Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Posted: May 11th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Dancing On Screen in Lockdown

Dancing on Screen in Lockdown, May 7, 2020

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bennelong, Dance on Screen
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong (photo: Daniel Boud)

What is the purpose of viewing on a screen dance that is made specifically for the live intersection of stage and audience? In these times of lockdown there is a deluge of choice from UK and international companies, artists and venues that are seeking visibility, relevance and attention. 

With so much to watch, it’s how and when we access it (convenience) as well as what and why we access (taste) that makes the demand on our attention even more pressing. As our menu explodes and our time feels even more finite than usual, the paralysis of choice is real. Attention is the main currency – those who are demanding it and those to whom we want to give it. Sat alongside us (2 metres away) are the rampant, ever-present inequalities and biases that have simply shape shifted from the old world to the new.

Dancing on screen is presentation as restriction. We see the taste, bias and preference of the editor and those behind the camera (who are often uncredited) and the screen is unrelenting; it does not let our eyes rest. Work is captured, edited and our gazes directed to only one body, one face or one part of the stage at a time. We are being told what to watch, where to watch, how long to linger. Whilst we are restricted to our homes we are also being restricted in what/who/how we watch; our choice is to watch or not watch, absorb all or miss part of the visuality. 

Whiteness is everywhere on our screens and the curational choices made by venues/festivals have not changed. A lot of the performances are free for audiences to access, but what aren’t talked about are the woeful and insulting payments that some venues/festivals are offering artists to stream/publish/present their content in lockdown which won’t even cover buy-outs or music rights coverage. Whilst onlineness makes geography and the costs of travel/tickets disappear, there is a divide between those who have access to the necessary devices and a stable internet and those who don’t, between those who have the time and freedom to access the works and those who don’t.

These initial seven weeks have made a mockery of the notional seasons that venues have imposed up to now. The touring windows of October, November, February and March for certain types of work are an arbitrary choice that has been demolished and rendered meaningless; and I wonder whether the old world will look to reinstate these boundary markers moving forward from 2021.

Over this lockdown time I’ve watched the equivalent of one screened event a week; these are works that I hadn’t seen previously either for geographical reasons, because I missed them when they were originally touring or because they are companies I’ve not seen live before:
In Loco Parentis by Vincent Dance Theatre, presented by Pavilion Dance South West
Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy (aka Babson), broadcast by France.TV
Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company, presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company 
Dust by English National Ballet, presented by English National Ballet
Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre, presented by the Sydney Opera House

All five are existing stage shows that have been recorded (with more or less skill) and are not current corona commissions. (One of the new HOME MCR commissions by Bryony Kimmings caused some theatre beef earlier this week with a three-star review by Broadway World followed by responses from Kimmings as well as other critics and the Twittersphere.) 

In Loco Parentis (ILP) by Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) was screened on Thursday April 9 and was billed as the ‘Digital Premiere’ by PDSW. The work was filmed at Worthing Theatres in March 2020, and was available only between 7pm and 11pm that night with a pre-recorded post-show discussion with Charlotte Vincent, Artistic Director of VDT (director and designer of ILP), Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School and Louise Michelle Bomber, Director of TouchBase. 

ILP self describes as a reflection ‘on the universal human need to be safe, to feel looked after and to belong. Movement, strong visual imagery and spoken word combine to explore the cycles of rupture and repair that drive children into care and the impact this has on their young lives. Critically acclaimed for translating real-life testimonies into beautifully crafted performance work, Vincent Dance Theatre shed light on the extraordinary resilience of care-experienced young people, their parents and carers demanding their stories be heard.’ 

ILP was captured by a multi-camera team; the screening offered different angles (and heights), lingering focus and attentions with a sensitivity that aligned wholeheartedly with the delicate nature of the themes explored in the work. At a shade under 90 minutes, the presentation of the work was exquisite; it was an exercise in choice and movement which aided my attention as a viewer, matched the authorial flow, and macro/micro’ed the stage, performers and puppets when necessary. No other UK company from my watch list has come close to this detail, audience consideration and approach to their camera and audio set up. It cannot be overstated how important it is to get the tone of the edit and the cuts right when re-presenting live work on screen without the mechanics of the recording getting in the way.

