Until the Lions: Akram Khan Company at The Brighton Festival

Posted: June 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Until the Lions: Akram Khan Company at The Brighton Festival

Akram Khan Company, Until The Lions, Brighton Dome, May 27

Ching-Ying Chien in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Ching-Ying Chien in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Earlier this year I saw Peter Brook’s Battlefield at the Young Vic; it was his adaptation of five books from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Akram Khan made his debut at the age of 13 in Brook’s original nine-hour production of the Mahabharata. What a coincidence then, that Khan should present in the same year as Battlefield another story from the same saga, one of love, betrayal and revenge in an original reworking by Karthika Naïr that has become Until the Lions.

The title comes from an African proverb: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ The lion in Naïr’s poem is Amba, the daughter of the King of Kashi who is abducted on her public swayamvara (betrothal) ceremony by Bheeshma, the son of the Kuru king. Vowing revenge on Bheeshma, Amba immolates herself and is reincarnated as the male warrior Shikhandi by whose hand Bheeshma meets his end on the battlefield. The dual role of Amba/Shikhandi is danced respectively by Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter; the role of Bheeshma is danced by Khan himself.

Until the Lions has Kahn’s signature symbolism and spirituality dressed in white and covered in haze, with arresting stagecraft and musical accompaniment (by Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Vincenzo Lamagna). The dancing of Chien and Ritter is what we have come to expect in Kahn’s international casts of exceptional artists whereas Kahn’s own performance, even if his presence is strong, lacks the flow and attack he once had. It is something he acknowledges, but it begs the question of why he didn’t find a younger dancer on whom to create the role. The result is a performance that has all the appearance of significance yet lacks its bite. There is a feeling that Nair’s poetry has not gained in the dancing, but is simply the starting point of something else, something defined more in the production values than in the content.

Brook’s space for Battlefield is spare, a vast stretched stage cloth with very few stage elements. This environment stands in stark contrast to the subject of the dialogue and enhances the production’s focus on the clarity of thought. Khan and his producer, Farook Chaudry, have taken a different path. The narrative involving three characters has been treated with a monumental production by conceiving it for the 360° Network of round artistic venues across the world. Created in the round, with Tim Yip’s vast slice of fissured tree trunk for a stage and with Michael Hulls’ lighting, the setting is to dance what the rock concert is to music. Michael Billington commented on Battlefield that ‘at a time when theatre is giddy with technology, you are struck by the way economical means are used to maximum effect.’ By contrast Hulls seems to be vying with the choreography for primacy.

The work premiered at The Roundhouse (a founding member of the 360° Network) in January. I didn’t see it there but at the Brighton Festival, which is not only one of 16 co-producers but also a co-commissioner of the work. The outside of the Brighton Dome is, like The Roundhouse, circular, but its concert hall is not configured for theatre in the round. It is at best an elongated semi-circle cut off by the stage, so fitting Until the Lions into this space required some spectacular fudging. The first thing you notice is the massive lighting rig to carry Hulls’ circular lighting conception and the second thing is the stage underneath it, a circular platform on top of the Dome’s regular stage.

So why did the Brighton Festival co-commission and co-produce a work that, as conceived, does not fit into its venue? Why co-commission it at all? How much of the Festival’s dance budget was taken up with this co-commission and what did it get from it? The questions are relevant because the dance programming of England’s prestigious festival in its 50th year is much thinner than the quality of English dance would suggest; the Festival has an opportunity if not a responsibility to present a challenging and varied dance program, rather than go for the prestigious names like Khan, or hook up with what happens to be touring with Dance Consortium (as it happened, NDT2). It’s ‘lazy’ programming and it has a deleterious effect on the country’s dance ecology.

Arts Council England, which funds both Akram Khan Company and the Brighton Festival, has a motto, ‘Great Art For All’. The motto has two elements: ‘great art’ and ‘for all’. Even if Khan is a well-known brand, great art does not necessarily equate with well-known names. And ‘for all’ implies that access to the great art is within the financial reach of a broad audience. An expensive work by a prestigious name means ticket prices are going to be high rather than broadly affordable and I can’t help feeling that with 16 co-producers and a co-commission, Until the Lions is roaring its way to the bank while the Festival is left strapped to build a dance program that does justice to the high quality of work that exists in the country (not to mention locally) with the public funds at its disposal. Perhaps a good starting point would be to appoint a dance producer; there is currently no mention of one listed under the Artistic Staff of the festival. There’s a music producer, a theatre producer, a classic music producer, and a family and children’s producer. For a festival that prides itself on its mandate to take ‘a new look at the arts’ and to have ‘the opportunity to assess developments in the field of culture…’ that’s a stunning omission.

