Helen Cox, Bodies in Space at the Bloomsbury Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

MuzArts Triple Bill of Clug, Cherkaoui and McGregor at The London Coliseum

MuzArts Triple Bill of Edward Clug, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wayne McGregor, The London Coliseum, December 7

MuzArts McGregor Mugler Clug Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Edward Watson and Olga Smirnova in McGregor + Mugler (photo: Sasha Gusov)

The second London program from MuzArts is a triple bill comprising the choreographic work of Edward Clug, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wayne McGregor. In terms of dancers it’s a mix and match program with principals of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky working alongside first soloist Katja Khaniukova from English National Ballet, principal Edward Watson of the Royal Ballet and five dancers from SNG Maribor Ballet. 

Radio & Juliet is Clug’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s tale in choreography and film to a selection of early songs from Radiohead; the play on words in the title points to the emotional core of the work and indicates its primary perspective. In this version, Juliet has not taken her own life but is slowly piecing together the emotional turmoil of the recent tragic events. Using three sections of film to contextualise and weave the narrative together, Clug begins with a hand-held sequence — accompanied appropriately by Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack — that enters a palatial apartment to find Juliet in a black bodice lying alone in a rumpled bed. There’s a flashback of an angry argument, perhaps with her father, before she sits in front of the window to contemplate. Her thoughts find form in Clug’s fast-paced and clinically precise stage choreography. A procession of six men dressed in dark suits with jackets open over bare chests introduces the cast of characters without identifying them, though Mariinsky principal Denis Matvienko’s muscular presence and technical proficiency signal him out as Romeo while the identities of the others are suggested through their subsequent actions. Khaniukova takes her place in this macho environment as Juliet herself might have done, her stage character portrayed in controlled, physical sensuality and in her headstrong determination to follow her heart. This is where Radiohead’s playlist gets under the skin of the entire production; Clug’s choreography, Tomaž Premzl’s lighting and Leo Kulaš’ costumes all combine to visualise the visceral forces of jealousy and hatred that tear relationships apart, while the music provides an emotional anchor inside Juliet’s head that holds them together. Towards the end the camera revisits Juliet’s apartment; still in her black corset she is lying in her bath with eyes closed, remembering Romeo’s final moments that she plays out briefly on stage. The camera remains for a last wistful look around the empty rooms before leaving by the way it had entered. 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun features Bolshoi Ballet principals Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin in this tale of sexual arousal that Vaslav Nijinsky first choreographed in 1912 to Claude Debussy’s score, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, after the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Cherkaoui uses the same score with additional musical inserts by Nitin Sawhney. As Lopatin’s appearance in the Zakharova program showed, he has a fine classical technique but in Faun he undresses the classicism for a more pliable, plastic form, providing a poignant reminder of Nijinsky’s own chameleon propensity. In the opening solo Lopatin’s body exudes the lecherous and lascivious passions of the faun in the narcissistic, introverted enjoyment of movement and space. When Stashkevich arrives on stage, as imagined in Hussein Chalayan’s pastoral tunic, she looks more chaste but the subsequent rapture of the choreographic language blends both bodies in a shared jouissance.

Wayne McGregor claims responsibility for choreography and direction in the world première of McGregor + Mugler, while Manfred Thierry Mugler takes on the art direction and costume design. It is the latter that predominantly occupies our eyes while McGregor’s choreography — never strong in classical content or partnering — succeeds in making Edward Watson and the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina Olga Smirnova look as if they are performing a pastiche of an under-rehearsed pas de deux to tracks by Holly Herndon and Nils Frahm. While Watson is clearly not at his best, Smirnova is at the height of her career but she has trouble emerging from McGregor and Mugler’s framework. Mugler’s design of the flesh-like bodysuits, face masks, top knots and various reflective helmets, breast pieces, cod pieces, shin pads and amulets, effectively hides the dancers, and by making the masks so indistinguishable from their faces — certainly from a viewpoint halfway back in the stalls — we see no difference when they ritually exchange them. Perhaps that’s the point. The sophistication of Lucy Carter’s lighting is caught up in the pretension of its context, contributing to a spectacle in which the dancers are unwitting appendages to the hubris of its creators. 

A politically correct Nutcracker for the end of 2019?

A Politically Correct Nutcracker for the end of 2019?

Nutcracker backdrop
Nature’s backdrop for the first act Snow scene from Nutcracker (photo: Glenn Jacobson)

With the waves of the debate on political correctness in ballet whipped up in a storm of indignation, perhaps it’s time to change the scenario of one of the more controversial productions. For example, the national characteristics Marius Petipa chose to portray in Nutcracker, which no doubt had their special significance in the Imperial Russia of 1892, correspond remarkably well to the current political landscape for which Tchaikovsky’s score might once again be appropriated. 