The multi-generational cast of five — Robert Clark, Aurora Lubos, Janusz Orlik, Kye and Tia — played out a heart-breaking tale of documentary dance theatre showing the highly complex system in which care-experienced children exist and its accompanying stigma. Choreographically and theatrically the work deals with multiple notions of support (or lack thereof); the duets between the two younger members, Kye and Tia, and their respective adults hit hardest as they do not have the professional polish, whilst the wider group exchanges where the cast brushes past and wipes away histories and memories on the double decker chalk board establish the tone and power dynamics well. 

ILP is impactful in the domestic presentation; it has some graceful puppet work but tends to overuse slow motion to the point of saturation (taking up what seemed like a third of the 90 minutes). This consistent emphasis of slow speed mainly ritualises and highlights the violence and domesticity authored by the adults as a party spirals out of control into coke snorting, bottle smashing carnage whilst the children hide away under the tables. Even if the performers execute their descent into stupor with exemplary control, the combination of slow motion and screen viewing meant my attention drooped as each scene became predictable and dragged time out unnecessarily.

ILP is the fourth in the series by VDT that translates real life testimonies into crafted performance work; Vincent’s signature visual and tonal quality is still strong (and it’s nearly 20 years since I saw their Caravan of Lies when they toured to University College Scarborough) but it feels like this current series that works less from an abstract concept and more from a base of lived experience suits the weight and current direction that VDT are pursuing. 

I watched Queen Blood by Ousmane Sy on Friday April 24; it had originally been broadcast by France.tv in December 2019 and remains available to view online for free till December 2020. It was filmed at Espace 1789 in St Ouen, and alongside Queen Blood there is a wealth of other French, France-based and international dance work that is available year-round (in or out of lockdown) on France.tv should you wish to continue to explore. 

Queen Blood self describes as: ‘Femininities through house dance. Ousmane Sy (aka Babson) made his debut in hip-hop in the 1990s and quickly became a representative of house dance, into which he integrated the Afro-house spirit with gestures inspired by traditional African dances. With Queen Blood, the choreographer continues his creative work on house dance through a show that explores what femininity can be: in dance, gesture, that assumed or suffered, etc. The seven dancers from the four corners of hip-hop respond with virtuosity through personal journeys danced in distinct musical universes (acoustic and electronic). A demonstration of grace and power to live in replay on France.tv.’

This was the only broadcast that acknowledged the dancers and screened their names with a short snippet of them warming up prior to the performance starting and credited the production team; so I know this was directed by Josselin Carré and produced by La Belle Télé. It was a simple gesture but for those who are not familiar with the dancers, knowing their names before the performance creates a relationship and offers a respect that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

Queen Blood is a remarkable and emotionally rich work manifested by seven exceptional performers — Nadia Gabrieli-Kalati, Linda Hayford, Nadiah Idris, Odile Lacides, Cynthia Lacordelle, Audrey Minko, and Stéphanie Paruta. It’s a portrait of femininities which has house dance at its choreographic core but branches out to include dozens of other Hip Hop dance vocabularies executed with acres of style, deep clean technical execution and a sense of community and strength that echoed a pressing need in these times of lockdown.

The camera choices, editing and knowledge of the choreography (to capture emotion and angles not seen by the in-theatre audience) revealed nuances, bodily and facial details alongside relational connections between the performers that aligned with Sy’s intentions. There were dozens of moments of satisfying innovation, from using the wings of the stage as centre and reframing the centre as edge (with the support of Xavier Lescat’s lighting design) to a reworking of the one of the original Hip Hop dances — the running man — to the running woman alongside an activist stillness (still so rare in Hip Hop): all the performers down stage in a line with a number of devastating solos played out to Nina Simone’s Four Women. 

As I watched Queen Blood on the screen take up space, play with edges, be political and present choreography that sits in and emerges from the body with such finesse, strength and fluidity by seven incredible Black female dancers I felt something shift; this is a work that was created, performed and edited so well that I will watch it again and again. Queen Blood is quite simply a remarkable work.

