Resolution 2020: WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr & Autin Dance Theatre

Posted: March 27th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2020: WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr & Autin Dance Theatre

Resolution 2020, WonderWoman Collective, Harry Parr, Autin Dance Theatre, February 20

Johnny Autin in Square One
Johnny Autin in Square One (photo: Nucis Designs)

WonderWoman Collective is a trio of dancers from the London Contemporary Dance School’s Developing Artistic Practice programme: choreographer Hannah Adams and her collaborators Greta Gauhe and Marta Stepien. Their work, Her Agency, explores ‘womanhood and female empowerment’. The program note is written in the style of an abstract, detailing what we can expect to see. ‘The performance will highlight the importance of mutual support in the time of social isolation’…and ‘(the three women) will find themselves in unexpected complex situations, easing into unforeseen connections that demand instant response.’ In the field of academic research papers, an abstract is intended to connect to the arguments elaborated in the text, but in a visual, image-based art like dance such a desired concision is lost between the performance and the onlooker. As Roland Barthes argued in the field of literary studies, once a book is published, its author has no authority in its interpretation. It’s not just a question of the program notes; Adams has interpreted the physical aspects of Her Agency quite literally while loosening their connection to the dimension of dance. On a bare stage with three hanging microphones, we can see the development of ideas like mutual support and precarious balance, as well as complex, unconventional interaction, but a section of guided contact improvisation with Adams at the microphone seems straight out of the school curriculum. What is missing is an enveloping choreographic and spatial dynamic that takes thinking-as-dance to the realm of dance-as-thinking. 

Harry Parr’s desire to ‘connect the space, the dancers and the audience with a rousing energy in a shared experience of flow’ is like an adrenalin shot that kicks the evening’s program into gear. PEAK is an unapologetic opportunity for Parr to exercise his ‘own idiosyncratic vocabulary’ in a work that does a lot more; it imprints itself on the imagination by the nature of its formal and spatial organisation. The responsibility lies both with the dancers — Parr, Adélie Lavail and Corrie McKenzie — and with Zak Macro’s lighting that treats light and shade as if it were pulling focus between sharpness and blur. Parr’s idiosyncratic, edgy vocabulary borrows from the gestural language of mime; the use of his body, hands and fingers has a dramatic intent that, although abstract, has a quality of language that gives structure to his choreography. He projects the persona of a puppet master or magician in relation to Lavail and McKenzie who in turn enter into this alchemy with finely attuned contributions that are like a wild, animalistic chorus. Far from simply an exercise in idiosyncratic vocabulary, PEAK has perhaps inadvertently stumbled on an expression of movement in space that is at the heart of drama. Macro’s play of light and Parr’s detached groupings — like the closeup focus on a dialogue of legs between Lavail and McKenzie while Parr’s torso coordinates in the shade behind — work together to create a unified emotional field. 

For the purposes of full disclosure, I rehearsed and performed with Johnny Autin in a production of Lindsey Butcher and Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Rites of War in 2014, so I am familiar with his vocabulary and way of moving. But nothing prepared me for the searing psychological evocation of mental health that permeates his solo, Square One, for Autin Dance Theatre, a work that would be impossible to achieve without him having personally driven through the landscape it explores. It is a landscape of black floor and walls in which a broad cylinder of white paper in various permutations is both the material of his preoccupation and his path to survival. Autin is already on stage as we enter the auditorium, obsessively tearing white paper into small squares and littering the floor around him while staring out absentmindedly at the audience as if through a window. The crossover between mimicry and the recollection of mental disturbance is unnerving but the visceral energy of Square One derives from this proximity of performer and subject and Autin has both the courage and necessary distance to combine the two. The effect is a carefully constructed diary of images that is both attractive through Autin’s sensual athleticism and chastening in its psychological fragility. Joe Henderson’s lighting enhances the idea of archetypical opposites, contrasting the white paper against the black walls to create opacity and translucence, shadow and substance. 

The program defines Square One as a work in progress, but the performance belies this; it is polished with experience, candour and Autin’s perverse delight in performing it.