Trisha Brown at the Brighton Festival: The unbearable lightness of seeing

Posted: May 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Trisha Brown at the Brighton Festival: The unbearable lightness of seeing

Trisha Brown Dance Company in the Concert Hall, Brighton Dome, as part of the Brighton Festival, May 9, 2012

At one end of the foyer a pre-show event has been scheduled amidst the clink of glasses and chatter of the bar. Tamara Riewe, a dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, steps on to the tiny stage with the reverence of someone about to perform a ceremony. The bar chatter subsides as the first chords of Grateful Dead’s country rock track Uncle John’s Band focus the attention. Riewe begins a 1971 work based on a simple accumulation structure: add a movement and return to the one before. It is a work Trisha Brown created for herself. One wonders if Riewe’s body is like Brown’s, but it is not important. What is important is where the movement comes from, and for Riewe to find that place in her own mind and body.

Accumulation starts with a single hand gesture, adds the other hand, a hip twist, a shading of the head, a rise on to half point, a lift of the leg to the side, a step to the back, a return to the front, a bending of the elbows like an Egyptian mudra. It is a piece of pure motion and concentration, a dynamic of one movement phrase inducing the next, and the next influencing not only forward but back until the whole thing is alive and breathing like a living entity. After four minutes and fourty-three seconds, Riewe draws the song and her movement to a close, her lyrical finger tracing a line towards the opposite hand as if she is turning off the switch.

In the main auditorium, the curtain opens to a black backdrop and one overhead arc lamp. Leah Morrison’s back is towards us as she begins If you couldn’t see me (1994), another of Brown’s own solos. We are expecting Morrison to turn towards us, but she doesn’t; we are behind her, and remain in that relationship throughout the dance. She works slowly across the stage in fluid shapes and transitions. One remarkable quality of the Trisha Brown dancers is that they are so well balanced there is rarely – if ever – any hesitation or instability. If you couldn’t see me is one of a group of works on the program that come from the same creative phase of ‘back to basics’ – as Sanjoy Roy writes in the program – that sees Brown ‘deliberately toning down the physical dynamics, simplifying the composition, and for the first time gently allowing personal imagery and emotion to suffuse the atmosphere…’ Robert Rauschenberg’s deep reverberating sound seems to encourage this, and Spencer Brown’s lighting wraps the movement in its warmth and space. Morrison eventually returns to her starting point, repeating the initial theme in ever-shorter sequences until the momentum just winds down.

Brown is a visual artist as well as a choreographer, and one of her black-and-white sketches on the backdrop sets the scale for a relatively recent work, Les Yeux et l’âme (2011) to music from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera, Pygmalion. In her formative years, Brown had a particularly proprietary attitude to creating dances: “I didn’t want to be marshaled in a certain direction by music. You know: music makes you dance. That’s cheating!” This attitude led her to experiment with dance as a pure expression of itself, and it is the fruits of those years of movement research and experimentation that we see here in a particularly fresh relationship with a score, as if both music and choreography develop from the same source; the dance breathes within the music and the light. Jennifer Tipton’s superb design and Elizabeth Cannon’s neutral, flowing costumes enhance it further. Brown has a particular affinity for France, and it may be fancy but there is something quintessentially French on stage here, a luminous marriage of Molière’s wit, Rameau’s courtly music, and the intellectual curiosity of Sartre.

If you didn’t miss Accumulation in the foyer, there is a gentle progression from that work to the end of Les Yeux et l’âme that prepares us for Foray Forêt (1990), the most demanding in terms of our concentration. There is a lovely quote on the Trisha Brown website: “If I’m beginning to sound like a bricklayer with a sense of humour, you’re beginning to understand my work.” Her bricks are sequences of movement that she uses to build a greater structure with infinite patience and attention, and her sense of humour is above all a subtle one, more akin to playfulness. With this in mind, you can enter into the spirit of Foray Forêt; without it, all that slowness and silence can become tedious. As in any forest, there is a lot of silence here and it can be deafening.

