Rambert2: Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: November 19th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert2: Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells

Rambert2, Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells, November 5

Rambert2, Vivian Pakkanen, Sama, Andrea Miller
Vivian Pakkanen in Sama (photo: Stephen Wright)

This second year’s program of Rambert2 at Sadler’s Wells shows a sophistication and artistry, both in terms of choreography and interpretation, that one would expect of the main company, so it is worth remembering that Rambert2 is the practice component of an MA in Professional Performance Studies that Rambert School offers students through the auspices of the University of Kent. The quality of dancers is high because the Rambert brand can attract a large number of applicants to the course. One of last year’s students, Salomé Pessac, is now in the main company which gives an idea of the level of proficiency on offer. There is also an interesting transatlantic connection — four of the thirteen dancers and two of the three choreographers this year are American — through Rambert’s artistic director, Benoit Swan Pouffer.

Choreographer Jermaine Maurice Spivey has spent time in Crystal Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, which is an indication of both his quality as a dancer and his good fortune in witnessing a bourgeoning choreographic talent at work; furthermore, he has deconstructed and reconstructed Pite’s works in order to set them on other companies. In Terms and Conditions, Spivey is experimenting with ideas of his own; he develops the work in sections, choreographically and musically, that are structurally connected but not yet coherent. It starts with words that are manipulated verbally and choreographically with an initial cue from Emily Gunn. A seated Nathan Chipps repeats the word with a variety of inflections and intonations while opposite him in another chair Minouche Van de Ven improvises movement to them. Costume designer Noemi Daboczi’s idea to embed flexible mirrors in the back of her white overalls initiates another section; the dancers later remove them and place them over their faces. It’s a visually arresting idea but doesn’t seem to lead anywhere and is quite impracticable in a section of Spivey’s head-tossing choreography. A final section relies on the repetition of a circular pattern with the dancers taking it in turns to lie like a victim at the centre while the others walk or run around. Terms and Conditions is an articulate study for a promising, but as yet unfulfilled contract. 

Sin is a duet taken from the 2010 Babel by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. Based on the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, it is a narrative with a straightforward formal structure that gradually inverts its opening position over its sinuous course. The connection between Prince Lyons as the male figure and Van de Ven as the female is intense and dramatically coherent; they could be complementary elements of each other in an internal battle for survival or separated as incompatible egos within a couple. From its title, Sin could also be understood as the story of Adam and Eve and the choreography uses snake-like imagery throughout. Whatever the interpretation, the two performers manifest a fateful attraction to each other that oscillates in a riveting yin-yang altercation between power and subversion. Adam Carrée’s lighting plays its own dramatic role that includes a large reflective surface descending obliquely from which the performers cannot hide. 

In her programme note for Sama, choreographer Andrea Miller, who is the artistic director of New York-based Gallim Dance, writes: ‘There are essential, ambiguous and complex elements of our humanity that can only be accessed through our physical experience.’ With its inherent capacity for physical embodiment, dance is fertile ground for elaborating the importance of our bodies in social discourse. For Sama, Miller and her creative team — lighting designer Paul Keogan, costume designer Hogan McLaughlin and composers Vladimir Zaldwich and Frédéric Despierre — delve deep into the realms of imagery and imagination to conjure up a paeon to physical expression, a sensuous and tangible whirl of theatrical and circus arts that the dancers elaborate with infectious abandon. At the heart of Sama is a lament for what Miller fears to be ‘the beginning of an apocalypse of the body’; at the beginning is an enactment of an Eastern parable and at the end a lullaby that follows an exultant jump into darkness by the dancers. Within this framework, perhaps the most significant role is for a young woman whose clearly articulated detachment could well be ‘the still point of the turning world’ from which all energy arises. Miller created it for Vivian Pakkanen but due to a last-minute illness she was replaced by an undaunted Artemis Stamouli from the previous cohort of Rambert2. That kind of coolness under pressure is what Sama celebrates.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Posted: November 8th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Snape Maltings, November 1

Richard Alston, Final Edition
Joshua Harriette and Monique Jonas in Brahms Hungarian (photo: Chris Nash)

There is a natural link between Richard Alston and Snape Maltings through his long association with the music of Benjamin Britten, while his particular style of dance relishes the space afforded by the extraordinary stage area with its brick walls as precipitous as a cathedral nave and as expansive as a concert hall. Alston’s aesthetic seems to value the sanctity of choreography and music without wanting to divert too much attention from it, presenting his company like an orchestra on a concert platform — which is why Snape Maltings works so well for him. For the theatrical element, lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli washes the brick walls with colour while she enhances the clarity of the dancers against the grand scale of the space. But as soon as she inserts her own individuality, as in the rectangle of light she creates for Ellen Yilma and Jennifer Hayes at the end of their duet in Shine On, the image of a tomb seems too overtly representational for Alston’s choreographic imagery. Costumes for the men tend towards a puritan ethic, casual and utilitarian without embellishments, elegant variations on tracksuit pants and sleeveless tops, where bare arms show off Alston’s love of drawing and carving figures in space. The women are more colourful, especially in Brahms Hungarian where Fotini Dimou’s floral patterned dresses move around the body with a joie de vivre inherent in Brahms’ folk-inspired music. In Voices and Light Footsteps, Peter Todd’s costumes and associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s lighting work together like a painting, where Alejandra Gissler’s red dress is the dynamic equivalent of one of JMW Turner’s painterly red marks. 

Alston’s choreographic style, derived from his two major influences of Sir Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham, combines a sparse but reverent classical technique with a romantic, flowing use of the upper body; his vocabulary is not broad but the interest and integrity of what we see is supported by his impeccable musicality that in turn demands the same of his dancers. Personality makes up for a lot in the present company, but musicality is not what it was when the likes of Liam Riddick and Oihana Vesga Bujan were performing, though Elly Braund is still there as a valuable guide. In watching the dancers there’s a suggestion of too much tension in the arms that at speed does not support Alston’s flow of the upper body, and a tendency, especially among the men, to land too heavily. There is something sensuous about soft, pliant landings that goes a long way towards bringing the choreography and the music seamlessly together.  

