Thomas Page Dances, A Moment

Posted: September 21st, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thomas Page Dances, A Moment

Thomas Page Dances, A Moment, Filmed at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, July 3

A Moment, Thomas Page Dances
Thomas Page and Llewelyn Lewis in A Moment (photo: Monika)

In writing the play, Moment of Grace, in 2018, Bren Gosling distilled the stories of three characters whose lives were irrevocably linked through the AIDS pandemic in the UK of the 1980s. Because Gosling was close to people affected — he dedicated the play to the memory of Shane Snape — he was able to incorporate his insights into the psychological stance of each character that allows us to better understand the socio-political environment in which they experienced the disease. The play deals with fear, loss, disgrace, shame and friendship as the scourge of AIDS began to impact the gay community through misinformation and rank prejudice and is based on a historic occasion, the opening in April 1987 by Diana, Princess of Wales, of Britain’s first dedicated AIDS unit at London Middlesex Hospital. In the version I saw, filmed in the first lockdown, Gosling mixes his script with archive video of Diana’s much mediatised visit in which she openly shook hands with nurses, doctors and one of the patients, which did much to counter the misinformation and prejudice around the spread of AIDS. The title’s ‘moment of grace’ links the defiance of Diana’s handshake with the courage of one of the consultants to admit, in conversation with the princess on live television, that he too had AIDS. 

When Gosling suggested to choreographer Thomas Page that he respond to Moment of Grace, the idea was to present both his play and the choreographic response as a double bill. “I am very interested as a writer in collaboration with other creative forms. Also, I wanted to open a dialogue between older and younger generations of LGBTQ people about the English AIDS pandemic. Art is always great for opening up dialogue.” 

Even though Page describes the work on his website as “two performers explor[ing| what it was to be gay in the 80s when the UK was full of fear and ignorance”, is it possible — borrowing from R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience — to know the experience of another, let alone the experience of another forty years ago? Art, it seems, can only make marks on a surface or in space that point to that experience while the audience is left to reconstruct those marks and pointers in their own mind, to distil an emotion of what that original experience might have been. In this sense, A Moment is very much an exploration in movement by the two performers, Page and Llewelyn Lewis, of what it is to be gay today, at a time and in a society where homosexuality is more accepted, and, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, AIDS is no longer a death threat.

The setting of a bare stage under Rachel Luff’s moody lighting and Robert Singer’s evocative score gives A Momenta sense of existing on a raised dais floating in time. An arresting image draws us down to a domestic scene in which Lewis stands centre stage, fully clothed, in an overhead cone of light, repeating the close, enveloping gestures of one taking a shower. Repetition — a choreographic motif favoured by Page — etches the image in our memory while suggesting the languor and routine of the everyday. It is only interrupted by rising side lights signalling Page’s entrance into the space, coming to rest with one foot on one of the many items of clothing scattered around. The presence of clothes responds to a line in Gosling’s play spoken by Andrew as he looks back at his life: “I used to be interested in clothes, clubs, buying records. And men. Now my life…what life?” For Andrew and others in his position the desire for gratification must have seemed so insignificant in the face of death, but for Page and Lewis the clothes seem by contrast to be casual attachments, choices to wear or abandon. Page describes the ensuing duet as ‘moving through themes of paranoia, intimacy and oppression’, but his seismic palette has few ups and downs, few moments in which transitions from one emotion to another are clearly established. To adapt daily movement to the stage as a communicative structure to relay ideas and emotions requires a choreographic vocabulary that has the clarity of language in visual form. Page’s response to Gosling’s play is more an open-ended reverie between two men that softens the contrast between the themes it purports to address, as if Gosling’s social concerns have been replaced by Page’s existential ones. It will be interesting to see the live pairing of the two, as was intended, as an indication, perhaps, of how far the present LGBTQ+ community has developed from the initial AIDS crisis and how much it owes to those who endured it. 

(The two works premiered together at the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival but were transferred during lockdown to the screen, the format in which I saw them).

Cathy Marston’s The Cellist broadcast from the Royal Opera House

Posted: June 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cathy Marston’s The Cellist broadcast from the Royal Opera House

Cathy Marston, The Cellist, from the Royal Opera House, May 29

The Cellist, Marcelino Sambé, Lauren Cuthbertson
Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in The Cellist (photo: Gavin Smart)

Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, broadcast free online from the Royal Opera House as part of its Our House to Your House series, is inspired by and based on the life of the late Jacqueline du Pré, whose remarkable career was cut short at the age of 28 by the onset of multiple sclerosis. She lived for another fourteen years offstage but it is her early life from the discovery of the child prodigy to the end of her performing career that is the subject of Marston’s ballet. 

