Ian Abbott on The Choices And Decisions of 2020

Posted: January 8th, 2021 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review, Dance on Screen | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on The Choices And Decisions of 2020

Ian Abbott on The Choices and Decisions of 2020

Here lies a reflection of moments, encounters and performances that have settled in my 2020 memory bank. In a year where power entities, structures and artists have been disrupted, there are those who’ve ostriched (insisting that theatrical normality will eventually resume), those who’ve octopused (adopting new thinking and adapted to the world as it shifts) and those who’ve been paralysed by the economic and/or emotional matters outside their control.

The choreographic world has fragmented while the audience offer has exploded; where before there was broadly speaking a mix of stage works, outdoor works and screen dance, artists are now finding audiences in between these worlds, taking their ideas and seeding them in the cracks of Zoom, WhatsApp, Spotify and other format spaces to see what will emerge in the future.

Theatres as buildings and festivals as spaces in which to gather are currently no longer a cultural magnet; their siren calls and community relevance have weakened as they can no longer pull people towards them as they have done for centuries. The theatre and its local geographic audience model is reminiscent of the monopoly of the terrestrial broadcasters of BBC, ITV and Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s before the emergence of Channel 5, Freeview, the Internet and streaming services. Most of the power, resources and ability to generate noise came from a select few places and we were limited in the choice of where and what we could watch; this preservation of power could anoint artists who would stay close to the centre, being reeled out time and again without creating space for alternative voices. 2020 has put a fissure through this Hobson’s choice.

I no longer need to travel hours on public transport to see works, while my palette of possibilities has widened; if I am no longer satisfied by the curational choices of The Lowry or Chapter Arts Centre then the technological platforms of 2020 have allowed me to see works presented by independent artists from Kenya and Canada, Seoul International Dance Festival, Carriageworks in Australia and dozens of others. With this increase in choice vying for my attention, decisions made by theatres, festivals and organisations are more critical; when those previous precious slots in the calendar and the financial resources that accompanied them have been suspended, what are they choosing in their place, how and why? Every choice is political, because being apolitical is a privilege afforded only to those with power. 

The majority of work written about here has been absorbed into screen, speaker or something in between. However, there were two live, pre-lockdown works in early 2020 that I want to mention; Fabulous Animal by Zosia Jo, presented in March on International Women’s Day at Cardiff MADE, and Coletiva Ocupação’s When It Breaks, It Burns presented at Battersea Arts Centre in February.

Reflecting on Jo’s Fabulous Animal is framed by her decision in August to give up the brutal, time-consuming, often futile treadmill of funding applications, challenging herself to go for a minimum of one year without writing another supplication for funding, projects or commissions. 

Zosia Jo
Fabulous Animal
Choices 
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Zosia Jo in Fabulous Animal

Jo describes Fabulous Animal as ‘…a research project, a method and an attitude. It is a feminist approach to dance and movement and a performative project aimed at re-wilding the body and shedding imposed gendered movement habits.’ 

Set in the corridor gallery of Cardiff MADE crammed with around 20 audience members, the exhibition featured a 20-minute solo by Jo alongside photography from Grace Gelder and Mostafa Abdel-Aty, film by Jo and Ruth Jones, design by Ruth Stringer and sound by AcouChristo. This was followed by a post-show conversation about some of the research, feminist texts and approaches behind the work.

What Jo challenges with her research project and performance is what bodies get to tell stories and how they should be presented. Whilst I could offer a choreographic analysis of her improvisatory score, there is little point in describing what her body was doing in the space because the work actively rejects pre-existing notions of bodily technique and beautiful patterned steps; it concerns itself instead with connectivity, rootedness and listening. Connections related to re-wilding, connections through shifting masculine and feminine energies and listening to non-habitual movement patterns on the body. All of this landed with clarity and left a choreographic residue that was deeply satisfying compared to the highly polished, over-produced dance theatre that many venues covet and most artists and companies subscribe to.

There is space for Jo and room for research like Fabulous Animal — work that connects to care and practice that is not necessarily concerned with formal theatrical outputs and pre-existing notions of what is deemed acceptable. By approaching the performance, film, sound, design, and post-show talk, we have a rounded encounter which meets a breadth of practice with an emotional landing; looking back at how few works have achieved this before or since March, Fabulous Animal is a work that continues to resonate.