Over several years Alston’s company has had its portion of Arts Council funding to The Place — where it has been resident for the past quarter of a century — successively reduced to the point he feels he cannot run the company to the standards he needs; the present tour is called Final Edition. On the program is a relatively new repertoire, with two works from this year (Voices and Light Footsteps, and Shine On) and two from 2018 (Detour, and Brahms Hungarian). Voices and Light Footsteps, to a selection of Monteverdi madrigals, balli and sinfonia, sees Alston’s choreographic invention soaring with the music, creating a series of courtly dances that sweep up the voices into the air; there is a joy about the work that belies the tumultuous year in which it was created. Lawrance’s Detour, played out to a percussive score by Akira Miyoshi for solo marimba, is a contrast both in its dynamic pace and in the predominance of masculine energy; it features whipping arms and legs in a fast and furious choreography with brute overtones of anger and frustration.

Shine On, to Britten’s early song cycle On This Island for piano and voice (performed respectively by Jason Ridgeway and Katherine McIndoe), is clearly dark in tone, drawing its choreographic line from WH Auden’s poetry that begins with a fanfare (Let the florid music praise!) and turns through the haunting Nocturne to irrevocable loss (As it is, plenty). The symbolism is evident, and yet Alston returns in the finale to the opening musical fanfare with the dancers finishing in a reverence towards the public. Alston dedicates the work to Lizzie Fargher ‘whose enthusiasm for dance (and music) has sustained and encouraged me every time I have been to Snape and to Dance East.’

In closing the program with Brahms Hungarian Alston shows his undefeated spirit with a suite of dances to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for solo piano that Ridgeway plays with gusto. As Alston remarked stoically after the final applause, “I love this place and I’m not going to say goodbye!”


Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou at Lilian Baylis Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale of Three Festivals

Posted: October 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale of Three Festivals

Ian Abbott: Nott A Fierce Umbrella, A Tale Of Three Festivals, October 2019

Hocus Pocus, Dance Umbrella festival 2019
Philippe Chosson and Mickaël Henrotay-Delaunay in Hocus Pocus (photo: Philippe Pache)

The choreographic density of October and November is the result of a number of UK dance festivals vying for the eyes and attentions of audiences and artists; over a period of six weeks there’s Dance Umbrella, Nottdance, Fierce, Dance International Glasgow, Shout, LEAP and Cardiff Dance Festival. I spent some time in three of the English ones — Dance Umbrella, Nott Dance and Fierce — to look at their programmes and the sense of community around them.

There are some macro questions around who festivals are for, and what difference they make to the form and to their community. Are festivals moments of cultural change? Do they mark a shifting of taste and aesthetic? Are they miniature economic impact machines? Gentrification tools? Festivals that are simply made up of dance performances? A chance for artistic directors to display their air miles and intellectual baubles? Not all festivals are perhaps clear in what/who/why they are. I’m interested in festivals as a site of repetition as people return to the same city, see the same people, enter the same venues year after year but see different works by different artists. I recognise this is a partial view — in as much as the time I spent at each event was limited — but remembering previous editions of each festival I thought it would be worth looking at the three as a whole. With the shift of focus of the UK Dance Showcase (the new incarnation of British Dance Edition) to actively not invite international promoters to the event in May 2019 and focus purely on UK promoters, Dance Umbrella and Nottdance have worked together to create the October Collection, a project that invited a number of international promoters to spend five days traversing the festivals in Nottingham and London offering exposure to a selected group of artists pitching and presenting work. It is worth noting that of the ten works I saw at the festivals none were created by disabled artists.

Nottdance is a biennial festival in Nottingham that is curated by the team at Dance4. They ‘position the voice of artists at the heart of the development of the festival’. For the 2019 edition they published a three page curational statement on the vision for the festival, co-curated by Dance4’s artistic director/CEO Paul Russ and Matthias Sperling, and announced an ambition that Sperling select his successor for the 2021 edition. I spent Saturday October 12 in Nottingham attending five events — three performances and two discussions; all performance works were from artists based in Canada and/or France and the discussions were led by dance artists based in England.

Extended Hermeneutics by Jennifer Lacey ‘uses the sprawling meta-expanse of Bauhaus Imaginista as a divining system where individual readings are offered to those who desire them’. It is nestled in a corner of Nottingham Contemporary where Lacey and I sit facing each other at a small table. This 30-minute 1-to-1 encounter authored by Lacey leans towards a choreographic divination using the Bauhaus exhibition as a frame and set of tools to interpret the problem you have brought to her. Lacey is hyper attentive, responding to visual gestures and titbits of information derived from the verbal and non-verbal signals that leak from my body; after I choose from four decks of cards, she offers an approach to help me find an answer. Lacey is engaging in an American psychotherapist way; she holds eye contact, keeps the beats in between the conversation natural to a point of believeability. It’s an attempt at seduction, looking into the mirror she is presenting and asking me to find my own answer. It feels akin to an intellectual seaside/end-of-the-pier tarot entertainment and ends with a two-minute 55 second, mainly floor-based solo that Lacey performs for me before our time is up. When I’m taking the time to process the information she’s offering in relation to the history of 1970s Leeds Polytechnic Bauhaus practice or geometric costumes I don’t really pay attention because there is little time for me or the thoughts it conjures up in the moment; it is a broadcast that at that moment doesn’t feel personal at all. A seduction takes time and although the encounter could have been useful, it depends on how much weight you give to fortune tellers and tarot practices — they are all a mirror through which we attempt to see ourselves more clearly.

