Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much at the Manchester International Festival

Posted: July 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much at the Manchester International Festival

Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much, Ukrainian Cultural Centre, July 20

Claire Cunningham in Thank You Very Much at Manchester International Festival
Dan Daw, Vicky Malin, Tanja Erhart and Claire Cunningham in Thank You Very Much (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.” – Elvis Presley

The Ukrainian Cultural Centre, tucked away in the residential side streets of Cheetham Hill and a tram ride from the slick glossy centre of Manchester International Festival, is the venue for a new work from Claire Cunningham, Thank You Very Much, commissioned by MIF; the social club cum bar cum community centre is the perfect location to explore impersonation, identity and acceptance through the lens of Elvis tribute artists.

The idea of using a tribute artist as a vehicle to pose questions on the authenticity of self already has a delightful irony, but to extend the idea to embrace questions on disabled and non-disabled bodies in a society that requires an almost mythic quest for the perfect normative body is a touch of genius. The four-performer ensemble (Daniel Daw, Tanja Erhart, Vicky Malin and Claire Cunningham) pull back their personal curtains on the glittering world of the professional tribute artist; they share intimate solo moments and delightful interactions with the audience alongside the experiences and authentic movement tips from the tribute acts like Black Elvis and Elvis Desley they spent time with during the creation process. 

Presley made the jump from local Mississippi heart-throb to national icon after his TV appearance on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956; the intense pelvis shaking and broken choreographic lines alongside his appropriation of gospel/rhythm-and-blues/country sounds beamed a new and exotic culture into small screen America. Just as Elvis danced passionately with his microphone stand bent towards him, Cunningham introduces the evening in a gentle Glaswegian burr with an exquisite triped solo of weighted microphone stand and crutches; delicate balances mixed with 45-degree crutch leans while she serenades us with a flawless Elvis opener. 

Thank You Very Much is a love letter to those that exist on the edges. Cunningham is using the considerable privilege of an MIF frame to show what is possible when you invest in disabled artists by bringing to the fore an exquisite team. Dan ‘Hounddog’ Daw belongs on the catwalk, from blending the heel-to-toe walking assessments for motor control to strutting the stage wearing little more than a gold spangled jacket and tight boxers. Tanja ‘Wooden’ Erhart is totally compelling, drawing our eyes through the quality of movement and charismatic presence. Shanti Creed (costume designer) is a rhinestone monster and had an absolute ball with the jump suits, capes and belts, but it was the attention to detail in Erhart’s red diamante crutches and deep red satin kneepads that was most satisfying, even if they only made a couple of appearances. 

BSL interpreter Amy Cheskin was also on stage with all four performers; she is an electric stage presence in her own right adding value for those who are BSL users and those who aren’t. As an interpreter she has an incredible transparency in how quickly she is able to communicate; there’s no latency in the signs. Whether we’re hearing from Black Elvis on voiceover or Hounddog Daw conducting a live/fake interview on stage with an unsuspecting audience member she quietly appears next to the performer and delivers an embodied BSL that matches the emotive tone and delivery of the performers; we even learn the sign for Elvis which looks like you’re pulling a quiff with your right hand. 
There are enough nods to and affection for the King, tribute artists and the Porthcawl Elvis Festival that ensures the work isn’t taking from or using the culture for cheap laughs; there is care in buckets on how the performers are with each other and how they interact with the audience. Cunningham is an artist with a rich enough vein of works (Guide Gods, Give Me A Reason to Live and The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight) that could spawn their own tribute artists; I would love to see “Care Clunningham” mining the best bits of these existing works into a new evening.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre

Posted: July 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre

Es Morgan, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see!, Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, July 11

Es Morgan, Mum, I'm in the fourth dimension, see! at the Marlborough Theatre
Es Morgan in Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! (photo: Jemima Yong)

There is no space for wings on the tiny stage of the Marlborough Theatre so the entrance is from the audience up the steps at the front. Es Morgan is tall but when they step up on to the stage they dominate it like Leonardo’s renaissance man staked out inside a circle. Created by Morgan with dramaturgy by Charlie Ashwell, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! is part dance performance, part spoken word and part installation. It is also part of the Trans Pride season at the Marlborough Theatre which frames it more specifically within the trans/non-binary/intersex/gender genre. While this confines the performance to a familiar context, as an existential rant on current society Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! has a relevance that goes beyond it. In this sense the reference of costumes and makeup to drag are less important than the broader societal issues of transgender Morgan proposes in each element of the performance.

