Probe: Running on Empty II

Posted: February 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Probe: Running on Empty II

Probe Project, Running on Empty, Soho Theatre, February 5


Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke

The good news is that Running on Empty is now running on full. In its second major iteration it has become what it first set out to be, a study in a relationship running on emotional and physical empty (with the gauge trending towards dreams and the hereafter). The narrative elements that sidelined this focus in its first outing have given way to a more abstract core that is expressed uniquely through dance. Both Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke have honed their partnership to its raw essentials and it is riveting to watch, especially in the intimate space at Soho Theatre. They push their performances to the limits both in their respective solos and in their duets, and the reward is a partnership that is as alive as it is ruthlessly honest. Grove’s voice finds its form in the opening song, setting the poignant tone of the work, and after all her exertions at the very end her voice emerges from the depths of her breathless being as if rising again from the dead. Fabrice Serafino has pared down the set and improved the balance of colours in the costumes, while Beky Stoddart has sculpted the lighting beautifully around the two performers. Scott Smith is still a kind of doleful, one-man chorus but has a reduced role as counselor to Grove and can devote himself to what he does best: playing the musical score on guitar, clarinet, thumb harp and a range of electronic instruments. When all the elements of a production fall into their rightful place there is a sense of truth that pervades the work, and that sense of truth reinforces the directional line around which the performers can give their all. Twelve performances to go.


Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Strange Blooms & Configurations

Posted: December 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Strange Blooms & Configurations

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Strange Blooms & Configurations, Queen Elizabeth Hall, December 3

Noora Kela in Strange Blooms (photo: Chris Nash)

Noora Kela in Strange Blooms (photo: Chris Nash)

This review was commissioned by Pulse Magazine and first appeared online at It was subsequently published in the Winter issue of the magazine. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor. 

It is no coincidence that Shobana Jeyasingh chose the biology of plants to underpin the twenty-fifth anniversary of her choreographic debut and the birth of her company. The program at Queen Elizabeth Hall included her first work, Configurations, as well as the world première of Strange Blooms. If the latter is the flowering of her artistic development, her bold collaboration with Michael Nyman in 1988 that became Configurations illustrates the clarity of the process by which she achieved it. Dylan Thomas used the metaphor of a ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, and there is a very real sense in both works of Jeyasingh’s rich, fertile imagination driving the creative process towards fulfillment. Her initial use of the traditional bharatanatyam dance form has broadened – she spoke candidly in the question and answer session following the performance about feeling ‘over-defined at the beginning by race and culture’ – but she remains focused on generating meaning in dance without recourse to stories. Her materials are space, time and the bodies of her dancers; her process is one of consummate design.

The members of the Benyounes Quartet sit patiently in the shadows before the start of Configurations. They will be playing Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 which itself is based on a rhythmic score in six sections that Jeyasingh had prepared as a brief for the composer. Such close artistic collaboration is key to the unity of purpose in each work. Lucy Carter’s lighting design projects a series of rectangles on to the floor that change pattern in rhythm with the music and create pathways for the four arching, spiraling dancers whose steps are so precisely choreographed to the music that they are as much human instruments as they are indefatigable interpreters. Two years ago Jeyasingh reworked the choreography. ‘I wanted to say the same thing but find a simpler way to say it.’ It is this economy of means and her painterly use of space that give the music such a rich visual quality that is further enhanced by Ursula Bombshell’s costumes in reds and orange. The dancers never falter as they carry the lyrical forms, beauty, patterns and colour – even a moment of deadpan humour – through to the work’s conclusion.

A similar organic line is at work in Strange Blooms, not only as the basis of its design but in the subject matter itself. It is organized in four sections based on different aspects of plant biology: the first on the way tendrils curl and swirl in their frenzied search for support; the second on the algorithms of branching; the third on cellular instabilities within plants that help them to move, and the fourth about hybridity or cross breeding. From the very first moment these eight strange blooms unfold before our eyes as if we are looking through a microscope or at a time-lapse film, with Guy Hoare’s patterns of light reminiscent of Rothko in fauve colours suffusing the choreographic development. Graphic projections are not easy to get right in a dance context, but Jan Urbanowski’s laser-like etchings of plant forms play beautifully on the dancers’ bodies while Fabrice Serafino’s costumes subtly harmonise gender and reveal the dance. One can still see the low plié of bharatanatyam but the dance vocabulary belongs more with the urgency of natural forms than with any particular style.

If Strange Blooms reveals the hidden life of plants, Gabriel Prokofiev’s score simulates the process in music. By dissecting a recording by Jane Chapman of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord piece, Chaconne la Complaignante, Prokofiev lays bare its mysterious internal processes before putting it all back together again in pristine form. Like the design of Strange Blooms, it is a remarkable journey that reminds us of the richness hidden in the depths of life. As Jeyasingh says, ‘Choreography is a way of revealing what is already there.’