Beside by Maribé – sors de ce corps at Lakeside Arts Centre is choreographed by Marie Béland who begins with a two-minute introduction that explains that everything the performers say is what they hear on the radio on their headphones in that moment and, parallel to this, their movement score is derived and harvested from the gestures and choreographic body patterns on talk shows, political broadcasts and current affairs TV shows. We get the set up instantly; a performer delivers the words they hear (on this occasion at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon in Nottingham) over the course of 60 minutes, including the recent upturn of form at Notts County Football Club, a programme on Blockchain and Libra (Facebook’s new cryptocurrency) and the Irish backstop, all matched with pre-existing gestures. What is created is an ever evolving, live choreographic meme which reflects some of our broadcast media, music, songs and political broadcasts. 

What Béland has created is a frame that could enable this work to last forever; the work will always be relevant because it derives its currency from the radio content broadcast on that day in that city, and it will always connect and reflect the energies and priorities of that day. It could scale up from the three dancers to 13 or 103, depending on the size of the stage or the complexity of the audio narratives. It is funny, because life is funny when it is removed from its original frame. Hearing the absurdity of in-depth analysis of a football game coming from an alien mouth set to artificial gestures emphasises the assumptions of language (word and body) each community uses. The agility of thought and how each performer combines it with straight-faced and physical control demonstrates that Rachel Harris, Sylvain Lafortune, and Bernard Martin are skilled performers, but we see little of their dancing ability; it is more a controlled suite of bodily movement.

How does the relationship of our geographical context to the work we see affect how we see it? The Nott Dance closing performance at Backlit Gallery is the same as Fierce’s Sunday lunchtime performance at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a week later: Make Banana Cry by Andrew Tay and Stephen Thomson. It’s the difference between a festival closer at 9pm on a Saturday night and a Sunday luncher at 12.30pm; energies, attentions and expectations of experience are entirely different. Described in Nottingham as ‘a continuous barrage of identity politics, a durational parade which contemplates the problematics of universal “Western” pop culture while drawing on the artistic background of each of the invited artists’, it becomes in Birmingham a work that ‘confronts western perceptions of the ‘Asian Fantasy’ in a durational parade drawing on the background of the diverse cast of Canadian artists.’ 

Set in a catwalk fashion seat configuration with a U-shaped runway on which the performers walk up and down, we see a slow, iterative introduction of each ‘model’ who is over-clothed with up to a dozen layers of items, props and accessories, some of which we would recognise as clothes, some not (tablecloths, giant fans, suitcases). Over the course of 70 minutes, garments and items are removed and embellished leading to a sense of a live GIF parade; each model demands attention for 5 seconds — in one case by swatting their naked butt cheek with a fly swatter — whilst the next comes along with a plunger that is being repurposed as a rocket launcher. The continual attempt of each act to outdo and one-up the next is predictable and is accompanied by a playlist of Asian stereotype music like Mr Roboto by Styx, We Are Siamese by Peggy Lee (from 1955’s Lady & The Tramp) or excerpts from the Miss Saigon soundtrack.

The noon encounter with Make Banana Cry sees a community, audience and staff feeling the effects of Fierce Party the night before with at least forty empty chairs, compared to the neatly organised, manicured, sold-out presentation in Nottingham. Although the prop and costume game is stronger in Birmingham (insert electrical fans, fire extinguishers and 3 phase extension leads) the cool, air-conditioned colonialism of BMAG drags it down. When you see a work again so quickly, you notice differences that were missed before because so much of our audience attention is taken with that immediate first impression. This time I pay attention to prop usage, gait and micro performativity, all of which had a depth of attention and detail that you don’t get from a single viewing. Make Banana Cry is a barrage of bodies, props, and music that raises a wry smile as it attempts to question Asian stereotypes and to examine the transmission of cultural identity, but the form of presentation and the predictability that ensues (and its finale of nakedness) dampens the impact and makes it appear quite facile when in fact there are layers, signs and Easter eggs to discover in multiple viewings.

Fierce is the Birmingham biennial which frames itself as Performance Parties Politics Pop. With his written introduction in the programme, artistic director Aaron Wright goes some way to answering my initial questions about what a festival is and who it’s for. ‘With a world in crisis what use is an arts festival, really? What can art achieve in the context of creeping fascism, mass anxiety and the ever-looming threat of the extinction of the human race? Will the performances get an anti-austerity government into Downing Street? Seems unlikely. Will they convince BP to move their focus to renewable energy? No. Will they bring about the demise of neo liberalism and the White supremacist patriarchy? Not any time soon.’ Instead Wright thinks the festival programme ‘can be boiled down to four elements that feel more vital than ever; communion, empathy, resistance and joy.’

Following on from Make Banana Cry I spend the rest of Sunday October 20 at Fierce encountering another set of performances by non UK-based artists, including Bain Brisé by Yann Marussich, Private: wear a mask when you talk to me by Alexandra Bachzetsis and iFeel2 by Melk Prod./Marco Berrettini; these three artists, all hailing from Switzerland, are supported by Pro Helvetia

Bain Brisé self describes as ‘A bath is filled with broken glass. A man’s forearm is visible on the surface of the sharp and crystalline magma. The man is stuck inside his bath of glass shards and cannot get out without getting injured…It is impossible for the audience to truly grasp that he is steeped inside some 600kg of solid matter, and that time is ticking by.’ Over the course of 50 minutes in Midlands Arts Centre’s Second Floor Gallery, we see a forearm delicately choreograph itself to slowly evict hundreds of shards of glass that splinter and smash as they hit the floor, scattering glass over the legs of the front row of a hushed audience. It is an act of choreographic removal, a slow unveiling of Marussich’s naked body which is encased in a cast iron roll-top bath filled to the brim with glass. With a live percussion and tense electronic score from Julie Semoroz and a sense of classic 80s Performance Art Top Trumps, there seems to be genuine peril that Marussich’s body could a) be cut to ribbons and b) suffocate under the weight of over half a ton of glass. There is both tension and boredom in play as the accompanying glass drops sting the ears alongside the predictability of outcome as his body finally emerges and leaves the gallery. From a choreographic point of view, the control and stillness of an almost Kerplunk choice of which glass to remove to minimise bloodletting is incredibly watchable and draws the focus into an area of about 70cm x 70cm. As part of his head, second arm and torso emerge, he attempts to pull/lift himself up in the bath to an almost sitting position and the sound of glass shifting underneath his legs and bum is an absolute eyelid twitcher. With the bath’s opacity obscuring the detail of how his tendons are being nibbled by glass, the imagination just runs wild.