Du Pré’s emotional understanding and impassioned recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto made it synonymous with her name and popularised it as a major work in the cello repertoire. The score for The Cellist, composed and conducted by Philip Feeney and performed with soloist Hetty Snell, weaves the first movement of the concerto and other themes from du Pré’s repertoire into a musical narrative that follows the storyboard that Marston and dramaturg Edward Kemp lay out as a framework for the choreography. Marston makes the pivotal decision to personify the cello as a dancer (Marcelino Sambé), rather like Fokine’s use of personification in Le Spectre de la Rose. Sambé imbues the role with both dutiful acquiescence and a touching solicitude for Lauren Cuthbertson as du Pré but the coupling has the effect of reducing Cuthbertson’s interpretive agency, the very lifeblood of her art. Although her duets with Sambé are poignant, there is a sense that instead of playing the instrument, Sambé is playing her; he dances while she mimes. Ironically, the palpable bond between musician and her instrument is most apparent in scenes where Sambé watches helpless in the background while Cuthbertson struggles with her fatigue or her inability to play. 

As du Pré’s husband, Matthew Ball plays the self-assertive figure of Daniel Barenboim with charismatic elegance and charm. Like Sambé, he appears to dance Cuthbertson in a way that colours his love with ambition; Marston may be in awe of Barenboim but treats him as a dark prince. Ball’s opening solo on the rostrum ‘conducting’ Cuthbertson and Sambé in the first movement of the Elgar concerto is a highpoint in Marston’s choreographic invention; the full overhead sweep of Ball’s arm, his precise pirouettes and neat jumps on to and off the podium give the impression of someone in full command of his abilities. In the close-ups of Cuthbertson’s face — an advantage of the filmed transmission — one can see her commitment but choreographically she is overshadowed. Du Pré’s gift was her intuitive approach to making music, an internal maelstrom of forces and emotions expressed through the cello, but Marston seems reticent to let Cuthbertson dance out du Pré’s inner world with the physical sensuality and freedom with which she imbued her performances. 

The early years of their relationship saw both Barenboim and du Pré flourish, but it was all too brief. With Ball and Cuthbertson running around Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set, Marston shows effectively the relentless pace of the subsequent international tours Barenboim planned both as soloist and conductor in which du Pré was intimately involved as part of the celebrity couple. 

It is clear from her biography that the seeds of du Pré’s debilitating illness were present before her whirlwind tours with Barenboim started but it is also clear that his concern for his own career did not cease with the end of hers; as a visibly weary Cuthbertson takes a break from circling the globe we see Ball continuing around the corner with undiminished energy in a devilish revoltade. 

In the path from precocious child to international star, du Pré was influenced by her mother, her teachers and her musical colleagues. Apart from a sensitively conceived role for Kristen McNally as her mother and a dreamy young du Pré (Emma Lucano), the other characters seem hastily sketched and the level of characterisation, particularly in terms of mime, is weak to the point of caricature; even Ball defaults to gestures that belong more to Tybalt than to Barenboim. A multifunctional ‘chorus of narrators’ embellishes the set as anthropomorphic furniture, mirrors du Pré’s physical state and embodies the legendary recorded legacy.

If some of the details are weak, the emotional core of The Cellist remains strong. Marston uses Cuthbertson’s dramatic ability to convey du Pré’s physical decline as a triumphant force of spirit over flesh; it’s what makes the stillness of the end, as Ball slips into darkness and Sambé spirals away from her, such a powerful moment, one in which Cuthbertson is once again totally engaged.

Ema, a film by Pablo Larrain with reggaeton and flamethrowing

Posted: May 12th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ema, a film by Pablo Larrain with reggaeton and flamethrowing

Ema, directed by Pablo Larrain

Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema

Film director Pablo Larrain was born in Chile and has evidently immersed himself in the history and politics of the country through cinema. He made a trilogy of films that cover the Pinochet years (Tony Manero, 2008; Post Mortem, 2010; and No, 2012), through which he must have gained an insight into the roots of contemporary Chilean society. In his most recent film, Ema, with a soundtrack by Nicolas Jaar, Larrain and his director of photography, Sergio Armstrong, paint a portrait of youthful life in the city of Valparaiso that is beautiful in an anarchic, hedonistic way but underneath the skin is an intimation of flesh made evil. The Spanish word for evil is ‘el mal’, which when spoken softly and elided sounds like Ema. 

The film can be read at face value as the story of a young reggaeton dancer and teacher, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), who is married to an older, avant-garde choreographer/director, Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal). When the film opens, we learn that since Gastón is infertile (‘a human condom’) the couple had adopted a Colombian child, Polo (Christián Suárez). Things did not work out — Polo set fire to the house, badly burning Ema’s sister — so they returned him to the care of the State. It appears from the social worker (Catalina Saavedra) that the adoption and un-adoption required a certain amount of illicit rule bending on her part for which she was paid under the table. The repercussions play out in a series of revelations that put a strain not only on the marriage but on the group of dancers on whom Gastón choreographs, some of whom are members of Ema’s reggaeton group. Out of this turmoil of mutual recrimination, guilt, corruption and violence, Ema forms her resolve to find Polo at whatever the cost. 

