Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place

Posted: November 29th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place

 Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place, November 20


Mai Lisa Guindo, the arm of Angela Venturini, Dane Hurst, Mathieu Geffré, Oliver Chapman, Sara Harton and Sam Costello in The Knot (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Choreographer Didy Veldman describes The Knot as an enquiry into contemporary marriage. She writes, ‘Together with my collaborators and dancers, we have explored different aspects of marriage, our fears, expectations, the meaning of “forever” and the wedding party.’ This is not the first time Veldman has translated the results of an enquiry into choreographic form. In The Happiness Project — her first work for her company, Umanoove, in 2017 — she interrogated the idea of happiness and built a response in the theatricality of the performance. She also built the musical framework around a single composer and musician, Alexander Balanescu.

In The Knot Veldman calls on much larger musical forces: Igor Stravinsky’s iconic score, Les Noces, an intricately rhythmic work inspired by a traditional Russian peasant wedding. For a contemporary exploration of marriage this is challenging for while it might anchor Veldman’s purview ‘over the last 100 years’, its ritual aspect contrasts with a contemporary view of marriage that, as Veldman writes in the program note, ‘could even be seen as part of our throw-away culture.’

To have more freedom and space for her choreographic ideas Veldman invited composer Ben Foskett to provide additional sections that would ‘weave in and out of Stravinsky’s dense sound world’. The dreamy opening of The Knot is one of these as the seven dancers (Oliver Chapman, Sam Costello, Sara Harton, Dane Hurst, Mathieu Geffré, Mai Lisa Guindo and Angela Venturini) enter in a procession wearing only their undergarments with their wedding attire draped neatly over their arms. The men form a line on one side of the stage and the women on the other and all attend to their respective sartorial and cosmetic preparations. In a concession to choreographic style the performers do not include shoes over the socks — they mime them into place — which diminishes the sense of nuptial formality but the introduction is nevertheless elegant in its simplicity and its choreographic ritual is close to Stravinsky’s conception. Paradoxically, when Scene 1 of Les Noces follows Foskett’s opening, Veldman’s choreography abandons ritual for long-limbed, exuberant sliding steps that suggest the party has started before the nuptials.

Conventionally, the start of the enquiry into contemporary marriage is the traditional couple at the altar — Harton is the bride and Hurst her groom — even if Costello has to coax a dazed Hurst into kneeling and Geffré has to place a bouquet in his rigid hand. It’s not an auspicious beginning but Veldman seems to relish the humour as she piles up other ideas like snapshots in a wedding album: Geffré makes a predatory move on Chapman, who is not interested; a disconsolate Harton then sits down beside Geffré who offers her an imaginary ring in a box that she refuses. Costello takes her place and again Geffré finds his advances rebuffed so he takes out a torch and looks for someone in the audience while the other three couples are dancing up a storm to Foskett’s jazz rhythms. There’s a same sex ceremony for Geffré and Chapman, a brief discussion about what is desirable in a partner, a scene with the women taking off their dresses to catch the eyes of the men, Costello tossing the bouquet and an invitation to some of the audience to be part of the wedding party on stage.

The problem is that Veldman’s tightly conceived snapshot observations lose intensity in their staged context. Unlike in The Happiness Project, the role of the dancing is here one of independent display that suits the abilities and predilections of the dancers rather than connecting the theatrical ideas into any kind of choreographic enquiry, while Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Joana Dias’ set of numerous chairs and hanging lights, while serving as a metaphor for ritual, only emphasizes the bland volume of the stage.

When Bronislava Nijinska first choreographed Les Noces in 1923, she embodied in her conception her convictions and ideas about the role of women in marriage and sculpted those convictions and ideas in a choreographic form that matched the rhythms of the score precisely. Veldman understandably steers clear of Nijinska’s enormous influence on the score, yet without finding her own form for her choreographic enquiry that is anchored in her chosen scores, she risks allowing the images she has created to float free of both her intellectual framework and her personal convictions. What does she really think of marriage? The Knot is just too loose to be an effective answer.

Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Posted: May 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project, The Place, May 6, 2017

Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd in The Happiness Project (photo: Chris Nash)

Happiness is an elusive state and like the Mona Lisa’s smile remains enigmatic under scrutiny. There have been a couple of dance projects at The Place created around the concept of happiness: Robert Clark’s Promises of Happiness and now The Happiness Project by Didy Veldman, her first independent work for her own company, Umanoove. As their respective titles suggest, neither Clark nor Veldman set out to put their finger directly on happiness, but instead gather together some of its more familiar signifiers as a point of departure to explore it and disseminate their findings.

There are many such explorations in The Happiness Project, but the principal vehicle of Veldman’s work is the dancing itself. Veldman, a Rambert Company alumna, rejoices in the sheer pleasure of dancing, and the dancers with whom she created the work — Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd — respond in equal measure (Kidd, however, was unable to perform the work and was replaced at short notice by Madeleine Jonsson). The movement is loose-limbed and generous, it jumps and turns with joyous intensity and is at times ecstatic.