Private: Wear a mask when you talk to me, also at Midlands Arts Centre, self describes as ‘a timeless hymn to transitions. A notation of its inner development, but also a mourning sketch for possibilities that were once open but can no longer be realized. In the end, this dance is not about normative gender performativity, but rather about the somatic energy that allows us to introduce moments of what Jacques Derrida called “improvisatory anarchy” in order to interrupt history and trigger cultural change and political transformation.’ Private… is a 50-minute solo conceived, choreographed and performed by Bachzetsis that is the perfect embodiment of Fierce’s 4 P’s. With a presentation, demolition and (re)presentation of gendered movement from Michael Jackson’s choreography to Beat It, to mutated westernised yoga positions as well as football and porn poses, Bachzetsis stares straight down our lens and with inverted alacrity bathes in her own power, including presenting herself in a black latex dress and demanding an audience member to spray shine her to reflective mirrordom. There is silence, space and buckets of technical dance ability in the work — when Bachzetsis wants it on display. Private…is a #findom, #subdom and #choreodom; after all, we are only here to see Bachzetsis.  

The festival closer at DanceXchange is iFeel2, a 70-minute work for three performers which self describes as ‘a young woman and a middle-aged man, half naked in a tropical dream world boasting floating plants. They are being watched. An erotic female voice sings strange associations with nature. The elegant trance they trace out is done so according to a minimalist and repetitive structure based on the residue of social dances, which are then mirrored.’ iFeel2 is the embodiment of middle-aged white male confidence and entitlement; as Berrettini and Marie-Caroline Hominal, mirrored in only black trousers and black shoes, deliver a simple, repetitive, six step Tina Turner grape vine to each other whilst holding eye contact, Berrettini constantly crosses the invisible line (without touching) and invades the space, pigeon-heading and gesturing in the pursuit of desire. I cannot help but see Berrettini’s facial resemblance to Harvey Weinstein and this consistent invasion and act of violence on an unflinching Hominal is uncomfortable. iFeel2 is a work that was created in 2012, before the #MeToo campaign and Eirini Kartsaki wrote about the work in 2015 in an article entitled Circular Paths of Pleasure which offers an eloquent analysis of the work and its proximity to desire, repetition and philosophy. However, even with all my favourite components in play — repetitive choreographic structures, unusual scenography and lighting design (by Victor Roy) and an alternative pop soundtrack from Summer Music (a pop band formed by Berrettini and performer Samuel Pajand) — it is a work that in its conception and original creation time was an ode to catharsis, desire and unfulfillment, but in 2019 reads as invasion, violence and trauma. The world has shifted but the work has not.

Moving away from the Midlands, I had three trips to London’s Dance Umbrella to see four works; the three-week programme doesn’t offer the same possibilities of seeing a density of work in a single day. The first was the festival opener CROWD by Gisèle Vienne on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells. CROWD is the ultimate commitment to a concept as Vienne takes a single idea and has the courage to not sway or bend from it. On the soil- and litter-encrusted stage we have 15 White bodies engaged in a glacial movement score that looks like the morning after a loose and faux hedonistic night of drink, drugs and carnal encounters at a Glastonbury type festival; bodies emote, flirt, abuse, attack and re-evaluate each other across 85 minutes to an EDM and trance soundtrack compiled by Peter Rehberg. If this were a political and knowing portrait of the ‘festival community’ where rich, White millennials go for a weekend and pay to get high then Vienne has absolutely nailed it. However, CROWD is described as ‘dissecting the vast spectrum of our fantasies, emotions, and dark sides, in addition to our inherent need for violence and our sensuality. Flying in the face of the different artistic disciplines, the journey Vienne takes us on renders the onstage experience a cathartic one.’ What is it with White, European, middle-aged choreographers and their desire for White catharsis? As a festival opener and a lens to see the rest of the festival through it, CROWD is one that reeks of privilege, Whiteness and a concept that is radically dated. The slow-motion aftermath/energy of party/disco/club has been conceptually rinsed by GCSE dance students for the past 25 years and Vienne adds nothing to the dialogue. We see the anatomically perfect dancers dressed dubiously (working class holiday, anyone?) and present exaggerated limb emphasis and facial gurns with the odd break-out for 30-60 seconds as a solo takes place in real time. With the soundtrack playing in real time (and not slowed down), there is a jarring to our auditory and visual food which doesn’t resolve; it is merely presented without comment. No one really likes to watch other people have a good time, especially when you’re asking contemporary and classically-trained dancers to punctuate and dime stop movements to attempt an emphasis they don’t have the ability to execute. Put this concept in the body of Hip Hop dancers and at least you’ll have bodies that can execute what is being asked of them.

