Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Some thoughts about dance in 2019, December 31

Bodyless thoughts on dance
Bodyless (photo: Hsin-Chien Huang)

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and work that have settled in my 2019 memory bank. It was a year when we had the UK Dance Showcase — which I will come back to later — and when so many artists created work in response to institutional power and epistemic violence.

Wendy Houstoun’s Hell Hath No Fury at Wainsgate Chapel, Hebden Bridge (part of Wainsgate Dances in June) took us to her Sunday school pulpit of philosophy and rage whilst delivering us from evil in a ferociously hilarious 45 minutes of wordplay and image making. Aided by the servitude and deferential bell ringing of Charlie Morrissey, Houstoun was our High Priestess, our sermon giver offering hope, hula hoop skipping, and water to those in need; as she commanded the audience to sit, stand and listen in our pews to ripostes against the 2019 political landscape she was swift and rapier-like. With Hell Hath No Fury Houstoun has demonstrated (and built upon from her previous works 50 Acts and A Pact With Pointlessness) her gift for rhythm, distillation and an ability to hold attention; she captures a mood of how some people are feeling and lampoons it. Wainsgate Chapel as a site of performance and Houstoun as prophet is an immaculate combination; in the age of fracturing communities and the slow death of theatre buildings I imagine a world where Hell Hath No Fury is a 2020 version of a mystery play travelling to chapels, churches and cathedrals across the country, a liturgical drama serving to shame our morally unanchored institutions of power.

Bodyless, directed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is a single-person 31-minute VR experience I saw at the Phi Centre in Montreal (part of an exhibition of VR work from Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Olafur Eliasson) in November. Bodyless is based on Huang’s memory and set during Taiwan’s martial law and colonial period of the 1970s. The repression and control of people through old (and new) technologies blended with pervasive digital surveillance to ensure this has a relevance now; what Bodyless achieves that no other VR art work I’ve encountered so far has done, is the technological holy trinity of embodied encounter, emotional narrative investment and graphical fidelity. As we move round a dark and oppressive system, we encounter multiple timeless episodes/scenes where we find bodies in differing states of control; polygon-twitching bodies in cells with rewilding plants growing through the bars, faded newspaper portraits of people who have been deliberately missing-ed or dozens of limp and floating bodies in a hospital or boarding school with limbs defying gravity. The intimacy of VR as a single-person experience heightens emotions as you glide, ooze, sink or float through landscapes; the fact that you have a level of agency, an ability to move, look at and focus where you want embodies this act of witnessing bodyless-ness in action. We see how people are erased from a society, and the emotional distancing that VR and screen-based work usually causes is dissolved by Hsin-Chien Huang in this fantastical response to the memory of trauma. 

From the macro power portraits of Hell Hath No Fury and Bodyless to a micro power portrait of Black male mental health, Elephant In The Room by Lanre Malaolu at Camden People’s Theatre in April is proof that Malaolu (supported by dramaturg Season Butler) has created a work of total theatre. We meet man, a multi-charactered everyman in control of his external body, but this control does not extend to his internal mind. Malaolu has a Hip Hop dance technique and execution that sparkles in its clarity; his physicality is accompanied by a command of language and a dexterity in verbal delivery that would cast long shadows at the RSC. He is wav(er)ing and popping; the use of these Hip Hop dance vocabularies is a fine foil for the wider debate around mental health: scrambled muscles that erupt and contract, dispersing clotted brain fog and bringing forth windows of clarity only to close again. Stability and control are bywords for mental health, and if you’re experiencing low level depression GPs recommend activities and inhabiting the types of spaces that Malaolu offers up in multiple scenes: football (exercise), Nando’s (food), barbers (community) and gym (self-worth). From a frozen barber, moving only his eyes and wrist with an imaginary shaver to a magnetic slapping of limbs and his back onto and into the floor and wall to an almost motionless slouch in a chair talking about too chewy chicken…Malaolu has the smarts and this work could and should have an international life like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles. What Malaolu achieves is a transference of a heavy feeling and an internal spiralling which are sometimes impossible to give shape to; the 70-minute work whistles by and it is the monstrosity of his attack, physical commitment (which bordered on the painful), multiplicity of voices and choice of stillnesses and excesses of movement that made this a highly satisfying evening that has the ability to stimulate further discussions in this terrain.