This is where Larrain upgrades his story to a meta-narrative on the lines of Greek tragedy in which Ema’s inner determination merges with an inexorable external force. While her character is grounded in the reggaeton counterculture of Valparaiso, her slicked, platinum appearance is cast as both trendy feminine prototype and mythical vampire. She is handy with a flamethrower — a causal link to Polo’s actions — but her capricious predilection for destroying urban infrastructure goes entirely without civic challenge; for a thriving port city, Valparaiso under Armstrong’s eye becomes a denuded, dystopian backdrop to Ema’s exploits that lends the film an eerie sense of improbability. Such is the nature of dreams, but the dream overlaps strategically with the story. The only time the fire brigade arrives to extinguish a car she has torched is a narrative device to introduce her to one of the firemen, Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), who happens to be Polo’s new adoptive father. Even if Ema admits at the end of the film to having paid a social service psychologist to reveal the names and address of Polo’s new adoptive parents (and presumably their respective professions), she can hardly have anticipated Anibal’s arrival as part of the fire crew. Not content with seducing Anibal and becoming pregnant by him, Ema extends her rapacious scheme to get close to Polo’s new family by hiring Anibal’s wife Raquel (Paola Giannini), a divorce lawyer, to whom she offers seduction as payment for instigating divorce proceedings against Gastón. The folder is closed and the relationship begins. 

Ema’s wanton seduction in pursuit of her goal involves a level of detachment that differentiates her from both her fellow dancers — Gianinna Fruttero as Sonia provides a fine earthy counterbalance — and her victims; the response of the seduced is more alluring than the posing of the seducer. Not even the charismatic presence of Bernal can compete with Di Girolamo’s forensic ambition; but if the meta-narrative of the film is that the politics of charm, seduction and serial determination can only succeed in a corrupt society, Ema’s role is as a psychologically one-dimensional femme fatale. 

By choosing adoption as a theme, Larrain is perhaps alluding to the Pinochet years when babies from poor families were forcibly removed from their mothers to be sent abroad for adoption, and in using the dance form of reggaeton he places the context firmly with a rebellious younger generation that favours sensation over artifice, hedonism over order. Bringing together dance, flamethrowing and adoption as seductive metaphors for confronting the past offers emotional release but no stable solution. Larrain finishes his story with a superficially harmonious reunion of the two disaffected couples and their shared children, but immediately returns in the final scene to the violence of his meta-narrative, where dream and daily life converge once again. At a petrol station Ema is waiting while an attendant fills her portable tank. 

Ema is available to stream on Mubi

The Bolshoi Ballet 2019 Livestream of La Bayadère

Posted: January 28th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet 2019 Livestream of La Bayadère
Bolshoi Ballet La Bayadère
The Bolshoi corps de ballet in the Kingdom of the Shades

The Bolshoi Ballet’s Livestream of La Bayadère, The Gate, January 20

Having seen the livestream of the Bolshoi’s Nutcracker and enjoyed the experience of seeing the production not only in the way it was choreographed but also in the way it was presented so clearly on film, the subsequent livestream of the Bolshoi’s La Bayadère is disappointing.

Considered the final masterpiece of choreographer Marius Petipa, the ballet was first presented at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1877 and comprised four acts. The first three detailed a complex story of love, betrayal, power and jealousy in an exotic Indian Raj context; the third act, known as the Kingdom of the Shades, is a white, ethereal composition of extraordinary beauty that imagines the meeting of the two lovers, Nikya and Solor, in the afterworld, free from the intrigues of the Rajah’s court. It is this act that is often presented alone as La Bayadère but whenever the complete ballet is produced the original four acts are often condensed to three — as in Yuri Grigorovich’s current Bolshoi production — based on Vakhtang Chabukiani’s 1941 version for the Kirov/Maryinsky Ballet: the first act is the introduction of the principal characters and the exposition of the story with lots of mime; the second is the death of Nikiya by poisoning prior to the wedding of Solor and the Rajah’s daughter Gamzatti with all its divertissements, and the final act is the Kingdom of the Shades

There have been many versions and reconstructions since 1877, each of which appears further and further away not so much from Petipa’s choreography, but from the circumstances of La Bayadère’s creation for what was then the Imperial Russian Ballet. That its Tsarist association survived the 1917 Revolution is a story of tenacity and political sleight-of-hand described in Christina Ezrahi’s fascinating book, Swans of the Kremlin, but even as it has become one of today’s most recognizable classical ballets, it is hard to engage in the story. Presenter Katya Novikova suggested the subject of La Bayadère was inspired by Tsarevich Alexander’s recent visit to India; certainly the Indian iconography and music is presented entirely through a western sensibility. The interest in the ballet, beyond the Kingdom of the Shades, lies more with the interpretation of the roles and the quality of the dancing.

In the first two acts, which depend heavily on mime, the performances of Olga Smirnova as Nikiya, Olga Marchenkova as Gamzatti and Artemy Belyakov as Solor never seem to gel, either within themselves, with each other or with the story; the love, jealousy and betrayal are indicated but not fully embodied. In a narrative that is essentially a western orientalist concoction, the portrayal of human values with which we can empathise is vital. The closest Smirnova comes to this — and the closest Petipa came to an oriental inspiration — is in her sensual confession of love for Solor at the feet of Gamzatti in the second act. 

