is testament to the quality of Doherty’s dramaturgy and performance.
There is a growing presence of work made for non-theatrical spaces at Tanzmesse and a highlight of that programme is DISCOFOOT by CCN Ballet de Lorraine (Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley). Two teams of 11 classically-trained dancers in short short gold lamé shorts, play/perform football with a mirrored disco football to a bass-heavy disco soundtrack played over two 10-minute halves on a marked out 5-a-side pitch outside Forum with a referee, live DJ and a set of ice-dance judges marking their performance alongside goals scored. It’s an absolute hoot and demonstrates a rarely seen lighter side of large-scale ballet companies. Tackling via the splits, twerk grinding whilst holding the ball up and with elaborate simulation when a foul has been committed, all demonstrate a clear knowledge of football with a wry sense of the growing theatricalisation and entertainment arena in which football and dance sits. As a model it could be exported to other events; imagine at the UK Dance Showcase having a 5-a-side beach version of DISCOFOOT with Avant Garde Dance vs Ladd Light and Emberton or Russell Maliphant vs Barrowland Ballet.
On the final day there is an addition of an ‘Urban Dance Art Day’ with a programme curated by Takao Baba at Welkunstzimmer presenting a conversation, Urban Dance Goes Theatre, and two 90-minute showcase blocks of works (in progress, excerpted, improvised) by the likes of The Ruggeds, Gladness, House as well as two 15-minute excerpts of longer works, Between Tiny Cities រវាងទីក្រុងតូច by Nick Power and Tangle by Kinetic Art. Presented on the classic taped b-boy cardboard floor we’re offered a series of quarter-baked ideas and a poor sound system so we’re unable to hear the names of performers and what the works are about. The only work to come out with any sense of quality, presentation or theatricality is Power’s: the audience is placed in a cypher, providing energy for the two b-boys (Erak Mith and Aaron Lim) as they skirt the edges, playfully mock the tropes of the genre and each other and fake and play like boxers in the ring sussing out their opponent before attempting to land the knockout blow/move. Nevertheless, presenting ‘Urban Dance Art Day’ in this context shortchanges the audience but more pertinently reveals an uneasy, ongoing attempt by presenters to box/shoehorn hip hop culture into existing theatrical conventions.
With advisors Malco Oliveros, Christian Watty and Carolelinda Dickey, Jaenicke’s first Tanzmesse displays not only an embarrassing lack of female choreographers and performers across the performance and pitching programme, but a geographical exclusion of dance from vast tracts of the world like Africa, the Middle East and South/Central America. I have only written about a very small percentage of the programme and one of hundreds of possible routes through the event but until the gender and geographical bias is acknowledged and altered then Tanzmesse will continue to feel like a central meeting place in Europe where the elite wield their power, position and privilege and deepen the chasm between those who are here and those who are not.


Herstory, Hairstory, History: A portrait of Uchenna Dance

Posted: September 5th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Herstory, Hairstory, History: A portrait of Uchenna Dance

Herstory Hairstory History: A Portrait of Uchenna Dance

Uchenna Dance in the studio (photo: Ian Abbott)

Vicki Igbokwe, Habibat Ajayi and Shanelle Clemenson of Uchenna Dance (photo: Ian Abbott)

What I offer here is an outsider’s inside perspective; as Uchenna Dance (UD) prepare to premiere The Head Wrap Diaries on September 19 at The Place, here is a series of observations on the company from within the dance studio peppered with reflections on the wider context of the history and debate around black female hair.

