English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire at London Coliseum

Posted: January 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire at London Coliseum

English National Ballet, Le Corsaire, London Coliseum, January 9

Le Corsiare, ENB
Francesco Gabriele Frola and Erina Takahashi in Le Corsaire (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Handsome pirates and beautiful slave girls are the stuff of classic Hollywood films, where sensual aesthetics and genteel bravado were the prime movers of the plot and the prime interest in seeing them. Byron’s poem of 1814, The Corsair is a forerunner of this kind of blockbuster myth making, while Byron’s life might serve as its primary source. Anna-Marie Holmes’ production of Le Corsaire for English National Ballet, recreated from the ballet of Marius Petipa as notated by Stepanov in the collection of Konstantin Sergeyev, could well be a portrait of the passionate life, loves and political causes of Byron himself: a flamboyant adventure story, a stage full of virile men and exotic women, a deferential slave and a satirical portrait of a licentious Pasha. That the plot of the ballet and that of the poem diverge on so many details except the geography and names is the fault of the libretto for the 1856 Paris Opéra production of Le Corsaire by Julies-Henri de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier. Subsequent productions in Russia by Jules Perrot and Petipa maintained the outline of the plot while revising the choreography, but as Jane Pritchard points out in the program, the provenance of this production gets more complicated. The well-known Le Corsaire pas de deux is neither Perrot nor Petipa but is based on a 1915 pas d’action by the St. Petersburg dancer (and teacher of the young George Balanchine), Samuil Andrianov. Like the life of Byron, this ENB production of Le Corsaire is a rich synthesis of influences. 

Bob Ringwood’s sets and costumes effortlessly bridge the poles of Hollywood cinema and Byron’s Ottoman exploits with dreamy textures, colours and vistas — including a wonderfully romantic vignette of a front curtain and a smokingly erotic opium apparition in the Dream section — while the composite score, tirelessly excavated from the work of ten composers by ENB Philharmonic’s music librarian and cellist, Lars Payne, and seamlessly reconstructed by conductor Gavin Sutherland, embraces the range of emotions that unfold on stage. Nothing would be seen without Neil Austin’s lighting which not only enhances the textures of Ringwood’s stage but highlights the narrative with its own arsenal of dramatic effects. 

This rich tapestry, however, is not unproblematic. In fact, how are we to approach Le Corsaire? Its orientalism is evident because the ballet is riddled with cultural tropes and stereotypes; we cannot change the attitude of a historical work, but it can certainly illuminate our current references. One might take issue with Holmes’ decision to turn the character of the Pasha from Byron’s villain (as portrayed in Russian productions) to Michael Coleman’s portrayal of a ‘doddery old, fat fool’ to balance the drama with some lightness; the balancing works, but the characterisation is gratuitous. Wherever the Pasha is involved, the ballet turns into a pantomime, but Coleman plays up his role so well that our enjoyment makes us oblivious of our own attitudes towards ‘the other’. 

Slavery is also an issue that looms large in a contemporary viewing of Le Corsaire; although it continues to play an insidious part in our society, its treatment in Le Corsaire masquerades as the objectification of women. While the male characters are involved in adventurous exploits, the female roles are featured choreographically as forced auditions for the Pasha’s harem or as apparitions in his opium dreams; while the women are on show, the men are showing off. 

What remains beyond the cultural and ethical considerations of the ballet is the impressive quality of ENB’s dancing. Due to illness, this evening’s principals Erina Takahashi as Medora and Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad had been called on to replace Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez on the opening night. Having also danced the dress rehearsal, the additional strain of a second consecutive night shows through at times, but Takahashi’s exquisite refinement and Frola’s expansive enthusiasm create a convincing rapport. Daniel McCormick, in serene and impeccable form as Conrad’s loyal slave, Ali, brings the house down in the second act pas d’action and Junor Souza’s effusive energy as the slave trader Lankendem extends to his spontaneous mime; the other men could learn from his clarity. The lyrical Emma Hawes is a melancholy Gulnare for whom the impetuous Henry Dowden as Birbantio takes a shine, and the steely self-confidence of Katja Khaniukova shines in her odalisque variation. Continuing its run until January 14, there are still plenty of opportunities to appreciate the myriad details of the production and the diverse qualities of subsequent casts.


