Ian Abbott on Outdoor performances in 2021: Part 1

Posted: February 16th, 2022 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Outdoor performances in 2021: Part 1
Ian Abbott_Outdoor Festival_Alleyne
Kristina and Sadé Alleyne in Bonded (photo: Luke Witcomb)

Due to the interrupted possibilities of seeing indoor work across 2021, I will focus predominantly in this two-part review on work presented in England’s green and pleasant land, the great outdoors. When the UK government released their four-stage roadmap for loosening Covid restrictions in February 2021, stage three approved the return of outdoor performances as of May 17, allowing audiences once again to see live work in person. Norwich and Norfolk Festival were fresh out of the blocks, running from May 17 to 30, stating that the ‘2021 edition of the arts festival will be a one-off adaptation, with programme and presentation designed especially for Covid times.’ To celebrate the first festival of the 2021 outdoor arts season I ventured to Norwich to see the premieres of three new dance works by Alleyne Dance, Requardt and Rosenberg and Far From The Norm.

Future Cargo by (Frauke) Requardt and (David) Rosenberg was originally planned and advertised to premiere at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF) in 2020, but instead landed in Chapelfield Gardens in mid-May on a rainy Norwich evening at 6pm for around 100 audience members. This is how it describes itself: “A truck arrives in Silvertown from a distant planet. As the sides roll up, an unstoppable series of events are set into motion. This contemporary sci-fi dance show reveals a world where the normal rules don’t apply. This extraordinary new outdoor production takes audiences into a surreal visual and aural experience enhanced with 360-degree sound on personal headsets.” 

Future Cargo is actually a cross between the conveyor belt challenge on the Generation Game and a space crematorium — all set on the back of an articulated lorry with bespoke shipping container and treadmills a plenty — as four skin-tight, silver morph-suited performers parade and attempt to escape the inevitable furnace of death. The opening twenty minutes see the chrome morphs ice skate in slow-motion as they continuously adopt multiple mannequin stretches and choreographic poses in both solo and duet encounters before the gradual inclusion of props designed to pique our visual interest in the treadmill conceit: tennis racquets, plants, a very long bench, a water cooler, a bowling ball and ten pins, wigs, combs and dodgems. There is also a truck driver who spends most of their time in the cab before climbing on to the top of the container towards the end only to switch places with one of the silver bodies. 

Having seen all of Requardt &Rosenberg’s four previous works — Electric HotelMotor ShowThe Roof, and DeadClub — they share a clear aesthetic, and a production prowess (courtesy of set and costume designer Hannah Clark and lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth) in which we are connected to the spoken words and music via a set of headphones with a binaural sound design and composition by Ben and Max Ringham. All have a similar thematic field that is being ploughed, but each one is dressed in different clothes. 

If you think of Future Cargo as season five of Requardt and Rosenberg rather than as an individual isolated work, then things begin to make a little more sense; we’re deep into the narrative arc where distance, proximity and intimacy have all been repurposed. Setting aside the awkward season two that was Motor Show, the new(ish) feature for this season is that there’s treadmills and a shipping container in play. I say the shipping container is new, but Rosenberg has another creative partnership with Glenn Neath called Darkfield where together they have produced three 20-minute works in customised shipping containers that audiences enter; they’re pitch black and the work is experienced through sound, scent and haptic encounters.

Throughout May I was also watching the three seasons of Dark (a German language sci-fi series commissioned by Netflix and created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese) which explores the existential implications of time in 33-year cycles, intergenerational time travel and its effect on human nature. It’s all about loops, black holes, repeated lives and making decisions which might or might not impact what happens to us in the future. Dark definitely had an impact on my reading of Future Cargo and the synchrony that exists between the two works; they fed and enhanced each other. When I was watching these chromed bodies disappear off stage left on the truck and heard a whoosh in the soundtrack leading us to believe that the bodies are being flamed, I was also seeing the burnt eyes and burst eardrums on the characters from Dark.

