Normal Conditions/Nicola Conibere in Carareretetatakakers

Posted: October 16th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Normal Conditions/Nicola Conibere in Carareretetatakakers

Normal Conditions, Nicola Conibere, Carareretetatakakers, Lilian Baylis Studio, October 14

Annie Hanauer, Helka Kaski and Adrienne Ming in Carareretetatakakers (photo: Christa Holka)

When a word is repeated faster and faster or fed through an electronic sampler, its sound can become dissociated from its original meaning through a process known as semantic satiation. It certainly happened to the title of Nicola Conibere’s new work, Carareretetatakakers, presented in her debut at the Lilian Baylis Studio on October 14. In a recorded section where the word ‘caretaker’ is repeated and sampled, the audible stretch covers a relatively anodyne ‘characters’ to what sounded like ‘kerry terriers’ and even ‘hairy dentist’. Just as the sampled sound of the word makes us wonder what we are hearing, the linear progression of Carareretetatakakers questions what we are seeing and, by extension, how we can understand the very notion of ‘taking care’. 

As we enter the triangular space with seating on its three sides, three performers — Helka Kaski, Annie Hanauer and Adrienne Ming — are already communing in a casual physical groove with Duncan MacLeod’s score of electronic bleeps. Lucille Acevedo-Jones’s costumes with large ruffled collars in shades of green, blue and lilac with matching smudges of lipstick have connotations of reptilian beings, where the calculated insouciance and concentrated immersion of the trio in their movement make our attendance feel superfluous. This technique of task-based choreography can have the effect of alienating an audience from the notion of performance, which may be its purpose; to place it at the beginning of a work is both a bold statement and a risky proposition. In the freesheet offered as we exit the theatre there is an example of a task called Multipoints that may well have been used to generate the opening sequence: ‘Find 3 points in your body, say one in your shoulder, one in your hip, and one in your knee. Let’s call them 1,2 & 3. Find 3 metronomes…set each to a contrasting rhythm, called a, b & c. Try to get point 1 to pulse to rhythm a. And point 2 to rhythm b. And point 3 to rhythm c. Try to do them all at the same time.’ 

Because Kaski, Hanauer and Ming are seasoned, charismatic artists, the effect of these shared circadian rhythms is hypnotic; there is neither self-consciousness nor pretension in their performance. Developing additional tasks that bring into play their musicality, idiosyncratic ways of moving and sense of humour, they lead us on through choreographic notions of support and care towards an expected apotheosis that will validate both the work and our presence. But Conibere has other ideas, ones that pull the theatrical mat from under our feet without ever letting on that this is her aim. As we can read in another section of the freesheet mystifyingly entitled “Meat/Yam juices on foil”, ‘How can we discover an inefficient movement vocabulary? How can we work with inefficient and wasteful choreographic structure? What would they mean, look like and do?’ And in response, ‘We discovered: multiple ways to deliberately disrupt, to frustrate to refuse flow. (We then noted how many very different forms of dance are nonetheless defined by flow). That expressions of stuttering and awkwardness and stalling offer forms for imagining relation differently.’

This last observation is significant, because it supports a gestural approach to communication that, while designed to be used performatively in a theatrical setting, is close to social life outside the theatre. The destabilization of Carareretetatakakers is that it undermines the notion of going to the theatre for entertainment (one audience member evidently realised this early on and walked out) and yet fulfils the notion of theatre as a mirror of the society in which we live. ‘Stuttering, awkwardness and stalling’ could be considered all the more relevant during the speculative opening up of society in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Confidence and flow are in short supply. 

What the three performers nevertheless achieve — and offer as an effective antidote — is the cohesion of their relation; theirs is a conspiracy of collusion that leads them to encourage and support each other, the essence of taking care as performative ethics. The dance training of each — Hauer in ballet, Ming in jazz and Kaski in contemporary dance — is a metaphor for difference, but the inspiration they express through these forms, however deconstructed, becomes the way the three interact with, overlap and sustain each other.  