After a brief spoken word introduction, they close their eyes and perform an exquisite long-limbed, existential dance that takes up the entire stage (without much difficulty) as if the space is a cage that their body constantly explores in a hesitant dialogue of boundaries. In its eloquently mute articulation Morgan’s body establishes an inner world of gender fluidity while speaking volumes about their sense of alienation and disquiet. At this point Mum! looks like a contemporary dance performance and four of the audience, possibly feeling short-changed by the lack of drag, walk out just as Morgan’s eyes open and the dance comes to a close. Slipping off their shoes and tracksuit pants to reveal a long silky dress, Morgan reclines in the red inflatable armchair with a bottle of water and a microphone. ‘Gender is a construction site; so many slow men…I’m just a slab of meat looking for something real,’ they quip as they begin a carefully constructed, sinuous monologue delivered in a languorous tone that hides its cynical bite. It’s like words passing through a hall of mirrors, reflecting distortions of desires and fears in a lurid, panopticon society, somewhere between ‘Nietzsche and nurture’ in ‘a post-capitalist wet dream’. At the end of the monologue they leave us with an image of a supine Saint Sebastian pierced by plastic straws before abandoning us to what sounds like musical water while they apply a demon/angel face makeup in front of their pop-up mirror.

We’re half way through the show and this is the moment we are asked to close our eyes and surrender to Morgan’s suggestive tones, part guru, part new wave hypnotist with mischievous overtones. ‘Relax, get comfortable…you might want to lean into the person next to you.’ They guide us through an out-of-body visualization down corridors with closed doors, carpeted rooms and cartoon characters on screens until we open our eyes and we’re back in the Marlborough with Morgan the ‘marmite me’ in a black unitard stretched over their torso with red crosses over their nipples, standing bare legged at the microphone atop platform heels. The existential takes on the sensual in Morgan’s breathless catalogue of social and political chaos (‘Fascism has such a strong smell…’) in which the world’s oceans overflow and the last white male rhino disappears; death is never far away. It comes in the form of a roll of pungent Speedman Paper Fill that Morgan pulls out of a box — all 450 metres of it — and lets fall around them like a crinoline that continues to rise until they are embalmed in loose packaging. After death come the reminiscences, a fond recap from the safety of another dimension — the fourth? the fifth? — of all that Morgan espouses in the mess of the present. ‘Do you remember when gender became obsolete?’, they ask. We are not there yet, even if we knew what the destination might look like, but in broaching the possibility with a mixture of introspection, irreverent humour and sharp social commentary, Mum, I’m in the fourth dimension, see! makes us feel we’re on the journey together. 


Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Elixir Extracts Festival, Lilian Baylis Theatre, June 14-16

Elixir Extracts Festival
Company of Elders in Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Billed five years ago as a lifelong celebration of creativity, Elixir Festival focused on mature dancers, both professional and amateur, to counter the notion of ageism in a predominantly youthful dance culture. The format consisted of a mainstage mixed bill with professional and ex-professional dancers like Mats Ek, Ana Laguna, Dominic Mercy, as well as members of the original London Contemporary Dance Company, while the smaller Lilian Baylis theatre hosted two days of performances by amateur groups. The mix was inspiring if uneven — professionals who have danced for over 40 years at the summit of their field have a mastery of dance language that amateurs, however dedicated, rarely can. Two years later the next incarnation of Elixir followed the original format but the balance had changed; the mainstage show failed to duplicate the excellence of the first iteration while some of the ‘extracts’ next door were markedly more interesting choreographically and expressively. Despite Sadler’s Wells being a signatory to a European co-operation project that addresses ageism in dance (Dance On, Pass On, Dream On, or DOPODO), this year’s Elixir Extracts Festival — even the name suggests something is missing — retreats so far from its original idea that the distinction between professional and amateur has disappeared altogether and ageism in the dance profession has dropped off the radar; Elixir has become a yellow pages of over-sixties community dance in the UK. 

The quality of works on the program tends to suffer not so much from any low ability among the dancers but of choreography that fails to challenge their age. The one exception on Saturday was Dance Six-O’s performance of Liz Agiss’s Head In My Bag which, in Agiss’s inimitable language, ‘dumps age centre stage and kicks preconceptions into the long grass.’ Because Agiss is herself a performer of a certain age (though she has not been invited to previous Elixir festivals) she knows how to lift performance to a level that goes well beyond the demonstration of community and health benefits; she has an artistic vision that has no truck with the limitations of age. Her performers, with handbags on their heads, become a radical army of spirited individuals calling for the overturn of institutional myopia. 

Sunday’s program kicks back with a little more force, particularly from the Merseyside Dance Initiative’s Men! Dancing! performing Shoulder to Shoulder choreographed by MDI’s Jennifer Hale, and the PC*DC’s infectious finale, Your Invisible Balls Please. In the former, six men distil tension, aggression and resistance into a convincing choreographic form of mutual support, while the latter is a riotous refusal to go quietly led by the irrepressible Donald Hutera. It’s an apt message on which to close Elixir Extracts: in opting for the social value of older amateur dance over the artistic significance of mature dance, Sadler’s Wells is not so much challenging ageism in dance as avoiding the issue altogether.