A work that stays with me for another reason is When It Burns, It Breaks by coletivA ocupação at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) for nine performances in late February. It self-describes as ‘Sixteen young people who were part of the high-school occupation protests in Brazil in 2015 and 2016 fuse dance, music and performance to re-create the revolution and share their story in this rousing show. The action overspills from the stage as the coletivA ocupação performers sweep audience members into the uprising. Prepare to stand, dance and be part of the movement.’

In any act of re-telling and re-presentation, we are already removed from the source, but by choosing to programme this work at this arts centre in this city at this time, BAC is choosing to make its audiences proximate to that experience of high school occupation protests in Brazil from five years ago. Why? Why do they want us to attend this? 

The further I get from this work the more uncomfortable I am with the decision to present it. coletivA ocupação is a company of young people who have created a work about something that is very important to them; it comes from their direct experience and they want as many people to know about the high school occupations as possible.

Without denigrating the performers or the director, Martha Kiss Perrone, I am questioning why BAC has chosen to bring the work from Brazil (with the ensuing ecological and environmental footprint of moving 20 people from South America to UK for a short run) when there have been and are dozens of equally passionate and equally talented groups of young people in Battersea, London, England or the UK that are also engaged politically, socially and emotionally in their communities exploring issues that resonate and have meaning for them. Why are venues and festivals so enamoured with the international cherry? Finding work from international locations to bring to their audiences has a whiff of those historic collecting practices that we continue to decry in the museum sector yet for which we give passes to venues and festivals who continue to do it. 

One reading (which I lean towards) of When It Breaks, It Burns could be: we witness 13 people aged 18-23 diluting and re-performing their anger and experience for the Lavender Hill experimental theatre set. With a BAC framing of nine performances only, come and witness how troubling it must have been for these children and the hundreds of others in Brazil from the privilege of our subsidised London theatre.

With plenty of call and response in the show in their original language (supported by projected English surtitles), the performers attempt to re-kindle their original emotional response, but miss. Instead they offer re-enactments that feel closer to a historical society presentation than to any sense of what it might have been like to be there at that point in history. With some urgency the performers move around and in between the audience, brushing and banging our knees on our tightly packed island of black chairs, before herding us around into smaller groups where they exchange some tiny personal details about themselves before running off.

The work is thin, dramaturgically green and feels like a theatrical tourist trap where we’re encouraged to write words like ‘power’ or ‘resist’ on their crayon-stained banner alongside the waxy echoes of previous audiences; our ending consists of being marched outside, gathered next to the BAC bar to engage in some lukewarm, communally awkward shouting about how we should occupy spaces and build a revolution. It’s bad taste presentational politics. If BAC wanted to build a revolution in their community or change perceptions about young people, why did they spend their resources on this? Is it some form of programmer flexing? They’re already doing many useful things like making all of their performances relaxed, ensuring all performances from Spring 2021 are pay-what-you-decide and for many years have supported BAC Beatbox Academy who’ve created the brilliant Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster, but the framing of When It Breaks, It Burns felt incredibly uncomfortable in many different ways.

Bhairava
Choices
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A still from Bhairava (photo: Kes Tagney)

Moving on from the live into the screen worlds, there has been a flood of artists taking their first steps into screendance as well as festivals looking for existing content to platform. In August, The Joyce Theatre in New York screened Bhairava, a film directed and produced by Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer (Mouvement Perpétuel) with cinematography by Kes Tagney and featuring dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa.

Filmed in 2017 and released later that year, Bhairava ‘…evokes facets of Shiva, the Lord of Dance, as both the destroyer of evil and the guardian of time. He is fierce and drives terrible deeds, but he is also the Divine Protector and Supreme Guardian; his intention springs from pure compassion. In this work, carried by a strong and deeply evocative musical score and by the singular energy of the ancient site of Hampi, dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa embodies the presence and distinctive qualities of Bhairava.’

The film is dazzling in how it frames and balances the solo dancing body with vast landscapes; Shivalingappa is a fine performer who is able to hold focus and not let our eyes wander. In many screendance works the landscape overshadows and unbalances both the performer and choreography but Millar and Szporer allow the nuance, focus and detail of Shivalingappa’s kuchipudi technique to be equal to the majesty of the locations in Hampi and Anegundi. 