Led by Vicki Igbokwe, UD has three clear values that drive the company and its work: empowerment, education and entertainment. The intention behind The Head Wrap Diaries is to tell the stories of three female characters who explore community, heritage, womanhood and friendship. The temperature, tone and mood of the studio is inclusive, generous and nurturing, feelings Igbokwe has spent time honing since she realised as a dancer that her best work would come when she was being fed as an individual and not having a choreographer “put the fear of god into you; rather than doing my best work, I was just thinking don’t fuck up.” With Ingrid MacKinnon as rehearsal director and a cast of Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Habibat Ajayi as performers/creative collaborators, Igbokwe has brought four women who are not only fine individual dancers, but are also her ‘hair crushes’. Each has a depth and connection to dance and hair as well as a clear idea of self and each is engaged in a wider conversation. This provocative debate hinges on whether those who decide to wear their hair straightened are less ‘Black’ or ‘proud’ of their heritage than those who decide to wear their hair naturally.

Attah offers an elegant opening frame: “It’s like our hair stands up towards the sun rather than falling. Black women should judge beauty and be judged by our own goalposts rather than by others’ prescribed ideals. I’ve graduated in life to my sistalocks (a fine type of dreadlocks) and they represent a cumulation of my experience.” She has also created Hair The Beat with her sistas, Jodie-Simone and Denise, to challenge the feminist beauty ideals that are perpetuated by the western media. There’s a real street savvy and popping snap to Attah’s physicality (she’s danced with Birdgang in the past) mixed with articulate passion and an awareness of the politics of black female hair.

Natural afro-textured hair was transformed in the 1960s from an expression of style to a political statement. Prior to this, the idealised black person (especially women) had many Eurocentric features, including hairstyles. Black activists in the USA infused straightened hair with political significance: some came to associate the straightening of one’s hair in an attempt to simulate ‘whiteness’, whether chemically or with the use of heat, with an act of self-hatred and a sign of internalised oppression imposed by white mainstream culture.

Each of the dancers has their own hair story to tell. “I’ve had two sets of dreads in my life and when I had my first set I was asked if I would cut them off as it was making it difficult to fit the hairpiece I was supposed to be wearing,” relates McKinnon. Her role is a crucial one in the company. She is the sifter, the detail merchant, the one who shines the grand images that emerge from Igbokwe’s mind to reveal their lustre; often making quiet but incisive interjections when a dancer is feeling stuck on a particular task. Together they try to unlock personal histories to connect the dancers to their own lived experience which will result in a deeper emotional connection to their choreographic material.

Igbokwe conceived The Head Wrap Diaries in 2014 as a response to her own personal hair journey and a desire to celebrate women and hair. It is currently being refined, shown and will add to a live debate that is currently taking place via news outlets and social media. A number of South African teenage girls at Pretoria Girls High School have been told this week that their natural hair is ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ prompting major international outcry and online campaigns (visit #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh to follow the discussion) forcing the school in question to suspend the code of conduct clause that deals with hairstyles. It has even reached government level with the Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthetwha, offering this response: “Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African Identity.” I would love to see the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, make it to The Head Wrap Diaries and engage with not only the performance but the pre-show multi-sensory installation in the bar that Igbokwe has curated in collaboration with students from Central St Martins.

Ajayi, who grew up in a Muslim country, wore a hijab for the first years of her life and it was her mother who took more pride in her hair than she did. Having relaxed her hair until she was 25, once at university she began spending £130 of her student loan every fortnight on her hair; her mother would have to pre-load a cash card to make sure she had enough for her education. Ajayi struggled with confidence in her technical ability as she embarked on a performing arts degree at university rather than at a conservatoire. Igbokwe and MacKinnon provide consistent reassurance: “You have technique for days,” they told her, and it shows. She has a natural facility (she danced for Clod Ensemble recently) and a performance magnetism that emanates when she’s comfortable with the material and how she presents it.

There is a rich history of black female hair over the last two centuries that has rarely been recorded from a black female perspective; historically, sub-Saharan Africans (as in every culture) developed hairstyles that defined status in regards to age, wealth, social rank, marital status, fertility, adulthood, and death. The social implications of hair grooming were a significant part of life and dense, thick, clean, and neatly groomed hair was something sought after by slave traders. Helen Bradley Griebel has written a comprehensive history, The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols, which traces the potency and symbolism of a piece of cloth that has had many names over the years: head rag, head tie, head handkerchief, turban and head wrap. I read the essay before I stepped into the studio with Uchenna as I hadn’t had a personal connection with head wraps before; after reading it I had a clearer understanding of the social, political and historical power behind this crucial piece of clothing which is so central to The Head Wrap Diaries.