In contrast to the two programs of extracts that are limited to around ten minutes each, Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship elderly amateur group, Company of Elders, celebrates 30 years of activity with a full-length evening of dance. With ages ranging from 60 to 90, the company can hardly be accused of ageism, but while its longevity supports the argument for older amateur dance, the range of its members’ abilities requires an approach to choreography that resolves the inherent limitations of its repertoire.

Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak bypasses this opportunity by proposing the final speech and subsequent disappearance of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, as subject. In wrapping the company in a narrative that is beyond the embodied experience of its performers, Seutin turns gestures of menace and violence into expressions of half-hearted complicity. The context of African dances emphasizes the ability of Monica Tuck but while this is a benefit for the audience it does little to carry the momentous events Seutin proposes; it’s a fine subject on the wrong company.

Clara Andermatt’s Natural 2019 approaches the company from within. It’s a reconstruction of a work Andermatt created on Company of Elders in 2005; fourteen years later seven members are still involved. It is ‘natural’ in the way it presents each person and transforms their experiences into dance theatre but while its confessional nature suits the company, the disparate abilities of its members limit the development of its choreographic form. If the artistic potential of the company is to develop in line with its flagship, repertoire status, ageism may prove to have a time limit. 


Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead: Surface Tension & (de)figured

Posted: July 1st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Exhibition, Installation, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead: Surface Tension & (de)figured

Caroline Broadhead and Angela Woodhouse, Surface Tension & (de)figured, June 28

Angela Woodhouse (de)figured
(de)figured (photo: Nathaniel Rackowe)

By evincing the intelligence underpinning the process of formal and conceptual exploration, two recent projects by choreographer Angela Woodhouse fit into and exceed the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘collaboration’ as ‘the action of working together with someone to produce something’. Thermal Duets is a series of five choreographic videos shot with a thermal camera and developed with Nic Sandiland and artist Caroline Broadhead as part of the latter’s exhibition Surface Tension at Mardsen Woo Gallery, while (de)figured is ‘a series of live action drawings by dancers’ created with sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe and dancers Martina Conti and Alice Labant presented in and around Dora House, home of the Royal Society of Sculptors in South Kensington. 

Broadhead’s practice brings together fine and applied arts through her expertise in jewellery design. In Surface Tension she rearticulates the relation between material and form by re-creating domestic objects and furniture. An antique picture frame is carefully pulled apart and remounted as a soft, almost articulated necklace that has lost its capacity to hold; a chair is encrusted in a fine silvery chain mail and another has its seat replaced with a geometric pattern of threads; a stool stands precariously on pointed feet while its finely beaded cast lies beside it like the divested skin of an eighteenth-century écorché. In stripping furniture of its functionality, Broadhead draws attention to its intimate relation to the body alluded to in the naming of its constituent parts — head, neck, back, arm, leg, and foot — and in the signs of wear that bear the shape of the bodies that have used them (what nineteenth century dressmakers used to call ‘memories’). Woodhouses’s series Thermal Duets resonates with this investigation of form, material and functionality. The technology of thermal photography was developed for military and surveillance purposes but is here transposed in an intimate context of choreographic stillness and minute movement. The videos are displayed on I-phones in black frames that draw the visitor close as if to a miniature watercolour or embroidery. We see the diaphanous blue and yellow silhouettes of two dancers in each frame while the body heat is revealed in shades of red. A description by John Berger comes to mind: ‘The bodies of dancers with their kind of devotion are dual…A kind of Uncertainty Principle determines them; instead of being alternately particle and wave, their bodies are ultimately giver and gift.’ The intensity and overlaying of colours makes the proximity and interaction of the bodies tangible: the lingering warmth of a hand caressing a back, an arm delicately moving away, or the intense vibration of breath as two heads folds towards each and then separate. Affect is here a residue of presence, a memory of touch. Woodhouse and Broadhead’s use of the thermal camera has transposed Berger’s view into luminous traces of orange-red dance.