Throughout La Bayadère we are, of course, only present through the subjectivity of the camera lens directed by Isabelle Julien for Pathé Live, and what the camera can see is not necessarily what the audience can see; the intimacy of the closeup is intrusive in a way that a regular view from the audience can never achieve. Classical ballet has prescribed ways of moving and telling stories that belong within the proscenium setting; when select cinematic processes translate these narrative elements to the big screen, they can affect our perception of the art form. Although we will watch intently every move and gesture of a principal dancer during a solo, it is always within the context of the stage setting. Julien’s focus during La Bayadère tends to replace the ‘best seat in the house’ for a contrived point of view; from a purely balletic perspective, it is false. This is particularly noticeable in the famous entrance of the 32 dancers in the Kingdom of the Shades. The choreography forms a slow, painterly procession of arabesque poses that can only be fully appreciated on the scale of the proscenium stage. Julien instead makes a cinematic choice to show only a part of the composition, one that focuses on a narrowly defined vertical angle that removes the magic of the horizontal effect. It is an instance of the live stream inserting its own visual interpretation of the ballet rather than respecting the conventions of balletic perspective; instead of enhancing that perspective through the camera, Julien removes us further from what Petipa had imagined. 

The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

Posted: January 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

The Bolshoi Ballet, The Nutcracker, Livestream, Brighton, December 27

Margarita Shrainer and Semyon Chudin in a scene from The Nutcracker

For the nine years I danced in Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens I performed The Nutcracker so many times — from mid-December to early January every year — that the ballet has become synonymous with Christmas. Even thirty years later the association is so specific that it’s enough for me to hear a few notes of Tchaikovsky’s score to be immersed once again not so much in seasonal celebrations but in the sensory atmosphere of the theatre at that time of year. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ production by Fernand Nault was a colourful retelling of the E.T.A. Hoffman story with lots of children in the first act playing themselves at the Stahlbaum Christmas party and even more playing mice in the ensuing battle with the toy soldiers. The company dancers played elegant, but far too young parents in Act I before the women rushed off to change for the Snow scene while the men fought on against the mice; we were all back for the divertissements in Act II. The memory of that particular production is so engraved on my mind that it has been difficult to watch another Nutcracker with any objectivity. 

Many productions present The Nutcracker as a ‘fun-for-all-the-family’ entertainment, an association that has given Tchaikovsky’s score, despite itself, a false superficiality. The invitation to see the live streaming of Yuri Grigorovich’s 1966 version for the Bolshoi Ballet has broken that spell. The performance was broadcast live on December 23, with a reprise the following week. Directed by Isabelle Julien for Pathé Live, it gives you in effect ‘the best seat in the house’ while also offering glimpses of the dancers warming up on stage before the curtain. In the intermission Katia Novikova interviews the great ballerina Ludmila Semenyaka about Grigorovich’s vision for The Nutcracker and the role of Marie she once danced; she talks with her eyes and hands as if the wonder of discovery is forever embodied. 

Grigorovich’s staging interprets the narrative as Marie’s journey from childhood to adulthood. As explained in Novikova’s introduction, Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker was influenced by the death of his beloved sister Sasha; it has been suggested that the character of Marie came to embody his feelings towards his sister. Grigorovich’s treatment restores the score, played here by the Bolshoi orchestra under the baton of Pavel Klinichev, to a sense of self-worth without betraying the spirit of Marius Petipa’s exacting storyline. The principal characters — Margarita Shrainer as Marie, Semyon Chudin as the Nutcracker and Denis Savin as Drosselmeyer — weave in and out of the two acts as characters whose paths are integral to the entire story rather than as observers or instigators of their own entertainment. At the same time Shrainer’s identity as Marie in both acts lends a sophisticated choreographic continuity between them in which her sense of youthful anticipation and fulfillment is entirely believable. Chudin has a younger alter-ego as the Nutcracker — unfortunately unattributed in the program — whose diminutive, articulate body is played with, fought over, damaged and repaired before giving his life for Marie in the battle against the Mouse King (Alexander Vodopetov) and his army of mice. It is only after seeing the guests depart ‘outside’ the house that we return inside to see the limp body of the Nutcracker under the tree slowly awaken as the Prince. The simplicity and gravitas of this transformation both in the music and the choreography matches the sublime yet deceptively simple opening of the grand pas de deux in the second act; both are moments that indicate clearly this is no longer a children’s ballet but a sophisticated paean to youthful metamorphosis. The national dances Petipa had sketched as divertissements become in Grigorovich’s scheme a metaphor for the richness of cross-cultural exchange. 

Grigorovich’s collaborator, the late Simon Virsaladze, was responsible for the original designs of both set and costumes. He plays with the sense of scale, using the grand Stahlbaum home as a visual reference from which the environment in subsequent scenes grows ever larger as part of a psychological framework rather than a purely visual one; his sense of colour and period costume creates a unity with Grigorovich’s choreography and Tchaikovsky’s score. 

The abundant energy of the performance and one or two suggestions of nervous effort may have been because Grigorovich was reportedly in the audience that night. For the 610th performance of a work he created 52 years ago, it retains its freshness and appeal but more importantly recalibrates the drama of Tchaikovsky’s score in relation to Petipa’s synopsis. 