Cardiff Dance Festival hosted Montreal-based Daina Ashbee in residence during the festival in November and over the course of her stay in Wales Ashbee spent some time researching a new work, J’ai pleuré avec les chiens, which will be ready in 2020 as well as remounting and recasting her 2016 work When the ice melts, will we drink the water? We saw around 50 minutes of When the ice melts…performed by Lorena Ceraso in Chapter Arts Centre Studio. With Ceraso on the floor, back flatted and knees triangled, we understand early that her pelvis lies at the root of the work and at the centre of this bodily discourse on survival and endurance. Time is experienced slowly and there is a sparse choreographic landscape but one that is littered with violence, perceptions of the female body and sexuality. Slow quarter-turn rotations at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock see Ceraso address all sides of the audience with her ascended and descended pelvis, flickering edges and glacial eyes, but as she presents each suite of movements four times we witness multiple angles, new and unseen details that were previously hidden from view. When the ice melts…was named the best dance piece of the year at Montreal’s 2016 Prix de la danse awards and in the intervening years it has only gathered relevance with the attention drawn towards violence against women from the #MeToo movement; what it does is build an atmosphere that is so charged and so unpleasant that silence blankets the audience — we barely breathe as we pay attention to every sound and movement emitted from Ceraso’s body. The feelings of anxiety created by the work echo the pressure and internal questioning of should/will/how do we speak of violence against women when we are unsure of what it is we need to say or do in response to it.  

Violence towards women was consistently visible in a lot of the works I saw by female choreographer’s in 2019; another example (and a rare one because it is made for outdoor settings) was the 30-minute Scalped by Initiative.DKF. Created by Damilola DK Fashola and Wofai, with movement direction and writing by Fashola, Scalped was part of the opening night 
of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in Woolwich in June. ‘For black women one of the most common shared experiences is a passive but ever-present scrutiny. From what you wear to the way you walk, and most especially hair. Whether permed, braided, or in locs, black hair is political.’ Scalped is a work that demands your attention, holds it and then brings you in, which is credit to the company in the context of outdoor presentation when there are dozens of other distractions to compete for your eyes. Patience James, Audrey Lobe, Bubsy Spence, DK and Bimpe Pacheco climb, frame, pose and move around their scaffold set and wheeled boxes telling stories of discrimination, can-I-touch-your-hair violence and desire for freedom. The choreography is big, the performances are huge and the company is rightfully taking up space and presenting politically and narratively strong work in public spaces; Scalped is relentless in its power and energy and forces audiences to at least think about the discrimination consistently faced by Black women in British society. Representation and visibility is crucial and Scalped is one of the very few outdoor works made and performed by Black artists in the UK; Fashola has written and directed a new work Fragments of a Complicated Mind which runs at Theatre 503 in London from January 21 to February 1, and this interrogation of race, religion, sex and cultural expectations is sure to see her star shine even brighter.

Creative responses to institutional power do not always have to be heavy or filled with activist sensibilities; they can achieve just as much from a position that sparks joy, refreshes perspectives and brings people together socially. The Box of Delights by 2Faced Dance Company is a fine example of that (full disclosure: I work with 2Faced Dance Company as Executive Director and had a small performance role in the work). Running for seven nights from December 17-23 as part of their 20th Anniversary programme, what co-directors Tamsin Fitzgerald and Tim Evans have created with The Box of Delights is something that I’ve not seen before from a company in the UK; with the first act of 50 minutes taking place outdoors at night at over 20 locations and performance interventions throughout the historic centre of Hereford, they guided an audience of 80 towards The Green Dragon Hotel for a second act which contained a meat or vegan three-course meal prepared by executive chef Simon Bolsover and the continuation of the narrative taking place over 1hour 45 minutes. The seamless shift of the narrative and audience experience from outdoor to indoor, altering perceptions of place alongside the inclusion of food, is an innovative model for presenting work and place-making which suits audiences, performers and companies alike.