Moving across London to Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hard to be Soft – A Belfast Prayer by Oona Dohetry is the second work from the Belfast-based choreographer and performer, which follows on from the incredible solo Hope Hunt and The Ascension into Lazarus in both the chronology of when it was made but also in the thematic sensibility of a portrait of a city and its people. All life is here. Some life is here. How can you stage a portrait of some parts of a city (Belfast), some of its history and some of its inhabitants? At a sliver under 50 minutes, Hard to be Soft…presents a work in four parts, bookended by solo’s from Doherty with an addition of a dozen young female dancers from the Croydon Sugar Army (Doherty draws a community cast from each tour location to perform this section) alongside a duet from John Scott and Sam Finnegan. It also sees Doherty shift from the small-scale intimacy of the type of theatres to which Hope Hunt toured to the larger and more physically distancing stages of QEH. Scott and Finnegan embark on a topless, fleshy, meaty sumo embrace which is all arms clutching and chest sweating that is the distillation of Doherty’s choreographic signature, tender violence. The Sugar Army with ponytails a-bouncin’ offer V formations, commercial routines to David Holmes score and are the choreographic embodiment of teeth sucking. What made Hope Hunt so electric was the performance and power of Doherty, not her choreographic work on other bodies; this is where Hard to be Soft is lacking. How can Doherty paint herself onto other bodies? That level of ferocity doesn’t translate and so everything around her is viewed as inferior and I’m left thinking about the long shadow cast by Hope Hunt and whether Doherty will be able to escape it. It is also worth noting that this is the first work I am seeing at the three festivals that is presented by a UK-based artist.       

There’s something about festivals as agents of gentrification and culture washers when they present the commodified trauma of others for the price of a ticket. Are Dance Umbrella and the other festivals really opening a dialogue and offering an insight into things that are unfamiliar to us like the tension and violence set deep amongst the people and architecture of Belfast that Doherty speaks of or are they perpetuating and cementing the evidence from the Warwick Commission report that arts audiences make up 8% of the population who are the richest, most educated and least diverse.

One of the successes of Dance Umbrella is the multi-venue orbital tour of European work for families and young people that has enabled work by Dadodans, Erik Kaiel and now Philippe Saire’s Hocus Pocus to tour to five or six venues across London (I saw it at The Place). Hocus Pocus ‘is based on the power of images, their magic and the sensations they provoke, and it is delicious; it’s a duet that nibbles at the edges of illusion and performance. Parts of Philippe Chosson and Mickaël Henrotay-Delaunay appear and disappear between two strip lights as they emerge and are absorbed back into the darkness. Playing with perspective, birds eye view, and vanishing points, it’s like they’re walking on alternate planes; sometimes we view them from above, sometimes they swing around, sometimes they present isolated limbs on rotation which plays havoc with the eyes as it takes a while to understand how the Jenga body parts are working together. At 50 minutes, the scenography, design and prop-making skill (Stage Device Realisation from Léo Piccirelli and Props and Accessories by Julie Chapallaz and Hervé Jabveneau) mixed with the physical skills of the two performers leave us jawdropped at how the things are happening.

REDD by Boy Blue (who’ve removed the word Entertainment from their name and descriptors in the programme) was the closing show from the Dance Umbrella Takeover of Fairfield Hall — two days of dance, performance, live music, participation and free events in Croydon which included a new commission from The Urban Playground Team and the premiere of Here and Now by Mythili Prakash — and my final show of DU19. Instead of a programme synopsis, Boy Blue offers 143 Words On Grief by R. Moulden as a contextual explainer in the programme. 

At 75 minutes without interval, this is a solo for choreographer and co-artistic director Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, MBE, supported by a chorus of eight dancers who act as his physical echoes, partial tormentors and skulk about in the shadows of grief. As the first dance show on the newly refurbished Fairfield Halls stage, REDD had an anticipation as it is the follow-up to their internationally acclaimed Blak White Gray. Silences and the mis-expectations of grief trigger different emotions in all those who encounter it, so how are we to comment on the sincerity or portrayal of the grief of another? 

As someone who has recently lost a parent, there’s little in REDD that speaks to me on an emotional plane; there are no dramaturgical invitations, no communion of power, and an empathy void; I am left to bear witness and engage if I want. With this lack of generosity, my focus and reflections switch to looking at it as a work of Hip Hop theatre in an attempt to find other things in it but I’m left weary by yet another commodification of trauma. 

Sandy, who is on stage throughout, wades, dives, stills and re-enacts some of Moulden’s words — ‘slinks in like a beaten dog and makes its home at your feet…with cracked voice and lolling tongue…reaching into your mouth’ — whilst the shadows of grief make visual noise in the periphery. With a new score from composer and Boy Blue co-artistic director Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and a lighting design from Charlie Morgan Jones there is little subtlety and craft in how the lighting, score and choreography come together. Each of the component parts (louder music and a flash flicker of light) often emphasise a particular choreographic move on Sandy all at the same time like three anguish anvils being rammed down your throat.

In previous Boy Blue works, Sandy is usually choreographically en pointe, he pops harder, isolates more cleanly and punctuates more sharply. However in REDD he is the weakest performer. He looked laboured getting in and out of the floor (with his hands on his thigh to help him up), he is out of breath in the final joint choreographic sequences and his performance presence is considerably duller than previous iterations; in the final duet he is unintentionally upstaged by the execution and presence of Emma Houston with whom he dances. It’s like seeing Superman bleed. REDD isn’t ready to be on stage, it doesn’t feel like it is sure what it wants to be (a solo or group work) and consequently what its strongest cast should be. 

There are dozens of very average contemporary dance performances happening in theatres every week; that’s because there are hundreds of artists making work across the UK and not everything can be incredible or abysmal; 90% of work sits in this middle ground. However, when a Hip Hop theatre company (who are considerably rarer and we’re talking in the low dozens of artists) makes an average work multiplied by the reputation, financial security and profile of Boy Blue, it feels shocking, but it shouldn’t. Not everything that everybody does will always be the best. We should be able to talk about and write about very average Hip Hop Theatre like we do contemporary dance; as a form, Hip Hop theatre needs honesty in the debate and honesty in the community about work that will enable it to grow and flourish.  