Clemenson also has a rich hairstory to tell: “My mum had a friend who would do my canerows, so as a teenager growing up in the 90s I had the right hook up and all my friends were asking where I got it from; I also went through my emo phase and died it black and purple too.” However something changed when she went to the USA in 2008. “I was with a friend and had phoned my mum to say that I was going to have a short cut (I didn’t tell her when) and she said I shouldn’t. My friend said I might as well do it, you’re here and back home in the UK other voices would try and dissuade me from doing it. 31st May 2008. I’ve been short ever since and I feel it is me.” Clemenson has a formidable technique in waacking and voguing; in some of the hip hop choreography set by Igbokwe, Clemenson adds lashings of personal style, performance swag and attitude; if you look up the word fierce in the dictionary don’t be surprised to find a picture of her.

In many traditional cultures communal grooming was a social event when a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds with other women and their families. UD provides a similar social fabric that supports each of the women in the creative team; they’ve been together for a while having all played a part in the last UD production Our Mighty Groove (also touring this Autumn). The inclusivity practiced by UD extends to welcoming MacKinnon’s 7-month-old son who joined us in the studio each day. He has a particular penchant for the melodic and lyrical flow of several Brandy tracks and his presence adds a positive familial energy as the dancers lavish him with attention throughout breaks and lunch times.

During the first period of R&D for The Head Wrap Diaries last summer, UD shared about 20 minutes of material with an audience. Afterwards Igbokwe was asked a question: ‘How can I relate to the work if I do not have black female hair?’ I wondered if anyone would complain to James Wilton they couldn’t relate to the work of Herman Melville, sailors and a giant whale, or to Alexander Whitley about the difficulty of relating to a series of dancing lasers and motion-responsive technology without the relevant experience. There is something much more than the question of black female hair in UD’s work: The Head Wrap Diaries is a set of interwoven stories — sometimes humorous and light, at other times serious — that ask us to consider ourselves, our hair and our own communities. There is plenty of cold, esoteric and indulgent contemporary dance and theatre being produced in the UK but from what I’ve seen in the studio, UD is delivering in spades on their values; hair and community will resonate with many different people and will attract a wider audience to performance who will not only see themselves in the stories but, as anyone who has experienced the indignity of outrageous school hairstyles or home-cut fringes, may want to actively share parts of their own journey too.


Dance, Mathematics and Deborah Hay

Posted: September 13th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Dance, Mathematics and Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay at Independent Dance and Sir Ken Robinson at TED

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

Another fortuitous confluence of ideas: driving home one morning last week I heard part of an interview with Sir Ken Robinson. I was captivated by his articulate and confident championing of creativity in education and, as an example, of dance as a subject with equal importance to mathematics. ‘We are not brains on a stick,’ he pointed out with characteristic wit. ‘We are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’ Robinson was once on the board of the Royal Ballet, but he is not promoting his special interest nor is he being merely controversial. He is making the point that any educational syllabus suffocates creativity because of the way it promotes certain subjects over others. In a TED talk in 2006 he said, ‘There isn’t an educational system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics…As children grown up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ He cites the example of Gillian Lynne who was not happy at regular school until her mother was encouraged to take her to dance school where she discovered people like her who couldn’t sit still, who had to move to think.

Robinson’s talk has been viewed over 28 million times unsurprisingly, but I began to wonder how Robinson’s vision for dance could be embodied in a syllabus without getting stymied by the insistence of this style over that, or this school of technique over another.