Not all work screened since lockdown has the quality, care, attention, cohesion and technical prowess that In Loco Parentis and Queen Blood have. I watched Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon Company (JVC) on April 13. It had been recorded at Sadler’s Wells and was screened across the Easter weekend on their Vimeo page; below their video was a full cast and creative team including roles like sound advisor (Peter Hall) to graphic design (Ranaan Gabriel) — a crediting of every single role that went into making the work that was absent from a lot of the other screened presentations.
Pinocchio is based on the original book by Collodi and performed by Vardimon’s multi-talented dancers. ‘Pinocchio brings to life the famous marionette as he embarks on a fantastic journey to become a human boy. Showcasing Vardimon’s uniquely theatrical choreographic and directorial style, Pinocchio combines physical theatre, quirky characterisation, innovative technologies, text and dance to examine the idea of what it means to be human.’

My previous encounter with JVC was a positive one over five years ago with a trip to the Winter Gardens in Margate to see Maze presented with Turner Contemporary. Pinocchio was somewhat like Twitter — in desperate need of an edit button. Although Guy Bar Amotz is listed as dramaturg, responsible for the video and jointly responsible with Vardimon for the set design, I cannot see how so many aesthetic, choreographic and narrative clashes made it out the studio.

Across the 90 minutes there’s some really naff technical execution mixed in with credible theatrical illusion; the wind wafting scene of shaking a newspaper and wiggling your pockets alongside opening and closing an umbrella is primary school terrible but one minute later there is a brilliant raft scene that looks like David Lloyd is sailing across the stage in mid-air. Whilst Pinocchio’s trip to the marionette theatre is aligned with the narrative and brilliantly executed, featuring a weight and pulley system duet, it was followed by an inexplicable mash-up of Crazy in Love by Beyoncé full of commercial routines that felt entirely alien to the world conjured up before it.

One of the mistakes that Pinocchio makes is that there is no adjustment in light levels (which need to be higher for work that is screened) so there were oodles of darkness where we could hear the sounds of…knees? feet? bodies? doing something in relation to the floor but which were impossible to see on screen. When we could see the choreography it was Maria Doulgeri as Pinocchio leading the eight-person ensemble (with everyone else playing multiple roles) who was highly watchable, all putty-kneed as she grew from wooden boy to angsty teen.

In 2015 Maria Campos and Guy Nader came up with the concept and performance, Time Takes The Time Time Takes, that I saw in India at the Attakkalari India Biennial in 2017. Campos and Nader created a number of embodied mechanisms via five performing bodies that echoed, measured and represented time. They also created a sequence of movement (see this video at 2:25) that I had never seen before. This very same sequence reappeared in Pinocchio (which premiered a year later) and I’m unsure if there’s a link between the two creative teams, if it was morphic resonance or a just a bit of choreographic kleptomania.

Akram Khan’s Dust was presented by English National Ballet (ENB) on Facebook and YouTube as part of their #WednesdayWatchParty season from 7pm on April 29 to 8pm on May 1; it was originally recorded in October 2015 at Milton Keynes Theatre. Dust self describes as ‘Created to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’, as dancing full of pain and power’ (The Independent) ‘with a pounding soundtrack and atmospheric lighting, it grabs you from the start and does not let go.’ 
Performed as part of ENB’s larger evening of work entitled Lest We Forget, it was in essence a live, 25-minute ballet audition for Khan. In a press release issued by Sadler’s Wells in 2018 it said Dust ‘led to an invitation to create his own critically acclaimed version of the iconic romantic ballet Giselle.’

With the opening scene of the single clap of dust from the corps I’m reminded that colour runs were really in vogue in 2014 when Dust was created. The film capture was terrible: so much camera work covering the whole stage when it was just the duet, or dancers taking up 10-15 percent of the screen while the rest of it was empty blackness. In the edit there were close-ups in the wrong position, dodgy framing and a considerable amount of time focused on Tamara Rojo.

Khan acknowledged on ENB’s website that this was the first time that he had worked with ballet dancers; is it coincidence that Khan’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry, was creative producer at ENB from 2013-2017 or was it merely brilliant expansionist work on Khan’s behalf? Whilst there were no pointe shoes in evidence, it felt like ENB was cosplaying as a contemporary dance company using Khan to gain traction, trying to shift the dusty perceptions of ballet as an elitist dance form and using a tenuous relevance to the World War I centenary celebrations to dump money into shallow fireworks.