The structure of Carareretetatakakers, from its use of triangular space to MacLeod’s musical collage of classical and jazz quotes over a metronomic beat, to its choreographic stuttering, awkwardness and stalling, all indicate that Conibere has set out not to indulge the audience. And yet, in her choice of cast, she has harnessed her structure to human values that transcend it.  


Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, TooMortal, Saint Pancras Church, September 24

Posted: October 10th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, TooMortal, Saint Pancras Church, September 24

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, TooMortal, Saint Pancras Church, September 24

Shobana Jeyasingh, TooMortal
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in Too Mortal (photo: Yaron Abulafia)

For a site-specific choreographic work like Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal, conceived as a dance work for historic churches, the site itself is as much the subject as the choreography. Commissioned by the Venice Biennale, London’s Dance Umbrella, Stockhom’s Dansens Hus and Belgrade’s BITEF Festival within the European Network of Performing Arts (ENPARTS), TooMortal was first performed in St. George’s Anglican Church in Venice in 2012. Jeyasingh was attracted to a feature common to the churches in which TooMortal played: the box pew, designed for 17th and 18th century protestant services as an enclosed place in which family groups could listen to the sermon. In England, the Victorian proclivity for updating churches very often led to box pews being ripped out in favour of the open variety. London’s Saint Pancras Church, designed in 1819 in the Greek Revival style by William Inwood and his son, Henry William, was one of the last London churches to have box pews and one of the few to retain them. It was in this glorious interior that the 20-minute TooMortal was presented on September 24th. 

The sound of a single bell leads us into the church and into Cassiel’s sound installation, while the symbolism of Yaron Abulafia’s lighting, with its triangulation of the interior space made sculptural through a dense haze, imposes itself on our sensibility as we stand in the chancel looking down the nave at the rows of box pews that have become effectively a sectioned, three-dimensional stage. The choreographed space nevertheless remains close to its religious function, mediating between the tangible aspect of social life — more notable after the pandemic’s long period of enforced isolation — and the contemplation of mortality.  

At first the 12 dancers remain hidden inside their respective pews until the music summons them to emerge as if rising from the grave of their circumscribed fate. With each dancer in matching red dresses by Ursula Bombshell in each of six symmetrical pews arranged equally on either side of the nave of the church, TooMortal weaves together its constituent elements to map a contrapuntal journey of heavenly aspirations driven by a remix of James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories that Cassiel has incorporated into his soundscape. The religious nature of the musical subject further enriches the sense of ecclesiastical space while giving the choreography the rhythmic pulse of steam turbines that gradually fragment into heavenly voices. 

Jeyasingh delves into the rich emotional states of her dancers to fuel this philosophical exploration of containment, both in social and religious terms. The pews are deep, so the focus of the choreography often appears to be from the waist up, a locus of emotional and intellectual processes. Integrated into this broad range of physical expression — from unbridled rage to concentrated meditation — are fleeting visual elements of Christian iconography like the horizontal pose of a crucifixion that reinforce the nature of the site while eliciting in the observer a metaphysical response of introspection and solace.

Soon after seeing TooMortal, I came across a dissertation by Lisa Marie Bowler on Theatre Architecture as Embodied Space, in which she writes, ‘The purpose of site-specific or immersive theatre work is often to destabilise any notion of a fixed social reality even further, by negotiating and reconfiguring how these spaces are used.’ Uncannily, such destabilization is evident in TooMortal through its many inversions: between the vertical aspiration of faith and the horizontal aspect of the performance; between the predominant patriarchy of the Church and the all-female cast; between the placement of the congregation and the altar, and between the sombre weight of the architecture and the lightness and fury of the dance. And given the nature of the site, which inherently invokes the historical past, the quality of the live performance is very much in the present as we watch the dancers in their finite space manifesting an all-consuming desire to transcend their physical boundaries. Sometimes confrontational, sometimes lost in their own suffering, they nevertheless seem moved by an intractable but invisible hand. Only towards the end do they make physical contact with each other, tentative at first but then interlocking over the pews, gestures of solidarity and love. The dancers never confront the audience; they are embroiled with each other in their own existential preoccupations as if we were not present. At the end, they stand with their gaze fixed on the infinite as if their identities had departed, and as the light and music fade, we see these corporeal Wilis slowly descend into the oblivion of their wooden tombs. 