At the end of the week I attended a showing, through the initiative of Independent Dance, of Becky Edmunds’ documentary Turn Your Fucking Head at Siobhan Davies Studio. Edmunds’ film documents the final Solo Performance Commissioning Solo taught by Deborah Hay to a group of twenty dancers at the Findhorn Community Foundation in which Hay’s frequent incitement to ‘turn your fucking head’ is her more mischievous version of ‘think outside the box’. Hay was present and following the film gave a talk on the process of her research. Hay does not associate herself with any style; she comes from the American dance revolution that bubbled to the surface at Judson Church in New York in the 60s and she subsequently worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom influenced her thought processes. By the end of the talk, which spanned the last ten years of her research diary suffused with a lifetime experience, I felt confident Hay’s approach is what Robinson may have had in mind when suggesting dance could be taught at the same level as mathematics. One caveat: at the beginning Hay discloses with a wry smile that her research is ‘impossible’. She doesn’t teach, she questions. ‘Questions are made to expand the way we perceive; they are not questions to be answered.’ The material for her syllabus consists of the number of cells in the body. In the 1970s it was thought there were five million cells, which was more manageable than the zillion or so now, but dance, in Hay’s universe, is the interaction of these cells with time and space. ‘I replace movement with my understanding of time and space.’ What our mind (wherever it is) can bring to this interaction is responsible for the individuality of our responses. If there is a pitfall in Hay’s approach, it is that students may feel drawn to imitate the kind of dance Hay herself embodied, as if the form belongs to the process. This would be anathema to Hay; turn your fucking head, after all, is a militant call to focus on our own bodies, not someone else’s. ‘Focusing on my own body is dance; focusing is bound by time and space. Noticing is not.’ She talks with self-deprecating humour, not suggesting for a moment that she has any answers at all, but what she wants to instill is the freedom of the body to express itself in movement without worrying about getting it wrong. ‘Dance is how I learn without thinking.’

Sign me up.

 


Dance Roads Open Process

Posted: October 8th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Roads Open Process

Sarah Bronsard in 4 kilos

Sarah Bronsard in 4 kilos

Dance Roads is a European Network, working in partnership with Montreal-based organisation Tangente, dedicated to supporting innovative choreographers and providing them with an opportunity to emerge on to the international stage.

It was a privilege to be able to observe the process of creation at Dance Roads Open Process (DROP) at Chapter in Cardiff for the two weeks from September 16.

The process of creation starts with the human being at the heart of the idea who then searches for some kind of form to mould the idea on to a body or bodies. The life of the dancers in the work — which is part of their interpretation — then transforms the idea further, so by the time the public sees it, a dance work has undergone the successive overlays of creator, performer, and other artistic collaborators (like composer, costume, set and lighting designers) to form a complex interplay of human communication. In addition, as you will see in these five works, the subject matter is very personal, so that the link between our own life and that of the work is barely distinct from the relationship between two people. I have found at Dance Roads that getting to know each choreographer has led me to an appreciation of their respective works, an appreciation that resides as much on the personal level as on formal aesthetics or philosophical research; the gift of dance is the opening up of our lives to receive it.

One might object that we don’t always have the option of this level of knowledge before we see a work; that a dance performance should stand on its own feet. In its final form, I would agree. But I would suggest that this personal element is an integral part of the process of creation and must be taken into account in any appreciation of the final work. It also has an impact on how we might communicate the nature of dance performances — especially contemporary dance — to the public. Program notes and post-show talks thus take on particular significance.

I would also like to talk about respect. Consider this answer from the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton on being asked to define choreography:

Choreography is my whole being, my whole life, my reason for living. I pour into it all my love, my frustrations and sometimes autobiographical details. To me in many ways it has more reality than the life that I live. I couldn’t conceive of existing unless I could do choreography.

If a choreographer invests this much of his or her life into a work, the work deserves our attention and respect whether we like it or not. Mutual respect is at the heart of our humanity. Throughout this two-week residency, I have been able to observe and learn about the lives of the choreographers and dancers in the process of creation: their way of working, the organization of their work, the fragility with which an idea is grown from a seed and its manifestation in form and rhythm. We have a lot to learn from all five of these choreographers and I am grateful to them for opening up their lives and the inspiration they have provided as a result.

