Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Elixir Extracts Festival at Sadler’s Wells

Elixir Extracts Festival, Lilian Baylis Theatre, June 14-16

Elixir Extracts Festival
Company of Elders in Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Billed five years ago as a lifelong celebration of creativity, Elixir Festival focused on mature dancers, both professional and amateur, to counter the notion of ageism in a predominantly youthful dance culture. The format consisted of a mainstage mixed bill with professional and ex-professional dancers like Mats Ek, Ana Laguna, Dominic Mercy, as well as members of the original London Contemporary Dance Company, while the smaller Lilian Baylis theatre hosted two days of performances by amateur groups. The mix was inspiring if uneven — professionals who have danced for over 40 years at the summit of their field have a mastery of dance language that amateurs, however dedicated, rarely can. Two years later the next incarnation of Elixir followed the original format but the balance had changed; the mainstage show failed to duplicate the excellence of the first iteration while some of the ‘extracts’ next door were markedly more interesting choreographically and expressively. Despite Sadler’s Wells being a signatory to a European co-operation project that addresses ageism in dance (Dance On, Pass On, Dream On, or DOPODO), this year’s Elixir Extracts Festival — even the name suggests something is missing — retreats so far from its original idea that the distinction between professional and amateur has disappeared altogether and ageism in the dance profession has dropped off the radar; Elixir has become a yellow pages of over-sixties community dance in the UK. 

The quality of works on the program tends to suffer not so much from any low ability among the dancers but of choreography that fails to challenge their age. The one exception on Saturday was Dance Six-O’s performance of Liz Agiss’s Head In My Bag which, in Agiss’s inimitable language, ‘dumps age centre stage and kicks preconceptions into the long grass.’ Because Agiss is herself a performer of a certain age (though she has not been invited to previous Elixir festivals) she knows how to lift performance to a level that goes well beyond the demonstration of community and health benefits; she has an artistic vision that has no truck with the limitations of age. Her performers, with handbags on their heads, become a radical army of spirited individuals calling for the overturn of institutional myopia. 

Sunday’s program kicks back with a little more force, particularly from the Merseyside Dance Initiative’s Men! Dancing! performing Shoulder to Shoulder choreographed by MDI’s Jennifer Hale, and the PC*DC’s infectious finale, Your Invisible Balls Please. In the former, six men distil tension, aggression and resistance into a convincing choreographic form of mutual support, while the latter is a riotous refusal to go quietly led by the irrepressible Donald Hutera. It’s an apt message on which to close Elixir Extracts: in opting for the social value of older amateur dance over the artistic significance of mature dance, Sadler’s Wells is not so much challenging ageism in dance as avoiding the issue altogether.

In contrast to the two programs of extracts that are limited to around ten minutes each, Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship elderly amateur group, Company of Elders, celebrates 30 years of activity with a full-length evening of dance. With ages ranging from 60 to 90, the company can hardly be accused of ageism, but while its longevity supports the argument for older amateur dance, the range of its members’ abilities requires an approach to choreography that resolves the inherent limitations of its repertoire.

Alesandra Seutin’s Dare I Speak bypasses this potential by proposing the final speech and subsequent disappearance of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, as subject. In wrapping the company in a narrative that is beyond the embodied experience of its performers, Seutin turns gestures of menace and violence into expressions of half-hearted complicity. The context of African dances emphasizes the ability of Monica Tuck but while this is a benefit for the audience it does little to carry the momentous events Seutin proposes; it’s a fine subject on the wrong company.

Clara Andermatt’s Natural 2019 approaches the company from within. It’s a reconstruction of a work Andermatt created on Company of Elders in 2005; fourteen years later seven members are still involved. It is ‘natural’ in the way it presents each person and transforms their experiences into dance theatre but while its confessional nature suits the company, the disparate abilities of its members limit the development of its choreographic form. If the artistic potential of the company is to develop in line with its flagship, repertoire status, ageism may prove to have a time limit. 