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).


KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre

Posted: September 14th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre

KVN Dance Company, Coppelia, The Cockpit Theatre, September 2

KVN Dance Company in Coppelia
KVN Dance Company in Coppelia © Andrea Whelan

In 1934, Adrian Stokes wrote about the relationship between action and music in ballet: “The action does not interpret the music, nor the music the action. They would appear to belong to different atmospheres. Yet they cannot be held apart, since the picture they compose is unforgettable.” This is very much the impression of the opening night of KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia at The Cockpit Theatre. Here the ‘different atmospheres’ include the costumes, sets and lighting, each on their individual layers of experience, that combine with the cast to create a high-octane performance that is in turn heightened by the proximity of the audience to the action.  

This is not a revival of the already much revived Coppelia choreographed in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon to a score by Léo Delibes, but, borrowing from contemporary musical jargon, a re-mix. Taking the traditional ballet’s narrative structure as a starting point, choreographer/director Kevan Allen, composer Rickard Berg and sound designer Henri Latham-Koenig have produced a masterful mashup of dance styles, sounds and popular Delibes tunes with turntable-inspired rhythms and beats that transform the action into the immediate present. Wendy Olver’s costumes, too, displace the characters from classical ballet to a sophisticated enclave of extrovert bohemians, in contrast to Justin Williams’ modular set retaining the sylvan character of the original. Throughout KVN Dance Company’s production of Coppelia these similarities to and divergences from the traditional ballet endlessly encourage and subvert our expectations. 

Coppelius is a maker of automata, or mechanical dolls, and his great project is to give life to one of them, his ‘daughter’ Coppelia. His persona is a fusion of three characters in ETA Hoffman’s eerie psychological short story, Der Sandmann. One is a shady itinerant oculist selling lenses, another an alchemist and the third a physics professor versed in occult sciences with a Promethean desire to create life in his mechanical dolls (Der Sandmann was published just two years before Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein). There is no place for the uncanny in the Delibes score, however, with the result that Saint-Léon’s doctor is downgraded to an eccentric but misguided doll maker in a small German village. Despite Allen’s desire to question “why Dr. Coppelius was so intent on creating a life-sized clockwork doll for himself”, and his brief suggestion of an answer in erotic gratification, his characterization of Coppelius (Michael Downing), remains — despite Berg’s promptings — more Saint-Léon than Freud.

Allen maintains the traditional setting of the ballet, dividing the action between the village square outside Dr. Coppelius’ studio in Act 1 and the inside of his workshop in Act 2. With a quick reversal of elements, Williams’ set suggests what is outside and what is inside, but they are insufficient to counter the choreographic similarity between the acts, making the two joined scenes of the second act appear a variation of the first. This is also because Olver’s tastefully exaggerated costumes blur the distinction of the characters between villagers and a successful rollout of Coppelius’ dolls. In the first act the balance of all the elements works so well that the occasional longueurs of classical ballet — the drawing out of the narrative into entertaining divertissements — appear to pass over into the latter part of the production. Nevertheless, the thread of the story is still clear through the interactions between Franz (Danny Fogarty), Swanhilda (Marina Fraser) and the doctor, while the other characters swirl around and through them as forces that maintain their prodigious energy and colour from beginning to end. 