Whilst ENB and the dusty Khan corps felt flimsy and opportunistic, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong presented by Sydney Opera House as part of their From Our House To Yours season, premiered on YouTube on April 15 (available until May 5) demonstrating how a large-scale work that has a specific history and geography can be approached and sensitively handled.

Bennelong self describes as ‘… the story of one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal figures: Woollarawarre Bennelong. He was a senior man of the Eora people from the Port Jackson area in Sydney who was responsible for establishing a means of communication between his people and the British. With extraordinary curiosity and diplomacy, Bennelong led his community to survive a clash of cultures and left a legacy that reverberates through contemporary life. In a unique Australian dance language, the company celebrates the continuation of life and culture through the power, artistry and passion of the country’s most outstanding dancers. With its immersive soundscapes and exquisite design, Bennelong will leave you in awe of Australia’s history – and its power to repeat.’ 

For some context, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. It was started in 1989 by Carole Y. Johnson, the energetic founder of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, along with NAISDA graduates and Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone. Their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is at the heart of Bangarra, with a repertoire created on Country and stories gathered from respected community Elders.

In tackling the complex and real-life story of Bennelong, the challenge for artistic director Stephen Page was how to distil the story of a real person who lived over 200 years ago. What he attempted was to give a whistlestop wikipedia tour of the keyframes of Bennelong’s life and his relationship to the British colonial party led by Governor Arthur Phillip, who arrived in late 1789.

Whilst the camera set-up and edit was more skilled than Dust, it didn’t achieve the integration and invisible magic of either In Loco Parentis or Queen Blood, but at least we saw what we needed to see when we needed to see it. The set pieces were played out in naturalistic bodily movement which occasionally burst in textbook Modern Dance emoting. We saw Bennelong and his community being invaded by the British Royal Navy whilst a remix of Rule Britannia played, and a female elder prophet walking through a smoky portal suggesting things might be unwell. We heard the word smallpox on the soundtrack and saw writhing bodies convulsed in pain, and in the final act we saw Bennelong come back to his home only to be locked up in a mirror-blocked house built slowly by his community as the ultimate ostracization.

Choreographically and camera wise we saw both a literal and metaphorical capture of those big emotional moments across time in textbook story dance; the most important thing the performance did was to present a history, give a platform to and challenge some of the colonial history erased from contemporary British contexts. There’s no doubt that the story of Bennelong needs to be told, taught and discussed, but in this case and in general, history isn’t neutral and we shouldn’t adopt a neutral perspective. 
Viewing through the single lens of the screen, I was left unsure how to feel about any of the parties involved. Nor was Page’s perspective on this history clear. Across its 90 minutes we were unable to see it either from the point of view of Bennelong and his emotional journey, from the position of his original community, or through the eyes of the British colonisers. 

The inequality of platforms is as rife in screen land as they are in stage town; at the time of watching I took note of the viewing figures: In Loco Parentis achieved 168 views, Bennelong 3,021 views, Pinocchio 2,165 views and Dust 2,800 views (there were no figures available for Queen Blood). What is still more illuminating is that in the rush to present work there is a lack of nurturing of the community/audience who engage with the work, or an understanding about how audiences commune and behave online. 

When some video games are released, a Community Manager is often employed who is responsible for the community that grows around the game. This person attends events, writes newsletters, organises social media, sets up live streams and finds the best way of dealing with criticism; community managers know the fans best. Imagine something like this for either a production or a specific role in a theatre. Although the technology of online delivery obviates the need for an intermission, there was no offer for people with access requirements of alternative forms of viewing/experiencing like audio description or sign language interpretation; there were no warnings of strobes/lighting effects and there were no content trigger warnings before the performances. This is irresponsible and highlights the naivety and lack of care and attention that venues/companies are currently giving to their online audiences.

