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.  


Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Posted: October 15th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place

Dance Umbrella 2019: Lucy Guerin’s Split at The Place, October 12

Split, Lucy Guerin
Ashley McLellan and Lilian Steiner in Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Lucy Guerin’s Split, performed by dancers Lilian Steiner and Ashley McLellan at The Place as part of Dance Umbrella, is an enquiry into duality that is structured on a grid laid down in white tape with a corresponding division of time. For the opening section, the dancers move within a spacious rectangle to a pulsing, driving score by Scanner for a prescribed period. When the time is up — and while the musical engine idles patiently — the dancers stop to rest, towel down and then divide the rectangle into two equal spaces with more white tape. They perform the next section in just one of the two rectangles for half the amount of time. With Paul Lim’s lighting providing an additional delineation to each section, the dancers continue in a diminishing geometric space/time structure until they have only a tiny square in which to stand and a final brief moment in which to resolve the entire choreographic puzzle. There is a strict logic to the pattern of partitions — resembling that of a Fibonacci series without the guiding Golden spiral — that appears to sublimate the agency of the dancers. Despite Guerin’s choreographic depiction of a ‘diminishing world’ that ‘induces competition, negotiation, harmony and aggression’, there is little overt emotional intent from the dancers beyond the gestural language itself. 

In the first section, Steiner and McLellan perform an ever-expanding sequence of movements in unison, remaining in the same relation to each other without ever touching. The gestural expression extends out from the torso to the bodies’ extremities — especially the hands and fingers — as much as to the patterns on the floor. This harmonious relationship within an ample space can be seen as the ground of human identity, while the sheer volubility and intricacy of actions and reactions, of skipping, jumping, reclining and swirling in all directions — a tour de force for the dancers — shows the rich complexity of such ground. Within this apparent unity, Guerin introduces a singular contrast by choosing to clothe only one of her dancers. As she writes in the program, ‘Having one naked and the other clothed created a split in identity that intensified the piece. For me it gives seriousness and normality to the female body, which is such a site of commodification, exploitation, shame and shock.’ On the other hand, as John Berger wrote about the fine art tradition of the nude in Ways of Seeing, ‘She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.’ While Guerin’s choice may provide an apt choreographic duality, in the context of the theatre she cannot preclude a spectator reaction that recognizes in Steiner’s naked body the very attributes she rightly deplores and allows their formal presentation to distract from the work’s rigorous construction. It is telling that the authority of Steiner’s body appears less assured than McLellan’s, suggesting she may not have come to terms with the reflection of her nakedness in the spectator’s gaze; she wears her nakedness like a costume but is not yet reconciled to revealing herself forcefully through it. 

Given that Steiner remains as she is throughout Split, the polarity of naked and clothed becomes the guiding metaphor for other recognizable dualities Guerin develops — human/animal, coloniser/colonised, predator/prey, and master/slave — in subsequent sections that see an increasing inclination towards argument and examination, one memorably olfactory. Because McLellan is dressed, she comes across as the more dominant of the two women in images of aggression, while Steiner is inevitably seen as vulnerable. In their process of negotiation this works well, but when they swap antagonistic roles the duality is less convincing. Guerin’s structure and dramaturgy are most persuasive in showing that pressure from ever-diminishing space and time leads to ever-darker shades of behaviour. As Split develops, we see the individual increasingly at cross-purposes with herself — even if there are moments of respite and harmony — until Steiner’s enactment of disembowelling McLellan and eating her entrails suggests a profound existential crisis. 

It is hard to read the final gesture in terms of all that has gone before. Reduced to a tiny space, there is only room for the two women to stand tightly together, with McLellan behind Steiner. As McLellan tips backwards the lights are quickly extinguished, leaving her fate suspended in space. As a powerful dramatic gesture — reminiscent of Tosca’s launch from the battlements in Puccini’s opera — it is beautifully timed and executed, but it leaves the issue of duality curiously unresolved.


Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD at Sadler’s Wells

Gisèle Vienne, CROWD, Dance Umbrella at Sadler’s Wells, October 8

DU 19, CROWD, Gisèle Vienne
A scene from Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD (photo: Estelle Hanania)

Gisèle Vienne’s CROWD, presented at Sadler’s Wells as the opening event of this year’s Dance Umbrella season, sets not so much a tone for the festival as a standard of engagement. Requiring full attention to its myriad details, it in turn rewards with an afterimage that lasts well beyond the performance. 