KVN’s remix of Coppelia is Allen’s first production for his new company and is clearly a vehicle for his brand of artistic fusion. Under Mike Robertson’s lighting, the costumes, music, sound and choreography work brilliantly together, each egging the others on to greater expression, but by the end the story tends to melt away into the performance. It begs the question of what Allen will do next with his expressive palette. There is a sharpness and an awareness in his choreography that points perhaps to an energetic satire, a field of dance that is sadly under-represented in an era that desperately needs it. Rather than following the well-mined route of updating classical ballets, Allen and his team could give a contemporary choreographic edge to a period costume drama, for example, or a comedy of errors. With a sharper focus, their populist approach, humorous touch, choreographic asides and excellent handling of form could provide a vital antidote to the current sense of malaise.   


Breakin’ Convention 2020: Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: January 12th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Dance on Screen, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Breakin’ Convention 2020: Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells

Breakin’ Convention, Social DisDancing, Sadler’s Wells, December 11

Breakin' Convention Jonzi D
Jonzi D as MC (photo @Belinda Lawley)

Yes! A live performance at Sadler’s Wells in a brief respite from Covid restrictions. The subtitle of Jonzi D’s Breakin’ Convention riffs on government guidelines to produce Social DisDancing, an event tailored for a smaller audience at Sadler’s Wells than would normally attend this annual celebration of hip hop, proscribed by current safety regulations assiduously carried out by the theatre staff. 

Since its inception in 2004 Breakin’ Convention has mapped ‘the origins and evolution of hip hop culture from around the world and around the corner’. Embodied in its ethos is a resistance to the norms of western theatre art and a choreographic celebration of Black identity, channelling the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement long before it materialised. The killings of George Floyd — once a rapper affiliated with Houston’s Screwed Up Click — Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland are three recent reminders in the U.S. of the systemic racial violence that constantly feeds into hip hop’s emotional charge.  

Looking at the three stage performances and two films presented at this year’s Breakin’ Convention, the notion of resistance and defiance is ingrained in the choreography both in its physical power and unyielding psychology, but the enemy is sometimes within. Mental health issues are prominent in O’Driscoll Collective’s One%, where oppression is internalized as a struggle between bboy Marius Mates and his shadow, Jamaal O’Driscoll, while in Botis Seva’s solo filmed portrait of depression, Can’t Kill Us All, he takes themes of his BLKDOG and personalizes them, with his young rambunctious son as an antidote to his own dark state of life. The framing of the film by Ben Williams adds to the impression of suffocation in Seva’s powerfully tactile performance, drawing a parallel between the politics of mental health and those of racial discrimination. 

Breakin' Convention Axelle 'Ebony' Munezero
Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Our Bodies Back

Jonzi D’s film, Our Bodies Back, created with poet and performance artist jessica Care moore, is overt political resistance not only to the murder of Black women but to the pervasive anti-Black attitude to women. Three dancers in three cities — Nafisa Baba in London, Bolegue Manuela in Hanover and Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Montreal — each choreographed their response to moore’s words, filmed by three cameramen and seamlessly edited by Ben Williams. The power of each of these women is self-evident, but if their choreographic resistance takes its coiled force from the incendiary anger of moore’s delivery, it also extends through their bodies into an expression of hope and freedom, giving anger wings. The outdoor settings in which they are filmed may have helped this impression, but it’s also in moore’s metaphor of the body as both crime scene and source of inspiration. Invoking Judith Jamieson and Katherine Dunham, she incites these black, female bodies to continue resisting with unfettered confidence; Munezero resists with eloquence, Manuela with power and a Baba with soaring spirit. 

In Boy Blue Entertainment’s Untethered 3.0 there is an overt sense of existential oppression that explodes in passages of virtuosic solo and ensemble dance. Here, the men (and Nicey Belgrave) remain resolutely within a style that has the aggressive DNA of hip hop while remaining self-referential; unlike in Can’t Kill Us All and Our Bodies Back, there is no way out. And yet, at the end when the cast relaxes and smiles to the applause of the crowd, the mask of aggression drops for a natural expression of joy. Could this not be a starting rather than an end point? Resistance can take many forms: in an early work, Aeroplane Man, Jonzi-D demonstrated a form of resistance filtered through his ebullient, sardonic wit and a freedom of movement grammar. It communicates on many levels and is still relevant today. How relevant will Untethered 3.0 be in 10 years? 