One of the strands of Nottdance (alongside performance, studio sharings, etc.) is a discourse strand and during Dr Gillie Kleiman’s session she speaks about her own practice in relationship to Community Dance and cites the idea of ‘Measuring The Distance’ taken from the theatre scholar Shannon Jackson. If we were to measure our practice/distance from a fixed centre (e.g. dance as centre, theatre as centre, visual art as centre) how far or close are we from it? What does this do to centre(s) and who determines what the centre (or perception of centre) is? Do Nottdance, Fierce and Dance Umbrella represent a centre of dance? How might artists and audiences measure their distance from these festivals and what is the proximity and size of their community? Later in the day there’s a panel, Artist. Curator. Leader, conceived by Joe Moran (as part of a larger piece of research he is undertaking) who invited Alexandrina Hemsley and Heidi Rustgaard to be part of it. One of the interesting things that comes up when the discussion opens is that Paul Hughes (who presented at Nottdance earlier in the festival) had asked Paul Russ if Dance4 would do an end-of-the-week sharing on Friday afternoon so that artists could see what Dance4 as an organisation had been working on that week. It is the reverse of when artists, in exchange for using a studio in their building, nine times out of ten give a presentation of ‘work’ to internal staff at the end of the week who then offer their ‘feedback’ on how to make it better. Can you imagine if Dance Umbrella, Fierce, Dance4 and dance development organisations and theatres were to give Friday afternoon sharings to rooms of artists and audiences who would be able to offer an assessment and critique of how they’re doing and how might they do better? Such events could alter the power imbalance that exists between artist and organisations, change centres, and equalise relationships across the entire ecology.


Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre

Posted: October 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre

Dance Umbrella 2019: Oona Doherty at Southbank Centre and The Yard Theatre. 

Oona Doherty in Hard to Be Soft
Oona Doherty in Hard to Be Soft (photo: Luca Truffarelli)

In a welcome programming decision, Dance Umbrella includes two works by Belfast-based choreographer, Oona Doherty. One is Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick and the other is Hard to Be Soft at Southbank Centre. Doherty created Hope Hunt first, in 2016, but the two works are like cousins; the family resemblance is clear while the gene pool is shared. What binds them together is the common canvas on which they are created: life in Belfast. Doherty has lived in the Northern Irish city for the past 20 years and knows it intimately; she also has a proclivity for researching the rougher side of life. There’s a rawness to her work that has no truck with artifice; she’s not interested in translating her experiences into choreography but in embodying them on stage. At the same time her performance effortlessly channels the elements of violence and anger into a paradoxical sense of freedom; her gravitational pull to the floor is equalled by her quicksilver ability to rise from it. 

Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus is concentrated Doherty, serving as both inspiration and reference for Hard to Be Soft. The biblical figure of Lazarus, whom Jesus miraculously raised from the dead, serves for Doherty as an enduring metaphor to champion the disaffected male youth of Belfast she portrays. By juxtaposing the soundtrack of recorded confrontational conversations from the Belfast streets with seventeenth century choral church music — Allegri’s sublime Miserere — Doherty’s body is constantly charged with contrasting impulses; her gestures are imbued with the hurled aggression and frustration of the conversations, while they equally aspire, or ascend, to some finer, ineffable state reflected in the music. The pleasure of seeing the performance is how Doherty invokes these two inputs, sometimes separately and sometimes together but always playing between them like separate monodies that she combines into a harmonious line. She achieves this because she is a rare combination of accomplished dancer and mimic; her expressive facial features and gestures engage in the conversations we are hearing with candid clarity and make us laugh at the accuracy of her observation, and then her fluid dance body will overlay a response to the music to suggest a spiritual context. As a performer she is nowhere other than on the streets of Belfast and she draws us to them, and to their stories, with an immediacy as if we were there too. 

Hard to Be Soft broadens her canvas while maintaining the same metaphor; she describes it as ‘a physical prayer celebrating all that we have and an invocation for what we are missing.’ Doherty divides her performance into four episodes — ‘a cinematic sci-fi stations of the cross’, as she has called it — in which she performs the first and last episodes as solos, but has choreographed the middle two respectively on a group of sassy young women — The Sugar Army — and two bare-chested men — John Scott and Sam Finnegan — whose meaty presence is both a bid to bring the physicality of Belfast directly to the stage and a welcome provocation to dance conventions. Her two solos anchor the work in the singular imagery of Hope Hunt, providing both a prologue (Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise) and an epilogue (Helium) to the central sections. The Sugar Army is a bevy of teenage girls recruited from each city with whom Doherty has spent a couple of weeks discussing identity in relation to mediatised attitudes towards beauty. To a soundscape beat by David Holmes, the Sugar Army inhabits the prêt-à-porter choreography with their youthful personalities and attitudes that don’t, however, quite match the delightful cynicism of a Belfast woman who describes ‘dressing up the politics of conflict with glamour’. In the third section, Meat Kaleidoscope, the presence of Scott and Finnegan correlates the power dynamic between a father and son with an expletive-strewn recording of a growling argument that echoes broader political tensions. The size and weight of the men, like two equally matched wrestlers, create their own form of physical dialogue that poignantly embraces antagonism and understanding in equal measure. 

Given the physical and aural iconography of both works and the overt reference to Lazarus in each, it is hard not to acknowledge the religious signification of Doherty’s work that underpins the potential of the human body to unite earthly and spiritual opposites. Ciarran Bagnall’s set for Hard to Be Soft is made up of vertical steel columns that refer ambiguously to prison bars or cathedral architecture, while her lighting generates the upward aspiration towards the divine. Yet despite the religious allusion, there is no overt moralizing; Doherty’s earthy, streetwise persona consistently deflects it. The power of her work is in juxtaposing hard-hitting political imagery with a state of radiant belief. A line from the Helium section straddles the possibilities between the two: ‘What if Jesus came back? What if he was bricking your car on the Saintfield road?’


Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Posted: October 15th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place, October 12

Split, Lucy Guerin
Ashley McLellan and Lilian Steiner in Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Lucy Guerin’s Split, performed by dancers Lilian Steiner and Ashley McLellan at The Place as part of Dance Umbrella, is an enquiry into duality that is structured on a grid laid down in white tape with a corresponding division of time. For the opening section, the dancers move within a spacious rectangle to a pulsing, driving score by Scanner for a prescribed period. When the time is up — and while the musical engine idles patiently — the dancers stop to rest, towel down and then divide the rectangle into two equal spaces with more white tape. They perform the next section in just one of the two rectangles for half the amount of time. With Paul Lim’s lighting providing an additional delineation to each section, the dancers continue in a diminishing geometric space/time structure until they have only a tiny square in which to stand and a final brief moment in which to resolve the entire choreographic puzzle. There is a strict logic to the pattern of partitions — resembling that of a Fibonacci series without the guiding Golden spiral — that appears to sublimate the agency of the dancers. Despite Guerin’s choreographic depiction of a ‘diminishing world’ that ‘induces competition, negotiation, harmony and aggression’, there is little overt emotional intent from the dancers beyond the gestural language itself. 

In the first section, Steiner and McLellan perform an ever-expanding sequence of movements in unison, remaining in the same relation to each other without ever touching. The gestural expression extends out from the torso to the bodies’ extremities — especially the hands and fingers — as much as to the patterns on the floor. This harmonious relationship within an ample space can be seen as the ground of human identity, while the sheer volubility and intricacy of actions and reactions, of skipping, jumping, reclining and swirling in all directions — a tour de force for the dancers — shows the rich complexity of such ground. Within this apparent unity, Guerin introduces a singular contrast by choosing to clothe only one of her dancers. As she writes in the program, ‘Having one naked and the other clothed created a split in identity that intensified the piece. For me it gives seriousness and normality to the female body, which is such a site of commodification, exploitation, shame and shock.’ On the other hand, as John Berger wrote about the fine art tradition of the nude in Ways of Seeing, ‘She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.’ While Guerin’s choice may provide an apt choreographic duality, in the context of the theatre she cannot preclude a spectator reaction that recognizes in Steiner’s naked body the very attributes she rightly deplores and allows their formal presentation to distract from the work’s rigorous construction. It is telling that the authority of Steiner’s body appears less assured than McLellan’s, suggesting she may not have come to terms with the reflection of her nakedness in the spectator’s gaze; she wears her nakedness like a costume but is not yet reconciled to revealing herself forcefully through it. 

Given that Steiner remains as she is throughout Split, the polarity of naked and clothed becomes the guiding metaphor for other recognizable dualities Guerin develops — human/animal, coloniser/colonised, predator/prey, and master/slave — in subsequent sections that see an increasing inclination towards argument and examination, one memorably olfactory. Because McLellan is dressed, she comes across as the more dominant of the two women in images of aggression, while Steiner is inevitably seen as vulnerable. In their process of negotiation this works well, but when they swap antagonistic roles the duality is less convincing. Guerin’s structure and dramaturgy are most persuasive in showing that pressure from ever-diminishing space and time leads to ever-darker shades of behaviour. As Split develops, we see the individual increasingly at cross-purposes with herself — even if there are moments of respite and harmony — until Steiner’s enactment of disembowelling McLellan and eating her entrails suggests a profound existential crisis. 

It is hard to read the final gesture in terms of all that has gone before. Reduced to a tiny space, there is only room for the two women to stand tightly together, with McLellan behind Steiner. As McLellan tips backwards the lights are quickly extinguished, leaving her fate suspended in space. As a powerful dramatic gesture — reminiscent of Tosca’s launch from the battlements in Puccini’s opera — it is beautifully timed and executed, but it leaves the issue of duality curiously unresolved.


Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Gisèle Vienne, CROWD, Dance Umbrella at Sadler’s Wells, October 8

DU 19, CROWD, Gisèle Vienne
A scene from Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD (photo: Estelle Hanania)

Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD, presented at Sadler’s Wells as the opening event of this year’s Dance Umbrella season, sets not so much a tone for the festival as a standard of engagement. Requiring full attention to its myriad details, it in turn rewards with an afterimage that lasts well beyond the performance. 

The setting, like a visual counterpart of Gérard Manset’s ‘un grand terrain de nulle part’, is an earth-strewn stage that suggests an exterior space on which the evidence of messy human occupation ranges from plastic bottles to abandoned clothing; whatever has happened has already finished — or has it? Approaching this ambiguous scene through the high decibel beat of Peter Rehberg playlist of 90’s club music, there is an evident disconnect between the deafening heat of a dance floor and the detritus from the aftermath of an outdoor rock concert, a demonstration or a climactic disaster, while Patrick Riou’s lighting picks out details like a torch searching through the debris for some lost possession. The sound cuts off any aural distractions, so our eyes focus at first on an empty space mired in a past event yet charged with the prospect of something about to happen. Vienne seems to be playing with our expectations by setting up anticipation and then gently diffusing it; when the first hooded figure makes her way across the stage, she is moving so slowly it takes a while to recognize her human agency before our eyes start to make out the details of colour, shape and topography. A second figure enters the stage with the same mystery, ending in a familiar gesture of lighting a cigarette; the smoke becomes not just a recognizable effect but part of CROWD’s visual dialogue. Riou’s lighting adds to the quality of the dialogue by enhancing the depth and volume of the stage and generating through the arrival of the crowd living tableaux that veer from the pictorial to the virtual. Vienne builds up layers of action, behaviour and narrative through a judicious mix of choreography, dramaturgy, colour and light so that the images breathe with the varied dynamics of individual and group behaviour. 

There are 15 narratives woven into CROWD that might each take up to 5 minutes to enact in real time, but Vienne calibrates the actions and interactions of each performer using the cinematic devices of slow motion, splicing and freeze frame to expand each 5-minute narrative into a collective performance that lasts 90 minutes. It is as if she focuses an aleatory light on what makes each person move rather than on the movements they make and in doing so builds up a finely detailed composite image of a crowd.  The gathering of young people like displaced survivors in what could be construed as a post-industrial environment inevitably lends itself to a poetic comparison with the uncanny proximity and overlap of Extinction Rebellion protests in London. CROWD sees a very human drama unfolding between the individual and the group, and we are caught in the micronarrative of each performer’s struggle for recognition, comfort and intimacy.