The live action drawings of (de)figured are no less an exploration of surfaces, materials and physicality but on a three-dimensional scale. Rackowe’s choice of portable construction-site materials — breeze blocks, yellow scaffolding nets and ropes — relates the impermanent nature of the work and its re-configuration for different sites to the perceived permanence and solidity of buildings, teasing the porous relations between interior and exterior, rigid and pliant. The performance starts on the pavement of Onslow Gardens across the road from Dora House. Slowly unrolling a carefully measured yellow rope Conti walks backwards towards the Old Brompton Road with a serene calculation that contrasts with the bustle of passersby and the congested traffic. Across the road, Labant wraps herself enigmatically inside a scaffolding net hanging down over the entrance portico. The affect of the perceptive and emotional interchange between bodies and environment is central to (de)figured, though here plasticity and weight gain prominence. The yellow rope on the pavement remains as a trace of the initial action that, after Conti’s negotiated hiatus crossing the road, quietly moves indoors with Labant unrolling a black rope from the pavement up the broad entrance steps into the reception area, threading it around breezeblocks in the hall and two adjacent rooms into what was once the studio of court photographers, Elliot and Fry. The meditative pace of Woodhouse’s choreographic movement, like a silent line-drawing, figuratively conflates durability and transience, contrasting the solidity of walls and interior surfaces with the pliability of bodies and soft materials. (de)figured dematerializes in the shadows of the dancers’ bodies projected by industrial lamps on to a wall of the studio. Between them hangs Barbara Hepworth’s Construction 1 (part of the gallery’s current exhibition), taking the notion of collaboration to another level. 


Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place

Posted: June 24th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place

Lola Maury, BROUHAHA, The Place, May 29

Lola Maury BROUHAHA
An image from BROUHAHA (photo: Alberto Ruiz Soler)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a brouhaha is ‘a noisy and overexcited reaction or response to something’, but the opening of Lola Maury’s BROUHAHA prompts an opposite reaction; as we sit on three sides of the stage at The Place waiting in the dark for what we think might be the beginning of the performance, nothing happens. Has something gone wrong? Then as we accustom our eyes to the darkness and our ears to the silence, we hear a prolonged whistled note from somewhere in the auditorium, and then another with eerie harmonics and the sound of Big Ben chiming in the fog. A sense of relief ensues as the notion of a beginning takes formal shape; the whistled harmonics are like reeds blowing in the night and from a single corner light we can ascribe their source to a trio of performers (Juan Corres Benito, Laureline Richard and Alexander Standard) arriving slowly on the still-overcast stage with rasping intakes of breath. What sounds come from the performers and what are embedded in Alberto Ruiz Soler’s ruminative, diaphanous score is difficult to tell, but Maury and her team seem to be setting up a theme of acclimatization that tests not only our senses but our expectations of what a performance might be. What we hear evolves into what we see: three evanescent figures flecked in silver slowly evolving under a brooding light. The trio naturally draws our focus but it is the scenic interplay of form, sound and light that vies constantly for attention. Ben Moon’s lighting corroborates Ruiz Soler’s growling collage of sounds while the layered forms of Cesca Dvorak’s gender-neutral costumes shroud the body in mystery. 

Maury’s description of the work as ‘a multi-layered experience; a sometimes chaotic, sometimes harmonious mess of sonics mashed, spliced and woven which chimeric sequences of movement’ seems almost too defined. The smooth articulation of the performers is independent of any known narrative and defies any recognisable relationships; whether it suggests amoebas expanding their reach in a protoplasmic effort to survive or simply an imaginative deconstruction of formality, the very ambiguity of the spectacle spawns inevitable attempts at interpretation that are never allowed to coalesce into a cogent frame. At one moment one could imagine three children playing in a field at night or be reminded of the tidal interaction of waves; on a more comprehensive scale, we might think of the work as relating to space and time in an era before our definitions of such notions began to measure, control, change and transform them. Or is Maury channelling a response to the Anthropocene by layering corporal landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes on to one another in a brouhaha of vertebrate chaos? 

While it is usual for dance movement to guide or be guided by the rhythm and melody of a score, Maury enlists Ruiz Soler’s soundscape to influence the dynamic shape and volume of her choreography. Integral to his rumbling leitmotif is the muscularity and vitality of extrinsic sounds — be it a music box, traces of ritual chanting or spoken word — entering the space as swirling matter that the performers imbue with their own articulation. But the relationship between performers and sound is porous; voices within the score imperceptibly manifest in the voices on stage and vice versa so that aural stimuli never appear long enough or clearly enough to generate a specific picture or image. It’s as if Maury and her creative team are keeping their own interpretive involvement as neutral as possible to allow the audience to see through the sound and to hear through the movement. BROUHAHA is clearly the fruit of a rich, organic collaboration and in bringing together its diverse threads, meanings and significations its performance is an acutely meditative experience.

Having taken us on this journey, it is the performers who assume the responsibility for resolving the brouhaha by vocalising, as it were, their own demise until the stage empties and falls silent. The audience’s applause is an abrupt reminder of space and time. 


Art Project Bora’s Double Bill at The Place

Posted: June 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Art Project Bora’s Double Bill at The Place

Art Project Bora, Double Bill, The Place, June 4

Art Project Bora
Art Project Bora in Somoo (photo: Kunu Kim)

Bora Kim, the artistic director of Art Project Bora and an accomplished performer in her own right, presents a double bill at the second edition of A Festival of Korean Dance at The Place. The two works are a solo for herself, A Long Talk To Oneself, and an ensemble for six female dancers, Somoo. To experience these two works is to be immersed in an unfamiliar world that Kim evokes by weaving together visual elements from her Korean heritage that reference and inform each other to create densely layered landscapes of cultural associations.