The aforementioned works are some of the great ones I saw across the year, but it wasn’t all as good as this. The first outing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Bristol Old Vic in April was both under and over baked at the same time; their portrayal of excess felt muted and duller in comparison to their previous successive portraits of excess in SEXBOX and Da-Da Darling. Rosie Kay Dance Company premiered the scaled-up version of 5 Soldiers…10 Soldiers (complete with 10 dancers) on the main stage at Birmingham Hippodrome in May which saw a dull 30-minute prequel tacked on to the previously successful 60-minute 5 Soldiers. The first half was meant to show the time getting in the army, but emotionally, physically and tonally it mirrored the second half leaving me questioning its purpose. The work clearly resonated with people who had a personal connection to, and involvement with, the army, but as a work at this scale, when the company hasn’t presented in this size auditorium, why would we expect it to be good immediately? Maybe after three or four shows when they understand that the intimacy, nuance and detail that made 5 Soldiers so good needs to shift considerably for grander and less subtle inferences. However, the work I had most trouble with this year was Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer by Shane Shambhu at Gloucester Guildhall, part of Strike A Light’s festival in March. In a year when there have been so many works of dance, performance and theatre exploring the effects of immigration/race/displacement/othering like Demi Nandra’s Life is No Laughing Matter, Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement, Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much or Rachael Young’s Out, Shambhu’s Confessions is a lite and frothy idiot’s guide to bharatanatyam made for White people. Peppered with anecdotes about his relationship to Indian dance and performing his arangetrum, it asks little of you and there’s little empathy, emotional investment or calls to action. Shambhu is a likeable mimic, scatting between citizenship issues and the physicalities of his family members, and while the work is well constructed it plays into the self-exoticisation that so many contemporary bharatanatyam creators attempt to repel. There are short bursts of 10-15 seconds of classical movement, which are not the cleanest and he is sometimes out of breath when coming out of a movement sequence straight into speech. There’s a nice reveal towards the end, an emotional hit that shows a duality: that this is part of him and that he wants to reject it but is unable to because it has partially formed him and how he is in the world.  

…and back to the UK Dance Showcase, phase two of the Surf The Wave project conceived by Deryck Newland before he left PDSW in February 2017. The UK Dance Showcase was curated by 11 people and of those there were no women on the committee who weren’t white, there was nobody who worked in an organisation north of Salford, there were no people with a disability, no female artists and no producers. Surf The Wave is ‘the major project led by PDSW, on behalf of the National Dance Network (NDN)’ but it is telling how the other 26 members of NDN have been very public in distancing themselves from the project and choose/chose not to publicly or privately acknowledge the reality, successes or failures of Surf The Wave. 

Artists and producers are always in the position of least power, least resources and least privilege in their relationships with institutions, and what has been heartening in 2019 is see how they have spoken up, back to, and in solidarity with others while forging new alliances en route. The relevance of the majority of cultural institutions and how they behave in society and with their community demonstrate at best a wilful ostriching ignorance of how society is shifting and at worst a consistent and harmful contribution that perpetuates outmoded thinking, broken systems and systemic bias.  

With the total funds raised at more than £1million — on top of the other public subsidy added to the total from the time spent by salaried organisations across the UK — the narrative presented back to NDN and to other funders has been that some of the artists who attended the event have achieved some positive outcomes, built tours and new relationships. While this is brilliant for those artists who presented/pitched work that appealed to small-scale, non-dance specialist arts centres across England, the active choice not to invite international programmers rendered the entire narrative as a sweet set of Tory Leadership/Brexit analogies (taking back control of our borders/exports), and conservative leadership breadcrumbs (Jeremy Hunt’s I’m an Artist as Entrepreneur) that beggars belief. What has not been reported is the anger, frustration, bitterness and experiences of unprofessionalism in the way artists who were ‘selected’ were engaged in the lead-up to the event. Delaying the timeline of announcing selected artists (ensuring artists missed funding windows to apply for support to enable their presence at the event), offering fees to present the work, reneging on that offer and then offering a lower one to the same artists or selecting work that is not in a touring window and expecting artists to absorb the costs of remounting it, were some of the examples (there were many more) of how artists were treated. While it is acknowledged that those who programme work congratulated the PDSW team on a well-organised showcase event, the structural debris of damaged and fractured relationships has mirrored our political situation. Those holding power are ever more desperate to preserve old models and thinking, whilst those in receipt of the email vacuum of silence are left to wonder how to engage in the future.