Probe Project: Running on Empty

Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Probe Project: Running on Empty

Probe Project, Running on Empty, The Place, November 5

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)

Greig Cooke and Antonia Grove in Running on Empty (photo: Matthew Andrews)


The printed program doesn’t give much away about the nature of the piece, but it’s immediately apparent that Running on Empty has a full tank of collaborators: apart from the three performers (Antonia Grove, Scott Smith and Greig Cooke) there is a director (Jo McInnes), writer (Brad Birch), choreographer (Charlie Morrissey), songwriter (Lee Ross), composer (Smith), set and costume designer (Fabrice Serafino) and lighting designer (Beky Stoddart) — an array of creative inputs that begs the question of who exactly has a handle on the direction. The marketing material features an enigmatic image of Cooke and Grove running together across a landscape as if escaping from a party: intense, focused, out of breath. That snapshot is replaced on stage by another indeterminate place but without a specific flight path. The set suggests a no man’s land where paths meet, an intriguing dreamland with a detrital heap of old furniture on one side with a tree of lights behind and a low wall delineating the unknown beyond. The set and lighting together create a sense of expectation as Smith takes his place behind a keyboard amongst the furniture as if sitting at a bar. He plays some doleful minor chords on the guitar as a prelude to a song remembering a relationship that Grove sings in a voice that is out on a husky limb, aching and velvety especially in its higher register: “Are we too close or too far apart?” with a bluesy harmonica accompaniment from Smith.

Cooke can just be made out lounging on the wall at the back, listening to Grove’s words: “I’d dive into the abyss if I thought I’d save your life”, she continues, glancing at Smith. Cooke stands, his hands and face caught in the narrow pane of light, and responds in dance, swishing and swirling in an intense solo in which he manifests his force and self-doubt in equal measure. Grove looks over at him for the first time. Smith, who plays both confidant and analyst to Grove, asks her: “What do you remember?” She shines a light underneath her chin, then at something unknown beyond her. Death? “What colour are its eyes?” asks Cooke. Grove is bathed in a subtle, fragile light, her arms raised and slightly behind her as if she had just been shot, and launches into a solo that is based on that arching back, wild and abandoned. With tenderness in his eyes Cooke comes to her rescue. “What are you doing?” “Bang, bang, arms, fuck,” is what I hear. The diction is rather muffled, perhaps a function of the portable mikes. “I’m building a boat,” she adds, kneeling, “to get you out of here. Just trying to build you a boat.” Evidently the running idea has been subsumed by metaphors of the sea, of boats and rafts.

The sound of breakers colours the clashing duet that follows, both Groves and Cooke forcing their limits (running towards empty) yet never touching; blowing each other away, shouting and screaming over the sound of sea. Smith pulls out a wooden pallet that serves as a raft on to which Groves and Cooke clamber. They look at each other. Is it over? Cooke leans out over the edge of the raft, hanging from Grove; she pulls him in; he takes her head as they fit into each other’s forms, but are they strangling or comforting? The Stevie Smith poem comes to mind,

‘…I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’

The danger games persist. Who will fall off first? They kneel on the front of the raft and step with their hands and knees into the water. Smith reels in the raft, casting them away on the beach. Cooke and Grove embrace roughly then he chases her round the island, catching her, lifting and releasing her in a fury of entanglement and abandon. The sound of a storm whips up the action until it finally abates in an attempt at reconciliation: “Please forgive me” and “Where are we going?” but it’s impossible for Cooke to brake and he ends up — as I noted detachedly in my notebook — ripping her head off. It happens quickly, and its violence is unexpected. Grove crawls away; Smith brings her a glass of water and returns with the raft, dropping it with a bang as if offering a means of exit. “It’s not your fault,” he says, adding something about chance. She is in no mood for philosophical argument, so Smith goes back to his microphone and begins a song about an otter and a trout. It begins in surreal fashion with a pinwheel blast on his mechanical whistle, and prompts a series of surreal crustacean images: Cooke conjures up a lobster on its back as he crawls upside down towards Grove who scuttles in sympathy, or perhaps in fear. He crawls on to the raft, blowing out his cheeks like a conch shell, eyes popping, sounding like an angry elephant. Their duet develops into a tour de force of fragments of dialogue and screeching  fitting into behavioural tics: snorting, itching, scratching, spitting, leaping, At the end, Smith as analyst or agony uncle, brings Grove a beer: “You’re having problems.” She denies it. “Maybe that’s your first problem.” She counters: “Do you understand what it is to be me?” He mimics her itching, tentacle-like fingers that he then extrudes into the shape of a gun, the trigger caught in the light. Cooke is back on the sea wall. There’s text about illness and disease, the problems and insecurities of old age — all highly relevant but I’m not sure how it fits in here. “Will I recover, is it too late?” asks Grove. Smith smiles. It’s clearly too late for rhetorical questions. He rubs his hands and pushes away the microphone with his hip.