Jacqui and David Morris: Nureyev, at the Curzon Mayfair

Posted: October 1st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jacqui and David Morris: Nureyev, at the Curzon Mayfair

Jacqui and David Morris, Nureyev, Curzon Mayfair, September 25


Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Marguerite and Armand (photo: Frederika Davis)

Since Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961 there have been so many interviews, news items, reports, articles, performance videos, films and documentaries about him that a new documentary seems almost redundant. What sibling directors Jacqui and David Morris have evidently set out to achieve with their new biopic Nureyev is to expand the dancer’s life for the big screen by not only adding a theatrical treatment of his childhood but by placing his 32 years in the West within the context of the culture and politics of the Cold War. Dance lovers may already be familiar with much of the material — though there are hitherto unseen clips of his performances with Murray Louis, Paul Taylor and Martha Graham companies — but Nureyev is clearly conceived for a wider audience with, for some odd reason, a 12+ certification.

Just two months after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from space in 1961, placing the USSR’s technological achievements in full view of the world, Nureyev dealt a public relations bombshell to his native country by making a dash for freedom at Le Bourget Airport. Gagarin, the young hero and poster boy of the Soviet space program and Nureyev, the young soloist of the Kirov Ballet who had just created a sensation in the company’s Paris performances, may seem worlds apart* but in terms of soviet propaganda they were equally strategic and valuable icons. Nureyev’s defection was a devastating blow to the Soviet image and reprisals were taken against his family and fellow dancers. For Nureyev it was a huge risk whose personal price must have lain heavily on his conscience but he spent the rest of his life living and working voraciously — as the documentary demonstrates — to justify his belief in personal and artistic freedom; he beat the path subsequent classically-trained dancers have followed to experiment with contemporary dance forms. But even if he had left Russia, Russia never left him. The scenes of his return to his home city to visit his ailing mother and former teacher in 1989 for the first time since his defection are intensely moving not only as an insight into the heart of the man but as a reminder of how much he had maintained the values of Russian culture throughout his single-minded pursuit of a dancer’s life in the West.

Because the artist in Nureyev is indistinguishable from his person, the documentary invites us to discover both in what appears as a continuous performance, from footage of his dancing to interviews with Michael Parkinson and Dick Cavett to his detention in a New York police station to an intimate dinner party towards the end of his life in his Paris apartment; he is allowed to define himself in images and words, though rarely his own. There are a couple of clips from Patricia Foy’s 1991 documentary where he talks about his childhood but most of the comments come from his contemporaries, peers and critics as in the delightful appreciations by Antoinette Sibley, Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Gosling and Clement Crisp.

Where Nureyev cannot represent himself is in his early years, for which the directors have substituted choreographic tableaux devised by Russell Maliphant. The invocation of Nureyev’s family in this way, like a film within a film, initially makes sense but as the tableaux try to cover his years in the Kirov school and company they no longer match the extraordinary self-will and charisma of their inspiration, a divergence that the superimposition of Nureyev’s early Kirov performances does little to mitigate. In an attempt to pull together the threads of the story, such cinematic devices, along with written quotations from various sources, generate a dense, rather fussy aesthetic that clutters rather than clarifies the rich canvas of archival material.

It seems in his single-minded desire to make up for lost time — he had only started training at the Kirov Ballet school at the age of 17 — Nureyev was drawn to older and more experienced dancers on whom to model himself and with whom to share his public and private life. One was Erik Bruhn whom he met soon after his defection and their mutual respect is captured in the wonderful footage of them working together at the barre in Vera Volkova’s studio in Copenhagen. The other legendary partnership on and off stage was with Margot Fonteyn and here again their relationship is allowed to speak poignantly through footage of their performances — the balcony scene and the tomb scene in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

For the last decade of his life Nureyev was director of the Paris Opera Ballet, building a legacy that endures in the Nureyev Foundation, who supported the making of this documentary; in suggesting there hasn’t been anybody to replace him in the ballet world, Nureyev is a convincing tribute.

*One of the many items flung onstage during Nureyev’s first season in Paris was a headshot of Gagarin with a message at the bottom reading, Soar, Rudi, Soar! 

Vincent Dance Theatre, Shut Down, Onca Gallery, Brighton Festival

Posted: June 1st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vincent Dance Theatre, Shut Down, Onca Gallery, Brighton Festival

Vincent Dance Theatre, Shut Down, Onca Gallery, Brighton Festival, May 24

Shut Down

Janusz Orlik and Jack Sergison in Shut Down (photo: Bosie Vincent)

Shut Down is a confluence of the current sexual politics whirling around the #MeToo campaign and Charlotte Vincent’s 30-year concern with gender politics at the heart of her work since she started her company in 1994. It’s Vincent’s first all-male work, and as dancer Robert Clark explains at the beginning as if introducing a BBC documentary on the subject and very much aware that he is also one of the subjects under scrutiny, it’s ‘about men’. Shut Down appears at the Brighton Festival as a film installation at Onca Gallery, but it has also been conceived as a live performance. Bosie Vincent’s stunning visual transformation of the choreography projected on a row of six screens takes advantage of the medium to present the work not only in the context of a stage setting but also transposes sections to the landscape and architecture of East Sussex and Kent. By adjusting our gaze and focus from the particular to the panoramic, from the individual to the ensemble, and from interior to exterior, he adds layers of meaning to the conceptual framework of the choreography.