Unbaptised Infants: TRACKS at SET Bermondsey

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Concept, Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Unbaptised Infants: TRACKS at SET Bermondsey

Unbaptised Infants, TRACKS at Bermondsey’s SET, December 14

Tracks with Lorea Burge and Hannah Parsons
Lorea Burge and Hannah Parsons in TRACKS (photo: Montserrat Ventura)

Every now and then a performance comes along that stands out for its originality and integrity; the choreographic and musical material formed into TRACKS by Lorea Burge and Hannah Parsons of Unbaptised Infants, is one. It takes place at SET Bermondsey, site of a former paint factory, that has the air of a counter-culture space; an assortment of chairs, cushions and wooden benches define a concrete performance area with a speaker in each corner, and a couple of microphones with a loop station at the front. Behind the audience are a couple of tables, one displaying explanatory material for the performance — from handwritten poems in notebooks to copied pages from a book on the poet Emmett Williams — and the other a bar: tea before the performance and mulled wine after. 

Since February Burge and Parsons have been preparing material for their ‘album’, which is the kind of gestation period a band might have; because of funding constraints, small-scale dance works are often completed in two weeks, but Unbaptised Infants is entirely self-funded. Without suggesting this route to creative endeavour is sustainable, it bravely and resolutely affirms the artist’s need for time in order to explore new ideas and to bring them to fruition rather than being boxed in by a funding schedule. The venue’s guardianship scheme also helps. ‘SET is a multifaceted arts and community initiative based in numerous centres across London, curating an eclectic and experimental arts programme alongside affordable artist workspace…in otherwise vacant property, some temporary and some long term.’ Burge and Parsons plan to tour TRACKS to similar alternative spaces for which their growing archive of material can be adapted.

Both artists have worked with Joe Garbett, another choreographer with a wealth of non-conformist ideas and an ability to translate them into sophisticated, pared-back, idiosyncratic work. The qualities that unite them all are intelligence and wit, and a knack of digging down into the infinite potential of human creativity and coming up with something that makes you scratch your head in admiration. Their work is an antidote to choreographic complacency, and in an era where grants are hard to come by, they take nothing for granted. 

The birth of TRACKS began in creative limbo in 2015, when Burge and Parsons began to write poems under the spell of the poet Emmett Williams. This led to experiments in movement and sound, using the rhythms and intonations of poetry to influence movement and the substitution of notes for words to make songs. In addition to being ‘passionate about rhythm and in complicating things’, Burge and Parsons then appropriated rituals and laments in their research with the aim of evoking ‘catharses of joy, of celebration, and commonly, just rituals of getting on with things, finding ways to create momentum.’ As Burge notes grimly at the beginning, the element of lament has taken on a new significance following the recent election; TRACKS is a concept album that has arrived at the very moment for which its creative inspiration and resilience are most needed.    

Employing an economy of means consistent with the times, there is no musical accompaniment that is not created in situ by the voices of the two performers, either spoken, sung a capella or processed through a loop station; costumes are also minimal: fuschia tracksuit tops under matching dungarees. The ten tracks cover various permutations of poetry, song and movement presented with a sense of lightness that belies not only the increasing complexity of formal interactions but the precarious political underpinnings of the venture. Burge and Parsons present the first half of the album as a selection of short tracks on the theme of community and creative resistance. In Nearness, they roll together from opposite corners of the stage to form an interconnected, interdependent sculptural entity from which emerge vocal harmonies that join and collide, merge and diverge in shades of light and dark before they roll back to where they started. Melody Free has an austere, almost monastic a capella quality, while the third track is a poem, Request, that is as bright as it is surreal; Chance Dance is a unison duet that is both earthy and uplifting.  The second half of the album develops the same themes with increasing poetic, musical and choreographic complexity; we are drawn into this odd universe and find ourselves marvelling at its craft. It doesn’t take much to unite us at the end, circled around the stage, to sing the refrain of an earlier song, Why Oh Why? 


Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Posted: December 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Dance Umbrella 2019: Out of the System – Mixed Bill at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, October 22

Out of the System, Jonzi-D, Aeroplane Man
Jonzi-D in Aeroplane Man (photo: Chris Nash)

Out of the System is a guest-programmed section of Dance Umbrella; for the past three years it has been curated with characteristic flair by Freddie Opoku-Addaie who described it in 2017 as ‘the presence of diverse dance cultures within vocational and non-vocational structures outside the regular framework of dance presentation’. Two years later Out of the System has worked its way into the system with the Big Pink Vogue Ball at Shoreditch Town Hall and a mixed bill at, and presented in partnership with, Bernie Grant Arts Centre. With five artists over four works, the mixed bill consists of small-scale works with large-scale themes of identity and racial politics that Opoku-Addaie characterises in public transport terms (influenced by his commute on a No. 26 Routemaster bus between Waterloo Station and Hackney Wick) as telling ‘complex journeys that are routed in the shared struggle, continuous stop/start but dealt with a crafted overview of human fortitude.’

Theo TJ Lowe (THÉO INART) has worked with Hofesh Schechter and Akram Khan, among others, and this shows in his compelling presence on stage in his solo, Fragility in Man – Part 1. He makes his entrance through the doors of the theatre on to the stage that resembles a bare waiting room with three chairs; ill at ease, he takes a seat like a patient waiting to be examined or, more ominously, a suspect about to be interrogated. There is something simmering or explosive in his succession of halting gestures and periods of stillness that respond to human commands, the barking of dogs or the cocking of a gun. The trauma of past violence extends out from behind his eyes to land somewhere on a vertical plane between us, like a two-way mirror; he shines a light on the audience but sees only his own reflection. Even behind a superhero mask he cannot hide his vulnerability because he is turned inside out; when he exits through the same doors he entered, he leaves behind him the fragile landscape of his being. 

Like Lowe, Becky Namgauds turns herself into an exhibit, Exhibit F, tracing figures back and forth across the stage with her swirling, naked torso and long hair like a brush gradually filling in the paper with lines and colour. She is not so much building up a figure — the space is not like paper and releases the image as soon as it has passed — so much as laying down her emotional ground in repetitive patterns. What is exhibited and what is not is the constant issue in Exhibit F in which costume, movement and Michael Mannion’s lighting are fluid factors. Namgaud’s work, according to the program, deals with ‘recurring themes of feminism, femicide and the environment.’ There is no object in Exhibit F; it is its own constantly transforming subject. 

Breaking the solo format, Ffion Campbell-Davies enters at the start of Beyond Words, vocalising high on the shoulders of Tyrone Isaac-Stuart while he blows a cool saxophone below. Beyond Words questions the framework of a colonial approach to black dance through ‘a journey between two people communicating matters of the heart’. Beginning as a procession, it disintegrates to the sound of machinery into images of physical oppression and struggle that lead to questions of self-worth and respect. Campbell-Davies and Isaac-Stuart confront a broad canvas of history and social significance, from ancestry and tribal affinity to the idea of home, with a sense of residual frustration. At the end, perched once again on Isaac-Stuart’s shoulders, Campbell-Davies asks the audience, ‘Who are you standing on?’ It’s a question, ironically, that Opoku-Addaie’s curation over the last three years has set out to answer. 

Jonzi-D’s Aeroplane Man, created in 1999 ‘but sadly still resonating today’, is founded on a similar frustration but ends in a more measured affirmation. His finely-honed parable of identity and cultural politics pulls no punches and makes its point in keen satire and brilliant mimicry. Born and bred in the East End of London, he is both pilot and passenger traveling in his Adidas trainers to search for his ‘own country’ at the unceremonious urging of one of his white colleagues. His air miles take him from Grenada (‘my mother’s land, not my motherland’), to Jamaica, the Bronx and Zululand, but wherever he lands he finds he is not quite genuine enough. With the running refrain of ‘Call up Mr. Aeroplane Man, Yeah Man, Yeah Man’, he returns to London to discover ‘this brown frame has found his name.’ 


Helen Cox, Bodies in Space at the Bloomsbury Festival

Posted: December 25th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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

Posted: December 23rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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?

Posted: December 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Concept, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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

Posted: December 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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

Posted: December 11th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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.’


Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Posted: December 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston At Home at The Place

Richard Alston Dance Company, Alston At Home at The Place, November 28

Elly Braund in Alston's Red Run
Elly Braund in Richard Alston’s Red Run (photo: Chris Nash)

Richard Alston was one of the first dancers, along with Siobhan Davies, whom the dance enthusiast and philanthropist Robin Howard invited in 1968 to the building that would become The Place. Howard invited Robert Cohan to be the first artistic director of the school and to ‘form a dance company based on love’. Howard drew up a list of objectives for The Place, including ‘to use the universal language of dance to break down social, political, linguistic and other barriers’ and that ‘its standards should never, for any reason, be allowed to decline.’ It was left to Cohan to embody these objectives, both at the school and in London Contemporary Dance Company, and since the company’s demise in 1994 it has been the aim of Richard Alston’s resident company to maintain them. While keeping the school running, The Place has now seen the formation and dissolution of two resident companies, which is hardly an incentive to students in a performing art. Whatever the reason for closing Alston’s company, the cause is clearly not the company’s current form.

Alston At Home is a fifty-year perspective, from Alston’s very first choreography in 1969 — the solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly — to his latest, Bari, made for graduating students from London Contemporary Dance School. In between there is another early work, Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), something from the intermediate period, Red Run (1998), and two relatively recent works, Isthmus, made for Bob Lockyer’s birthday celebration in 2012, and Martin Lawrance’s Detour (2018). In addition, to mark the centenary of Alston’s mentor, Merce Cunningham, the evening includes two of the solos from the Cunningham Centennial Solos program presented earlier this year at the Barbican. The program is not only a retrospective but a clear mark of Alston’s appreciation to everything The Place has meant to him over the past 25 years. A visual artist of similar renown would be able to hold a retrospective in a single gallery over a period of time; as a choreographer, Alston’s retrospective extends over three programs in various venues, the last of which will be Sadler’s Wells on March 7 and 8 next year. 

What this program shows are Alston’s choreographic building blocks and their spatial development over time. The solo and duet from Nowhere Slowly has a simple structure with classically derived shapes and torsions and a clean sense of line. Set to Terry Riley’s music, there is a Cunningham influence in that what happens is what happens, no more no less. Two years later Alston approaches the adagio of Schubert’s quartet Death and the Maiden with more complexity; Blue Schubert Fragments is choreographed as if each of the six dancers is a solo instrument. Such emotional music can overpower a choreographic response to it, but here Alston extracts a spatial harmony from the integrated texture of the score.

In Bari, the folk-inspired music of South Italian pizzica has a buoyancy and energy — the traditional dance was conceived as an antidote to poisonous spider bites in the field — that the London Contemporary Dance School students relish. So does Alston, who smiles his way through the work with an infectious confidence. 

Alston contributed two works to Lockyer’s birthday bash in 2012, one of which was Isthmus, a quartet for two women and two men to Jo Kondo’s intimate, intricate score. The choreographic shapes are evocative of the earlier works but Alston’s adhesion to the musical rhythms creates a work with the rapid dynamics and sharp spatial patterns that define it. 

Martin Lawrance’s Detour moves up the program order of the evening due to a last-minute replacement of an injured Elly Braund by Hannah Kidd. As a former dancer in the company and the current associate choreographer, Lawrance is clearly an important influence on Alston, and vice versa. Detour, created to Akira Miyoshi’s percussive Ripple for solo marimba, uses elements of Alston’s vocabulary but submits it to an aggressive, virile energy that wrenches it apart. Calm returns after the intermission, with the Cunningham solos that revel in space and chance; Siobhan Davies is perfectly attuned to it in her mysterious dialogue with the air around her while Kidd’s more grounded contribution joins the physical to the aleatory. 

Red Run jolts us back to the energy levels of Lawrance but in responding to Heiner Goebbels’ Nine Songs for Eleven Instruments Alston employs a sense of luxuriant and fast-paced playfulness that challenges the musicality and technical proficiency of the six dancers. It finishes, ironically for this occasion, with a suggestion of death. 


Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall

Posted: November 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Certain Blacks’ Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall
Circus Circus Circus Symoné Certain Blacks
Circus Circus Circus promotional image of Symoné

Certain Blacks, Circus Circus Circus Festival, at Hoxton Hall, November 22

Certain Blacks ‘is an East London-based arts development organisation formed in 2015 to support the work of diverse artists. Circus Circus Circus, a new festival, aims to showcase the different and exciting work from a variety of performers, artists and musicians.’ This evening’s festival finale is produced in partnership with the artistic director of Upswing Aerial Circus, Victoria Amedume.