The visual field of Future Cargo is highly controlled and very limited; as an audience experience it’s akin to watching TV. You’re fixed in a single position, watching something play out in front of you at some distance; there’s very rarely more than one thing to watch at once and the majority of it plays out in front of you in a narrow rectangle of constantly evolving moving shapes. Future Cargo is visual dopamine, designed for Instagram likes and contains short-form choreographed nuggets that are perfect for the Tik Tok TV generation.

Good Youtes Walk (commissioned by GDIF) by Far From The Norm was presented in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral and self-describes as a “chaotic and frenzied Hip Hop dance theatre work” that “explores how divided we are as a nation. Due to the recent surge of global events including the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement heightening, now more than ever we are a nation divided. It unravels how the youth of today are reclaiming their future and want to address the divide by creating unity and empathy that transcends race, class, gender and geography.”

In June, when Glastonbury 2021 was a screen-based encounter due to the restrictions on numbers of people who could gather, Kano performed a “career-defining” 35-minute set at Worthy Farm that was joyous, complex and political, demonstrating an artist at the top of their game. Good Youtes Walk Amongst Evil is a song by Kano (released in 2019) and the first lyric is: “We’re doing this for the money”.

Premieres are strange things; they are the first public outing of a work on a date that is often determined by a presenter. Good Youtes Walk was simply not ready to be out in the world. At 40 minutes long it was flabby, had over-stretched ideas outstaying their welcome, energies that sagged between choreographed sections and if you compare the reality of what it claims to be versus reality, it felt thin and flimsy. 

Set on a static lump of a structure that looked like a decaying building (designed by Ryan Dawson Laight), the five dancers attempted to deliver a series of episodic scenes, interspersed with tightly choreographed norm dancing that flips boomer perception of the good/bad binary of what the  “youth” are up to on the street; they tried to goof around and aim their water pistols at political satire with a Boris Johnson-esque character, cheap props, wigs (by costume maker, Kingsley Hall), fishing rods with fake money as bait, superhero masks and inept police officer chases. The FFTN dancers (Amanda Pefkou, Hayleigh Sellors, Jordan Douglas, Shangomola Edunjobi and Ezra Owen) are incredible dancers. They’re not trained clowns, actors and comedians, so why would you attempt to make a work of this length with a limited creation and rehearsal period, asking the dancers to try and deliver all of these other skills on top?  

We know that since the Conservative party came to power in 2010 the real-term spending to youth services has been cut by over 70% in less than a decade; we know that there are so few public spaces designed for teenagers and we know that if you were born after the year 2000 you have only known an England that is suffering the effects of a financial crash, over a decade of Conservative rule and now a pandemic. Young people have only known this state; this is their norm.

I’m unsure whether Good Youtes Walk is Far From The Norm embodying and wholly owning the opening lyric from Kano; after all, a company has a duty of care to those it employs, people need to be paid and which company is going to turn down a sizeable commission in these pandemic times? After the premiere, I don’t know if there was any more time spent re-working it before further dates in the summer, but I cannot say the same for Good Youtes Walk that I did for Far From The Norm’s full-length BLKDOG I saw at Warwick Arts Centre in February 2020: that I’d be happy to meet that work again at a later date to see how it had settled. I’ll share some new thoughts on BLKDOG in the second part of this review.

Bonded by Alleyne Dance was an absolute highlight of 2021; it warrants a much larger tour in 2022 and beyond and demonstrates a rare trinity of conceptual simplicity, refined craft and expert delivery. The work self-describes as “an outdoor production that explores the construct of human dependency, especially that of siblings — and how time and external conditions can affect the synergetic connection. Performed by twin sisters, Kristina and Sadé Alleyne, the work takes the audience through a transitional journey of inter-and-independency through abstract dance narrative.” 

Our thirst for human touch has been foregrounded since March 2020 and although Bonded isn’t a COVID work, it was made during these times. Whilst the use of “synergetic” and “inter-and-independency” in the marketing copy may lead us to believe this is a slightly dry and academic performance, it is anything but. 