Grove and Cooke in smiling mood embrace and explore each other. After they have been through so much, the question arises of where this is going. The mood is playful, producing a natural, infectious laugh from Grove before she appears to confront her present. “Do you drink?” asks Cooke, followed by a question about dreams. “This is where my dreams are set,” she responds. Her final words to Cooke are, “Can you do me a favour? Stay away from the cliffs.” It is the first time the cliffs are mentioned, the landscape described beyond the rear wall, and in this place above the sea she starts to dance, scooping, twisting and turning to Smith’s guitar accompaniment that is somewhere between flamenco and hillbilly banjo. She throws herself into her moves, repeating phrases with a mix of courage, abandon and hopelessness and finishes by running around the stage, running out of steam. She prompts Smith into a last song (which repeats the melody of the opening song), dragging the microphone to centre stage, pouring all her emotional exhaustion into the lyrics: “So slowly now you bow into eternity… How long can you keep running?” with that gutsy, velvety voice running full on empty.

At the close, we are left elevated by the visual and aural imagery but there’s a disconcerting sense of gaps in the narrative cohesion. We learn later that Cooke has fallen off the cliffs to his death, but this loss fails to register. Does it matter? Death offstage seems a uniquely theatrical concept that dance can’t do by itself, which leads me to think that the narrative and the dance in Running on Empty are like oil and water; they are not blending. Grove suggests in the program that the work moves ‘from the dark and surreal world of dreams to the intricate and sometimes absurd nature of our daily human interactions.’ This is something that dance can do really well, and Grove is particularly adept at drawing the drama out of dance. Perhaps Running on Empty simply suffers from too many creative inputs; dreams inevitably have a consistency because all their fragmented elements can be traced back to the individual psyche. Running on Empty needs to forge a unity of its own creative psyche before its dream will ring true.


Company Chameleon: Gameshow

Posted: November 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Company Chameleon: Gameshow

Company Chameleon: Gameshow, Nuffield Theatre, University of Lancashire, November 1


photo: Brian Slater

I saw Company Chameleon at the 2010 BDE in their first work, Rites, which dealt with the relationship of father to son and attitudes toward manhood and growing up. Two years later the duo of Anthony Missen and Kevin Edward Turner is again dealing with social development but from an external perspective. Gameshow is about the insidious values of advertising and mass media — particularly television. In the program note, Missen and Turner write that ‘since the early part of the 20th century, ad men have been selling the public false dreams, lifestyles to aspire to so that we always want the next thing. In creating Gameshow we wanted to parody this, to look below the surface of the commercial world and interrogate the substance of the lifestyles we are being sold. Alongside this runs the deconstruction of the cult of celebrity, a phenomenon driving aspirational lifestyles to a new level.’ Rites was very much a stage work, but Gameshow belongs as much in the television studio: while maintaining their distinctive form of dance theatre, Missen and Turner have collaborated with video artist Mat Johns to produce advertising and hidden camera clips that ratchet up the scope and efficacy of their work considerably. This is the first script Missen and Turner have written, and they have further broadened their collaborative approach by working with dramaturg Andrew Loretto, set designer Signe Beckmann and composer Dieter Kovacic (aka dieb 13) along with old friends Adam Carree (lighting designer/production manager) and Fabrice Serafino (costume designer).

Gameshow’s narrative follows the fate of a game show host, J.O.Z. (Turner in a blonde wig, white jacket and trousers, red shirt and bare feet), whose brash over-confidence diminishes in direct proportion to the increase in tenacity of a wily contestant (Missen). Turner’s opening number is a tongue wagging, hip-undulating, over-the-top dance that exaggerates — but only just — all the piped sex appeal of a game show host looking to assert his personality over the contestant and audience — especially (in this case) the girls. Turner drums up applause as he leaves the stage and basks in the adulation. Once he has left, Missen in tee shirt and jeans rolls on from behind a desk. Not at all used to the spotlight, his movements suggest discomfort, but he has the fire of someone who wants to make his dream come true. His opening dance includes a section in which he seems to cycle on his side across the floor, suggesting a willingness to advance despite the friction.