In turn the dancing is inspired by the music, in which The Happiness Project is blessed with the presence on stage of composer and violinist, Alexander Balanescu. Balanescu takes on the central role of agent provocateur, a wandering musician who incites movement and laughter in his comrades. He is passionate in his playing, and his gestures are in themselves a form of dance linked directly to the music. Sometimes he plays solo and sometimes accompanied by a recorded ensemble, but he is always animated and his musical presence is pivotal to all that happens.

The inclusion in The Happiness Project of these two exalted expressions of music and dance are more than enough to fulfill the project’s promise; witnessing the dionysian nature expressed so fully in both musician and dancers is intoxicating. But for Veldman there is an additional rationale for the work: sorting out her approach to happiness by illustrating what it might be and rejecting what it is not. For a spectator this is less uplifting than it is interesting, for to follow Veldman’s illustrations is to learn as much about her thought processes as about happiness itself.

Her illustrations are in turn amusing, poignant and clichéd. They range from an individual desire to find love and inclusion to the pursuit of eternal youth, from the commercial association of happiness and fashion to sexual gratification, and from winning a pub quiz to enjoying Sunday mornings. With four dancers Veldman can vary reactions to a given stimulus, most notably in the episode on fashion. Hurst pulls out a piece of clothing from a box, announces its brand name and passes it to Jonsson who admires the design but passes it to Merlos who is generally unimpressed and passes it to Geffré who goes into fetishist rapture. The brands keep coming until Geffré comes too, Faun-like, on his pile of clothing. (Veldman is fond of quoting, and this is not the only dance reference; in a duet with Geffré and Jonsson there is a particularly egregious one from Pina Bausch’s Café Müller, which Geffré himself used in his duet, What Songs May Do). Veldman also questions notions of happiness through its antithesis: Hurst is a figure who at times stands back from the enjoyment of his peers like a cloud on a sunny day or dances up a storm to wreck what he sees the others enjoying. Geffré, in one of the more surreal episodes, carries desire to masochistic extremes.

Laughter is often synonymous with happiness though more as signifier than the state itself. In the same way, Veldman indicates happiness through an early performative display of slow-motion laughter (reminiscent, as one audience member pointed out, of Bill Viola), and Balanescu later conducts the quartet of dancers as a laughing chorus. In both cases the dancers appear to be happy but we cannot be sure. In a section where they each perform their response to the question, Are you happy?, a sense of equivocation infuses their words and gestures and when they display on a large piece of plastic sheeting what makes them happy, the scope of happiness is reduced to written indications. There is thus a dual nature in The Happiness Project: the more Veldman explores happiness, the further away she seems to get, and yet the vehicle of her exploration — the dance and the music — are singing its praises all along. In the question and answer session following the show, audience questions were uniquely about aspects of the performance rather than about happiness. I’m not sure if that is a mark of success or failure.

HeadSpaceDance: Three & Four Quarters

Posted: September 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on HeadSpaceDance: Three & Four Quarters

HeadSpaceDance, Three and Four Quarters, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 11

There is a story of JMW Turner on varnishing day at the Royal Academy. In 1832, when Constable exhibited his painting, Opening of Waterloo Bridge, it was placed next to a seascape of Turner’s – a grey picture, beautiful in its own watery way, but with no positive color in any part of it. Constable’s Waterloo, by contrast, seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room while Constable was heightening with vermillion and lake the decorations of flags of the city barges. Turner stood beside him, looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette from another room. Putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, he then went away without saying a word. The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak. ‘He has been here,’ said Constable to his colleagues after Turner had left ‘and fired a gun.’

I will come back to this.

HeadSpaceDance’s debut evening of premières, Three & Four Quarters, at the Linbury Studio Theatre, opens with Javier de Frutos’ Studies in M, with what appears to be three of the four cygnets from Swan Lake danced to the first movement of Bach’s concerto for oboe and violin which is repeated three times as the dancers regroup and embellish their disintegrating links. Christopher Akrill, Charlotte Broom and Clemmie Sveaas appear to know each other well; their performing history suggests it and there is a harmony and ease in their styles, a complicity rather than a familiarity. There is even a similarity in appearance, though this is possibly the softening effect of Fabrice Serafino’s androgynous nightdresses with tendril-like tassels and grey socks they each wear. The choreography also seems at ease, but this is the illusion of a performance that is timed and spaced to perfection; to repair the delicately absentminded breaching of their choreographic patterns is only an artful step away, a slight realignment of an errant arm or head. The structure of the trio follows Bach’s musical precision, though De Frutos takes advantage of the trio’s subtle, subversive humour and their quiet dramatic presence to keep them at times on the music’s lyrical path and at others insouciantly off it. At the end only Sveaas is left on stage, focusing intently on her movement phrases until Bach stops and she is left somewhere between the silence and the ticking of a clock. She walks half-way off, hesitates, then creeps quietly through the door at the back. There is applause, but no bows; the evening is programed as one work in several acts.