At a shade under 14 minutes there are multiple unconventional positionings and framings of the body; we see, for example, how the choreographic body plays with and responds to the source of light with slow pans and zooms. The rhythm of the film and prevalence of cuts is gentle and lets our eyes dwell long enough to explore each scene without it becoming predictable.

Live Action Relay, a work premiered and presented by Carriageworks in Sydney in October 2020, saw Sydney-based choreographer and film maker Sue Healey attempt to break new ground in the live-dance-film space. According to the publicity, ‘Drawing from our current moment of social isolation, Live Action Relay reimagines the role of technology in bringing us together across distance: a portrait of individuals in isolated spaces, connected by the orbiting eye of the drone camera and instantly shared in real time. It is immediate and raw, revealing split-second, real-time decision-making between drone pilot, director, musician and dancers, in an immediate and heart-racing spectacle.’

What Healey was attempting alongside performers Raghav Handa, Billy Keohavong, Allie Graham, musician Ben Walsh and drone cinematographer/director of photography Ken Butti was an ambitious, live, 20-minute choreodrone broadcast presented across an epic Australian rocky coastal landscape…and technically they pulled it off. 

With the dancers draping themselves in, on and around the rocks, climbing to high spots, to be ready for the next shot was a technical feat. All the components were present: Visit Australia landscape. Check. Dancers and musician. Check. Drone. Check. Shot list. Check. However, because something can be done, it doesn’t always mean that it should be, and at what point do we consider the audience?

Whilst we can forgive the technical messiness of live vision mixing (seeing steadicam operators or dancers running in the background of live shots getting ready for their next scene), Live Action Relay suffered from both an imbalance of scale and in how the scenes were edited and pasted together: pulling back and panning to see a 4-mile turquoise seascape shot from a longing drone in smooth HD for 10 seconds before being dumped back to the steadicam of Walsh dragging a microphone across stones to generate an experimental soundscape is jarring…and not in an interesting way.

For an artist like Healey, who has such a long practice with screens, it is surprising to see so many areas that were not tended to. Live Action Relay felt like it was in draft form and would have benefited from further refinement and focus on the purpose of the pursuit. Whilst I applaud the technical ambition and encourage the pursuit of dance in alternate fields, Live Action Relay was overwhelmed by the majesty of the site, whilst the constant overhead drone shot diminishes in impact after the first five uses; we get used to it very quickly and our attention diminishes in equal measure. 

A final note on works made in landscape is Insular Bodies, a new film from Stephanie Thiersch with Hajo Schomerus as director of photography. Co-produced and presented by Seoul International Dance Festival in November, it was filmed in the Ionian Sea and runs at 23 minutes.

Insular Bodies
Choices
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A still from Insular Bodies (photo: Hajo Schomerus)

Insular Bodies ‘…plays with materialities. What happens when we horizontalize human and biological, flesh and stone, wind, water and hair? Insular Bodies draws our attention to the wacky entanglements between the human and the non-human, the living and the non-living, and develops poetic images of an ecology that does not show hierarchies but rather approaches utopian scenarios of consonance.’ 

Insular Bodies is a mix of photographer Spencer Tunick’s mass naked photographic portraits with Willi Dorner’s Bodies In Urban Space presented on rocky uninhabited islands near Corfu. Eight slow, meandering, tentacled bodies climb, cling to rocks, existing in and out of the sea; moving, not moving their sea bodies, re-emerging as if they’ve been in a naked colour run after floating in the sea. 

There is a danger that Insular Bodies could be perceived as a cerebral indulgence, but the rhythm of the work was soft, fluid and on this particular day I was ready to receive those type of signals and I was held delicately by its wash.

One of the things missing from a lot of screen work is any sort of duration; the longest of the previous works was 23 minutes and a lot of the other works referenced in my previous lockdown responses have been significantly under this marker as well, leaving little time for subtlety, narrative development or a space to invite an audience to sink into it.

Back in the UK, there were a number of male-authored Hip Hop works made for screens and/or ported to the stage across the year.

One% by O’Driscoll Collective was a simple recording of an outdoor work broadcast back in June (after being commissioned by Dance Hub Birmingham for Birmingham Weekender in 2019) as part of the Midsummer Festival in Birmingham. 