Gameshow is pure spoof, but embedded in the narrative is a commentary on the role of television advertising in which parody gives way to satire. In the game show’s first commercial break we see (projected on a screen on the back wall) an ad for Solvaproblemol, a dissolvable tablet for relieving symptoms of stress and anxiety. A white-coated doctor (Turner) talks in a snake-oil-salesman’s way about a new product to counter suicidal tendencies. He approaches a figure seated on a bench, pats his shoulder patronizingly and introduces him as a patient who can testify to the product’s efficacy. Instead the patient puts a gun to his throat and as the camera cuts to Turner’s face, we hear the shot, and see Turner’s face spattered in blood. Without missing a beat, the smiling Turner introduces the product that we see behind him in a field, about the size of a giant tractor wheel, as pristine as an Alka Seltzer.

Back in the studio, J.O.Z. is making his contestant jump through hoops (literally) to demean him in front of the audience, and to make himself look good. J.O.Z. exudes contempt by beating Missen with a plastic kosh, and putting a bucket over his head. Just as the treatment begins to remind us of images from Abu Ghraib, the next commercial for a video game corroborates it: two of the contestants resemble Bin Laden and Bush and another two resemble a hoodie and Raptero Cameron. In the video clip the underdog wins. This signals a turning point in the game.

For the next round, Turner asks one of the girls in the audience to pick out a piece of paper from a hat. The rule of this round is that Missen has to rap to whatever subject is on the paper. The girl draws The Lord’s Prayer. Turner is complacent, Missen is in a panic, but he does it and passes to the next round. Through his earpiece, Turner gets a call from his boss who is angry at his mismanagement of the show, and we understand that unless Turner can cause Missen’s downfall, his job and all that it represents is on the line. As the dejected Turner walks out of the studio, we see a slick clip of him as a macho sex symbol whom no beautiful woman can resist. It is in fact an advertisement for a perfume, Messiah, that J.O.Z. is promoting. Turner’s state of mind in the clip is in stark contrast to his state of mind when he arrives home to his wife, who is…Missen in fetching dressing gown and slippers. She goes to comfort her husband but he is in no mood to be comforted; he makes a weak attempt to show some warmth, but can’t bring himself to follow through. The sequence of this domestic dysfunction — made all the more dysfunctional by Missen’s drag — lasts an uncomfortably long time, but the discomfort is a metaphor for the disconnect between the onscreen image and its reality. Jimmy Savile’s story and the BBC’s reaction to his behavior is a recent example.

Turner makes his way back to the studio dreading the final stages of the game. He arrives like a zombie, but when the lights go up his grimace warps back into a smile; the studio is his world. In this final round, Missen has been given the task of making seven people in the street hug him and say they love him. The filming by hidden cameras is beautifully realized, as we see Missen carrying two shopping bags falling repeatedly on a busy pavement at the foot of a succession of unwary individuals in an attempt to gain their sympathy. He does it brilliantly, and once he has gained their attention, he explains his task and asks them for a hug and for each to say I love you. Some don’t want to know, others don’t have a problem. It’s very touching and very funny. Missen gets his seven people and passes this test. Back in the studio, Turner says to his audience ‘Let’s welcome him back’, but doesn’t mean it. He is determined to block Missen’s success and sits him down to a game of three riddles, like Turandot without the opera house: the third riddle is ‘What does God never see, a King sees only once and you see all the time?’ delivered with due condescension. Missen eventually gets it: an equal.

Turner is finished, washed up. He gets home, takes off his wig and jacket, brings out a large fish platter of powder and sniffs a few lines. In his vengeful imagination he engages Missen in a combative dance, which turns to violence, but Missen starts to beat the ever-smiling Turner at his own game, until he leaves him defeated on the floor in a pool of light needing desperately a dose of Solvaproblemol that he had so cavalierly endorsed.

One of the qualities I remember from Rites is the physical prowess of both Missen and Turner, not only in their individual dance sequences but in the closeness with which they worked together. In Gameshow, dance is used to great effect in the expression of the contrasting characters of host and contestant, but the dance sequences are not as central to moving along the story as the text and film. Both Missen and Turner put in excellent performances in their respective film roles.

The soundtrack by Dieter Kovacic is everything one would expect from a composer who has worked continuously since the late 80s ‘rendering cassette players, vinyl, cds and hard disks into instruments’ and it links each segment of the show effectively and sensitively with both a lovely sense of humour and pathos.

Because the setting of Gameshow straddles both theatre and television, getting the right balance of stage environment is a challenge. Television has slick production values, leaving little to the imagination, while the stage is more ‘handmade’ and leaves much to the imagination. The camera can also screen out unwanted elements in the studio, whereas in the theatre what you see is what you get. What you see in Gameshow is a set designed to accommodate both a television studio and the kitchen table in J.O.Z.’s home, which stretches credibility a little too far. But if the production values of television and theatre have not found a way to coexist seamlessly in Gameshow, the title of Company Chameleon’s new work, Pictures We Make – scheduled to open on February 14 at The Lowry – suggests the research continues.