As a postscript — it didn’t involve watching dancing on screen, but did build a community, was highly curated and properly joyous — I want to highlight sync watch party #1 that was organised by Tayyab Amin and Gabrielle de la Puente: two hours of watching some of the weirdest, wholesome and obscure videos on YouTube including the Tyne and Wear Metro The Musical, the 2017 Blade Sports World Knife Cutting Championship Final and How to Build a Hamster Aquarium


Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted

Posted: November 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted, Barbican, October 22

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter-rupted

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter-rupted (photo: NCPA)

When we look at the body in finer and finer detail, can we find what we’re protecting? If we visualise searching right down amid the very marrow for the thingness of our body, can we find it? Attachment to one’s physical form is based on the body being a reliable, continuous entity. But can we pinpoint what we’re clinging to when we probe its depths?” – Pema Chödrön.

The quote from Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, is printed in the program for Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company’s Inter-rupted, part of this year’s Dance Umbrella. It is a text about attachment, the subject Mangaldas explores choreographically in 75 minutes of uninterrupted choreography. She and her six dancers appear and disappear, gather and disperse, disintegrate and reform, interlock and unlock, yet all these contrasts form a series of scenes without borders, one merging into the next, each with a symbolism of its own that is carried in the movement. While Mangaldas set out to counter the temporal nature of life by resisting the notion of attachment, in the course of making the work she had to face the very nature of attachment she had set out to explore. Woven into the cloth of the work is thus the solitary thread of its imperfection. Mangaldas herself embodies this dynamic contradiction as she brings us into the fragile moment, ‘like any we might strive to hold on to…even if all is transient, all is flowing, and all is Inter-rupted.’ Her dancers — Karan Gangani, Minhaz, Aamrapali Bhandari, Anjana Singh, Sunny Shishodiya and Manoj Kumar — move like a chorus that flows with and around her with virtuosic, fire-cracker footwork, vertiginous turning and a wonderfully lyrical use of gesture and voice. In addition to a recorded sound score by Sajid Akbar, the company is joined on stage by three gifted musicians — Mohit Gangani on tabla and padhant, Ashish Gangani on pakhawaj and padhant, and Faraz Ahmed on vocals — who punctuate the choreographic flow with, respectively, virtuosic rhythms and plaintive song.

In some ways Inter-rupted is familiar territory; it is a journey of ‘exploring the past (of kathak) with a modern mind’ that Akram Khan has been forging in this country for the last 16 years. Khan, however, was born in England and has been working with an international cast of performers in a country that welcomes cross-cultural fertilisation as an expression of its identity; Mangaldas and her dancers have had to challenge the established norms of kathak from within its own cultural context. As she wrote in response to a question I asked her, this process ‘does raise debates in India but that makes the entire conversation alive and relevant. There is a growing appreciation of looking at our classical traditions in contemporary contexts and a huge appreciative viewership that encourages change. So the environment is quite vibrant with debate and interesting new directions.’ Inter-rupted thus resists tradition while remaining very much within it, a very different proposition to that of Khan; Mangaldas’s work looks refreshingly like the real thing.

What makes the aesthetic of Inter-rupted familiar, perhaps, is that the production team includes some of Khan’s key figures he had introduced to Mangaldas nearly seven years ago, since when they have been working together on various productions: Farooq Chaudhry is listed as dramaturg, Fabiana Piccioli as lighting designer and Kimie Nakano designed the costumes. The confluence of Piccioli and set designer Manish Kansara — a sculptor based in Delhi — is visually stunning: an airy, three-sided space in shades of ochre that acts, depending on the lighting, as much like a large interior room as it does an undefined exterior space. The very opening shows a solitary man short of breath shaking uncontrollably in his room as he stares out at the audience, his body disintegrating until he recedes into the dark. Out of the dark we see the figure of Mangaldas slithering diagonally backwards through a shadowy, open space dragging a cloth that unwinds into a broad stream of material before she gathers it in slowly and purposefully as six figures enter the space that becomes a room once again.

Nakano’s evident understanding of, and sensibility to kathak rhythms allow her costumes to breathe and flow with the movement while maintaining an ascetic, spiritual quality in which the work is painted.

But while Mangaldas’s collaborators give Inter-rupted its aesthetic cohesion, it is the richness of the material — Pema Chödrön’s ‘thingness’ — and its interpretation that make this body-and-mind struggle to face its true nature a cause for celebration.

 

This review was commissioned by Pulse Asian Dance and Music and appears here with the very kind permission of its editors.