Akrill and Sveaas reappear from that same door carrying a roll of white, padded material that they unroll on the floor like a giant duvet. This is the bedroom setting of Didy Veldman’s insomniac In the skin I’m in 1, the first of his triptych of autobiographical portraits of each of the dancers. Veldman writes in his notes that in working with the dancers, he had set them a task of writing down their thoughts for five minutes. ‘This text was so interesting that it became the basis for what we’ve created together.’ Broom is recapping her to do list: teabags, phone Carole, tap: thoughts that punctuate this delightful watercolour sketch. The music, Alexander Balanescu’s Aria, is a perfect choice for Broom’s sleepless solo in which she uses the duvet as her stage, rolling in it, jumping on it, hiding her head under it, shuffling across it and pulling at a corner with her teeth. The advantage of watching from the balcony is that you can see the beautiful patterns she makes with the duvet. Broom has a childlike, playful quality that is infectious. Towards the end, as she throws herself again and again on the piled up duvet, she is laughing, and so are we. She suddenly remembers something she has to do, gathers up the duvet and drags it off.

Set to Satie’s Gymnopedies No. 3, Akrill’s portrait, In the skin I’m in 2, starts with watery images in a more outdoor, autumnal setting. Veldman accentuates Akrill’s long legs and arms, suggesting insecurity in his uncertain equilibrium. He has a secret that he wants to let out but can’t; he makes mistakes, but shrugs his shoulders or hides his head under his top. Like Broom’s portrait, it is dreamlike, punctuated not by verbal reminders but by some beautifully lyrical acrobatics, and at the end it is the element of air that prevails: inflating a plastic bag of nuts he has just finished, Akrill carefully ties it up. I think he is going to burst it, but instead he lies down next to it on the floor and blows it gently towards the wings.

For those who have not shuffled out to the bar, the interval is a continuation of the relaxed relationship the dancers have created with the audience and gives a sense of their ownership of the stage. Sveaas warms up while Broom brings in a chair and sweeps the stage; they chat, Sveaas puts down a centre mark and checks it with Akrill who has just arrived as if he is about to leave, in smart shirt and trousers with a backpack over his shoulder. There is some lighting focus, a consultation about a bump in the floor, and the three rehearse some moves. All is made clear after the interval with Luca Silvestrina’s After the Interval, ‘a piece about dance and dancers’ that makes a performance out of the dancers’ preparations. It starts ironically at the end with a parody of bows and works backwards, shining a light on rehearsals, the process of marking, the difficulty of talking through moves, the frustrations and contradictions of too many corrections, snatches of biography from an imaginary question-and-answer session and a run-through in the studio of a Brahms Intermezzo that is beautiful and beautifully danced (in relaxed studio mode, we are led to believe, without anybody watching). It is fun, it is light, it is cleverly put together but it is essentially introspective and as self-referencing as the previous works. We are getting to over three quarters of the way through the evening, and the introduction to the company has barely changed gear. Sveaas is still to come with her Veldman portrait, In the skin I’m in 3, set to another piece by Alexander Balanescu, Empty House Space. The pace increases, as this is more energetic than the other two portraits, more intense and serious, a balancing act between sunshine and shadow in the form of long horizontal bars of light across the stage. It is a fighting solo, with agitated arms and elbows and frenetic hands and fingers, Sveaas’ body falling and recovering, with both weight and a sense of being lost in space. The lighting (by Simon Bennison throughout the program) works closely with the choreography, removing one bar of light at a time until Sveaas (happily) walks off along the one remaining.

Broom then opens the door at the back of the stage and steps in, holding the door for Akrill to follow; light pours in and the colours of Broom’s skirt and blouse blast the stage with energy, light and emotion at the beginning of this extract from Light Beings, by Mats Ek. The music is the Andante Festivo by Jean Sibelius, a festive piece to which Ek adds an acutely colourful variety of gestures and steps that seem to overpower it to the point of mockery. There is a moment in this short piece when the dancers leave the stage for Sibelius to regain his composure, but when they return with shaking heads and hands and Akrill’s drunken, swaggering gait, the dancing once again puts an arm around Sibelius and leads him to the bar. Akrill’s extraordinary jeté with his supporting foot suspended in Broom’s hands is a climax of Ek’s daring and outrageously imaginative choreography.

Introductions finally over, this was the keynote moment, like Turner’s daub of red lead, that illuminates everything that has gone before, as if we have been watching the slow growth of a pale stem that suddenly opens in a glorious, pleated apricot and turquoise bloom and the vein of humour coursing through the evening finally bursts out in Ek’s broad, uplifting, joyous laugh. It is brilliant programming, and if the triumph of the evening’s dancing belongs to the company’s founders, Akrill and Broom, it could not have happened without the supporting role of Sveaas. All three (finally) take a (proper) bow and receive a well-deserved ovation.