Breakin' Convention Hip Hop A.I.M Collective
The cast of A,I.M Collective in Suspended (photo: @Belinda Lawley)

The all-female A.I.M Collective’s Suspended was the one stage work that had no difficulty in exuding an exhilarating sense of mystery. The technical acuity of the performers is clear and there is an imagination at work in the choreography — the work was created by the company’s founder, Sean Aimey, along with the cast — that breaks up the force into contrasting filigree elements. The result is a sense of strength and resilience that breathes self-confidence.        

In choreographic terms, there’s a danger that a genre as powerful as hip hop can become trapped in its own form (the same can happen with a genre like ballet where the past fails to adapt to the present). What Our Bodies Back and Suspended seem to suggest is that female intuition and power have a vital role to play in the development of hip hop and of Breakin’ Convention in particular. 


Ian Abbott on Pagrav Dance Company’s Kattam Katti

Posted: October 20th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Pagrav Dance Company’s Kattam Katti

Pagrav Dance Company, Kattam Katti, Cambridge Junction, October 7

Pagrav Dance Company in Kattam Katti (photo: Ian Abbott)

In the current political climate in the UK, making, rehearsing and presenting art takes courage because of the barriers the government are actively erecting to make it almost impossible for freelancers to survive and to not leave the sector — not only performers but also producers who are attempting to support dance, music and other performing arts.

There are many theories as to why this is happening, but financial return to the exchequer cannot be one of them. In the week I was invited to see a production of Kattam Katti by Pagrav Dance Company (PDC) in a closed performance at Cambridge Junction, Arts Council England published research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research that the value to the UK economy of the arts and culture sector is £13.5 billion and employs more than 230,000 people.

PDC has been working on iterations of Kattam Katti for over two years; it was originally due to premiere earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells with additional dates at Folkstone’s Quarterhouse and Milton Keynes’ MK Gallery. The company describes the work as: ‘Created by Urja Desai Thakore it transports its audience to Uttarayan, the world-famous kite festival that takes place in Gujarat, North India. Tales of competition, danger, excitement and unity in a landscape that wonderfully evokes both the solemnity and delight of this hugely important celebration are vividly brought to life…a neo classical work with a contemporary feel and strong roots in the South Asian dance tradition. It features original music, performed live, by four musicians who interact with and move around the four dancers.’

Offering employment for over 20 freelancers (4 dancers, 4 musicians, film crew, and production staff) for anywhere between a week and four weeks during this time is an act of courage; Thakore and creative producer Nina Head are to be applauded for achieving this. The performance I saw was three-and-a-half weeks back into rehearsal and the final two days of the week were dedicated to creating a new screen dance version by The Motion Dance Collective which will be released further down the line.

In 50 minutes, Thakore has created a snapshot of Uttarayan, a glimpse into some of the windows, characters, joys and physical rituals involved in making, flying, battling and celebrating kites at the festival. We see explicitly how the kites are constructed with the abrasive manja string that is coated with coloured, powdered glass that cuts your competitor’s string and, as Subhash Viman Gorania mimes, can cut your own skin, too. In the classical and contemporary kathak and bharatanatyam work I’ve seen before, musicians and singers are fixed either stage left or right and remain seated throughout the performance, lessening their presence and impact as live performers. What is refreshing in Kattam Katti is that the musicians are unfixed; they themselves are like kites traversing the stage on the winds of their own musicality, providing physical and aural emphasis to the choreography. Praveen Pratap on flute is particularly accomplished in his physicality and abhinaya whilst creating rippling melodies that cover the stage. The benefits of having the musicians and singers move — and move comfortably — around the stage is that Thakore has built her cast of 8 into an ensemble equivalent to the size of a Scottish Dance Theatre or Motionhouse production, creating a sense of theatrical scale to which this work could adapt in its future life. 