One% is ‘a 14-minute dance performance featuring the dynamic rawness of breakin’. It explores how two characters move in different emotional states and how the form of B-boying/Breakin’ shifts accordingly and cultivates a synergy. One% is a sequel of Jamaal O’Driscoll’s solo piece Simplicity focusing on the significance of the need for mental health awareness. Both Simplicity and One% use this poignant topic to convey a message of emotion, intensity and despair found within mental health through movement and music.’

Performed as a duet with B-Boy Marius Mates (both O’Driscoll and Mates are part of the collective Mad Dope Kru) One% is a fine collection of strength, foot work, power moves and intentional collapse. O’Driscoll presents some snappy floor-based footwork whilst Mates has the cleaner power and sharper freezes; together they often hit and complete their moves (both duet and solo) before collapsing crumpled on the floor. There’s a slight emotional tide drifting in and out and whilst it is quite repetitive in terms of ‘I present a strength and then collapse’ there is definitely room for more development (in length) and complexity (in what it’s asking of the audience). Because of the floor work sequences, I’m unsure how successful it would be for outdoor audiences who are not on the front couple of rows; it might be better suited to an indoor theatrical presentation. The soundtrack felt like it was recorded from the mic so you hear a LOT of wind rushing into the microphone which breaks any emotional intensity that might be built through the relationship of Mates and O’Driscoll. One% is a neat work that adds to the growing library of masculinity and mental health in Hip Hop dance theatre. 

An absolute highlight of Hip Hop dance this year came from an East London Dance (ELD) produced collaboration with the BBC Singers as part of the BBC Radio 3 concert series in November. Commissioning choreographer Duwane Taylor to create an eleven-minute krump choreographic response for three performers — Jondette Carpio, Viviana Rocha and himself  — to A Curse Upon Iron by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was a stroke of magic.

A Curse Upon Iron is a choral work described as a shamanistic allegory on the evils of war that simmers with raw power; as a work it builds, threatens, layers, disturbs and burrows under the nervous system. When this sonic landscape is then amplified by the power and emotion of a staccato and rippling trio of krump choreography, the fit seems so perfect I cannot understand why other krump theatre has not been set to classical choral works. Whilst there have been some krump theatre solos, films and sessions that have had some classical music in them (see Les Indes Gallantes, a film by Clement Cogitore featuring choreography from Grichka, Bintou Dembele and Brahim Rachiki), having Carpio, Rocha and Taylor working on and riffing between the different choral lines of musicality is a visual a/synchronous feast. Filmed for broadcast rather than a screendance work within the sparse Milton Court concert hall and conducted by Ben Palmer, this short work shows again what Taylor can and has achieved under the banner of krump theatre — after he disbanded Buckness Personified in August — with a team of exceptional performers, clarity of commissioning intention and the support of a fine producing team.

A problematic lowlight of Hip Hop dance this year was Our Bodies Back, presented by ‘Sadler’s Wells’ Digital Stage and Breakin’ Convention…in collaboration with Jonzi D Projects and BCTV’.

Our Bodies Back (the publicity continues) stages the work of acclaimed American poet and performance artist jessica Care moore in a breath-taking new dance film from Breakin’ Convention Artistic Director and Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Jonzi D. Created during lockdown, this film is choreographed and performed by Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero in Montréal; Bolegue Manuela (b-girl Manuela) in Hanover; and Nafisah Baba in London. Our Bodies Back presents a powerful rendering of Black women’s voices; speaking out against the realities of anti-Black racism, misogynoir and sexual violence, while uplifting and honouring in full the Black lives and memories lost, in a stunning ceremony of dance, spoken word and visual art.’

Now, we know that both Sadler’s Wells (through their associate artists choices) and Breakin’ Convention have a problem with women. They actively choose not to platform them when Breakin’ Convention tours outside London; and as recently as three weeks ago in their live programme called Social DisDancing at Sadler’s Wells they erased the authorial voice of women again.