The setting, like a visual counterpart of Gérard Manset’s ‘un grand terrain de nulle part’, is an earth-strewn stage that suggests an exterior space on which the evidence of messy human occupation ranges from plastic bottles to abandoned clothing; whatever has happened has already finished — or has it? Approaching this ambiguous scene through the high decibel beat of Peter Rehberg playlist of 90’s club music, there is an evident disconnect between the deafening heat of a dance floor and the detritus from the aftermath of an outdoor rock concert, a demonstration or a climactic disaster, while Patrick Riou’s lighting picks out details like a torch searching through the debris for some lost possession. The sound cuts off any aural distractions, so our eyes focus at first on an empty space mired in a past event yet charged with the prospect of something about to happen. Vienne seems to be playing with our expectations by setting up anticipation and then gently diffusing it; when the first hooded figure makes her way across the stage, she is moving so slowly it takes a while to recognize her human agency before our eyes start to make out the details of colour, shape and topography. A second figure enters the stage with the same mystery, ending in a familiar gesture of lighting a cigarette; the smoke becomes not just a recognizable effect but part of CROWD’s visual dialogue. Riou’s lighting adds to the quality of the dialogue by enhancing the depth and volume of the stage and generating through the arrival of the crowd living tableaux that veer from the pictorial to the virtual. Vienne builds up layers of action, behaviour and narrative through a judicious mix of choreography, dramaturgy, colour and light so that the images breathe with the varied dynamics of individual and group behaviour. 

There are 15 narratives woven into CROWD that might each take up to 5 minutes to enact in real time, but Vienne calibrates the actions and interactions of each performer using the cinematic devices of slow motion, splicing and freeze frame to expand each 5-minute narrative into a collective performance that lasts 90 minutes. It is as if she focuses an aleatory light on what makes each person move rather than on the movements they make and in doing so builds up a finely detailed composite image of a crowd.  The gathering of young people like displaced survivors in what could be construed as a post-industrial environment inevitably lends itself to a poetic comparison with the uncanny proximity and overlap of Extinction Rebellion protests in London. CROWD sees a very human drama unfolding between the individual and the group, and we are caught in the micronarrative of each performer’s struggle for recognition, comfort and intimacy.

Vienne’s manipulation of time also makes CROWD a work about choreographic seeing. How much time do we spend looking at a painting or a photograph in a gallery? Do we not tend to rush past images, searching for immediate gratification? Choreographic narrative and imagery can rush forward like a conveyor belt of emotional returns — sometimes very successfully — but here Vienne draws us into her frame and makes us linger to savour the image she puts before us. In deconstructing the choreographic image, she thus gears what we see to the way we see it.

The time it takes Vienne and her team — writer Dennis Cooper and assistants Anja Röttgerkamp and Nuria Guiu Sagarra — to achieve this experiment in duration is pure theatrical time. The only elements that happen in real time are the mimed conversations between performers — in contradistinction to their slow-motion gestures — and the trajectory of water spilled or ejected from plastic bottles that are evidence of the inevitable pull of gravity. We are reminded of time’s cyclical nature at the end as the performers chart their individual paths away from the gathering into the darkness; against the flow, almost imperceptibly, the first figure can be seen re-entering the stage before the lights dim. As we reach for our scarves we find ourselves back at the beginning; having witnessed this microcosmic crowd of preoccupations on the stage, we prepare to go out into the city night with our own. 

Presented by Dance Umbrella in partnership with Sadler’s Wells
Gisèle Vienne is supported by the Institut français as part of FranceDance UK


Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Posted: September 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone

Interview with Dance Umbrella’s Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone, September 12

Emma Gladstone, Dance Umbrella
Emma Gladstone (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

NM I read there’s a through-line to the 2019 Dance Umbrella festival focusing on ‘the emotional, intellectual and sensual power of the body’. I wonder if this focus is the result of the works you have chosen or if it is a pre-selected theme for this year?

EG I suppose I do like works that have structural concepts within them. Lucy Guerin’s Split is an example; it’s a pure dance piece but there’s a very clear structure of space and time in it that I think is not only a fabulous invention but also a guide to our watching. I feel there is more intellectual power and association and suggestion and connection in dance than people sometimes think. That’s why we do all the debates and talks during the festival; I think choreographers are such intelligent beings and so wide in their thinking and their invention that when they do find a way of working, or a particular discovery, it’s quite different from theatre. 

Dance Umbrella Lucy Guerin Split
Lucy Guerin’s Split (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

NM Do you think dance has a place in intellectual and political discourse? 

EG Yes, but I always think dance is not a good art form for facts, so you are always working more subtly and that includes the power of suggestion and connection for audiences while they are watching. There’s always going to be politics because of the body. But there are also many other things that can be revealed within the frame… 

NM Do you think they are revealed during the performance or in discussing and thinking about it afterwards?

EG Well, if you take Jérôme Bel’s Gala, for example, it’s a hugely political work because of the journey on which it takes us, how it addresses our prejudices or assumptions and I love that evolution of our headspace while we’re watching. There’s also a big thing about difference, when international artists bring different worlds or different perceptions. In Gregory Maqoma’s CION for this year’s festival, you will hear an African choir singing Ravel’s Bolero and it makes you appreciate difference, hearing one of those rather hackneyed bits of music that are ‘owned’ in the western canon, how they can be used and treated and still be effective and moving and powerful from another world. 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. There’s something much more interesting for me about works that are full of politics through suggestion rather than flag waving. 