The stage setting will be familiar to those who have seen Vincent’s Motherland, with its black and white costumes on a white floor that extends up the back wall on which words and designs can be scrawled in charcoal as part of a shorthand that links ideas and emotions with choreographic gesture; we can read Vincent’s work as well as see it. In the case of Shut Down, the writing on the back wall of the theatre starts with the word MAN in capital letters — what Clark suggests is ‘the problem’ — and grows in the course of the work into a complex lexicography of descriptive, angry, caustic and mocking words and phrases about the current state of manhood. In her focus on gender inequality, Vincent has not held men in high esteem and has judged them, as in Motherland, in contradistinction to women. In Shut Down, there is no contradistinction, no emotional or behavioural reference; this is a roast in which men of three generations (Clark, Jake Evans, Janusz Orlik, Jack Sergison, Marcus Faulkner and James Rye) act out their stereotypes of masculinity in the absence of women.

In the program note, Vincent writes that ‘Shut Down grapples with the personal and the political: the urge to fight, to love, to come together, to be yourself, to be what’s expected of you, to break the rules. The work shines a fierce and sometimes funny light on misogyny, role modelling, fatherhood, ‘otherness’ and how we fail to engage with young men and their emotional needs. The voices of young people are urgent and moving in the work — they show us, as a society, where we really are.’

Vincent shines a warm light on the young men and they play their role of foils to their elders with a poignant innocence. Evans is a particularly charismatic performer who is allowed the freedom to embrace the fullness of his ‘otherness’. The focus of Vincent’s scorn is on the older generation who are set up as white sexual predators, figures lacking empathy, lost, or all three; she does not let them evolve outside a visual and choreographic image that excoriates them, a generalized construct verging on misandry. Clark and Orlik seem destined to illustrate all that is wrong with men and are all too keen to plead guilty to all offences; they are placed on the firing line and given the rifles. There is no humour in Shut Down that is not caustic or sardonic, no play that is not illustrative of a breakdown in relations. The one who is allowed to escape this sense of failed masculinity is Sergison who is nevertheless balanced precariously between youth and the conflicted trap of manhood. In the final game of hide-and-seek where he is abandoned by the others, his frustration — ‘Guys, you always do this to me’ — is a moment where the imagery gains in power from the words and the words resonate with the imagery. Elsewhere in Shut Down the subject of maleness is too often betrayed by a verbal and conceptual content, underlined by Eben’flo’s raw, castigatory spoken word, that acts like a web in which the older men are hung out to dry. As the three generations dance around a burning fire towards the end in an act of communal resolution the filmed image is superimposed by Vincent’s crackling flames with their traditional connotation of Hell. These men don’t stand a chance.

Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

Posted: August 9th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

AΦE, WHIST, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, July 31

WHIST, by AΦE (photo: Paul Plews)

Good stories are like those noble wild animals that make their home in hidden spots, and you must often settle down at the entrance of the caves and woods and lie in wait for them a long time.” – Herman Hesse

WHIST is the first major work for Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi who formed the company AΦE in 2013. Inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, it invites us on a journey exploring the fears, desires and unconscious minds of a fictional family. Wearing a Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headset and headphones this is a solo experience (for a maximum of 20 people at a time) in the carpeted third-floor foyer of the Festival Theatre. After a pre-show briefing and orientation by the FOH staff we are invited to put on the headset and headphones and to follow the early instructions for triggering scenes by lining up our gaze with a small blue dot.
It’s made clear that there are 76 different perspectives and that who/what/where we look at when we’re ‘inside’ WHIST determines the next scene we watch; it’s a classic branching narrative device that is very prominent in non-linear video game design. Imagine a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book where the agency rests entirely with you; you map out your own path and are responsible for your next 45 minutes.

At times we’ll want to escape our polluted reality…not augment it with digital debris.”- Clyde DeSouza

The fantasy dream space of lust and Oedipal urges that Freud explored is ripe territory for a theatrical VR response; alongside their technology partner, Happy Finish, AΦE has created 20+ filmed scenes set variously in a dilapidated cottage, photographic studios and warehouses where you are introduced to the family gnawing on human hearts, waltzing with bird cages and evaporating into ping pong balls. With the headset on you’re limited in your ‘real’ movement and aren’t able to move through the VR space; you’re a static witness to the three- or four-minute filmed scenes from a single fixed camera perspective not of your choosing. I’m invited into this world though I’m unsure of my role. Am I an invisible voyeur? An additional family member? Something/one else? Without the clarity of who I am and my relationship to those around me it’s difficult to emotionally invest or empathise. The perspective changes across the scenes; sometimes we assume the head of the father, sometimes the camera is at knee height, sometimes on a silver platter and other times we’re inside a CCTV camera. Our virtual scale oscillates regularly but I’m unsure for what purpose.

Nakamura and Fourmi have created a number of other shorter screen, interactive and stage works before WHIST and are also members of the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Vardimon is the creative mentor for WHIST). The visually rich spectacle that has become Vardimon’s signature is laced throughout the work; be it a performer emerging from a wicker basket frantically scrawling indecipherable chalk symbols on the floor or an eerie motionless accordion player barely pressing the keys yet the sounds make it into your ear, the images stay with you.