A Long Talk To Oneself is a spare, carefully nuanced work about the need to speak out on a subject on which society prefers to keep silent. What hovers in the unspoken background is the death of a grandmother in an unspecified conflagration. We don’t know why Kim can’t speak openly about it but we can feel in her tense, silent physical language the painful foreboding of a family secret. A shiny, transparent halter top adds to the horror by suggesting the high-temperature moulding of clothes to skin. Kim’s finely articulated vocabulary is perhaps the only way for her to mourn adequately and at the same time it reveals inner emotions that make her mourning eloquently tangible. The inability to speak out is suggested in a prologue to the work when dancer Jun-Whan Her takes his time to place a microphone on a stand at the front of the stage; the stand is carefully extended above his head and the microphone, once installed, faces down at an angle. He checks it with a heavy breath and walks off. Kim emerges from the darkness to a similar heavy breath, passing in stages through horizontal lines of side light that mark her painful journey; when she arrives at the microphone, she can only look up at it but her words come through her expressive face and hands with their doll-like detachment. It is as if in her mute recounting Kim has merged with the spirit of her grandmother. There is a recorded voice in Korean that links Kim’s stage presence with a film of herself projected on a screen behind her, adding images and strands of conversation on top of her gestural language. We can glean from the subtitles on Jae-Hyung Joo’s film the story of Kim’s grandmother but, according to the program notes, there are other stories ‘from her own experiences’ that are less evident. Nevertheless, A Long Talk To Oneself is an eerily beautiful evocation of dream-like states that come to an abrupt end when Her re-enters to bundle Kim under his arm and walk her off. 

Somoo is a quite different work, not only because Kim has choreographed on six women but also because the work is less autobiographical than auto-descriptive. ‘Named after a classical Korean mask, Somoo uses traditional Asian gestures to convey imagery of the female body through a feminist lens.’ There is no doubt that the female body as treated here is more specifically the female genitalia that are fantasized into living masks ‘through the collective memory of all the individual dancers with the twist of the choreographer’s own interpretation’. On her website Kim has two video extracts of Somoo in quite different settings. One of them is as we see it at The Place; the other (see above image) is on a stage covered in a shallow pool of water that acts as a partner in the imagery, both for its splashing and reflective qualities and its erotic association. The water in effect makes the choreography and the shapes flow with an abandon that is missing on a dry stage. 

Somoo sees Kim subverting traditional gestures and masks into her contemporary feminist perspective on the female body, but while her visual fantasies are evident, there is a difficulty in grasping the details of her interpretation. This is perhaps where a western audience is at a disadvantage; Kim’s use of indigenous cultural signifiers falls short of releasing their full signification and thus obscures the rich intent of her work.

Kim also plays with a false ending, an apparent closure to the performance with a line-up of bows and the expected applause, after which it continues. Whatever reasons there were for doing it, as a theatrical presentation it doesn’t work, leaving a sense of unease at the end of what is a welcome opportunity to reflect on cultural perspectives. 


The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre

Posted: June 19th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Installation, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre

The Breath Control Project, The Coronet Theatre, May 28

The Breath Control Project
Caroline Wright in The Breath Control Project (photo: Rosie Powell)

The following review is based on a dress rehearsal of The Breath Control Project that we were fortunate to be able to attend.

Life starts and ends with a breath. Each breath is a personal individual action while its metaphorical associations with life-force, vitality and spirit encompass the very significance and course of life itself. However, we are hardly ever aware of the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the chest that the inhalation and exhalation of air causes, unless we engage in activities like sport that require large amounts of oxygen, or in cases where breathing becomes difficult and we struggle for air. The Breath Control Project, an interactive installation and choral performance by visual and performance artist Caroline Wright at the Coronet Theatre, explores this most fundamental of bodily motions that supports and defines all other movements through its rhythmic cadences. While ‘control’ describes a conscious effort, the overall project more specifically engages the audience’s imagination with the invisible and yet tangible presence of the breath as a vital element of life. Like lungs, Wright’s project comprises two connected chambers within the theatre. Notes is a sound installation on the stage of the main auditorium and Osmosis is performed in the adjacent small theatre with members of the locally recruited Breath Choir.  

For Notes a microphone stands centre stage facing an audience of transparent glass-blown tracheas suspended from the ceiling that oscillate in the light. Audience members are invited one at a time to stand in front of the microphone and produce a note using the full capacity of one breath. Each note is then collected in a sonic archive that digitally collates them as an orchestration that makes the breath palpable in this vocalized form. The work also has a social and scientific function: the data collected on each breath is correlated to current statistics on air pollution. 

