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).


SUPERFAN’s Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre

Posted: November 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on SUPERFAN’s Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre

SUPERFAN, Nosedive at the Barbican Pit Theatre, November 9

Nosedive, SUPERFAN
The cast of Nosedive (photo: Brian Hartley)

In Spring, 1967, Francis Warner, Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at St Peter’s College, Oxford conceived the idea of establishing a theatre in Oxford that would provide a platform for the work of writers, musicians, artists, performers and directors of the avant-garde and the staple diet would be new and experimental work. Warner asked Samuel Beckett if such a theatre could be named after him, to which he agreed. At the time it was supported by the leading composers, authors, artists and sculptors in the country. In 1976, St. Peter’s College passed on the management of the theatre to a charitable trust, known ever since as the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust and in 2003 the Trust launched an award ‘in particular, to help the development of emerging practitioners engaged in bold, challenging and innovative performance and, in general, to encourage the new generation of creative artists.’ The Award allows a company or individual to create a show either for the Barbican’s Pit theatre or a site-responsive show to take place in east London or the City. SUPERFAN, ‘a new contemporary performance company’ based in Scotland, is the winner of this year’s award and its new work, Nosedive, was presented at The Pit from November 7-16. 

On the face of it, there’s a disparity between the Award’s particular purpose of supporting ‘bold, challenging and innovative performance’ and SUPERFAN’s response, created and directed by Ellie Dubois and Pete Lannon. Nosedive’s proposition sounds interesting: ‘Pushing themselves to the limit, dancing with abandon, colliding into each other, children and adults perform feats and leaps that grow ever bolder, ever riskier, revealing an intricate bond of fear, resilience and recklessness.’ But in current stage performance politics, a work with ten-year-old children can neither be ‘ever riskier’ nor ‘reckless’; we need to set aside this kind of language and the publicity that simply corroborates it in order to measure the performance of Nosedive on its own terms. 

What we see as we enter the theatre is Rachel O’Neill’s set with its continuous white floor and backdrop and a wall of 80 lights like portholes on one side; it’s a clean, empty space with infinite potential, while its calmness is enhanced by Kim Moore’s sound design. Only later does this light wall, designed by O’Neill and programmed by Michaella Fee, come into its own, providing what is the most memorable and poignant moment of the work. The cast has two generations, with Michelle Ross, Nikki Rummer and JD Broussé as the three older performers and Albie Gaizley-Gardiner and Lachlan Payne are the ten-year-olds. The metaphor that runs through Nosedive of younger generations ‘standing on the shoulders’ of adults to prepare for their future is also explored in the choreography. After a blackout, the lights come up on Broussé lying in a pile on the floor as if he has crash landed — the original nosedive, perhaps, from which the narrative develops. His failing, flailing efforts to levitate have a slapstick quality that is aimed at the children of all ages in the audience. Ross and Rummer help him up and they all exchange acrobatic feats as a form of dialogue that sets the physical parameters of subsequent intergenerational exchanges. When the children arrive, they initially watch their elders performing but are gradually incorporated into the action; this is where Payne stands on Rummer’s shoulders for the first time, looking out into the future. The children ‘learn’ acrobatic skills from their elders in a spirit of trust and friendship that is mutual; it’s a solicitous Payne who rescues Broussé from another failed attempt to levitate. The children then practice their skills independently, approximating poses and positions in the image of their teachers while the teachers look on. The two generations are like past and present, constantly negotiating with each other until the present is strong enough to exist on its own. There’s a magical moment when Payne is left alone on stage, looking into that light wall as all 80 lamps are turned up. This small figure full of dreams is suspended momentarily in a bright but blinding future that he cannot yet discern. He turns and runs off. 

It is a moment that paradoxically transforms the work into something it isn’t. For all its intergenerational qualities, Nosedive hasn’t developed its core proposal convincingly from its egalitarian creative process in the studio — ‘embedded in playing lots of games and setting lots of tasks for each other’ — into a bold, innovative and challenging theatrical form.  


Rambert2: Triple Bill at Sadler’s Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dance Umbrella 2019: Georgia Vardarou at Lilian Baylis Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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