Dance Umbrella Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma’s CION (photo: John Hogg)

NM Do you find this kind of content is more marked in works from outside the UK?

EG Oona Doherty is an interesting case for the questions of class and place she brings and reveals in her work (Hard To Be Soft at Southbank Centre and Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus at The Yard Theatre). I think as an artform dance can also exist for its strength and beauty like music. There’s a wonderful American artist, Theaster Gates, who said in response to a question about the validity of art in a context of deprivations within society, “Beauty is a basic service”. I think there is a total validity in work that is for the human spirit alone. I don’t wish to negate that, but there is also the potential for insipid or empty works in the same way. I do search for complexity that includes intellectual ideas in the choreography, but there are so many different ways these can be realised. 

NM What percentage of works that you see contain the ingredients you are looking for and find their way into your Dance Umbrella program?

EG I probably see about 180 works a year and there are usually 10 or 11 in a festival. But that 10 or 11 can include five or six commissions and then I don’t know what’s coming! These are artists I believe in who we’re keen to support and they’ll bring their work whatever it is, and we take that leap with them. For example, one of the works at the Linbury Theatre this year is Jacobsson and Caley’s reimagining of a Merce Cunningham piece, For Four Walls, and there are a couple of works in Freddie Opoku-Adaie’s Mixed Bill in his Out Of The System at Bernie Grant Arts Centre that are commissions. There are also two of the Four by Four Commissions, one chosen by Akram Khan — a new work by Mythili Prakash, Here and Now, at Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover — and the other by Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker — Georgia Vardarou’s Why Should It Be More Desirable For Green Fire Balls To Exist Than Not? at the Lilian Baylis Theatre. I think it is part of our job to support artists and trust in them. That’s part of the fun. You’re asking people to take that leap with you and you get to see something at the start of a journey. I love those works that make me leave the theatre in a different place from where I went in; that’s what I want an audience to feel.

Dance Umbrella Mythili Prakash
Mythili Prakash (photo: Jonathan Potter)

NM How do you see Dance Umbrella supporting the dance ecology in London? 

EG One of the big decisions I made when I became artistic director was to bring over artists who are not already represented here. I felt liberated by the fact that most people don’t know most of the names most of the time, so it’s our reputation that we have to build through the quality of the work we present. Hopefully that means people will trust us and come to see fascinating artists because they appear under a banner whose quality audiences have come to value. Another decision was to stretch the diversity of choreographic expression as wide as possible, as with Charlotte Spencer’s Is This A Wasteland? in 2017 and Annie-B Parson’s 17c last year. 

Another thing we are doing this year in Croydon and at the Opera House is working with our partners to put a mixture of work in a single frame; this is where I feel most responsible in terms of curating, figuring out what sits next to what, how will the audience see it after seeing something else. I’m excited by Amala Dianor’s work, Somewhere in the middle of infinity, at the Linbury, because he is in such an interesting place and the diverse training and styles of his three dancers contrasts with what Merce Cunningham is doing with his solid, single technique at the other end of the bill (Sounddance performed by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine). That’s why I like the title of the program, The Future Bursts In, that is taken from a 1964 Observer review of Cunningham’s first London performances. We have to look at works differently now; there are no longer those kinds of monolithic techniques. 

Dance Umbrella Amala Dianor
Amala Dianor’s Somewhere in the middle of infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

NM How do you sift through the works you see to arrive at a Dance Umbrella program?

EG Apart from working on the diverse elements of age, culture, gender, and the geography of the city, I often invite those pieces I am not sure I liked at first, but which remain with me; they become milestones in my art journey of life. This is why I enjoy programming a festival rather than a venue; it’s the difference between the responsibility of programming year-round to develop a dance scene, with the growth over time of individual artists, and then the idea of a two-and-a-half week festival that’s about the new, the international. It’s a quite different focus, and it’s fun to play within that framework.

NM The geographical reach of the festival seems to have increased this year. 

EG Yes, this is the most we have ever attempted. We have added the Royal Opera House — though it’s not a first for Dance Umbrella — because of the mix of audiences and the strength of the technique of the dancers in the program. And, of course, there’s four different locations in Croydon’s Fairfield Takeover. We are also developing our partnerships with festivals around the UK and internationally though we only tour within London; Philippe Saire’s Hocus Pocus is going to six venues around the city. I love that. This year the festival will embrace a total of 23 locations. It’s a bit mad!

NM In terms of the future? 

EG This is my sixth year and I have no plans to be programming this festival years into the future. It’s a huge job, because it’s personal — art is personal; there’s no other way to do it. I love the job, and I love the team I am working with, but the scene is constantly changing and new, younger voices need to be heard. You can only reinvent your own wheel so many times. 

Dance Umbrella runs from 8 – 27 October. Here’s the full program.