Hoxton Hall is one of five surviving nineteenth-century salon-style music halls in London and it is in remarkably good shape thanks to a long stint in the hands of the Quaker Community. It opened its doors in 1863 and lost its performance licence eight years later due to complaints by police. Sitting in the tall, narrow hall with its elevated stage, shallow stalls, and two levels of wrought-iron galleries on three sides, it is not hard to imagine a raucous nineteenth-century crowd, eating, drinking and smoking, packed in tight on a popular night, raising the roof with their laughter, cheers and applause and spilling out afterwards into the slumbering, smoky streets. 

Circus Circus Circus at Hoxton Hall reimagines this past in the present through the diverse skills of the performers and their stand-up chairman, ‘eyes on me’ Athena Kugblenu. Specialty acts were always a part of music hall, and these included aerial acts, drag artists, stilt walkers and jugglers as well as comedy routines and songs; Circus Circus Circus has a smattering of each, with acts that are either extracts from longer works, like Out of Order’s Once Standing, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram and Symoné’s Utopia, or scratch performances like Joana Dias’ 89 and both of Amelia Cavallo’s routines. 

Contemporary circus struggles with the use of narrative; while dance brokered a deal with narrative from its beginnings, circus has yet to sort out its relationship with it; either the apparatus is too obtrusive for the narrative, or the narrative is too artificial for the apparatus. Once Standing is a contemporary fusion of physical theatre and circus that imagines the behaviour of the last two people on earth. In its opening, performers Angeliki Nikolakaki and Jesús Capel Luna, both wearing little more than gas masks, create a convincing image of near extinction through the play of acrobatic strength and articulation, but when they move to the silks the circus arts leave the narrative hanging. The next two sections, however, work beautifully as narrative imagery integrated with the means. In one, Luna dressed in a fur coat dances on a precariously balanced skate board while Nikolakaki in a red tulle bodice and skirt plays a restless interpretation of Chopin on a keyboard, and in the second Nikolakaki is rooted to the floor by Luna’s coiled body at her feet as her sinuous upper body finds the yearning tone of both Janis Joplin’s vocals and Sam Andrew’s solo guitar in Summertime. The final section returns to the imagery of the opening with various props and masks but an abrupt curtailment of Ravel’s Bolero robs the work of its apocalyptic climax. 

Amelia Cavallo, aka King Tito Bone, comes closest to the spirit of music hall as ‘first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an enduring embrace.’* Cavallo, ‘your average, blind bisexual drag king’ with green glitter eyebrows and goatee, engages the audience with the force of her fearless personality and self-deprecatory humour in both works. The first is a brilliant parody of ‘I will always love you’ directed in fine voice to her white cane, that ends (in true music hall tradition) as a risqué conversation, and the second a flawless ‘fitness routine’ on silks that guides us irreverently through the feel and experience of every step and preparation as if we are the unsighted. 

In between Cavallo’s two acts, Joana Dias’ work-in-progress, 89, focuses on her aerial hoop skills where the intertwined flowing lines of the Arabic numbers 8 and 9 aptly describe the circular arabesques she creates. As a former ballroom champion and singer in her native Portugal, Dias draws together the quality of her motion and the emotion of her Fado accompaniment in a rich aggregate form that leaves any narrative to the imagination of the audience. 

After an intermission, Sadiq and Hauk’s The Chosen Haram is another example of narrative and circus paraphernalia crossing over but not binding together. Both Sadiq Ali and Hauk Pattison are adept at the Chinese pole but using it within an ‘exploration of a gay man’s narrative’ is not an obvious association. The opening of The Chosen Haram sketches the gay context between the two men but their subsequent agility on the poles does not corroborate it. Perhaps the extract does not do justice to the full work. 

In exploring her experience of living in a cult, the means Symoné uses in Utopian are an integral part of the story. Projected instructions for each of us to find, select, pass on, inflate and let go a balloon seem innocuous enough but Symoné makes her point by having us follow the instructions without questioning. Utopian has a longeur that expresses mind manipulation and altered realities; in relating her story she offers three options for each incident with the warning that maybe only one is true. Performed with Duane Nasis and Ruby Gaskell, Symoné mixes her narrative with elements of pole dancing, voguing and fluorescent rave culture while including her signature roller-skating and hoola-hooping. It’s an extended extravaganza that has a disquieting heart, as stimulating as it is sobering.

* John Major, My Old Man: A Personal History Of Music Hall (William Collins, 2013).