At a shade under 30 minutes, we’re introduced to Kristina and Sadé who are alone on either side of a revolving, 8-metre long, narrow, transparent corridor; they encounter this physical barrier (designed by Emanuele Salamanca) which restricts their ability to touch and be together. They begin to mirror movements on either side of it — lighting up our mirror neurons that are enhanced by their visual similarity as twins — until the corridor begins to rotate which forces them to move, inhabiting a space that the other was just in, but the body is no longer there. The corridor and choreography begin to transform and transform again in many and unexpected ways offering encounters on alternate levels, new restrictions to overcome and eventually leading to them being reunited. All of these moments of being apart and facing restrictions before finally coming together were empathetically landing because that had been the lived reality for so many of us before May 2021. 

Kristina and Sadé are exceptional performers who describe the Alleyne Dance style as “blending West-African, Caribbean, Kathak, Hip Hop and Circus Skills within a contemporary dance context” and over the past decade they’ve worked for a suite of international choreographers including Wim Vandekeybus, Akram Khan, Gregory Maqoma, Alessandra Seutin and Boy Blue. However, what is remarkable is that Bonded is the first outdoor performance they’ve created and performed as Alleyne Dance (they were commissioned by 2Faced Dance Company to create Power in 2019). For an outdoor work to be so well crafted, that demonstrates an understanding of how story beats are released to sustain an audience’s attention and how they combine with a structure and score that enhances the conceptual understanding is a massive achievement and heralds an exciting arrival onto the outdoor arts circuit.

Reflections on other work from the great outdoors across in 2021 will continue in part 2.

Requardt & Rosenberg, DeadClub™

Posted: October 3rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Requardt & Rosenberg, DeadClub™

Frauke Requardt & David Rosenberg’s DeadClub™, The Place, September 15

Requardt & Rosenberg’s DeadClub™ (photo: Manuel Vason)

The last time I saw a collaboration between Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg was at night in a freezing carpark on a deserted site near the Brighton Marina in 2012. The scope of Motor Show was to rein in the forces of an outdoor venue through a binaural technology that brought the action to the space between your ears; the scale was visually heroic and aurally intimate. In their fourth and most recent collaboration, DeadClub, they have assembled a similarly scaled performance in which the heroic resides in notions of memory and dream, and the intimate in the way the auditorium of The Place has been shrunk and transformed, thanks to Hannah Clark, to a raised gaming table within David Price’s auditory den. In keeping with a theme of random processes, we are each issued a raffle ticket that corresponds to our numbered, standing-only place around the perimeter of the table/stage. It’s a unique perspective from which to see the show, not only looking up at the performers but looking across at other members of the audience. We may have arrived with a friend, but our relationships have been shuffled in the DeadClub pack.

This kind of attention to detail brings the audience together as part of the show; we are not simply spectators but collectively share in the staged experience. In each place there’s a black and white party hat to match the decor, but putting it on is optional. At intervals, a spotlight scans the inside of the four sides of the square like a ball flying round a roulette wheel to stop in front of a randomly picked person (how randomly I’m not sure, as it never stopped in front of an empty space and on one occasion picked out Requardt herself for a cameo response). The highlighted person is either asked a question or becomes the focus of a particular dance. There are a lot of sleight-of-hand appearances and disappearances of the five performers emerging through trapdoors as if from an underworld and descending back into the depths like contortionist dolls; ‘severed arms’ and ‘stuffed crows’ drop on to the stage, small-scale plaster figures suddenly arrive out of the dark and appear to speak, while microphone stands and pianos rise up from below and once played descend again with all the logic of an arbitrary event. It is a phantasmagoria of the inexplicable and the absurd that borrows as much from Sigmund Freud as it does from neuro-psychological concepts about the function of remembering which, according to current models, serve to make sense of our present, aid in our socialization and help us to imagine the future.