In Sarah Bronsard’s case, she had performed a work called 4 Kilos in her native Montreal; her subject was the life of the cicada, its evolution from a long period of gestation to its brief, sonorous outing in the sunshine before dying. She became pregnant soon after the performance and gave birth to Adrien who is now 4 months old and is here with her. The work she is creating for Dance Roads is a sequel to 4 Kilos not in its formal structure or thought (though related) but in the light of her subsequent pathway of motherhood. The starting point of Jo Fong’s work is an exploration of the dichotomy between the performers and the audience that derives from a mind that is constantly questioning the status quo. Her earliest work was made on such a small scale that only one person could see it at a time, and there is still that intimacy in the way she works. Watching her in class each morning with Emmanuel Grivet has been another illuminating insight into her singular way of working. She is her work, and Laura Lee Greenhalg and Beth Powlesland are not only responsive to her way of working but represent different characteristics of Jo: her comical sense of the absurd and a dream-like sense of beauty.

Perhaps one can read too much into the life of a choreographer but I could not help make a connection between the serious accident that Andrea Gallo Rosso suffered as a teenager when a car hit him with the compassion that he exudes in his work and in his working process with Manolo Perazzi. Having had to challenge the frailty of his body and to stimulate its capacity to heal, he works with great patience and respect for the body and the person. He also brings into the studio five years of research in bio-medical physics: he experiments with movement until he gets the result he wants. He is also unique in the group as he is both choreographer and performer. But more than that, he filters what for me is quintessentially Italian — commedia del’arte, Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, photographs by Richard Avedon of the street performer Zazi and I Pagliacci — into a living, contemporary form. Jasper van Luijk was an accomplished ballroom dancer who subsequently studied philosophy at university and was quickly drawn in to contemporary dance. All these elements are present in his work: his sense of the flow of movement, the philosophical exploration of withdrawal, death and mourning, and the formal use of the well-trained and responsive bodies of Jefta Tanate and Luca Cacitti to shape one movement into another. I am constantly amazed at how quickly he seizes on a solution to a choreographic problem; he knows what he wants, and I am confident he will continue to find it. Teilo Troncy studied theatre in Bordeaux before moving to Holland to train in dance. His approach to choreography is quite different from van Luijk’s; through his own developing state of curiosity, he is like a coach or a guide researching the inner states that he wants to manifest on stage, a delicate and fragile task, both for himself and his muse, Pauline Buenerd, in which he perseveres with the utmost sincerity. I found a book in Cardiff, a translation of Jean-Louis Barrault’s Réflexions sur le Théâtre and in it I came across Barrault’s definition of subjective mime, which could very well refer to Troncy’s work: ‘the study of the states of the soul translated into bodily expression. The metaphysical attitude of man in space.’

Each of these choreographers was chosen independently from five different countries, but the happy confluence of their creative approaches in Dance Roads is matched by their singular integrity.

This is also the first year that a mentor has been invited to help in the creative process and Emmanuel Grivet seems to have just the right approach to accomplish this. His work in improvisational movement has a universality that allows all the dancers to participate in morning class without contradicting any of their own individual technique. In particular his concept of centre leads in practice to a freedom of movement that enhances not only body but mind. In his mentorship of each creation he brings that freedom into the theatre so that his intervention is not invasive of any work already done, encourages a free development and yet advances the work. In short Grivet has provided the kind of supportive environment in which each of these choreographers can develop their work. Open Process describes it well even if the acronym DROP has connotations that move in the wrong direction to the creative flow.

The Dance Roads tour will take place in May 2014. For dates, please see the Dance Roads website.