Vienne’s manipulation of time also makes CROWD a work about choreographic seeing. How much time do we spend looking at a painting or a photograph in a gallery? Do we not tend to rush past images, searching for immediate gratification? Choreographic narrative and imagery can rush forward like a conveyor belt of emotional returns — sometimes very successfully — but here Vienne draws us into her frame and makes us linger to savour the image she puts before us. In deconstructing the choreographic image, she thus gears what we see to the way we see it.

The time it takes Vienne and her team — writer Dennis Cooper and assistants Anja Röttgerkamp and Nuria Guiu Sagarra — to achieve this experiment in duration is pure theatrical time. The only elements that happen in real time are the mimed conversations between performers — in contradistinction to their slow-motion gestures — and the trajectory of water spilled or ejected from plastic bottles that are evidence of the inevitable pull of gravity. We are reminded of time’s cyclical nature at the end as the performers chart their individual paths away from the gathering into the darkness; against the flow, almost imperceptibly, the first figure can be seen re-entering the stage before the lights dim. As we reach for our scarves we find ourselves back at the beginning; having witnessed this microcosmic crowd of preoccupations on the stage, we prepare to go out into the city night with our own. 

Presented by Dance Umbrella in partnership with Sadler’s Wells
Gisèle Vienne is supported by the Institut français as part of FranceDance UK


Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, October 4

Dada Masilo as Giselle
Dada Masilo as Giselle (photo: Laurent Philippe)

Seeing two revisions of Giselle at Sadler’s Wells in as many weeks — Akram Khan’s version presented by English National Ballet and Dada Masilo’s recreation as part of a Dance Consortium tour — is perhaps an accident of programming but they inevitably offer comparisons of approach. Any contemporary revision of a classical ballet that seeks to justify adopting its name requires an understanding of the original structure on which to build an updated narrative. But why revise the ballet in the first place? Théophile Gautier’s Giselle does not resonate today because of its fascination for Romantic tropes of the irrational and supernatural, but because its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness expressed through Jean Coralli’s choreography and Adolph Adam’s music can still evince a powerful emotional effect on a contemporary audience. The challenge, then, of any revision is to generate this kind of emotional resonance through a new gestural vocabulary, music, sets and costumes. 

Dada Masilo’s Giselle, in which she dances the eponymous role, begins as a vibrant re-telling of the narrative set in a village in her native South Africa on a hot and languorous day with Giselle’s mother (Sinazo Bokolo) clutching her aching back as she sweeps around the chattering, bantering villagers. Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) rushes in clapping his hands to get everyone on their feet and back to work before Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) and Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) make their entrance; Masilo has replaced the entitlement of the original ballet’s class structure with wealth, so while Albrecht and Bathilde are dressed in fine indigo robes they appear to have much in common with the villagers, even if Bathilde’s extrovert manner arouses some jealousy among the women. This lack of class division is reminiscent of the social cohesion in the benchmark revision of another classic, Romeo and Juliet, by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.   

Masilo is helped here by Philip Miller’s intelligent, sensitive score that samples phrases from Adam’s original to signal key moments in the musical narrative while introducing earthy African rhythms on which the villagers, and later the Wilis, can dance. Masilo’s choreography — a mix of classical steps with the energy of tribal dance liberally sprinkled with colourful everyday gestures and high-spirited banter — gives the story a delightful realism and is put to the service of fleshing out the psychology of her principal characters; the inner workings of Albrecht and Hilarion are embodied in their respective solos and differentiated in their confrontation, while Bathilde is given an extrovert personality to stand out from the already ebullient villagers. Giselle’s mother’s drunken cameo and Giselle’s dream sequence are particularly poignant. 

It is in the transition from the first to the second act that Masilo starts to bend the narrative to her own agenda. Her mad scene sees her at her most vulnerable, mocked and stripped by the villagers, an outcast who has lost everything, but her physical presence has a sense of fragility mixed with a sensual pluck that will resonate more with her conception of the Wilis: she replaces the hapless maidens with a gender-neutral pack of voracious warriors under the tutelage of a vengeful Myrtha (Llewellyn Mnguni). They prowl the stage in blood-red costumes in search of male prey, hoovering up first Hilarion and then Albrecht. Albrecht? Doesn’t Giselle’s love and forgiveness save him? Not here; the closest Giselle gets is the moment she appears to assuage a frightened Albrecht with a gentle caress and a kiss through closed eyes before slaying him. It’s a chilling reminder that Masilo has replaced forgiveness with revenge. Although the reversal has connotations for the #Metoo campaign, it also aquires profound political sensitivity in the aftermath of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission.

Dada Masilo and Lwando Dutyulwa in Giselle
The death of Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) in Dada Masilo’s Giselle (photo: ©Tristram Kenton)

Even if the ending robs Gautier’s narrative of its catharsis, Masilo has only pushed the envelope of the story to a logical degree within a contemporary context. All the theatrical elements work seamlessly together to condense the action succinctly within a sixty-minute performance. The one drawback is an additional ten-minute ‘technical pause’ between the first and second act narratives that dissipates the tension Masilo has so carefully constructed at the very moment she introduces the emotional core of her revision. While the imagery is strong, subtlety flees in the ensuing melee. Masilo pulls back from leaving us with a brutish taste of revenge through an image of Giselle blowing a cloud of white dust over the body of Albrecht that neatly inverts Gautier’s original scene of Albrecht’s remorse. The dust, suspended in the light, is Masilo’s gesture of redemption.


Lighting: Suzette Le Sueur with assistance from Thabiso Tshabalala
Costumes: David Hutt of Donker Nag Helder (Act 1), Songezo Mcilizeli & Nonofo Olekeng of Those Two Lifestyle (Act 2)

For an in-depth alternative perspective, see Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou‘s review on LucyWriters platform.