KnowBody, Elixir Festival 2014

Posted: September 22nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on KnowBody, Elixir Festival 2014

KnowBody, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, September 12

Mats Ek and Ana Laguna in Memory (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Mats Ek and Ana Laguna in Memory (photo: Stephanie Berger)

The image on the front of the program (above) is of Mats Ek and his wife Ana Laguna in a duet called Memory. It is a fitting image, not only because Ek and Laguna in that fleeting moment express all the joy and sensuality of their lived experience, but almost the entire evening — the opening salvo of Sadler’s Wells Elixir Festival — is about memory, the kind of memory that dancers call body, or muscle memory. Dancers don’t simply learn steps like facts to repeat them on stage; they embody them on both a physical and emotional level through the mechanism of repetition and the stimulus is often, but not always, music. The body and mind of a dancer thus constitute a treasury of memories that can, as the Elixir Festival proved convincingly, offer up their remarkable wealth or even be coaxed out of a state of voluntary hibernation.

Matteo Fargion and Jonathan Burrows do just that in The Elders Project, weaving remembered movement phrases of a select group of retired dancers into a droll, intelligent, touching collage of their dancing lives. Kenneth Tharp, Geraldine Morris, Linda Gibbs, Brian Bertscher, Anne Donnelly, Christopher Bannerman, Lizie Saunderson, Betsy Gregory and Namron provide a unique glimpse into what once was, but more interestingly, what still is and could be again. There is a palpable emotional response from the audience who are either reliving past memories or are simply drawn into the delightful euphoria of the work, or both.

Mats Ek is one of the early champions of mining the expressive quality of mature dancers, and with his extensive experience in theatre and dance he has developed a mastery for choreographing theatre. His first duet with Laguna, Potato, is a reminder that a simple idea — sharing a bag of potatoes — can be heightened into something universal by the corresponding depth of experience of the dancers performing it. Ek’s work is not overly concerned with technique, but more with ‘a lyrical approach which conveys through movement the underlying emotions and feelings rather than just the narrative detail.’ His pared-down and often idiosyncratic vocabulary draws in the spectator through its unpretentious, ludic sense of reality.

To watch Dominique Mercy in the solo, That Paper Boy, created on him by Pascal Merighi is to be transported to a state of physical and emotional weightlessness, nowhere more so than in the section he dances to the Reckoning Song by Asaf Avidan (‘one day baby we’ll be old, think about all the stories that we could have told…’). With fourty years of performing with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, he can elicit the same kind of attention whether he stands still (as he does at the beginning), dances, recites an existential text on silence and death, or scans himself with a neon light. As with Ek and Laguna, his every stance or gesture, however small or transitory, is filled with both genial abandon and infallible conviction; his physical and emotional intelligence leaves no room for half measures.

In an evening that celebrates the value of maturity, Hofesh Shechter chooses to restage part of an existing work, In Your Rooms, by replacing younger dancers with older ones (Sadler’s Wells own Company of Elders). According to the program notes, this is an adaptation ‘to suit the bodies and life stories of this older group of dancers’ but in the overpowering music and claustrophobic choreography there is more a sense of oppression than setting free. Perhaps that is what Shechter wants, but it sets his choreographic vision above the potential of his dancers.

Jane Hackett, the creative producer and guiding spirit behind the Elixir Festival, invited the Chilean company, Generación del Ayer, to perform at the Elixir Festival after seeing them in their hometown of Santiago. Unique on this evening’s roster, this is an artist’s collective founded in 1996 specifically to allow professional dancers to continue their artistic life cycle beyond what is culturally accepted. Lo Que Me Dio El Agua (what the water tells me) is choreographed by Sonia Uribe as a tribute to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and is inspired by her painting Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas). Both Uribe and Carmen Aros perform with a passion and pride commensurate with their inspiration, but the ritual stylization of the work sets it apart from the predominantly European aesthetic in which it is presented.

The evening finishes with another duet, Memory, from Ek and Laguna that reminds us yet again of the huge gap that exists in current dance repertoire where youthful athleticism trumps the art of age. Ek and Laguna dispel this myth with a poignant refusal to take leave, a gentle kicking against the dying of the light that is candid, playful and yes, timeless.