I wrote a whole other piece (unpublished) about my experience at one of the Artist as Entrepreneur events but it follows a similar vein. Artists and producers are often encouraged by organisations and institutions of power to acknowledge their failures and mistakes in the creation and presentation of work — a growing focus and thematic consideration of a number of dance works including Epic Failure by Cultured Mongrel and The Unwanted by Shaper Caper. These and other works in development offer a personal, interesting and critical perspective on human fallibility, but until our organisations and institutions of power begin to acknowledge their own failure, or offer a public narrative about things which went well or not so well, then things will never change, and the power imbalance shall remain.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Tramway, September 16

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (photo: Sven Hagolani)

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (photo: Sven Hagolani)

You will walk differently alone, dear, through a thicker atmosphere, forcing your way through the shadows of chairs, through the dripping smoke of the funnels. You will feel your own reflection sliding along the eyes of those who look at you. You are no longer insulated; but I suppose you must touch life in order to spring from it.” – F Scott Fitzgerald

It was Jess Curtis who introduced Claire Cunningham to contact improvisation and in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight we see their invisible histories fizzing across 90 minutes of physical trust and emotional exchange as they build and share with the audience a rare magic that is not only a choreography of bodies, crutches and people but a symphony of intimacy, tenderness and generosity.

Cunningham and Curtis offer a directors’ note: ‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is a social sculpture — a sensory journey for two performers and audience. Dancing, singing, telling stories…and asking important questions about our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world.’ We are welcomed with a quality of eye contact by both performers and invited to sit either on one of the chairs or cushions on the stage (‘where we may come into physical contact with the performers’) or in the seating bank. I choose a small cushion, centre stage, from where I can see the entire journey unfold.

Cunningham and Curtis walk and weave in and out of the bodies on stage demonstrating an ease and familiarity with each other whilst sharing encounters of how people have looked at them in the past. Cunningham cites Bill Shannon’s (aka Crutch Master) theory of peripheral fluctuation where, as a disabled person in public, you feel people staring at you in the periphery of your vision but when you turn to meet their gaze their eyes vanish and they won’t look you in the eye. Curtis shares: “In my position of white, male, 6-foot-plus privilege I would confidently meet the gaze of women in the street who would often avert their eyes. However, after I had an accident and used crutches for a few weeks those gazes would now be met and maybe even with an exchange of ‘hi’. Was I less of a sexual predator? Less of a man when I was using crutches?”

Looking from afar — from present to past, from exile to homeland, from island back to mainland, mountain-top to lowland — results not in vision’s diffusion but in its sharpening; not in memory’s dispersal but in it’s plenishment.” Robert Macfarlane

In the theatre sometimes we watch, sometimes we witness and sometimes we participate. In asking us to look at them and listen to their lived experiences of being looked at, Cunningham and Curtis are also asking us to reflect and consider our own eyes and the power they hold. What assumptions do we make about how people look? These verbal exchanges are peppered throughout the performance with screened appearances by the philosopher, Alva Nöe, who extrapolates on philosophy, love, Socrates and accessibility in remarkable depth without using inaccessible language. There are words — and plenty of them — constantly nourishing the ears yet it is the physical exchanges between the performers that are delivered with searing depth.

Tenderness abounds and we see moments of genuine exchange as Fred and Ginger’s Dancing Cheek to Cheek fires up to signal the start of a glacial floor-based duet: two bodies lying down upside down, eyes closed, their cheeks kissing and heads nestling in each other’s collar bone. Using the cheek as the point of connection, Curtis and Cunningham slowly, delicately revolve, shifting weight, balance and power; what could have been an indulgent studio-based exercise lands with emotional power. The structure of the evening is deftly woven as scenes melt in and out, inviting different scales, a shift of focus and ample opportunity for reflection. These shifts of mood create a balance that is enhanced by both Luke Pell’s dramaturgy and Chris Copland’s lighting design that ensure a sensitivity and meshing with not only with the artistic intention but how the audience receives the work.

Cunningham also delivers a parkour/contact hybrid on and over the body of Curtis, eating up the floor at speed and negotiating the human nodes around the stage. As Curtis is flat backed on all fours, Claire plants her crutches and skids over him; her four points of contact with the floor (two legs and two crutches) enable her ultimate control. Coming towards me at speed she places her crutches either side of my crossed legs, lifts herself and gently places her foot on my knee. She is airborne – no bodily contact with the floor; our eyes meet for a second before she reverses out of it.