Mette Edvardsen in Music for Lectures at Fest en Fest

Posted: March 4th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mette Edvardsen in Music for Lectures at Fest en Fest

Mette Edvardsen, Music For Lectures/every word was once an animal, Fest en Fest, February 9

Mette Edvardsen in Music for Lectures
Music for Lectures…without musicians or lecturer (photo: Burrows & Fargion)

It’s a welcome opportunity to see Mette Edvardsen again at Fest en Fest after last year’s No Title. She brings not a solo work but a collaboration with Jonathan Burrows, Matteo Fargion and Francesca Fargion: Music for Lectures/every word was once an animal. The setting is not a stage but one end of the Fuel Tank bar, against a door with a no entry sign on the outside. It’s a wet, stormy day and some people enter through it anyway to avoid an extra walk around the building. Seats are improvised, cushions are laid on the floor and Edvardsen is seated facing them cross-legged on a mat with microphone in hand. She is backed (or sided) by what is called a rock band consisting of Burrows on drums, Fargion senior on bass and Fargion junior on keyboard, but the musical style is more affected minimalist than rock. 

Once she begins her text in her deadpan Norwegian lilt, it is clear that Edvardsen’s discursive lecture, both in its rigorous construction and in the patterns of her thinking, is in fact a choreography of words and ideas that move with the fluidity of an enchaînement. That she remains seated is inconsequential; we can see the movement behind our eyes. She begins with a characteristic digression by saying she had once thought her title, ‘every word was once an animal’, was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but her memorisation of the misquote — its repetition in her memory — had value since it led her to read all Emerson’s works and what others had written about him. The way Edvardsen’s words contain meanings that spread out into other meanings like an endless stream of associations is perhaps something she has learned from Emerson. In fact, it wasn’t a digression at all, but a repetition of something that Edvardsen had prepared, rehearsed and was now performing.  

The meaning of the English words ‘repetition’ and ‘rehearsal’ is joined in the French ‘répétition’, and Edvardsen takes us through aspects of the word’s signification, teasing its many cultural connections and spatio-temporal ramifications, from the micro-cosmos of performances, rituals, and daily routines to quantum explanations of space-time. She integrates a story about the filming of the burning house in Tarkovsky’s Offret (The Sacrifice), examples of the Spanish artist Dora Garcia, the Beatles’ song Number 9 and considers the proposal of an alternative universal rhythm with a Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch followed again by a Big Bang. 

Repetition acts both as an affirmation and a procrastination, a looking back but also a distillation of possibilities in the future. Quoting the Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard, Edvardsen reminds us that repetition and recollection are the same movements but in opposite directions, because in recollecting what has been, one also repeats it. Such an economy suspends the repetition of the past in the future, giving rise to the entropy of what Edvardsen refers to as a ‘non-concept’. Through her diverse references Edvardsen is not merely illustrating repetitive patterns but turning them into a choreographic lecture as a way of knowing.

Throughout, Edvardsen never loses the thread of associations; she does, however, find a red thread stuck on her sock but this, she reminds us, is a repetitive digression at the core of any performance and of the performing arts: the rehearsal of a pattern that is never the same and yet not so different as to be unrecognizable. 

In a previous project called Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, Edvardsen associated the memorisation of a book with the way a dancer learns choreography in rehearsal, and a live reading with performance. A copy of one of the books in the project was Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the memoriser’s copy was beginning to fall apart from wear (it can happen to a dancer, too). When she replaced it with a new one she was horrified to find the opening line was a different translation. By repeating the same line in a number of English translations, Edvardsen demonstrates how each iteration of a gesture, a word, a phrase or a verse can create a different image or association. As Emerson actually wrote, ‘Every word was once a poem.’ 

Fest en Fest offers its audiences examples of what it calls ‘expanded choreography’. The symbiotic link between language and dance that Edvardsen develops through the medium of the voice — with or without an accompanying band — is a perfect example. 


Ian Abbott on H2Dance’s Fest en Fest at Laban

Posted: February 22nd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on H2Dance’s Fest en Fest at Laban

Fest en Fest 2020 by H2Dance, Laban, 8 and 9 February

Fest en Fest Cry Me a River
Karen Røise Kielland and Katja Dreyer in Cry Me a River (photo: Knut Bry)

Fest en Fest is an international festival of UK/Nordic artists looking at notions of expanded choreography initiated and curated by H2Dance. Fest en Fest ‘makes space for artists and audiences to come together and present live works and ideas, to discuss, provoke, influence and be a force for change.’ This is the second edition and took place over a week in Colchester, Cambridge and London. I saw a number of works and attended a discursive lunch and round table with Janine Harrington and Grace Nicol in Deptford. Due to the storms that weekend, the performance of Phantasmagoric by Helgebostad/Berstad/Brun was unfortunately cancelled. 

Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source by Karen Røise Kielland/Katja Dreyer is a buoyant choreographic postcard offering an autofictional account of a joint expedition to the source of the River Styx via the side quests of multiple Greek mythological hero(ine)s. Kielland and Dreyer are a pair of affable performers busying themselves with their stage-based tasks related to casting effigies of multiple body parts in plaster whilst retelling their real life stories of meeting Odysseus, Cerberus and Echo on a 1500-mile adventure. 

With their direct address and small audience interaction (one member got a cast of their hand) it’s a work that raises a few chuckles at the word play and storytelling as Kielland and Dreyer relay their encounters; it feels that there’s enough presented for us to believe it is real…or real enough. It dabbles with the venn diagram of truth and non-truth whilst keeping their onstage labour legitimate. Sat alongside all of this is a long set-up for what is a delicious final set of images (no spoilers) and feminist commentary on the patriarchal histories, stories and collections that are so heralded in Western heritage institutions. The act of casting bodies and the residue of patriarchal statues that are littered throughout history tell a particular story of a particular body type from a particular stratum of society; Kielland and Dreyer’s gentle lampooning is a fine start to my Fest en Fest.

If audiences were trying to find traditional examples of ‘dancing’ and ‘choreography’ in Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source they would struggle, but Fest en Fest is clear in what it is and what it will present. ‘Expanded Choreography’ as a notion could be an alternative moniker for performance, live art or theatre. An ‘Expanded Theatre’ festival like Fest en Fest includes dance, music, and visual art in a widening boundary that encompasses other things. Fest en Fest is a festival. A festival of work from the UK and Nordic countries. It doesn’t need to indulge in a dance-will-eat-itself debate – let the work speak and get your ears ready for what it has to say.

Music For Lectures is a series of works by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion where they invite a speaker (this time Mette Edvardsen) to give a talk on a subject of their choice which is backed by the Burrows/Fargion ‘rock band.’ At 35 minutes Music For Lectures/every word was once an animal saw Edvardsen sat cross legged with microphone and script in hand, Burrows on drums, Fargion (Matteo) on bass guitar and egg shakers and Fargion (Francesca) conducting from a keyboard. 

Edvardsen’s text is a dry and stretched desert traipse through the pop science section of Waterstones picking up some sugary and shallow philosophy on repetition on the way; the rock band play simple chords and beats whilst Edvardsen speaks. For 35 minutes. With the audience sat at the end of Gaff@FuelTank bar, 40 people were subjected to the theory of the eternal return, to Flashdance and to Kierkegaard. It was thin, self-satisfying and could have been presented as a radio programme/podcast such were the levels of performativity or audience engagement; if I wanted a performed bibliography in the shadow of John Cage I would have gone elsewhere.

I do not subscribe to the cult of Jonathan Burrows. Having seen four of his works I cannot understand why a performance of quaint Englishness — a peacocking simplicity masked by pseudo intellectual academia — appears to be so well received by the cult which surrounds his work. His performance persona is like an English Poundland version of Matthew Goulish and Tim Etchell’s lovechild but has inherited neither their performance charisma nor their intellectual heft. 

With Edvardsen the second, White, female frontperson (previously Katye Coe) in Burrows and Fargion’s collection, I don’t understand why or how her presentation is of interest in the live realm. Expanded choreography this is not. Expanded intellectuality this is definitely not. Burrows and Fargion expanded ego, 100%.

What H2Dance have done for this second edition of the festival is to extend it outside London, bringing a number of UK premieres to Cambridge and Colchester as well as attracting a set of artists and students from Laban for whom some of the work resonates/challenges assumed thinking. Fest en Fest has — in just two years — found a tribe of audiences, artists and programmers to attend this micro-festival that is artist run/curated and led. It is rich, full and divergent and although I had a strong response to Music For Lectures, I appreciate a work that makes me feel such a strong set of emotions. 