Petipa did not choose to portray the English in Nutcracker, possibly because the country at the time did not have a tradition of classical ballet. That, of course has changed, as has the recent political climate in the country. The first act of the ballet is set at a merry Christmas party in a wealthy family home. Given the Christmas present we have received in the election, it is tempting to see Boris Johnson in the patriarchal role with his latest paramour entertaining his Conservative friends while Etonian schoolboys run around creating mischief with their toy trumpets and miniature JCB diggers. Jeremy Corbin is in the avuncular role of Drosselmeyer who gives Clara the magic gift of speaking truth to power. Armed with this incalculable gift, Clara, who grows up to be Greta Thunberg, defeats the forces of Machiavellian duplicity and in the transformation scene the Christmas tree grows and multiplies as a symbol of reforestation. However, the melting ice caps of Lev Ivanov’s snow scene at the end of Act 1 are a stark reminder of the current state of our natural environment. 

Traveling into the second act on board her tiny carbon footprint, Clara visits first Spain for the climate conference and then some of the more flagrant polluters: Russia, China and (Saudi) Arabia. Three of the divertissements from the original second act are thus accounted for — along with possible lead roles and narratives — without the need for cultural exaggeration. The European community is the network of 28 (at this time of writing) countries under the skirts of Mother Ginger Brussels while the Mirlitons as the LGBTQ+ community continue campaigning for human rights. Clara has one last dream of saving the planet in a Waltz of the Flowers seen through the eyes of Extinction Rebellion before the Grand Pas de Deux features the President and First Lady of the United States against a backdrop of Thunberg as Person of the Year on the cover of Time Magazine. 

Greta Gauhe and Alka Nauman at Chisenhale Dance Space

NOWhere & Be Fruitful and multiply at Chisenhale Dance Space, November 30

Alka Nauman, Be fruitful and multiply
Leilah Simone Williams, Keity Pook, Lucie Palazot and Shum Pui Yung in Alka Nauman’s Be fruitful and multiply (photo: Anna Jockymek)

As the first of two works on this evening’s program of new choreography by Greta Gauhe and Alka Nauman at Chisenhale Dance Space, Gauhe’s NOWhere is a timely examination of ‘issues of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment.’ Gauhe has taken an autobiographical approach to structure the personal narratives of her dancers from four different countries on two continents, who express their stories through spoken word and dance. Dance theatre is the performative equivalent of mixed media or collage in the visual arts where one medium is juxtaposed with another so as to bring out a new meaning or metaphor in the whole. What Lloyd Newson’s verbatim theatre or Luca Silvestrini’s confessional theatre — not to mention Pina Bausch’s tanztheater — have all shown is how spoken word and dance can strengthen each other to create dramatic, sometimes surreal scenarios that express ideas physically, visually, intellectually and emotionally. In NOWhere, however, the notion of juxtaposition is replaced by a convergence between dance and spoken word that unfortunately blunts the impact of both; the stories don’t stand out as much as they should, and the dance is lost in trying to frame them. Through this subtle transfer of focus, even the sinister signification of the naked light bulbs at the beginning becomes an artful approach to lighting by the end. Between the ‘hostile environment’ of the current government and the #MeToo campaign, stories of racial or sexual discrimination and harassment need to be called out with a force that arouses our sense of outrage and empathy; resistance to the established order is one of art’s primary functions. In its urgent call for action in the present time and place, NOWhere needs a stronger emphasis on the stories at its heart; they are too often inaudible through a problem either of acoustics, of weak diction, or of voices having to compete with Andy Trewren’s electronic keyboard accompaniment. 

It is difficult to know if Alka Nauman’s Be Fruitful and multiply is a polemic or a paean. Lying somewhere between the two, ‘the piece focuses on the ambiguous nature of plastic bags, on their elegance and ugliness…to reveal the absurdity of our attitude towards the environment.’ Nauman’s adoption of the absurd as a creative tool (it comes as no surprise that she cites the support of Eva Recacha) reveals its purpose in destabilising our response to the work, but the integrity of conception is such that this disruption is what makes it so effective. The stage is set with a tableau of four languidly posed women — Lucie Palazot, Keity Pook, Shum Pui Yung and Leilah Simone Williams — on one side in pastel t-shirts and pants and a pile of blue plastic bags on the other. Staring out over each other into the infinite distance, the four women inch their way in silence towards the pile with calculated reserve and control, creating bemused tension by maintaining the direction of movement while eliminating any sense of motive. When they reach the bags and start to explore their buoyant, pliant qualities in slow motion caress, the previous action is resolved but the future course of the work is once again in question. In Nauman’s absurdist construction, the negative environmental connotation of plastic bags loses its signification to one of aesthetics; the four women pose, balance and swing the bags like weightless jewellery on their arms and heads. They continue their reverie — with ever serene nonchalance — in padding their t-shirts with the bags, distorting their bodies to a bloated caricature, and later drawing them out as if by surgical procedure. By confounding reverence for the environment with devotion to one of its principal pollutants, Nauman satirizes our blindness to ecological destruction. The silence finally breaks with a recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Sileant Zephyri that is itself a musical fragment mourning the death of Christ and its effect on nature. The four women, with their heads covered in plastic bags, are poised individually in a final tableau. As they each lip-synch the recitative (sung by counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky accompanied by Ensemble Artaserse), a sense of calm descends, with only Yung’s hands and fingers showing any vestige of life. 