It is this last function that fascinates Requardt and Rosenberg. Memories are not straightforward images from the past but composite mental reconstructions that we adapt to our present and future projections. As Dr. Denis McKeown, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Leeds, writes in the program notes, “Memories are like dreams. They are an internal world played upon by an internal consciousness, often outside our awareness.” Indeed, the visual vocabulary of DeadClub makes the analogy with dreams overt by gesturing not only to Surrealism but to film, a medium akin to remembering not so much because of its possibility of flashback but because of the malleability of its internal procedures. Like the moving image, Requardt and Rosenberg’s imagination is a fluid element that has the possibility of flying of its own volition but when it comes into contact with so many overtly theatrical effects held together with tape, screws and hinges, and magnified by our proximity to the stage, its wings are clipped. The sheer complexity of the staging is staggering but it draws our attention for the wrong reason: the theatricality is just too clunky, making DeadClub appear to be a raft of dream-like concepts trapped in the wrong medium.

The one technical asset that mediates between the ideas and the scenic elements is the lighting by Chahine Yavroyan for he can use his palette to smooth physical edges, focus on the essential action or reduce the stage to total darkness. His use of light allies the stage to the cinema: he allows the fluid traces of ideas in Valentina Formenti’s songs of death, in Neil Callaghan’s ghostly presence and in the solos by Jordan Ajadi and Owen Ridley-Demonik to exist apart from the substantive woodwork and machinery underneath them so as to express their intrinsic aural, dramatic and rhythmic poetry. These are the overriding successes of DeadClub, but outside these contemplative moments, even Yavroyan cannot avoid the theatrical framework becoming the centre of preoccupation.

Requardt & Rosenberg: Motor Show — Listening in on the lives of others

Posted: May 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Requardt & Rosenberg: Motor Show — Listening in on the lives of others

Motor Show, co-directed by Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg, at the Brighton Festival, May 12. 

There is something vaguely perverse about sitting outside for an hour near the seafront on a cold, windy night listening in through our headphones on the conversations of young couples out for an adventurous night in their parked cars. What business is it of ours, all 250 of us, huddled together in our parkas, coats, wooly hats and assorted rugs and cushions on this derelict building site at Black Rock participating in a version of The Lives of Others for a cast of beaten-up cars, a couple of caravans and ten dancers with assorted headdresses?

Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg, co-directors of Motor Show, first joined forces to create Electric Hotel in 2010, which pioneered their use of binaural sound technology to juxtapose a distant image with an intimate sound score. It also branded their artistic taste as slightly twisted and surreal with dark overtones. Motor Show is the follow up, with a week’s run at this year’s Brighton Festival before transferring to derelict building sites at the festivals of Norwich, Greenwich+Docklands and Stockton (see Links page for details). One of the themes of Requardt and Rosenberg’s collaborative work is to transfer the audience from the traditional auditorium to a disused or unfamiliar setting of the urban environment (the performances are presented by Without Walls). Black Rock, with its backdrop of the Brighton Marina car park, is one such area. The disadvantage of such spaces is that they can be numbingly cold.

Box office is also pretty rudimentary: a rusty iron gate with a padlock behind which stands a guy with a fistful of pre-booked tickets. If you want to know how to dress for the event, take a tip from the box office staff. You can also buy a ticket on the night if you thrust a £10 note through the grill ‒ if there are any tickets left. This is, ironically, a hot event. If you come by car, there is a parking lot next to the site, and if you come by bike, you can leave it just inside the entrance, and there’s no need to lock it. There are no programs, no drinks, no ice creams and no crisps; just the obligatory pair of earphones. Only the hardiest of arctic spectators would want to check in their coats, but it’s a moot point as there are no facilities. The construction site toilets are stacked against one of the dilapidated barriers that form the enclosure of this festival site. The only good thing is that the sightlines are a lot better in this banked seating than at the Dome and you don’t have to turn off your mobile phone because nobody can hear it anyway. In the absence of printed programs, there could have been a giant billboard with the information, just so the dancers and production staff can be officially acknowledged by name. The stage is concrete, which is why the dancers don’t jump very much, but it’s great for the cars. This is theatre in the raw for a ferociously clad audience. Or it might be just a creative excuse for catching a cold.