 


Nudity in dance: 40 years on

Posted: August 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Nudity in dance: 40 years on

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

After reading Alastair Macaulay’s New York Times article Nakedness in Dance, Taken to Extremes, I came across a review of Glen Tetley’s Mutations written in 1970 by Alexander Bland, that husband and wife team of Nigel Gosling and Maude Lloyd who wrote about dance like proud and devoted parents, never sparing in praise but never letting any perceived impropriety or imperfection pass unnoticed. The review comes from a collection called Observer of the Dance 1958-1982, published by Dance Books (www.dancebooks.com). This was the final, fruitful period in Gosling’s life when he was both art and dance critic for The Observer.

Gosling must have liked dogs, as elsewhere in the book he compares the academic critic to a good retriever with the qualities of perseverance, concentration, patience and reliability, whereas the journalist critic is ‘like a hunting dog, alert, active, wide-ranging, with a good nose and a strong voice; he may follow some false scents, but he should keep our interest riveted on the chase…’

Which brings me back to the two articles. Both answer Macaulay’s opening question, ‘How do you react to the look of the naked body on stage?’ and go on to discuss the nature and merits of the work under review. That Macaulay’s subject attracted more attention than his regular reviews is notable, though he is writing about dance in New York, where Anna Halprin’s 1965 Parades and Changes was banned for twenty years for its nudity. One aspect of his article is that acceptance of nudity on the stage has moved to a concentration on genitalia, the ‘dark patch’ that Bland wrote about 42 years ago. It seems a slow progress indeed, especially compared to the development of nudity in the European theatre. What Bland came across in Mutations was for him a revelation, something to be celebrated, whereas Macaulay’s celebration is more tentative, as if revealing a secret.

However, my purpose is not to attempt an in-depth analysis of the approach of two critics to nudity in dance, but simply to offer a preamble to Alexander Bland’s delightful review that I reprint here in full with the permission of the publisher, David Leonard.

Mutations, Nederlands Dans Theater, Sadler’s Wells

Let’s face it fully and frontally, we are in the autumn of modesty. Fig leaves flutter down all around, scattered by the wind of change. Thirty years ago Ninette de Valois was showing the formidable founder of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Lilian Baylis, the backcloth for a new ballet. It was promptly censored on the grounds that the stomach of a female statue depicted on it was too large. ‘But it’s no bigger than my own,’ protested de Valois untruthfully. ‘Ah, my dear, but you have had an operation,’ replied Miss Baylis.

What would she have said last week? In her own theatre, in Mutations, a new ballet by Glen Tetley (with films by Hans van Manen), four young men and one young girl of the Netherlands Dans Theater dance naked for minutes in full spotlight, not to mention long film sequences in which one of the performers appeared enormously magnified and slow-motioned as if to prove that he was every inch a genitalman.

It has been widely reported that the effect was perfectly unremarkable and indeed irrelevant. Certainly dancers’ slim bodies suggest Bosch’s ‘Terrestrial Paradise’ rather than a Rubens orgy. But I must make an embarrassing confession. In the nudity field I am an outsider, a freak, perhaps even a ghoul which haunts the law courts where learned men fulminate on sex and censorship. Not only am I likely to be depraved; I probably am depraved already, for I find the spectacle of beautiful naked bodies exciting. Their introduction in this ballet induced a glow of added interest which it was painfully easy to analyse.

I comforted myself afterwards by reflecting that respectable authorities in other fields have admitted similar sensations. Lord Clark has even written that all good nude painting and sculpture is sexually stimulating. Sex assumes many disguises. On the stage we readily admit arousal by crafty costumes, lighting or posture, and I tried hard to think that the lack of all disguise was no more sinful than they. Exactly what is contributed – or lost – by the final fall of brassiere or jock-strap varies a great deal. Apart from the fact that some naked people look more naked than others, nudity can obviously be employed either innocently (as it was here) or for hard-core sensuality. The simple shock of seeing it on the stage at all comes largely from the surprise of finding it out of normal context. In my sheltered life it is still usually confined to bath or bed, but the probable spread of its use in the theatre will soon, alas, deaden its impact. What will be left will be more visual than psychological. From the formal point of view the costumed figure presents an image with a single focal-point – the head. By adding a dark patch in the centre of the image a second visual accent is introduced, and this is something choreographers will have to take into account.