There’s a suite of literary (Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 debut novel The Kite Runner) and wider cultural references around kites, Uttarayan and the idea of atmospheric flight that Kattam Katti sits alongside (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a 1999 film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a whole song about Uttarayan, Kai Po Che, sung by Shankar Mahadevan and Kavita Krishnamurthy). The 2013 film Kai Po Che! directed by Abhishek Kapoor — the title is originally a Gujarati phrase that means I have cut — is a film based on Chetan Bhagat’s 2008 novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life which explores cricket, friendships and religious politics, but there is a scene that references the festival and offers a visual marker of how the city sky is covered in kites and how many thousands of people participate in it. There is genuine joy in the festival and on stage the sense of camaraderie between the entire company comes through; the ease with which they interact (especially in COVID times), trust each other and play with such grace is testimony to what Thakore has built in the rehearsal room.

The kite as a choreographic entity is fascinating and how it relates to Thakore’s primary kathak movement language is one of the most interesting aspects of Kattam Katti. A kite is steered by both the atmospheric conditions and the flyers themselves; it’s a constant and delicate negotiation, a balancing of conditions and ambitions to keep it in the air for as long as possible. A kite and a kathak body are technologies of movement and mobility; they’re not strictly directional and they are composed of loops, deflections and circles that can tell narratives whilst folding in and back on themselves. Whilst early on in the work we see the recognisable biomechanical movements of holding the kite, flying, tugging and keep the tension, the final sequence is quite brilliant in showing how these movements are fleshed out, built into and embellished using a wider kathak vocabulary. I wanted to see more of this bringing of the two movement worlds together rather than sequences of kathak followed by kitely recreations.

In some of the group kathak choreography, there is need for a little more polish and finesse in the execution of movements from a couple of the dancers, but each scene is elevated by the musicianship and compositions from Kaviraj Singh, Gurdain Singh Rayatt, Hiren Chate and Paveen Pratap. The musical arrangements are part of Thakore’s directorial role but the compositions are the work of each individual musician; Singh’s rhapsodic vocal work layered with Rayaat and Chate on the hypnotic udu and the beating rhythms on the kanjira for the dancers to ride give a visual and aural sense of being aloft. We are musically transported and immersed in an elemental space, shifting our perspective and scale to play amongst the kites; because the musicians are moving and playing the instruments around the stage there’s a three-dimensionality in play which adds so much to the visual world of Simon Daw’s moveable kite-tail, tangle-trip set design.

What is hinted at but feels like a missed opportunity is a commentary on class/caste. There’s a verticality in urban architecture and the Indian caste system where those who are richest (Brahmins) will predominantly own the tallest buildings, have access to penthouse apartments and therefore access to the wind. They are already at an advantage in the kite-flying stakes to the poorest (Dalits) who are deemed untouchable and who work in the streets. Having to mitigate all those structural inequalities to even get to a level playing field to engage in a fair Uttarayan could be further explored. 

There’s room in the work for this, to stretch the characterisation and abhinaya of the dancers (or even creating a kind of sharks/jets relationship between the musicians and dancers) whilst acknowledging that it is a festival of joy, celebration and festivity. However, for 17 days of rehearsal, in the depths of a pandemic, with the concern around touch and transmission, Pagrav Dance Company has created a portrait of a fascinating festival, a work of lightness that rides the wind-soaked eddies; their crack team of musicians combine to elevate the work to a higher realm.


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.


Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

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

Dancing on Screen in Lockdown, May 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Double bill of HARLEKING and The Passion of Andrea 2 at The Place

Posted: April 30th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Double bill of HARLEKING and The Passion of Andrea 2 at The Place

Double Bill: HARLEKING, and The Passion of Andrea 2, The Place, February 26

The Passion of Andrea 2, Simone Mousset
Luke Divall, Lewys Holt and Mathis Kleinschnittger in The Passion of Andrea 2 (photo: Lydia Sonderegger)

Both works on this program weave the power of laughter into contemporary forms of tragedy. In HARLEKING, Ginevra Panzetti and Enrico Ticconi use silent laughter as a mimetic trait related to, but abstracted from, Italian Commedia dell’Arte; laughter is the physiological subject the two performers employ in a form disengaged from its underlying affect. With eloquence, intensity and riveting mimicry they present their manipulation of gesture knowingly, from states of innocence to underhanded treachery. The work does not set out to achieve historical context; as Panzetti and Ticconi explain, ‘it is reminiscent of the Grotesques, ancient wall decorations, in which monstrous figures emerge and blend in with elegant ornamental volutes’. It is this duality of monstrosity and elegance that suffuses their performance; in their black costumes against a white floor and backdrop under Annegret Schalke’s lighting, Panzetti and Ticconi accentuate gesture, creating the impression of two metamorphosed gargoyles on a night out from their cathedral perch, displaying a detached emotional behaviour derived from centuries of inanimate observation. Demetrio Castellucci’s sound interpolation further wraps the visual imagery in readings that alternate between teasing playfulness and psychotic malevolence. 

Constantly playing on the idiom of ‘falling about laughing’ or ‘dying of laughter’, Panzetti and Ticconi adjust the semiotic relationship of laughter to danger by subtle variations. In a central section of hypnotic gestural play, the appearance of a fascist salute appears as little more than a beguiling sign among others, while towards the end of the work, the transformation of a loving embrace into a murderous grip loses the emotional intent between the signifier and what is signified; in each case it is left to the audience to feel the chilling effect.

While HARLEKING is a spectacle in the traditional proscenium perspective, Simone Mousset’s The Passion of Andrea 2 defies any traditional mould. Mousset has suggested the work describes an inability to grasp the confusion of current events and the consequent suspension of belief in personal agency. Negative space is difficult to frame, and the first impression of The Passion of Andrea 2 is that it has no point of reference; its action is set in a timeless present that has no past (despite the indication of a sequel) and no future. Lydia Sonderegger’s large inflatable sculptures suspended above the stage lend credence to an imaginary dreamscape in which arbitrariness weighs heavily. The first indication of human agency is the improbable appearance of three hapless characters, costumed and bewigged in triplicate, wandering aimlessly as if afflicted with debilitating fatigue. It is immediately apparent from their gestures and mimicry, however, that the absurdist tragedy is being undermined by consummate humour. When they greet each other with an auspicious display of energy we learn they are each named Andrea and their past is now revealed in a favourite trio they attempt to remember.  

Mousset aligns the role of her three Andreas — Lewys Holt, Luke Divall and Mathis Kleinschnittger — with the Shakespearean jester whose artful clowning camouflages a disturbing reality. In their state of constant fluidity, the only anchor the Andreas have is their relationship to the audience, but even here its nature is ambiguous. They dissolve us in laughter with their absurdities and by involving us in their deadly competitive games, but there is a sense that Mousset is using them to hold up a mirror, that the work exists only in its ability to draw us into a state of reflection she wants us to share. Perhaps in our era of blatant political opportunism and misinformation absurdity is not so much a subversive antidote to the dis-ease of individual helplessness but a way of understanding it. 

From its initial manifestation in 2018 at Touch Wood, the enlargement of The Passion of Andrea 2 with a substantial musical element and Sonderegger’s set, costumes and wigs, has lost nothing of its original affect. In mixing theatrical genres, Mousset has enhanced the absurdity at the work’s core with a tonic of choreographic, musical and textual play that is disarmingly funny in inverse proportion to the darkness of its inspiration. 

Towards the end, following the Shakespearean demise of all three Andreas, Mousset introduces an epilogue in which sound designer Alberto Ruiz Soler is spirited on to the stage to explain, through a commentary by the resurrected Holt, that what we have just seen is in fact The Passion of Andrea 1 and that its sequel is about to begin. Soler dies, and the united Andreas climb into the audience singing a medieval round. 


Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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