Leaving Laban I went back to thinking about Cry Me a River – the Quest for the Source and how Kielland and Dreyer could expand their own repertoire and offer their take on other histories choreographically, from the Greeks to the Romans to the plague or the sealing of the Magna Carter in a series of alternative edutainment shorts looking at dance/history through a feminist autofictional lens.


Resolution 2020: Kindred & Judd, Parbati Chaudhury, Grand Gesture

Posted: February 20th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2020: Kindred & Judd, Parbati Chaudhury, Grand Gesture

Resolution 2020, Kindred & Judd Collective, Parbati Chaudhury, Grand Gesture, January 29

aGender, Resolution 2020
Maga Judd and Helen Kindred in aGender (photo: Cheniece Warner)

A theme of this Resolution triple bill of the Kindred & Judd Collective, Parbati Chaudhury and Grand Gesture is the linking of the individual’s everyday struggle with, respectively, identity, pain and old age. 

In aGender, Helen Kindred and Maga Judd confront their quest for identity in the continuous juggling of roles, expectations, and norms. Garments scattered around the stage are metaphors for the way in which identities are constructed, adapted and articulated. As the audience walks in, Kindred is wandering from pile to pile, selecting, putting on and taking off items of clothing with the timeless nonchalance of one accustomed to improvising; Judd is already exhausted by the process and is resting, camouflaged, on a pile of clothes. But not for long; soon dresses are pulled over their heads like playful tokens of subversion and liberation as they both drop on all fours and scamper around to Judd’s mix of Polish and English endearments until she screams and time comes to a deafening stop. As much a performance of rebellion as it is an affirmation of dogged persistence, aGender continues with the repeated rhythmical motif of falling and getting up, in which an endearing sense of mutual help and friendship develops between the two women that borders on the euphoric. The dancers pile layers on layers to the point they impede their movement; Kindred succumbs to the load, but Judd cannot help her: ‘I have to go,’ she says, ‘I have no time.’ Judd’s score, which acts like a ground from which the colours and textures emerge, now goes into reverse with a joint refrain from the two performers prefixing a familiar list of tasks for which they have no time, a refrain of the perpetual attempt to keep up with professional, domestic and social roles to the point of exasperation. While such a search for identity resonates with the history of feminism and established constructions of womanhood, the ambiguity of the final gestures — both achievement and exhaustion — suggests the struggle continues.  

Sigmund Freud’s formulation of the concept of trauma emerged from his observation of the belated psychological pain suffered by patients who had been involved in railway accidents that had caused them only minor concussions or injuries. In Fader, choreographer Parbati Chaudhury links questions around the persistence of pain with two emblems of modernity that are deeply implicated with colonialism — the system of railways and the discipline of psychoanalysis — and reinterprets them through kathak dance movement. In the opening, Meera Patel’s kneeling body sways forward and back as if on a journey; her hands move continually to a source of pain in her side until it resolves. The work is episodic, divided both into different states of pain by choreographic gesture and into different spatial areas by judicious lighting and haze. While there are some unresolved tensions between dynamic representation and static illustration, Fader is an evocative expression of trauma that Patel’s lyrical qualities, poise and acute musicality help to convey. She is helped by Jesse Bannister’s score, composed for sarod, guitar, and bass, on which she dances like an additional instrument, creating together a choreographic and musical journey of richly rewarding cross-cultural fertilization. 

Grand Gesture’s That Old Feeling introduces four ‘geri-anarchists’ — a new identity designation — who explore attitudes to ageing. The work examines the ambiguity of age between subjective sensation and societal expectation, throwing down the gauntlet in a riotous affirmation of the former. Depositing themselves centre stage in plastic bags at the beginning of the work, Mary Cox, Bruce Currie, Gilly Hanna and Andy Newman collectively embody the recorded litany of derisive epithets used to describe older people, from ‘old git’ and ‘duffer’ to ‘coffin dodger’. It’s a dark, hard-hitting image that quickly loses its satirical bite to self-mockery; the four geri-anarchists climb out of their bags in long white coats and subvert the lyrics of Guy Lombardo’s That Old Feeling by acting out the physical attributes of ailing. In the subsequent series of solos and ensemble numbers, however, subverting lyrics turns into subverting assumptions, no more so than in Currie’s enthusiastic belly dance number. The danger of using assumptions about age in order to flaunt them is that the manner of flaunting becomes a new meme that perpetuates the original assumptions. Cox breaks the mould by creating choreographic impressions of her memories, but within the piecemeal construction of the work, her subtle contribution is overpowered by the irrepressible desire of Grand Gesture to forcibly ‘shake off the cloak of elder invisibility’. 


Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Posted: December 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System – Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, October 22

Out of the System, Jonzi-D, Aeroplane Man
Jonzi-D in Aeroplane Man (photo: Chris Nash)

Out of the System is a guest-programmed section of Dance Umbrella; for the past three years it has been curated with characteristic flair by Freddie Opoku-Addaie who described it in 2017 as ‘the presence of diverse dance cultures within vocational and non-vocational structures outside the regular framework of dance presentation’. Two years later Out of the System has worked its way into the system with the Big Pink Vogue Ball at Shoreditch Town Hall and a mixed bill at, and presented in partnership with, Bernie Grant Arts Centre. With five artists over four works, the mixed bill consists of small-scale works with large-scale themes of identity and racial politics that Opoku-Addaie characterises in public transport terms (influenced by his commute on a No. 26 Routemaster bus between Waterloo Station and Hackney Wick) as telling ‘complex journeys that are routed in the shared struggle, continuous stop/start but dealt with a crafted overview of human fortitude.’

Theo TJ Lowe (THÉO INART) has worked with Hofesh Schechter and Akram Khan, among others, and this shows in his compelling presence on stage in his solo, Fragility in Man – Part 1. He makes his entrance through the doors of the theatre on to the stage that resembles a bare waiting room with three chairs; ill at ease, he takes a seat like a patient waiting to be examined or, more ominously, a suspect about to be interrogated. There is something simmering or explosive in his succession of halting gestures and periods of stillness that respond to human commands, the barking of dogs or the cocking of a gun. The trauma of past violence extends out from behind his eyes to land somewhere on a vertical plane between us, like a two-way mirror; he shines a light on the audience but sees only his own reflection. Even behind a superhero mask he cannot hide his vulnerability because he is turned inside out; when he exits through the same doors he entered, he leaves behind him the fragile landscape of his being. 

Like Lowe, Becky Namgauds turns herself into an exhibit, Exhibit F, tracing figures back and forth across the stage with her swirling, naked torso and long hair like a brush gradually filling in the paper with lines and colour. She is not so much building up a figure — the space is not like paper and releases the image as soon as it has passed — so much as laying down her emotional ground in repetitive patterns. What is exhibited and what is not is the constant issue in Exhibit F in which costume, movement and Michael Mannion’s lighting are fluid factors. Namgaud’s work, according to the program, deals with ‘recurring themes of feminism, femicide and the environment.’ There is no object in Exhibit F; it is its own constantly transforming subject. 

Breaking the solo format, Ffion Campbell-Davies enters at the start of Beyond Words, vocalising high on the shoulders of Tyrone Isaac-Stuart while he blows a cool saxophone below. Beyond Words questions the framework of a colonial approach to black dance through ‘a journey between two people communicating matters of the heart’. Beginning as a procession, it disintegrates to the sound of machinery into images of physical oppression and struggle that lead to questions of self-worth and respect. Campbell-Davies and Isaac-Stuart confront a broad canvas of history and social significance, from ancestry and tribal affinity to the idea of home, with a sense of residual frustration. At the end, perched once again on Isaac-Stuart’s shoulders, Campbell-Davies asks the audience, ‘Who are you standing on?’ It’s a question, ironically, that Opoku-Addaie’s curation over the last three years has set out to answer. 

Jonzi-D’s Aeroplane Man, created in 1999 ‘but sadly still resonating today’, is founded on a similar frustration but ends in a more measured affirmation. His finely-honed parable of identity and cultural politics pulls no punches and makes its point in keen satire and brilliant mimicry. Born and bred in the East End of London, he is both pilot and passenger traveling in his Adidas trainers to search for his ‘own country’ at the unceremonious urging of one of his white colleagues. His air miles take him from Grenada (‘my mother’s land, not my motherland’), to Jamaica, the Bronx and Zululand, but wherever he lands he finds he is not quite genuine enough. With the running refrain of ‘Call up Mr. Aeroplane Man, Yeah Man, Yeah Man’, he returns to London to discover ‘this brown frame has found his name.’ 