Social DisDancing presented three live works and two films; one of the film works was Our Bodies Back (directed by Jonzi D), the other was Can’t Kill Us All by Far From The Norm (directed by Ben Williams). The live works were: Untethered 3.0 by Boy Blue Entertainment (directed by Kenrick H20 Sandy and Mikey ‘J’ Asante), One% by O’Driscoll Collective (directed by Jamaal O’Driscoll) and Suspended by A.I.M Collective, an all-female popping crew (formed and brought together by Shawn Aimey in 2018). With five slots how many works were authored by men?

I wrote extensively in the summer about Breakin’ Convention’s choice to systematically erase women here so I won’t go over old ground, but the programming choices made in Social DisDancing conform to a clear behavioural pattern.

What isn’t really foregrounded in the credits and descriptions of Our Bodies Back is the creative and production team, which is worth highlighting as the work is ‘a powerful rendering of Black women’s voices’ so you might assume that Black women’s voices are central to the production of the film. These are the credits: Directed by Jonzi D, Edited by Ben Williams, with Sound Design by Soweto Kinch. So the three roles that are pivotal to how audiences experience the film are not Black women. What about the camera operators? They are: Jonzi D, Kofi Mingo, Pepe Luis Caspers, Sebastian Gronzik, Zach Lakes. No Black women here either.

There was an article about Our Bodies Back in The Guardian written by Lyndsey Winship and this paragraph is worth noting: ‘The three women choreographed their own material, and Jonzi sees the irony that perhaps, in the name of empowerment, a woman should have directed the film, too (he worked with his wife Jane Sekonya John as assistant director), but he tried to ‘use my privilege’ to give a platform to female artists. Jonzi has been instrumental in nurturing and promoting black artists for more than a decade through the annual hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention, but still doesn’t see enough female leaders, ‘the woman being the person with the vision, I want to encourage that more’. 

The quotes “use my privilege” and “the woman being the person with the vision, I want to encourage that more” really stand out here especially in light of what is mentioned above. Why isn’t anyone else talking about how Breakin’ Convention is actively trolling women in Hip Hop? 

What is great about the work is the searing strength of jessica Care moore’s words and her delivery and how those words created a deep emotional response for the dancers who choreographed their own bodies in response to it. However, why did a work about Black women’s bodies have to directed, scored, edited and filmed by men? Why weren’t even one of those roles given to a Black woman?  How can we talk about these choices?

Choices. Choices, choices, choices. Why did Rambert choose to commission Wim Vandekeybus — who made his first work back in 1986 — to make Draw From Within? Rambert’s Artistic Director, Benoit Swan Pouffer, originally commissioned another work for the company’s touring season in 2020 and in light of COVID shifted the commission instead to make a work viewable from home for a three-night run. 

The publicity for Draw From Within describes the project in effusive terms: ‘Take an exhilarating leap into the unknown. Rambert’s full company of dancers are currently in the studio creating their first real-time, live-stream performance with leading choreographer and filmmaker, Wim Vandekeybus. Through the eye of the camera — you’ll land right in the middle of a turbo-charged live performance. Rambert’s London South Bank studios will be transformed into a series of contrasting, vivid theatrical worlds, some dream worlds, some nightmares, some turned upside down…’

Rambert eschewed Vimeo and YouTube to host their performance on their newly launched Rambert Home Studio platform; I originally bought a ticket for the night of September 25 at 8pm, and was given a 16-digit code to access the work. After being kept waiting for 50 minutes with limited informational updates we found out at 8:50pm that the Rambert servers were down and they would not be able to broadcast the live performance that night. We received an email early next morning saying Rambert was going to put on an extra show on the 26th and that all tickets were transferable with the option of a refund. Having logged on to Twitter and Facebook I saw I was one of many deeply frustrated audience members, including an Arts Council England dance relationship manager. 

Throughout the entire pandemic I’ve not felt welcomed by those who have published their work online; this experience with Rambert was the worst case and symptomatic of how little thought artists, venues or organisations publishing and presenting art/performance online are giving to their audiences and community experience. There’s no care, little communication, no design of experience and no consideration about digital front-of-house. Where is the nurturing of that relationship and connection that is so crucial in the exchange between art and audience? Is it because there’s no drinks, merchandise or programmes to upsell? Are we really just walk-in coins? It’s as if in the urgency to present art digitally the notion of ‘valued customer’ has disappeared. And this is before we even begin to consider access and the needs of different audiences; be that the time parents who put their children to bed (why is everything still at 7.30pm or 8pm?), closed captions, audio description, large print programmes, trigger warnings and more. If you’re big enough and rich enough to build your own bespoke platform to present your work then you need to consider the 360-degree experience of how audiences interact with you, rather than rely on an endless shower of retweeted praise to demonstrate what is important to you.

