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.


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.