Helen Cox, Bodies in Space at the Bloomsbury Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall

Posted: November 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall
Circus Circus Circus Symoné Certain Blacks
Circus Circus Circus promotional image of Symoné

Certain Blacks, Circus Circus Circus Festival, at Hoxton Hall, November 22

Certain Blacks ‘is an East London-based arts development organisation formed in 2015 to support the work of diverse artists. Circus Circus Circus, a new festival, aims to showcase the different and exciting work from a variety of performers, artists and musicians.’ This evening’s festival finale is produced in partnership with the artistic director of Upswing Aerial Circus, Victoria Amedume.

Hoxton Hall is one of five surviving nineteenth-century salon-style music halls in London and it is in remarkably good shape thanks to a long stint in the hands of the Quaker Community. It opened its doors in 1863 and lost its performance licence eight years later due to complaints by police. Sitting in the tall, narrow hall with its elevated stage, shallow stalls, and two levels of wrought-iron galleries on three sides, it is not hard to imagine a raucous nineteenth-century crowd, eating, drinking and smoking, packed in tight on a popular night, raising the roof with their laughter, cheers and applause and spilling out afterwards into the slumbering, smoky streets. 

Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall reimagines this past in the present through the diverse skills of the performers and their stand-up chairman, ‘eyes on me’ Athena Kugblenu. Specialty acts were always a part of music hall, and these included aerial acts, drag artists, stilt walkers and jugglers as well as comedy routines and songs; Circus Circus Circus has a smattering of each, with acts that are either extracts from longer works, like Out of Order’s Once Standing, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram and Symoné’s Utopia, or scratch performances like Joana Dias’ 89 and both of Amelia Cavallo’s routines. 

Contemporary circus struggles with the use of narrative; while dance brokered a deal with narrative from its beginnings, circus has yet to sort out its relationship with it; either the apparatus is too obtrusive for the narrative, or the narrative is too artificial for the apparatus. Once Standing is a contemporary fusion of physical theatre and circus that imagines the behaviour of the last two people on earth. In its opening, performers Angeliki Nikolakaki and Jesús Capel Luna, both wearing little more than gas masks, create a convincing image of near extinction through the play of acrobatic strength and articulation, but when they move to the silks the circus arts leave the narrative hanging. The next two sections, however, work beautifully as narrative imagery integrated with the means. In one, Luna dressed in a fur coat dances on a precariously balanced skate board while Nikolakaki in a red tulle bodice and skirt plays a restless interpretation of Chopin on a keyboard, and in the second Nikolakaki is rooted to the floor by Luna’s coiled body at her feet as her sinuous upper body finds the yearning tone of both Janis Joplin’s vocals and Sam Andrew’s solo guitar in Summertime. The final section returns to the imagery of the opening with various props and masks but an abrupt curtailment of Ravel’s Bolero robs the work of its apocalyptic climax. 

Amelia Cavallo, aka King Tito Bone, comes closest to the spirit of music hall as ‘first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an enduring embrace.’* Cavallo, ‘your average, blind bisexual drag king’ with green glitter eyebrows and goatee, engages the audience with the force of her fearless personality and self-deprecatory humour in both works. The first is a brilliant parody of ‘I will always love you’ directed in fine voice to her white cane, that ends (in true music hall tradition) as a risqué conversation, and the second a flawless ‘fitness routine’ on silks that guides us irreverently through the feel and experience of every step and preparation as if we are the unsighted. 

In between Cavallo’s two acts, Joana Dias’ work-in-progress, 89, focuses on her aerial hoop skills where the intertwined flowing lines of the Arabic numbers 8 and 9 aptly describe the circular arabesques she creates. As a former ballroom champion and singer in her native Portugal, Dias draws together the quality of her motion and the emotion of her Fado accompaniment in a rich aggregate form that leaves any narrative to the imagination of the audience. 

After an intermission, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram is another example of narrative and circus paraphernalia crossing over but not binding together. Both Sadiq Ali and Hauk Pattison are adept at the Chinese pole but using it within an ‘exploration of a gay man’s narrative’ is not an obvious association. The opening of The Chosen Haram sketches the gay context between the two men but their subsequent agility on the poles does not corroborate it. Perhaps the extract does not do justice to the full work. 