All this was hardly a conducive build-up to see the work, which was heavily trailed as being live — it might have been live for the performers, creative and broadcast team, but there was nothing in the audience experience that indicated it was live or needed to be. If you’re not going to do anything with the audience why not offer it as a film that can be accessed at a time that is convenient? Is it another peacocking instance of doing it because you can?

Draw From Within was billed as moving around the Rambert Coin St HQ, but apart from a 2-minute opening scene on the roof followed by a 5-minute section traversing down the multi levelled steps/fire escape, the rest of the performance took place in a single dance studio that had been dressed and productioned to death to replicate a theatre stage.

Whilst it was heartening to see dancers performing again, what Draw From Within exemplified is that organisations with big commissioning budgets and historical reputations always choose the safe option. A White male choreographer, the dance equivalent of a theatrical banker like Shakespeare. However, there are other ways that this could have been done — see The Living Newspaper at the Royal Court, for example. 

Aesthetically the work is full of tired faux-horror film tropes lifted from Vandekeybus’ formative years — Argento, Hitchcock, Lynch — dropped into episodic 5-8 minute sections (hospital corridor, live TV news reporting, elastic guy ropes attached to walls) that attempt to mask a narrative deficit with high production values and quick camera edits. It’s the choreographic equivalent of the Tory government dead cat distraction strategy: look at these shiny things over here, aren’t they wow? If you stop to think about it, the audience treatment, the choice of who to commission and the resultant work tell you all you need to know about Rambert. This was definitely not a choice for the future and there really wasn’t anything new here (new to Rambert maybe), but this is the fading White male past dressed prettily for the present. If you want to know what the choreography was like, have a look at anything produced by Ultima Vez from the mid-90s onwards.

Alongside my choices to write about these works and highlight the choices made by others, there have been some glorious works that I’ve encountered that are worth celebrating because the care, quality and consideration are wrought right through them. 

Bloom by the queer pole artist A.T., Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy aka Babson (who passed on December 27 and leaves a chasm in the worlds of Hip Hop and house) and Quanimacy by Claire Cunningham. These are the works that I would choose to spend my 2020 with.


Ian Abbott at Greenwich Fair

Posted: July 7th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Greenwich Fair

Greenwich Fair, Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, June 24 and 25

Far From The Norm’s Da Native in front of the statue of General Wolfe (photo: Ian Abbott)

Greenwich Fair is the opening weekend blitz of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (a 15-day celebration of street arts) featuring circus, theatre, games, live art and a suite of new dance works. GDIF has ‘a particular focus on the commissioning and development of outdoor work led by deaf and disabled artists and artists from diverse backgrounds’ and there was new small-scale outdoor work on show from Deaf Men Dancing, Far From The Norm and Avant Garde Dance.

Etta Ermini’s Culinary Duel sees two male dancers in chefs’ whites goofing around in tune with the fading relevance of TV cookery shows. In an under-rehearsed work where legs and limbs collide in contact and lift work, movements are not fully executed and lines are certainly not clean. However, none of this mattered to the 300+ audience who attended the Sunday afternoon because the underused star of the show was a remote controlled cooker which trundled around bumping into the chefs, approaching the audience and flapping its oven door like a hungry mouth. In amongst the frenzied whisking and flinging of Angel Delight there is a hunger for light entertainment, an amusing photo to post on social media and something to hold your attention for 20 minutes; by these standards Culinary Duel delivers in spades. Younger audiences were in raptures, screaming in delight at seeing a domestic appliance transformed into a living, dancing machine that succeeded in upstaging the humans.

