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.  


Rosas: Mitten wir im Leben sind at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: May 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rosas: Mitten wir im Leben sind at Sadler’s Wells

Rosas and Queyras in Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten, Sadler’s Wells, April 24

De Keersmaeker, Queyras
Marie Goudot and Jean-Guihen Queyras in Mitten wir im Leben sind (photo Anne Van Aerschot)

There are not many dancers or choreographers who understand music so well that they can make it visible and, through the body, visibly sensual. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is one of them. She has worked with many kinds of music, from ars subtilior to John Coltrane to Steve Reich but has been preoccupied recently with scores by Johann Sebastian Bach. Mitten wir im Leben sind is built around the performance by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras of all six of Bach’s Cello Suites partnered by three male (Boštjan Antončič, Julien Monty and Michael Pomero) and two female dancers (Marie Goudot and De Keersmaeker herself). The partnership between choreographer, dancers and musician is intense and develops out of a desire to reach the heart of the music. As Queyras explains, “In the process of working Anne Teresa asked me tons of questions, everything I could give her in terms of analysis of the pieces, and once she had understood the root of the music, how it is constructed, that is when she planted the seed of her own choreography and then she created a new work…not something that matches but it’s like two works that you feel are very deeply interconnected.”

Some choreographers like Mark Morris ‘match’ their movement phrases to the music, but this is not the kind of musicality De Keersmaeker articulates; she finds her own way through a score with rhythmic intuition, mathematics and geometry. She devises movement from pedestrian, everyday motifs — my walking is my dancing is one of her mantras — and she infuses her choreography with ideas drawn from natural, social, ecological and political phenomena that are implicit in the work without attracting attention. Her settings are excavated rather than built up; the bare stage at Sadler’s Wells — a witness to countless performances as the body is an unlimited reservoir of memory — is reduced to what is needed: space and light. Yet through this pared-down, minimalist aesthetic — enhanced by the lighting of Luc Schaltin and costumes by An D’Huys — the rich significance of her work fills the space with the same amplitude as the music. The title of the work comes from a Latin hymn that Bach and his father, a Lutheran minister, would have known. The complete phrase is ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind, Mit dem Tod umfangen’, which means ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. This axis of life and death, of vertical and horizontal, is palpable in De Keersmaeker’s choreography within a distinctively architectonic site of invisible yet perceptible volumes that spiral around the stage.

The first three suites are vehicles for the embodied responses of, respectively, Pomero, Monty and Goudot to the abstractions of the baroque dances Bach included; following the opening prelude, De Keersmaeker joins in the allemande and leaves again for the soloists to develop the upbeat gigues, bourrées or minuets. The format of the fourth suite begins to change. The prelude features Antončič but Queyras interrupts the subsequent allemande and only returns to the music for the last few bars. For the sarabande he leaves Antončič alone on stage to dance the remaining two movements in silence; it’s an awkward juncture as we are suddenly aware of the body’s response to gravity without the buoyancy of the music. For the fifth Queyras returns and Antončič overlaps into the prelude but it is now the dancers who retreat, leaving Queyras alone in time and space. He plays the intimate sarabande while Schaltin projects his shadow on to a panel at the side, just in front of the proscenium. You hear the music and you see flattened on a plane the musician’s arms, fingers and torso moving in perfect harmony with the music. The image is not so much a goal as an extension of De Keersmaeker’s choreographic logic. It also underlies her rigour in developing our understanding of dance in relation to music, in stimulating through her own discoveries and realisations what she understands to be essential. In the final suite Queyras returns with all the dancers on stage; we are no longer aware of gravity but are free to fly in our spatial imagination to the sound of the cello and the sensuality of the dance. The edges of the stage space begin to dissolve as the dancers find their bearings around the six movements, resolving finally into a walking flock and ending with one foot slightly raised in an exultant suspension on the final reverberating chord.


Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison

Posted: May 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison

Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison, Lilian Baylis, May 7

Eveline Van Bauwel, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Michael Helland and Manon Santkin in Unison (photo:

Eveline Van Bauwel, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Michael Helland and Manon Santkin in Unison (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

“The frontier between the social and the political is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents.” – Chantal Mouffe, On the Political

There is something mischievous in the way Cecilia Lisa Eliceche meets the gaze of the audience around her in the Lilian Baylis studio; it’s a cross between intense and ludic and it informs the way she choreographs. Set on four dancers (Eliceche, Michael Helland, Manon Santkin, and Eveline Van Bauwel), her most recent work, Unison, distils the attraction of dance into its component elements of movement, pattern and rhythm in search of the nature of unison. Eliceche costumes her dancers in flesh-coloured unitards to emphasize their bodies as instruments of her choreographic exploration without signifying any particular genre.

The performance starts with a bare stage and the sound of a riotous celebration from one corner, beyond the wings. The celebration moves in silence to another corner where we hear it again, like an early display of stereo. Eliceche studied at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels and the influence of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s uncompromising stagecraft and intellectual rigour is evident. A curtain parts and the performers step through in their body suits with strings of South American folkloric chas chas (lamb hooves sewn on to fabric strips) stuck on various parts of their anatomy. They arrange themselves haphazardly in different areas of the space facing different ways and begin the first exercise in unison. Since they cannot see each other and the movements are silent, there is a contradiction between the intent of the choreography and its realisation; while aspiring to unison, the dancers never quite achieve it. This contradiction will remain at the heart of Eliceche’s exploration and define its choreographic form.

When Helland takes off his chas chas and begins a classical port de bras sequence in the centre of the space, the three others watch. It is a four-phrase moving sequence that he performs to all four directions of the audience, but as the other dancers join in, repeating the sequence in opposing and complementary directions, the classical idea of unison is, despite the form, elusive. In its place is a sinuous weaving of patterns that requires a sophisticated spatial awareness, but even this breaks down when the quartet becomes so interlocked it gets stuck in a corner; there’s no room to manoeuvre so the dancers regroup to set off again. It all seems part of the game as they check with each other which course to set. Unison starts to look more like a choreographic argument than an exposition of a concept even if choreography does not have the same clarity as thought. Nevertheless dance has its own intelligence and Eliceche is experimenting to find out how she can employ it.

A third section sees the quartet moving through a similar set of phrases but to a faster tempo with an accumulation of new material. The voice, like a child’s rendering of a steam engine, is brought into the equation as accompaniment and when the movement stops it is the breath that continues in unison. Here is the first statement by Eliceche of what unison might be rather than what it might not be. A fourth section reimagines unison by introducing contact improvisation. It is the first time the dancers connect with each other, fitting like puzzles within and around each other in dynamic sculptural forms that can at any time fall apart and be refashioned. The quartet takes their sculptural improvisation up the railing of the staircase like naughty children in a playground, but never abandon their choreographic task. A brief pause to drink some water suggests another sense of being together. The quartet put on their chas chas again to start a rhythmic sequence of phrases based on the initial sequence, using clapping and voice to further enhance the folk rhythm. They regroup, standing on one leg like herons, bending their upper body lower until they succumb to gravity and slowly unravel to the floor, redefining once more the boundaries of how they relate to each other. A final sequence takes up the opening phrases like a musical recapitulation: the turning bodies with outstretched arms that continue into the darkness.

There is clearly a lot more to Cecilia Lisa Eliceche’s Unison than meets the eye. It is a refreshing observation on dance, connecting many sources into one manifestation. It is messy in the way life refuses to conform to intellectual concepts but it’s also a social construct if you can unravel watching dance from socio-political theory. The above quote from Chantal Mouffe appears in the extensive program notes to the performance and it is not difficult to see a metaphor for Mouffe’s assertion in the way the dancers negotiate spatially. There is also a long essay by Belgian socio-theorist Rudi Laermans titled, ‘Being in Unison: Being in Common.’ Laermans references Eliceche’s work by answering the question, ‘What does the idea of unison actually suggest or imply, not only as a choreographic tool but also from a wider cultural or socio-political point of view?’ The essay provides an insight into the broad-ranging mind of Eliceche, into her choreographic processes and deconstructs the work itself. Laermans’ writing and Eliceche’s choreography form a powerful package, even if the former is not immediately evident in the latter. Tired of seeing the glossy productions of new work that serve to reinforce the singular idea of dance as sophisticated technique in the service of pre-conceptual amusement, Unison is a salutary and gutsy reminder of just how intelligent dance can be.