‘Let the winds be hushed, 
let the fields freeze,
the flowers and leaves will not
be drenched with the water they love. 
With the river dead
even the moon and the sun 
will be deprived of their own light.’

(Translation from the Latin by Pietro Lignola) 

Svetlana Zakharova in Modanse at the Coliseum

Svetlana Zakharova in Modanse at the Coliseum, December 3

Svetlana Zakharova as Chanel in Bolshoi Modanse
Svetlana Zakharova as Gabrielle Chanel (photo: Jack Devant)

Svetlana Zakharova is the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet and the artistic director of MuzArts, the producer of this double bill, Modanse. The program includes two works — Mauro Bigonzetti’s Come Un Respiro (‘Like a Breath’) and Yuri Possokhov’s Gabrielle Chanel — in which Zakharova is the star accompanied by two male principals, two male leading soloists and fourteen artists of the Bolshoi Ballet. 

For Zakharova to present herself in a context that focuses the spotlight uniquely on her talents is in keeping with a culture of celebrity. When the Bolshoi first came to London in 1956 its undisputed star was Galina Ulanova but her artistry was subsumed in the ballets in which she appeared — Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Giselle; by all accounts her identity was not separate from the roles she played. The current double bill turns this notion of the star inside out; in both works Zakharova appears as herself. Bigonzetti’s Come Un Respiro eschews character for an abstract study of articulate lines and shapes — both of which suit Zakharova’s outstanding plastic ability — and while Possokhov offers Zakharova the opportunity to inhabit the life of the iconic Chanel, she fails, by her own admission, to take it. 

Come Un Respiro takes the breathless beauty of well-trained dancer’s bodies as the starting point of a physical puzzle that manipulates the classical lexicon into unconventional shapes and demonstrates, with a knowing sense of wit and playful eroticism, how such manipulations of the body affect its emotional expression. The program describes the work as ‘a modern reflection of the aesthetics of the Baroque period’; it rides on a recording of Handel’s Suites for Keyboard and is enhanced by the costumes of Helena de Medeiros. The men are bare chested in tights, and the women have stylish bodices with a baroque curlicue confection around their waists. Their arms and legs are laid bare like steely tendrils of an exotic plant with beautifully curved tips that can extend endlessly into languid shapes, hinge, cantilever or wrap themselves enticingly around their partners. Bigonzetti seems to love this show of sex more than he loves the pure pleasure of movement; his choreography too often manipulates shapes in place (with the exception of variations for Zakharova and Jacopo Tissi who refreshingly expand their shapes in space) that runs counter to the current of the keyboard suites. The effect of Come Un Respiro is overwhelmingly visual to the detriment of choreographic flow.  

When she was researching the subject of Possokhov’s new ballet, Zakharova visited Chanel’s apartment at 30, rue de Cambon in Paris. She writes that it was not what she expected to find; the Byzantine luxury of the furnishings confused her. In looking for Chanel, ‘at some point I started to lose her’, she continues. ‘I tried to find at least some similarity, but the more I sank into her image, the clearer I realized that there was nothing in common between us. And that thought freed me, unchained me, and gave me the freedom to invent my own Chanel…’ For Zakharova and Possokhov it is apparently immaterial in the creation of Gabrielle Chanel that the central character is irredeemably conflated with the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. There is no further need for biographical depth; Alexey Frandetti as librettist and director guides us through a timeline of events in Chanel’s early life that Possokhov uses as choreographic set pieces for his trio of principal characters: Chanel and two of her early, wealthy lovers, Étienne Balsan and the elegant Englishman, Arthur (Boy) Capel. While the Chanel-designed costumes are beautifully styled period reproductions, and Maria Tregubova’s sets and Ilya Starilov’s video projections make creative reference to contemporary taste, Ilya Demutsky’s score seems less concerned with finding flavours of French period music than in painting a contemporary portrait of the central character. Choreographically, Zhakarova’s two duets with Tissi as Boy Capel are the highlights but Possokhov tends to default to a traditional treatment of overwrought emotions. Boy Capel’s death in a car accident is perhaps the nadir of imagination, combining a grainy video projection of a car driving at speed along a narrow coastal road, stage lights momentarily blinding the driver (and audience) and a climax of Tissi performing a double tour to the ground not unlike Albrecht in Giselle. We do not learn very much in this sumptuous work about Chanel, but that is not its purpose; it’s about the legend, and as Chanel famously said, ‘Legend is the consecration of celebrity.’