The silence is broken by a reminder of our urban setting: the sound of a marching brass band, far away at first, and growing louder as it approaches. We never see it; it is a spectral band: we only sense its proximity by the volume of its sound, as if it just happened to be marching around outside the theatre when somebody opened the stage door during the performance. The music seems to make no impression on the dancers, who could be playing in a walled garden during Mardi Gras, oblivious of the noise in the streets outside. Their game has the spontaneity of improvisation even if the movement sequences are now ‘fixed’ in the work. This is the measure of the dancers’ skill. They are so much in the moment doing what comes naturally that they lack any sense of self-consciousness.

Some of Brown’s dances could be danced without a proscenium, but this work makes conscious, playful use of the on-off duality of the stage. Stage and wings in effect form a continuum for the movement, whether it is visible or not. A girl dances close to the wings and tips off balance. An arm appears from the wing to support her, half on, half off stage. Later, while Megan Madorin dances her enigmatic solo, disembodied hands and heads appear around the wings as if kept at bay by the quiet authority of her dance.

Brown may spend a year preparing a work, creating sequences of movement with her dancers, then editing them down, whittling away at the material until the result is exactly what she is looking for. The work is thus rich in memory and experience. Coming to these works for the first time from a hectic outside environment is a challenge for an audience, but there is something so relentlessly pure about Brown’s approach to choreography that makes that challenge soothing and hugely rewarding.

In For M.G.: The Movie a man (Patrick Ferreri) stands with his back to us throughout the work, motionless. His presence is real but the work is a journey of memories surrounding him, images moving in and out of focus and view, as if in a dream. Both Trisha Brown and Spencer Brown worked on the highly evocative setting of light and haze. In the opening sequence, Tara Lorenzen repeats a figure of eight running pattern, jumping as she approaches the front of the stage, buoyant, confident, as if in a trance. We hear some disembodied piano music in slow waltz time, but now the composer, Alvin Curran, introduces us to his ‘sonic tableaux of old-fashioned lawn mowers, the Nantucket Light Ship, mobs of crows, John Cage’s inimitable voice, tin cans being kicked in a deconsecrated Venetian church.’ Such is the complex nature of memory. Lorenzen is still running intently. A boy appears and lifts her across the stage and disappears. Running seems to be a metaphor for brain activity in search of meaning. She runs up and down the stage, mowing swathes of an imaginary lawn (Curran’s lawnmower?) without leaving a trace and in another sequence kicks Curran’s Venetian tin cans as she turns a corner. Two boys run in and she runs off, then back in; disappears and returns, forwards and backwards: run and rewind. Dream is memory beyond time and space. There is a haunting moment when Lorenzen’s face, at the back of the stage, appears and disappears, appears and disappears in the haze. Dancers are bumping into each other and gently bouncing off; a girl lies half on the stage, half in the wings; a boy rolls slowly to the centre where a girl walks over him: all dream-like events without accent or narrative. Lorenzen repeats her opening jumping figure of eight. Imperceptibly a girl has entered on the opposite side, followed by another. They move as slowly as the return of the piano waltz, now synthesized. Riewe, the girl at centre stage, descends slowly, inexorably to the ground then rises again. There is an outburst of movement, a buzzing fly in the sonic tableau. Riewe dances an extended solo beautifully, as if unfolding her own internal processes. The other girl is kneeling in mourning. The fly ceases buzzing; the piano is being tuned; the girls are now on their backs, inert, withdrawn into impermanence. The man has not moved. He reminds us of Leah Morrison’s position at the beginning of If you couldn’t see me. The cycle is complete.

Watching Brown’s choreography is to clear away accretions of traditional form, like cleaning layers of lacquer from an old painting to reveal the freshness and immediacy of the original. But there is something in Brown’s creative evolution that is relevant to other forms of dance: a return to spontaneity and genuineness. It is not a question of the forms she creates or the processes to arrive at them. These are, after all, deeply personal. It is more her ability – and the ability of her dancers – to seize a moment in motion and to keep that moment ever present. No more approximations. How refreshing.