In exploring her experience of living in a cult, the means Symoné uses in Utopian are an integral part of the story. Projected instructions for each of us to find, select, pass on, inflate and let go a balloon seem innocuous enough but Symoné makes her point by having us follow the instructions without questioning. Utopian has a longeur that expresses mind manipulation and altered realities; in relating her story she offers three options for each incident with the warning that maybe only one is true. Performed with Duane Nasis and Ruby Gaskell, Symoné mixes her narrative with elements of pole dancing, voguing and fluorescent rave culture while including her signature roller-skating and hoola-hooping. It’s an extended extravaganza that has a disquieting heart, as stimulating as it is sobering.

* John Major, My Old Man: A Personal History Of Music Hall (William Collins, 2013).


Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican

Posted: November 13th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican

Dance Umbrella 2019: Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero at Barbican, October 18

Gregory Maqoma in Cion: Requiem of Ravel's Bolero
Gregory Maqoma and company in Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero (photo: John Hogg)

In a pre-festival interview, the artistic director of Dance Umbrella, Emma Gladstone, talked of ‘difference’ as a factor in her programming. “To me difference is always part of the politics: looking at difference, understanding difference, not being afraid of difference. I think it’s something the art form as a whole can do very well.” Gladstone was referring to Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero that Dance Umbrella presented at Barbican as part of this year’s festival.

Maqoma’s work is, as its title suggests, a requiem, but for whom and under what auspices? It is based on two novels by South African novelist and playwright, Jakes Mda: Ways of Dying (1995) and its sequel, Cion (2007). Both novels follow the life and trials of Toloki, a professional mourner who earns his living traveling from funeral to funeral in the South African townships during the country’s fractious transition from apartheid to democracy, interceding between the horror of politically motivated brutality and the efforts of individuals and communities to come to terms with it. In Mda’s sequel, Toloki travels to the United States to research the history of slavery, so in taking on this narrative Maqoma assumes a vast history of violence, from racial injustice to internecine wars both in Africa and elsewhere. He writes that ‘Cion’s message of death and its dire consequences must be communicated through a lament in order to tackle a universe where the age-old phenomena of greed power and religion result in unnatural deaths.’ 

While the thrust of aggression is global, rituals of mourning belong very much to the local communities in which they occur. ‘Cion is as in Zion, the African church’, writes Maqoma. ‘It is set in a graveyard, a church where the body is religion and the voices are personal.’ Maqoma’s role is like that of Everyman, placing himself in a specifically African setting with a group of spirits or mourners (eight members of his own Vyuhani Dance Company) and a quartet of superb vocalists — beatboxer Siphiwe Nkabinde, Sbussiso Shozi, Xolisile Bongwana and Thabang Mkhwanazi — who sing compositions in Isicathamiya by composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu. The opening of Cion sees a lone, bent-over figure shuffling his way across a darkened stage of crosses giving expression to his grief in stifled, plaintive a capella sobs. It is a prologue that builds a powerful sense of mourning, and when the single snare drum beat of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero begins, the juxtaposition of cultures is ripe for exposition and resolution. When the lights come up, however, only a vestige of that opening mystery remains. The setting of a graveyard by Oliver Hauser, the costumes of Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee and the exquisite lighting of Mannie Manim have the sophistication of a West End musical, while the figure of Mda’s Toloki ‘in his threadbare suite, cape and top hat’ is replaced by a stylishly dressed Maqoma whose movements in his five solos often exude the status of a pop idol; the itinerant mourner Toloki has become Michael Jackson. 

Maqoma is familiar with, and in, the West — he trained at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels and has toured widely outside South Africa to great acclaim (this is his third invitation to Dance Umbrella) — so he is well placed to combine his life experiences with his dancing and choreographic exploits. There is no doubting the sincerity of Cion’s conception and Maqoma’s desire to bring about catharsis, which he regards as ‘a universal grief that conquers the sadness continuing to permeate the living who are plagued by deaths that are not their own.’ By assimilating into this catharsis such a recognisably western piece of music as Ravel’s Bolero sung in Mahlangu’s arrangement by the a capella quartet, Maqoma suggests an imaginative conflation of the fate of his country with that of its colonial history. However, in Cion‘s translation of harrowing events from the South African townships to the Barbican stage there is a problem of theatrical signification; while the choral element maintains a powerful evocation that allows us to transcend difference, the choreographic and visual elements borrow too much from an overly familiar image of western contemporary dance — or even the classical tradition of soloist fronting a corps de ballet. Grief in artistic performance is always susceptible to a treatment that grants it exquisite form, but in the case of Cion there’s a risk the form inhibits the full realization of Maqoma’s catharsis.


Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Posted: November 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Dance Umbrella 2019, The Future Bursts In, The Linbury Theatre, October 25 

Amala Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné in Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

The title of this Dance Umbrella evening at the Linbury Theatre, The Future Bursts In, is adapted from Alexander Bland’s Observer review of Merce Cunningham’s first performance in London in 1964. He wrote, ‘Merce Cunningham and his company have burst on the British scene like a bomb…Here is heart-warming proof that it is an art with a future, opening up ranges of possibilities which stretch out of sight; it ought to be celebrated with champagne in every dancing academy in the land.’

Over fifty years later neither Cunningham nor his musical collaborator and life partner, John Cage, are still with us, but their legacy continues through the Merce Cunningham Trust. It is not only Cunningham’s works but the technique he developed and taught that are revered for the very reasons Bland identified. But history moves on and the future continues to burst in, not necessarily through a single figure or a monolithic technique but with fresh approaches to dance practice and to training. 

Amala Dianor is a Senegalese dancer currently based in Angers. Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity, is a beautifully crafted trio for performers whose techniques are grounded in hip hop but borrow from classical and contemporary dance. Theirs is a collaborative venture in which the three dancers — Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné — have come together to make a conversation of their diverse techniques. After calmly taking stock of the audience, they turn their focus inward, gently teasing out each other’s ability, admonishing each other and competing with each other’s vocabulary; it’s as if we are watching them through a window. We see their silent gestures and feel their choreographic affinity; we hear the tracks they choose from a score by Awir Leon but the music is for their own delectation, not ours. The pleasure is in seeing their ability to find effortless equilibrium and poise in their shared virtuosity. It is not so much the future bursting in as the dance diaspora reuniting with vestiges of the past to enhance the present. 

Celebrating Cunningham’s legacy involves the more ticklish problem of looking back without the living presence of the man himself, who died in 2009. CCN Ballet de Lorraine presents two works to mark the centenary of Cunningham’s birth, a new commission by Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley, For Four Walls, based on a lost work of 1944, and a recreation of Sounddance from 1975. Jacobsson is the artistic director of CCN Ballet de Lorraine and Caley is its coordinator of research; both men worked closely with Cunningham as dancers in the 90s.

Members of CCN Ballet de Lorraine in For Four Walls (photo: Laurent Philippe)

All that still exists of Cunningham’s Four Walls — it had only one performance — is the piano score by John Cage, played here on stage by Vanessa Wagner. Jacobsson writes that ‘we choreographed For Four Walls not as a re-enactment of the original, but as a place that allows for our history with Cunningham to be reflected in it.’ The idea of reflection becomes an opening conceit as we see nine dancers transformed into a full company by floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels. When the full contingent of 23 dancers subsequently fills the stage, swelling the ensemble to the size of an opera chorus in a crowded studio, the conceit loses its effect. As an exercise in spatial awareness and choreographic prestidigitation, it is awe-inspiring but any sense of reflection on ‘our history with Cunningham’ is effectively curbed. 

After a short pause in which we watch the mirrors — and our own reflection in them — disappear behind the stage to be replaced by Mark Lancaster’s delightful flourish of a curtain with its tent-like opening, ten of the dancers return for Sounddance. Despite the pedigree of recreation by Meg Harper (from the original cast) and Thomas Caley, some of the classical rigidity Cunningham had encountered at the Paris Opera in 1975 and wanted to jettison in the creation of Sounddance seems to have crept in, either from the dancers’ exhaustion or a technical legacy of upper-body tension; they seem to be doing the movement rather than letting it happen, while entrances and exits are more circumspect than explosive.

In the same review, Bland imagined Diaghilev would have loved Cunningham for ‘talking in the language of today’. But what does ‘the language of today’ mean in a performance archive that is 44 years old? And wasn’t this the question Cunningham wanted to pre-empt as part of his legacy by planning the closure of his company and school after his death?


Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou at Lilian Baylis Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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