Osmosis explores the more tangible aspects of breath that include an experience by Liam Wright of the harrowing discovery of each breath, hampered by disease, becoming insufficient and strenuous. This arc of experience helps to define the intrinsic relationship between breath and wellbeing, and by translating it into motions and sounds Wright underlines what medical sources recommend as an appropriate breathing practice, placing at one point a metronome on the floor to which the performers walk, inhale, exhale — and cough — on the beat. 

One of the memorable images is members of the Breath Choir, dressed in clinical white overalls and red rubber gloves, blowing each other a breath with their open hands as it were a gift or wish. It becomes like a game of tennis, with ever more strenuous attempts to serve and return the invisible substance with ever more ludic permutations. When the performers include members of the audience in the game we all enter into a circle of communal participation with our fragile environment and are asked to store a lungful of air in a transparent plastic bag. From this everyday action, the imagery extends to the harnessing of breath for playing a wind instrument (Carla Rees on flute) and singing, first with the Breath Choir and mezzo-soprano soloist Laura Wright (Caroline’s daughter), and then by Wright’s plangent rendering of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as she lies on a catafalque surrounded by our ritual offerings of surrogate lungs. Coming from the stillness, Wright’s voice sounds eerily miraculous, summoning up the sublime beauty that breath enables as well as the vulnerability of the present moment and of life itself. 


Cas Public and Kopergietery in 9 at the Linbury Theatre

Posted: June 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cas Public and Kopergietery in 9 at the Linbury Theatre

Cas Public, 9 at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, May 30

Cas Public
A publicity shot of Cas Public in 9 (photo: ©Damian Siqueiros)

With its recent refurbishment, the Linbury is now a theatre ideally suited for dance. The stage may be only slightly deeper than before but the visibility from the more sharply raked seating is what it should be, unobstructed; even when there’s action on the front of the stage it’s not obscured. This is the kind of theatrical environment needed for Cas Public’s new work, 9, because there is so much detail to take in at any one moment that only a full and uninterrupted view of the stage allows us to benefit from its full effect. 9 is a coproduction between Cas Public — its name derives from the company’s commitment to dealing with social issues and its conviction of the artist’s role in society — and Kopergietery, a performing arts space in Ghent. What links the two companies is their shared focus on creating works for young audiences; Kopergietery’s artistic director, Johan de Smet, is the dramaturg for 9

It’s not immediately obvious this is a performance for young audiences; such works tend to default to a language that underestimates youthful sophistication, but Cas Public’s founder and artistic director, Hélène Blackburn, rejects this approach. As she explains to Gerard Davis in a program interview: ‘I don’t think there’s that much difference between adults and children — the adult is a child who has grown up, while the child is an adult in the making. I don’t see why I can’t address my work to a multigenerational audience — lots of art forms like circus, music and the visual arts do it, so why not dance?’

Blackburn goes a step further in 9 by involving children in the performance. While the audience is entering the auditorium the five dancers (Alexander Ellison, Cai Glover, Robert Guy, Daphnée Laurendeau and Danny Morissette) engage the attention of children and invite them on to the stage (presumably there is a successful negotiation with the parents because everyone seems happy with the arrangement). The stage is covered in dozens of white liliputian chairs with a couple of tables around and through which stage technician Slim Dakhlaou guides a white, radio-controlled VW beetle. The dancers challenge the children in musical chairs and table chess until what looks like a preparatory intervention leads into the show itself when Glover takes off his hearing device — he has a cochlear implant — and puts it on a spotlit chair. The children remain on stage, implicated directly in the performance by the dancers or seated on the side.

Blackburn’s line of research for 9 starts with Glover’s hearing loss and his innate ability to dance — Blackburn thinks he dances better without his hearing aid — and continues through Beethoven’s deafness to an exploration of his Ninth symphony. The meaning of the work derives from a range of visual and auditory caesura that symbolise both the difficulty of hearing loss and the creative achievement in overcoming it. Martin Tétrault’s splicing of Beethoven’s Für Elise and his Ninth symphony brilliantly conveys the idea of music arriving in Beethoven’s head in halting, perfectly formed bars of sound that are sometimes distorted by low frequencies, and yet all the music’s power and joy are maintained. Emilie Boyer-Beaulieu’s quickly changing pools of light emphasize the fitful attempts at expression that Blackburn unites in her quicksilver gestural vocabulary derived from both classical ballet technique and sign language. Michael Slack’s stylishly casual black costumes keep all the attention on the action and, when shirts get loose, on the physical tension of the torso. The performance maintains a subversive sense of humour throughout — dancers on all fours barking at each other (and at the children) or Guy and Laurendeau snatching an embrace in the midst of a demanding unison sequence — that only enhances the tactile intricacy of the work. Kenneth Michiels’ film sequences of a young Belgian boy with hearing loss experimenting with his cochlear implant and his voice are full of humour and empathy in equal measure.