There is an amusing conceit at the beginning of the binaural soundscape: we hear the expectant chattering of a warm and cosy theatre crowd before the lights go down, as at the beginning of a BBC 3 live concert broadcast. There is no chattering in this audience apart from our teeth.

The concept of listening in to intimate conversations in a parked car a hundred yards away is closely associated with espionage, except that in Motor Show there isn’t any dialogue to listen to. Is there an aural equivalent to voyeurism? The promotional material talks of a young couple in a car arguing and planning a world for each other, but this is a stretch too far for the imagination. All we hear is the ambient sound inside the car: engine, ignition switch, handbrake, the opening and closing of a door, a bottle opening, a foamy drink being poured and swallowed, giggling, music playing. The sound quality is such that we are inside the car, but we are ‒ literally and metaphorically ‒ left out in the cold when it comes to following any thread of conversation that might suggest what is happening.

Nor is it easy to extract information from the action, but then again, surrealism is not given to easy interpretation. A prologue sung by a woman in a feathered headdress (headdresses have a certain significance in Requardt and Rosenberg’s work) suggests the work’s dark undertone: “My lightning flashes across the sky; you’re only young but you’re gonna die.” We hear the plastic coat squeaking as the woman moves. Way over in the background a figure is dancing up a storm in the dust, a tiny figure on a huge stage. I have never seen such a small figure on such a vast stage attract so much attention. “Satan’s gonna get you.” The site’s crazed telephone booth buzzes with the sound of an industrial-size electrical short. The light goes out. “Hells bells, hells bells.”

We hear a metal gate opening and a car starts up. It’s real, and approaches us from behind the corrugated fence that forms a backdrop and comes to a halt. We see a man in the driver’s seat and a girl next to him, like figures in a fish tank. He cracks open a bottle and pours a drink, winds down the window and places the bottle on the roof. Good place to keep it cool on a night like this. Getting comfortable, the CD player comes to life. Another car approaches and stops as if lining up at a drive-in cinema. This second couple repeats the same bottle-opening-drinking-CD sequence. The girls in the two cars get out and dance against the side of their respective cars. A third car drives up and the entire sequence is repeated. The three girls in bare legs and summer frocks must be cold and dying to get back into their cars, which they do. A bottle falls off one car roof and breaks. The first two cars reverse to behind the corrugated fence, but the couple in the third car is busy snogging by the sounds of it. Later on there is some interesting thematic choreography for these drivers and passengers, entering and exiting the car windows with acrobatic abandon, but for the most part the cars (there are as many cars as there are dancers) outperform the dancers.

While the three couples in cars form a recurrent theme in Motor Show, the linear scenario seems to begin with a man in a stretch Volvo enticing a schoolgirl into the back seat. She accepts, but eventually gets away, survives being blown up in the boot of an abandoned car and is finally redeemed. We see her at the end through the window of a big caravan that only she can unlock, dancing contentedly. The Volvo man, after staggering around in a state of mental and physical disintegration, endures a final self-inflicted punishment in his underwear groveling on the cold, hard ground. There is also a parallel universe of a gang of violent car bashers with rubber truncheons driving a battered Jaguar and an eccentric shaman who lives in a small but transformative caravan that he pulls himself on to the site.

I am glad I went. Requardt and Rosenberg clearly have an impressive level of imagination to work on this kind of epic scale, marshaling a complex array of resources. Comparing the two projects, Electric Hotel had a unity of set and concept that was essentially contained and complete, whereas the unity of Motor Show is more dispersed, perhaps too much. It is a work of exploration rather than of discovery; the promise is still there; the courage and imagination are still there, but the theatrical experience is frustratingly incomplete. With these two works under their belt, who knows what Requardt and Rosenberg will come up with next, but whatever it is will be worth watching – as long as there is an item in the production budget for heated seats.