On a similarly unpalatable menu, the premiere of Avant Garde Dance’s new outdoor work Table Manners, commissioned by Without Walls, describes itself as ‘a choreographic feast exploring human relationships through our cultural connections with food and dining, with a thought-provoking social subtext.’ The reality is somewhat different: an undercooked and disjointed collection of scenes that reheat tired food clichés that have little cultural relevance today. At 40 minutes, Table Manners sags dramatically between scenes as the three dancers tinker with fiddly adjustments needed to switch and extend the table surfaces, drawing our focus away from any choreography. Sasha Shadid proves particularly irksome as an over-officious, fake-dacting waiter, while Duwane Taylor and Julie Minaai are presented as 2D characters and struggle to exhibit any technique or musicality, with any subtlety being left in the pantry. Tony Adigun has choreographed a number of excellent outdoor works for Avant Garde (Taxi, Romeo & Juliet, Silver Tree) which have delivered greater complexity, signature choreography and an attention to musicality; with a severe edit there is potential in Table Manners but the audible sighs around me left my choreographic stomach rumbling.

Corazón a Corazón, performed by Deaf Men Dancing and Leo Hedman, was commissioned by GDIF, Without Walls, Brighton Festival and Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. It is a 25-minute work inspired by Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and was conceived, choreographed and directed by Mark Smith. Charlie Hembrow and Shane Pearson are Puig’s prisoners who form an intimate bond in their cell whilst suffering the brutality of Hedman’s baton-wielding guard. With a tango-inspired soundtrack and simple contemporary partner work, two beds provide the main set pieces, upended to represent bars, flipped in displays of dominance and skittled as Hembrow and Pearson seek solace under Hedman’s watchful eye. After seeing Smith’s previous work, Let Us Tell You A Story, his theatricality and overtly dramatic performance style is at home in the outdoor environment and his subtle integration of BSL rewards a close reading. However, an inexplicable and wild narrative shift 10 minutes out sees Hedman’s guard scampering up into the crows nest scaffold structure and transform the show into a burlesque-inspired rope aerial act lasting the remainder of the show. Hedman displays fine skill and technique but this shoehorned metamorphosis attempts to bring two entirely different worlds together with little subtlety or consideration for an audience.

The majority of work programmed for outdoor/street arts festivals is work that isn’t emotionally or politically resonant and chooses not to deal with alternative forms; this signalling that programmers believe audiences want the primary colour splat of Britain’s-Got-Talent-lite spectacles and don’t want to engage with complexity is misplaced. With the recent large-scale outpouring of support for alternative narratives and our ability to deal with complexity that have emerged in the wake of the London and Manchester terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire signifies we are able to talk, debate and dialogue about things of scale.

It is refreshing to see Botis Seva’s Far From The Norm’s Da Native, a work that actively refuses to locate itself and embraces multiple narrative readings, set against a geodesic dome decorated with three-sided patterned textiles that echo the cultural significance attached to weaving and cloth that exists in different non-Western cultures. Set in the shadow of Greenwich Park’s statue of Major-General James Wolfe (the 18th century British army officer posthumously dubbed ‘The Conqueror of Quebec’ for capturing Quebec City from the French), the territorial and colonial frame in which Da Native operates offers extra resonance; with nomads arriving from east/west and finding respite in the dome Da Native offers a series of tight choreographic rituals that look at community, home and departure. With a consistency of intense physical detonation and attack, Far From The Norm delivers a water-tight performance balancing moments of stillness atop the dome with searing choreographic ensemble work; images of drenched cloths being pulled from the dancers’ mouths like a magician’s mouth coil conjure up arid landscapes and dusty travels and leave an indelible mark on the audience. With a slight tweaking by shifting and extending the visual focus of the work to three sides (not just front on), Da Native has a great chance of being a work that offers alternative perspectives while rejecting the simplistic narrative of other outdoor festival works.

Greenwich Fair was 97% free (A View from the Bridge being the exception) and accessible to people who encountered the 40+ works around the Old Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark Gardens and Greenwich Park; however by spreading out to the park there was a dissipation of energy and a dispersal of audience over the opening weekend. In previous iterations I’ve attended the densely packed programme focused on a tight geographical location which builds an energy, buzz and ferocity of people – shows programmed back to back so that as soon as one finishes, an audience swarms from one to another and is swept along in the rhythm and waves of performance. Greenwich Fair sits amongst the larger GDIF which has multiple themed programs including Dancing City, finales and mass street events, but if the opening weekend is meant to build momentum for what follows and if the commentary and discussions on the quality of programmed work amongst the dozens of Xtrax delegates are anything to go by, then the omens are not good.