It is a predisposition of human nature to consider an unpleasant idea untrue, and then it is easy to find arguments against it.” – Sigmund Freud

WHIST (named after Whist House in Kent where the work was filmed) defines itself as a ‘one-hour experience merging physical theatre, interactive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and an art installation, in an environment that blurs the boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and fiction, the physical and the virtual’. I find this language hugely alienating; in a cultural landscape of marketing hyperbole this description signals to a niche crowd and does little to provide clear and plain English entry points to the 92% of non-arts attenders.

An audience will predominantly experience a work only once and I found my first experience of WHIST quite unsatisfying; it’s physically limiting, generates a huge sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) as there are 75 other possible scenarios that I’ve not seen, and the technological fidelity and finish isn’t as crisp as it could be (you can often see the glitches where the 360 degree cameras meet and bodies warp momentarily). However, I went in for a second time — now familiar with the rules, the technology and the characters I had the chance to play with the interactivity of the work and it was richly rewarding. I found some of those alternative branching narratives (unlocking 3 new scenes along the way) and whereas in the first experience I didn’t feel in control and had a real sense of time rushing past me, during the second time there was a chance for greater depth, focus and the ability to find some of the triggers and nuances that are artfully hidden in the work. There’s a suite of scientific research from eye tracking studies that reveals hot spots and how our eyes are often drawn to movement that emerges from stillness on a screen/stage; I made a commitment to focus on one character in my second experience, tracking their journey and watching their reaction and interactions with others even though at times I knew there were other things happening outside my 80-degree viewing angle and that the other 280 degrees would have to go unwatched.

Just before the credits roll you’re given a number on screen which if you enter into AΦE’s website will translate into a loose interpretation/analysis of the route you’ve taken through WHIST. Using some faux Freudian language it’s desired aim is ‘to inspire questions, reflections and insights into the unique meaning the performance may have for you.’ However it comes across more like the end-of-the-pier Zoltar fortune telling machine from Big dishing out the same message to anyone who’s gullible enough to feed it some money (there was a LOT of repetition when I entered my two separate numbers).

Although there is little visible dancing in WHIST, but there is a definite choreographic consideration and execution in how our solo bodies experience those that are presented to us and the world they inhabit. WHIST rewards the audience and encourages multiple viewings as it unlocks more scenes, greater depth, hidden easter eggs and more of that luscious branching narrative.

Marcus Waterloo, We have bled

Posted: July 1st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Film | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Marcus Waterloo, We have bled

Marcus Waterloo, We Have Bled, Frame Film Festival, Rose Theatre, June 10

Rosa Antuña in a still from We have bled

Rosa Antuña in a still from We have bled

The director of We have bled, Marcus Waterloo, was not able to attend the film’s showing due to illness, but the film’s producer, André Semenza, very kindly agreed to ask him my questions about his approach to the film. I have used some of Waterloo’s responses written from hospital.

Apart from the opportunity to see dance live on stage, film is the most effective medium for capturing the dance elements of movement, line, rhythm, and colour. But a seat in the theatre offers both a fixed distance to the dancers and a fixed perspective. Film has the advantage of moving the audience exactly where the director wants; both the distance and perspective can change as well as the frame of vision and the clarity of focus.

A film by Marcus Waterloo, We have bled, shown at the Frame Film Festival in Kingston, emphasised these advantages so much it stood out for pushing beyond ‘dance on film’ and even ‘dance as film’ to a mature creative genre of ‘film as dance’. Waterloo was director of photography for another film at Frame, the full length Sea Without Shore (2015) by directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi, with whom he has worked since 1998, notably on Ashes of God (2003). His cinematography is rich in colour, meticulously framed and he has a feel for choreographic space; he doesn’t simply follow dancers but enhances their movement with his camera work. For some time Waterloo has also directed, filmed and edited his own short dance films, of which We Have Bled is the most recent and the longest he has made in this genre.

Waterloo did not start with a vision for the film; as he writes, ‘Everything started with Fernanda and André, and the possibilities that came up when Rosa was in town; we felt “let’s get together and see what happens.” I know that something always happens when we get together, a sort of magic. I was not going to bring the camera to the first rehearsal but I did, and I am so glad I did.’

Waterloo joined the three dancers — Lippi, Rosa Antuña and Kirill Burlov — in a dance studio observing through his lens ‘…the interactions and natural energies between the people’ that Lippi had orchestrated through task-oriented choreography and improvisation. He was interested simply in ‘watching people; people, like little creatures, and what the creatures are up to…It’s as if I want to swim and flow with other humans. There is no ‘grand statement’ — it’s simply part of the process of being human, the poetry of it…It’s like dancing with other people.’

It was in the first edit that Waterloo perceived in the images what he describes as, ‘a compassionate look at the turmoil in our relationships; when we exhaust ourselves and can turn to a place of surrender and acceptance. We cannot be anything else but human, it’s an inevitability of life: to acknowledge we will hurt a little on the way.’