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.” Adrienne Rich

Cunningham and Curtis share so much about looking, yet I see something else in the peripheries of The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight; I see the real human cost of judging, staring and objectifying: loneliness and a vacuum of love that slowly breaks your heart. With Cunningham perched silent atop a 12-foot ladder with Curtis gazing at her from below, a series of pre-recorded statements emerge in her voice: “This body has never…carried a television…run on the beach… been in love.” In a moment towards the end Cunningham extends her crutches one last time and launches herself so she and Curtis are equal; no longer cheek to cheek, they are now face to face and here they stay for three or four minutes as she balances with magnetic eyes and bears her weight on her arms. From my position less than 5 feet from this intimate encounter I see all of her face, the flickers of her mouth, the subtle adjustments of her body; but the emotional epicentre is in her eyes.


Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Posted: October 27th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Dance Umbrella: Ours & Give Me a Reason to Live, Lilian Baylis Studio, October 17

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Quite apart from its obvious physical dimension, contemporary dance is invariably a touchstone for truths and notions from the worlds of philosophy, art, history, metaphysics, politics and whatever else a choreographer might wish to draw on as material. Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live is rich in resources, leading you into her landscape of preoccupations that range from the nature of sin, empathy, faith, the visibility of minorities, the depiction of cripples in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, Nazi euthanasia of the terminally ill and disabled and the consequences of our present government’s welfare reform. Of course all this is not readily apparent in the performance; you have to dig to find what informs the movement, but without it Give Me a Reason to Live would not be the powerful polemic it is. Cunningham does not have the range of movement of an able-bodied dancer — she suffers from a debilitating form of osteoporosis — but what she does with her crutches and her limited movement is to directly embody her ideas, to live them on stage and because she knows what she is talking about she evokes a visceral response. When she strips off her outer clothing and lays her crutches beside her to stand unaided, there is no pretense. It is a physical and mental struggle that she experiences in real time and she succeeds through sheer willpower until she can endure it no more. What differentiates this naked physical act from the intention behind it is that landscape of preoccupations I mentioned earlier. The word ‘understand’ has the meaning to stand under, or support. Cunningham’s test of endurance is not about her but about what she stands for, about who she supports. She is standing for the countless victims whose disabilities relegate them to the invisible margins of society or worse. Remarkably Cunningham achieves all this through dance.

Standing is but one of the images she invokes on this journey. When we first see her she is slowly extracting herself from a corner as if she had been placed there by history, leaning forward on her crutches as extensions of her arms against the walls. A shard of light (from the palette of Karsten Tinapp) illuminates a thin sliver of her body from head to foot, as if sunlight were falling through a high rectangle of light (the harsh angles in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin come to mind). Another ineffable image is her rocking gently forward and falling back balanced on her crutches (see photo) to the hauntingly fragile Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, after which she slowly collapses to the floor in the form of one of Hieronymous Bosch’s spindly cripples (‘a distorted symbol of human baseness’), crutches at her side. But the final image, the one to which all previous images seem to lead both physically and spiritually, is Cunningham as a Christ-like figure suspended on her elongated crutches braced against the back wall singing (yes, Cunningham trained as a singer before finding her vocation in dance and has a beautiful mezzo voice) Bach’s Cantata BWV 4, Verse 2 with a breathless purity that crowns the journey she has undertaken in light.

No one could defeat death
among all humanity
this was all because of our sins,
no innocence was to be found.
Therefore death came so soon
and took power over us,
held us captive in his kingdom.
Hallelujah!

How do you pair this extraordinarily rich 35-minute work with another without detracting from it in any way? Dance Umbrella’s artistic director Emma Gladstone’s decision to open the evening with Israeli choreographer Idan Sharabi’s Ours is a stroke of genius. On the surface Sharabi’s male duet to songs of Joni Mitchell is funny, engaging and superbly danced by himself and Dor Mamalia, but its central question of what is ‘home’ in Israeli society has a profundity and a vulnerability that shares Cunningham’s preoccupation with invisible minorities and the duet’s suggestion of homosexual love — ‘our little opportunity to find our home together’ — takes on political significance in its context of a strongly homophobic society. Sharabi and Mamalia don’t dwell on this but simply embrace it with tenderness, compassion and a sense of humour that draws the audience in to the work’s humanity. But there is perhaps another, more insidious connection between the two works: hovering in the air between Ours and Give Me a Reason to Live is a commentary on the ever-present spectre of persecution.