All these elements are seamlessly linked together with such clarity of form that they inspire through their cumulative emotional charge; it’s choreography that imagines what it’s like to hear again and the exhilaration in the audience is palpable.

The company’s secret ingredient is Marq Frerichs, assistant to Blackburn and in charge of the dancers’ training. ‘I’m a Cecchetti guy,’ he says smiling, and it’s evident in the clean, fast footwork, and the impressive ballon that all the dancers manifest. 

Cas Public will be performing 9 this August at Edinburgh International Festival.


The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka

Posted: June 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Livestream, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka

The Bolshoi Ballet livestream of Carmen Suite and Petrushka, May 19

Bolshoi
The principal characters in Edward Clug’s Petrushka (photo ©Bolshoi)

In London there is nothing quite like a live performance of classical ballet at the Royal Opera House, the Coliseum or at Sadler’s Wells, but when it comes to seeing the Bolshoi Ballet regularly there is nothing quite like dropping in to a local cinema to see a live-streamed performance. The final program of the Bolshoi’s current season is a double bill of Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite and a new version of Petrushka by Edward Clug. Even though the ballets were created in different political climates, both coalesce around a trio of characters in which one risks the ultimate price for freedom. Carmen is released from prison but becomes trapped in her torrid affair with both the corporal, Don José, and the torreador Escamillo; in Petrushka a manipulated doll declares his love for his Ballerina in an effort to establish his humanity.  

Alonso created Carmen Suite in 1967 for one of the Bolshoi’s greatest dramatic dancers, Maya Plisetskaya who, at 42, was looking for new expressive challenges; the public success of the ballet was so bound up with her performance of the role that, as compère Katya Novikova tells us, when she retired in 1987 Carmen Suite retired from the repertoire with her. It wasn’t until the appearance of Svetlana Zakharova in 2005 that the ballet was revived. Alonso’s choreographic style is minimal, requiring technical precision and dynamic shapes but the erotic effect of the narrative combined with the thrillingly percussive interpolation of Bizet’s score by Rodion Schedrin are embodied in the presence of the performers. The change in the principal role is more than a change in interpretation; classical technique has developed so far in the last fifty years that it has become a virtual proxy for dramatic intent. Plisetskaya’s performance of Carmen added dramatic expression to her technical prowess whereas Zakharova’s incorporates the drama of Carmen into the refinement of her technique. Applying Roland Barthes’ phrase ‘le grain de la voix’ to the body, Plisetskaya had a rough, almost feral quality that conveyed the character’s instinctive independence, whereas Zakharova has a smooth sensuality that is more individualistic than fiery. Denis Rodkin as Don José matches Zakharova in the elegant muscularity of his technique while Mikhail Lobukhin as Escamillo is more impetuous as if he has just returned from a bull fight. Vitaly Biktimirov as the Corregidor and Olga Marchenkova as Fate complete the main characters. Boris Messerer’s set under Alexander Rubtsov’s lighting is spectacular, a semi-circular performance area with tall-backed chairs on its raised rim that give it is a sense of a bull ring combined with a court chamber. An abstracted head of a bull is suspended over the action. The production, filmed by Isabelle Julien, lends itself beautifully to the cinema screen. 

In effect Clug has brought Petrushka back home. Although the scenario of the original version was worked out by Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois in St. Petersburg, Michel Fokine created the choreography in Rome and Paris for Diaghilev in 1911. Under Martin Gebhardt’s lighting, Marko Japelj’s set for this production uses the double symbolism of large-scale coloured Matryoshka dolls to represent the tents at the Butter Week Fair Benois so fondly remembered. As Clug explains in a written interview, ‘I aimed to bring back to life the same story told in a different choreographic language and set in a new theatrical aesthetic…I could feel the importance of Petrushka in Russian culture and even more in the people’s hearts…All the elements involved — sets, costumes, choreography and not least the music — carefully depict elements arising from the Russian folklore and tradition.’ If Benois and Stravinsky conceived Petrushka as the immortal Russian spirit evading its confines, Clug sees him more in contemporary psychological terms where woodenness is an inability to connect; his Petrushka ‘wants to overcome his condition and be able to feel, give and receive real emotions. We humans take this option for granted and so often we throw it away.’ It’s a fresh reading that gives a prominent role to Vyacheslav Lopatin’s Magician, an oppressor who masterminds the relationship between his puppets through the use of magic sticks. Petrushka (Denis Savin) is the rebel because he wants to elevate himself while the beautiful Ballerina (Ekaterina Krysanova) and the boorish Moor (Anton Savichev) succumb to their master’s control. The costumes of Leo Kulaš evoke the principal characters as humans who are reduced to being puppets but at the very last moment Clug casts doubt on who is free and who is being manipulated. 


Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

Posted: May 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring at The Place

The Rite of Spring – reimagined by Seeta Patel, The Place, May 18

Seeta Patel, The Rite of Spring
The six dancers in Seeta Patel’s re-imagining of The Rite of Spring (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Last Summer at Tanzmesse I saw an eight-minute excerpt of Seeta Patel’s reimagining of The Rite of Spring; nine months later I’m here at The Place to see how it has grown. Patel is presenting the completed work with six dancers alongside two shorter and complimentary works that establish the relationship between western classical music and group bharatantyam choreography. Celine Lepicard ably performs Bach’s cello suite 1 and a seven-minute group bharatanatyam and contemporary dance choreographed by Patel on alumna from the National Youth Dance Company and Kadam Dance readies the eye and ear palette for what is to come.

There have been over 200 choreographic attempts at matching Stravinsky’s score since it premiered in 1913; it’s a choreographic equivalent of scaling Everest or circumnavigating the globe — there’s a psychology in a certain type of person to see if they’re able to endure, match and conquer it whilst marking their own place in dance history. (Having only seen Marie Chouinard’s version at the Attakkaalari India Biennial in 2017 I do not have Rite fatigue).

At the moment there’s at least two other versions circulating in the UK: Jeanguy Saintus’s interpretation for Phoenix Dance Theatre and Yang Liping’s version but Patel’s is the first time in 106 years that bharatanatyam has been used. As a side note, when I listen to Rite I cannot avoid thinking about how the musical thief John Williams appropriated a number of the key Stravinsky/Rite passages, so even you’ve not heard Stravinsky’s version in full, you’re likely to have heard Williams’ lift in Star Wars (The Dune Sea of Tatooine).   

With Ash Mukhurjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam as the dancers, Patel has brought together the Avengers of classical and contemporary bharatanatyam; this suite of highly skilled performers deals with and executes the choreographic complexity demanded of them with a finesse and grace that makes visual music. The score envelops the auditorium and although it is played too loud, distorting slightly, you feel it surrounding you; the music is in you as you attempt to take in all the visual information. The dancers are pin sharp, have been rehearsed exceptionally and deliver thunderous synchronised foot work; it’s one body echoed across six as they duet with the weight of history and the music. One of the most impressive aspects is how the dancers travel; they gobble up the width of the stage with ease; if you were to trace the dancers on a Strava map they’d have covered miles by the end of the work. 

The visual composition, anatomical layering and choreographic cannon is satisfying and demonstrates for the first time that bharatanatyam can be a group dance form; imagine a miniature corps de bharatanatyam. If the dancers are the Avengers then Patel is Nick Fury — the architect of this work bringing together the finest dancers from across Europe but with Patel’s ambition and skill they level up again, combining to deliver a work that marks a shift in the UK bharatanatyam ecology. This Rite of Spring is begging for a bigger stage, with double/treble the dancers and live orchestral accompaniment and could easily tour internationally for the next five years.   

Devam, Subramaniam and Mukhurjee leave the eyes tired after darting in between where we spend our attention. Patel’s composition delivers wave after wave, and it’s a relentless first half that is unforgiving in its attack. The second half wanes a little in impact as The Sacrifice demands an alternate energy and concentration but it is still a joy to watch and a welcome addition to the choreographic canon. Cyril W. Beaumont — a British book dealer, balletomane, and dance historian — saw each and every one of Nijinsky’s performances in the Ballet Russes’ 1913 London season (which included Nijinsky’s original Rite of Spring) and said: “The chief attraction for the season was to be Nijinsky, presented as a strange, exotic being who could dance like a god. His slanting eyes and his finely-chiselled lips were to be emphasized with grease-paint; his roles were to be of the most unusual type.”  

There is a relationship that warrants further exploration around new classicism and the exoticisation of how Nijinsky was written about and presented, what Patel has done with her re-imagining and how it has been written about in terms of ‘otherness’.

Dance is always presented in a context and Patel’s context needs wider acknowledgement. She is performing and touring in Not Today’s Yesterday, a contemporary solo work co-authored and choreographed with Lina Limosani; she developed in partnership with Gandini Juggling an award-winning work Sigma in which she’s a central pillar; she has co-developed The Natya Project with Shane Shambhu and Magdelene Gorringe — a training programme for younger bharatanatyam dancers in response to the lack of dancers in the profession — and she is still creating/touring her own classical evening of works. If she were male with a name like Khan, McGregor or Shechter she’d have her own choreographic centre, be heralded as a UK pioneer with regular funding to match.