Cued to piano music by Kai Engel, we see the dancers alone or in pairs, close up or at a distance, framed within the architectural space; within that frame there are others because Waterloo glances at the moving bodies through windows, through reflections in windows, through doorways, at the end of passages and from behind the studio’s barres. The motion of the camera sets up a tantalising superimposition of bodies and architecture moving in and out of focus within and through the frame — sometimes multiple frames within the same shot — at different rhythms. In the editing Waterloo thus sets up a poetic syntax that enhances what we see, building emotional traces like brush strokes on a canvas. This process, Waterloo writes, is like ‘excavating the human heart…The film is about people: you see straight into people’s hearts and souls, and what is possible — what great potential there is. Editing is about totally surrendering; it’s a natural response.’

The originality of We have bled is in its creation of an intoxicating juxtaposition of choreographic images to create the suggestion of a narrative. The starting point was not conceptual but instinctual: ‘I see the beauty of humans drifting past all the time, like a grand archaeological and architectural display. Filming is knowing where you are going to dig. You have an inkling that there is something under the surface, so “let’s set up and dig”. When something is revealed, you just continue digging…it’s a response, an experience…’

Marcus Waterloo’s website

Vimeo page:


Ten days after writing this, in the afternoon of July 11, 2016, Marcus Waterloo succumbed calmly to his illness.

Zikzira Physical Theatre: Sea Without Shore

Posted: April 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Zikzira Physical Theatre: Sea Without Shore

Zikzira Physical Theatre: Sea Without Shore, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, London, March 19

Lívia Rangel and Fernanda Lippi in the film Sea Without Shore

Lívia Rangel and Fernanda Lippi in the film Sea Without Shore

The term ‘dance on film’ can conjure up banks of onstage cameras, screens, computers, technical wizardry and animation in which dance and technology interact like self-conscious collaborators, but here is a dance film on a cinematic scale that simply eschews dialogue for movement. Sea Without Shore is the second film of director André Semenza and choreographer/dancer Fernanda Lippi; the first was Ashes of God. Both films have a fluid narrative driven by intricate direction, superb camera work, fine performances, sensitive scores and breathtaking locations. None of the action takes place on a stage — the stage is the screen — but in countryside or in buildings with an air of abandon or infused with the dying breath of a bygone era. Sea Without Shore is set in rural Sweden, in a summerhouse on a small island built by a wealthy 19th century publisher. The scenery is romantic, remote and ideally suited to the nature of solitude, love and death of which the film speaks. ‘Dissolving under the impact of the loss of her soul mate, a woman is drawn by unknown forces into the depth of mid-winter forests, into spheres of her subconscious.’ While there is no dialogue, Sea Without Shore is not a silent film; it has a score composed by The Hafler Trio (aka Andrew M. McKenzie) threaded with Chopin nocturnes, Parisian accordion and a Swedish folk dance band, and there are two narrators who recite lines of sapphic verse like a stream of consciousness from the 17th century poet Katherine Philips and the fin-de-siècle poets Renée Vivien and Algernon Charles Swinburne. In the version I saw, the narrators recite these fragments in Swedish over English subtitles but the images are so strong and contain within them such poignant clues to the story there is barely any need for the subtitles, even if you don’t understand Swedish. The poetry — and the way it is read by Lippi and Marcela Rosas — adds an ethereal, otherworldly dimension.

As soon as we see the opening image of dense green forest it is clear there is someone with an extraordinary eye behind the camera. Marcus Waterloo is not simply behind the camera but very much immersed in the countryside and in the lives of the film’s characters. His camera work is an integral element of Lippi’s choreography and Semenza’s direction; we see everything through his eye and his eye sees everything through the prism of the poetry. It is this depth of integration between all the film’s elements that makes Sea Without Shore so rich.

“Till the secret be secret no more” is the opening line of the film, taken from Swinburne’s Triads, that opens us to the sense of space and loneliness, of love and loss, of a mysterious beauty within a beauty that is all around. Sea Without Shore, like its title, has no clear boundary; it’s primary narrative is the relationship between two women whom we first see (but do not hear) conversing intimately on an elegant turn-of-the-century sofa that has seen better days. This initial image is suffused with the suggestion of life and decay, ease and dis-ease, love and death, light and dark, past and present that emerge and recede throughout the film: the two warm-blooded horses trudging through the snow with the bodies of two women draped over their backs; Lívia Rangel’s faded, fraying dress that matches the brocade wallpaper against which she stands, and Lippi and Rangel floating head to foot fully dressed in the water, like two Ophelias.

The images carry the film forward and back like horizontal time but there are several choreographed soliloquies in which the power of dance drills down into the consciousness of the individual. In her choreography Lippi focuses on the torso, on the emotional core of the body; Rangel is eloquent even when her movement is understated or still and Waterloo knows precisely when to close in or to keep his distance, as if he were part of her inner dialogue. There is a memorable, dark duet in the woods in which Rangel and Anna Mesquita af Sillén work themselves into a trance of grief.

Sea Without Shore is created in such a way that the sense of impending crisis is never far away; the film doesn’t build in a narrative way but instead adds layers of intensity upon images of ethereal beauty to the point of exquisite pain. If death is a release, it is where the poetry, the images, the dance and the music resolve in Rangel’s final, fateful decision. Sea Without Shore raises the level of dance on film to dance as film. Shot in luscious CinemaScope, it is a production that is best experienced in an intimate, comfortable cinema. There are still opportunities to see it in this way; just check venues, dates and times on the Sea Without Shore Facebook page.