Candoco, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham: Unlimited

Posted: September 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Candoco, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham: Unlimited

Candoco Unlimited, Unlimited Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 6, supported by The Brazilian Embassy.

Unlimited is a project at the heart of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad that celebrates disability, arts and culture on an unprecedented scale. Twenty-nine new works were commissioned to encourage deaf and disabled artists to push boundaries, by creating work which opens doors, changes minds, and inspired new collaborations. (Arts Council England)

The Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre is an encouraging, life-affirming project that parallels the sporting premise of the Paralympics, and it finds a fullness of expression in the two works commissioned by Unlimited and presented by Candoco Dance Company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday evening: Parallel Lines by Marc Brew, and 12 by Claire Cunningham.

The motivating idea behind Brew’s Parallel Lines is the lines of communication between the 2012 Olympics host country, its predecessor, China, and its successor, Brazil, and it uses dancers from all three countries. The cables we see suspended and stretched across the stage are both the lines that unite by carrying this communication, and the lines – like race, physical ability or national borders – that can demarcate. Parallel Lines is thus an idea that works on an intellectual level as well as on stage, thanks to Brew’s creative, all-embracing magic. He has the dual experience of being an able-bodied dancer (he used to dance with Candoco) who now finds himself in a wheelchair, so he has a profoundly nuanced understanding of what it means to have unlimited movement and what it means to be physically constrained.

Another force that leads Parallel Lines forward is its score by Michael Galasso (Scenes), creating a series of delightful variations that allow space for the dancers to move in between its layers. Brew has caught the dynamics of the music beautifully in his own treatments of duet, trio, quartet and ensemble, mixing male and female, male and male, able and disabled, with an overarching theme of support, be it from the ground or from a partner. The duet with Darren Anderson and Edu stands out as an expression of courage, strength, caring and love, with a delightful sense of humour. Brew transforms disability into an emotional quality that imbues the partnerships he sets up with an equality and universality that is surely the summit of his achievement. The creative elements of set design (Sam Collins), costumes (Jo Paul) and lighting (Ben Pacey) complete the unity of this work.

Claire Cunningham takes a different tack in her creative process. She is used to choreographing work on her own body and drawing material from her own life, incorporating the crutches on which she relies. She said in a Q&A after the performance that the prospect of creating work on a group of dancers filled her with misgiving and fear. There was the double challenge of creating for both disabled and non-disabled dancers and of assigning the movement’s ownership to someone other than herself. Her solution to the first was, like Brew’s, an emotional one: finding in the crutch a symbol of our forms of dependence, something with which we can all associate. Cunningham’s answer to the second was to get the dancers to create autobiographical material of their own by giving them improvisation tasks in the studio, and taking from the movement what she and her assistant director and mentor, Gail Sneddon, felt was right for 12. The advantage of working in this way is that it has allowed Cunningham to break through a psychological barrier to realizing a much broader palette. The danger, however, is that the material escapes her creative control, as with Pandora’s box, and cannot be enticed back. 12 is thus uneven in its pace, abstruse at times, but never lacking in visually arresting imagery. Crutches are used as guns and as air guitars, and in a particularly oppressive scene, as elements of violent manipulation and submission: emotional dependence has a decidedly dark side. Crutches are also used in less sinister fashion as elements of an animated conversation between Welly O’Brien and Mickaella Dantas, and as puppet sticks in the scene with the bookish Ming Hei Wong and the voluptuous Annie Hanauer who dances around a candy cotton microphone to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Dan Daw, whose dramatic talent shines here, is mesmerising as he strives to control an errant arm while seated in a chair. Shanti Freed evidently had a lot of fun with the costumes, and Matthias Herrmann’s score hung on to Cunningham’s roller-coaster vision by the seat of its pants. Karsten Tinapp lit it all admirably through the billowing fog.

What Marc Brew and Claire Cunningham so convincingly affirmed on Thursday night is that there is no notion of disability in terms of artistic expression, and the dancers are all brilliant performers. Candoco’s reputation has been sufficiently established that it is perhaps time to quietly remove its label of disabled and non-disabled dancers. And where, oh where, are the designer crutches?