These minor questions apart, nudity is used in this ballet as a stimulating but serious ingredient which completely justifies itself artistically. The scene is a kind of arena (by Nadine Baylis) into which white-clad figures gradually fight their way. Once arrived, the mood changes. A nude figure appears dancing on film, and this is followed by a nice trio for girls, a typical Tetley wrestling match, and some all-in applications of red paint suggesting violence. A couple dance, clad and unclad on screen and stage, to gently variegated electronic sounds by Stockhausen; more join in and the film triplicates, until some mysterious figures in transparent suits sweep the action off stage, leaving the couple – naked and strangely vulnerable – alone as the lights fade.

It is not perhaps the most completely successful ballet in the repertoire – the start is slow and the films not very imaginative – but it is sincere, shapely, rich in those plastic movements in which Tetley excels and works up to a fine climax. It was never trivial or titillating and was extremely well danced by the finely trained and good-looking company.     8.11.70


On dance coverage

Posted: April 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , | Comments Off on On dance coverage

Reading the Sunday Telegraph Seven magazine today for coverage of the arts, where there is a lovely picture of Susan Sarandon on the cover. “Will she ever act her age?” Should any of us act our age? What on earth does it mean? Inside there is an article on the vanishing garden, a report on Daniel Everett’s fascinating work on language based on his experience with the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, a lengthy criticism of Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern by Andrew Graham-Dixon, five pages of book reviews, and four single pages of criticism, one each on Theatre, Opera, Film and finally Dance. This last, by Louise Levene, is called Failure to Fly. Could this be a metaphor for the state of dance coverage?

With all due respect, who really cares if critics like a show or not if they do not take us beyond the gate of their own judgment and out into the field of well written appreciation? I am a fan of the restaurant reviews (not so much the general rants) of Giles Coren, who makes no bones about what he likes and what he doesn’t, but he says so in the context of the provenance and preparation of food in general, which he clearly loves. So even a bad review is uplifting to read, and a good one is a treat. A review that points only at the state of the reviewer is a downer. One egregious example in the dance sphere is Luke Jennings’ review of Dave St-Pierre at Sadler’s Wells*. After his fit of pique at the opening salvo of naked men cavorting among the audience, he should never have attempted a review, because all that came out was his tantrum.

After managing tours for a company of 14 dancers where one of the nagging concerns at each venue was if there would be enough people in the audience, I attended my first literary festival two years ago and was amazed to find a theatre sold out to listen to an author being interviewed on stage. Well, it was Melvyn Bragg, but subsequent literary festivals attest to the same attraction beyond the book between authors and readers. It is incredibly stimulating. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a discussion about dance at these festivals to raise the level of appreciation? Dame Monica Mason at Hay next year? Yes please.

In listening to BBC Radio 3, it occurs to me that it is not only a great champion of classical music, composers and musicians but also an enormous and effective marketing machine for the dissemination of classical music concerts throughout the country. More discussion about dance on the radio would be welcome, but dance performance belongs clearly with TV. But where is the coverage?  I’m afraid So You Think You Can Dance does not do it. That belongs more to a cultural coliseum where the thumbs up or down of  judges elevate or humiliate a given dance gladiator. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this is generating new audiences for ballet or contemporary dance. The broadcast to art house cinemas of live performances of dance, however, is a promising step in the right direction.

But there is always the writing about dance that can help raise the profile of the art in the national press and thus in the mind of the general public. There are some great examples in the past and in the present. Failure to fly in this field is not an option if dance is to re-forge its place beside the other arts.

* Soon after writing this Luke reminded me of something I had forgotten: that we had known each other when he was in the year above me at the Rambert School. We have since met and talked, though not yet about this.