Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Some thoughts about dance in 2019, December 31

Bodyless thoughts on dance
Bodyless (photo: Hsin-Chien Huang)

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and work that have settled in my 2019 memory bank. It was a year when we had the UK Dance Showcase — which I will come back to later — and when so many artists created work in response to institutional power and epistemic violence.

Wendy Houstoun’s Hell Hath No Fury at Wainsgate Chapel, Hebden Bridge (part of Wainsgate Dances in June) took us to her Sunday school pulpit of philosophy and rage whilst delivering us from evil in a ferociously hilarious 45 minutes of wordplay and image making. Aided by the servitude and deferential bell ringing of Charlie Morrissey, Houstoun was our High Priestess, our sermon giver offering hope, hula hoop skipping, and water to those in need; as she commanded the audience to sit, stand and listen in our pews to ripostes against the 2019 political landscape she was swift and rapier-like. With Hell Hath No Fury Houstoun has demonstrated (and built upon from her previous works 50 Acts and A Pact With Pointlessness) her gift for rhythm, distillation and an ability to hold attention; she captures a mood of how some people are feeling and lampoons it. Wainsgate Chapel as a site of performance and Houstoun as prophet is an immaculate combination; in the age of fracturing communities and the slow death of theatre buildings I imagine a world where Hell Hath No Fury is a 2020 version of a mystery play travelling to chapels, churches and cathedrals across the country, a liturgical drama serving to shame our morally unanchored institutions of power.

Bodyless, directed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is a single-person 31-minute VR experience I saw at the Phi Centre in Montreal (part of an exhibition of VR work from Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Olafur Eliasson) in November. Bodyless is based on Huang’s memory and set during Taiwan’s martial law and colonial period of the 1970s. The repression and control of people through old (and new) technologies blended with pervasive digital surveillance to ensure this has a relevance now; what Bodyless achieves that no other VR art work I’ve encountered so far has done, is the technological holy trinity of embodied encounter, emotional narrative investment and graphical fidelity. As we move round a dark and oppressive system, we encounter multiple timeless episodes/scenes where we find bodies in differing states of control; polygon-twitching bodies in cells with rewilding plants growing through the bars, faded newspaper portraits of people who have been deliberately missing-ed or dozens of limp and floating bodies in a hospital or boarding school with limbs defying gravity. The intimacy of VR as a single-person experience heightens emotions as you glide, ooze, sink or float through landscapes; the fact that you have a level of agency, an ability to move, look at and focus where you want embodies this act of witnessing bodyless-ness in action. We see how people are erased from a society, and the emotional distancing that VR and screen-based work usually causes is dissolved by Hsin-Chien Huang in this fantastical response to the memory of trauma. 

From the macro power portraits of Hell Hath No Fury and Bodyless to a micro power portrait of Black male mental health, Elephant In The Room by Lanre Malaolu at Camden People’s Theatre in April is proof that Malaolu (supported by dramaturg Season Butler) has created a work of total theatre. We meet man, a multi-charactered everyman in control of his external body, but this control does not extend to his internal mind. Malaolu has a Hip Hop dance technique and execution that sparkles in its clarity; his physicality is accompanied by a command of language and a dexterity in verbal delivery that would cast long shadows at the RSC. He is wav(er)ing and popping; the use of these Hip Hop dance vocabularies is a fine foil for the wider debate around mental health: scrambled muscles that erupt and contract, dispersing clotted brain fog and bringing forth windows of clarity only to close again. Stability and control are bywords for mental health, and if you’re experiencing low level depression GPs recommend activities and inhabiting the types of spaces that Malaolu offers up in multiple scenes: football (exercise), Nando’s (food), barbers (community) and gym (self-worth). From a frozen barber, moving only his eyes and wrist with an imaginary shaver to a magnetic slapping of limbs and his back onto and into the floor and wall to an almost motionless slouch in a chair talking about too chewy chicken…Malaolu has the smarts and this work could and should have an international life like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles. What Malaolu achieves is a transference of a heavy feeling and an internal spiralling which are sometimes impossible to give shape to; the 70-minute work whistles by and it is the monstrosity of his attack, physical commitment (which bordered on the painful), multiplicity of voices and choice of stillnesses and excesses of movement that made this a highly satisfying evening that has the ability to stimulate further discussions in this terrain.

Cardiff Dance Festival hosted Montreal-based Daina Ashbee in residence during the festival in November and over the course of her stay in Wales Ashbee spent some time researching a new work, J’ai pleuré avec les chiens, which will be ready in 2020 as well as remounting and recasting her 2016 work When the ice melts, will we drink the water? We saw around 50 minutes of When the ice melts…performed by Lorena Ceraso in Chapter Arts Centre Studio. With Ceraso on the floor, back flatted and knees triangled, we understand early that her pelvis lies at the root of the work and at the centre of this bodily discourse on survival and endurance. Time is experienced slowly and there is a sparse choreographic landscape but one that is littered with violence, perceptions of the female body and sexuality. Slow quarter-turn rotations at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock see Ceraso address all sides of the audience with her ascended and descended pelvis, flickering edges and glacial eyes, but as she presents each suite of movements four times we witness multiple angles, new and unseen details that were previously hidden from view. When the ice melts…was named the best dance piece of the year at Montreal’s 2016 Prix de la danse awards and in the intervening years it has only gathered relevance with the attention drawn towards violence against women from the #MeToo movement; what it does is build an atmosphere that is so charged and so unpleasant that silence blankets the audience — we barely breathe as we pay attention to every sound and movement emitted from Ceraso’s body. The feelings of anxiety created by the work echo the pressure and internal questioning of should/will/how do we speak of violence against women when we are unsure of what it is we need to say or do in response to it.  

Violence towards women was consistently visible in a lot of the works I saw by female choreographer’s in 2019; another example (and a rare one because it is made for outdoor settings) was the 30-minute Scalped by Initiative.DKF. Created by Damilola DK Fashola and Wofai, with movement direction and writing by Fashola, Scalped was part of the opening night 
of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in Woolwich in June. ‘For black women one of the most common shared experiences is a passive but ever-present scrutiny. From what you wear to the way you walk, and most especially hair. Whether permed, braided, or in locs, black hair is political.’ Scalped is a work that demands your attention, holds it and then brings you in, which is credit to the company in the context of outdoor presentation when there are dozens of other distractions to compete for your eyes. Patience James, Audrey Lobe, Bubsy Spence, DK and Bimpe Pacheco climb, frame, pose and move around their scaffold set and wheeled boxes telling stories of discrimination, can-I-touch-your-hair violence and desire for freedom. The choreography is big, the performances are huge and the company is rightfully taking up space and presenting politically and narratively strong work in public spaces; Scalped is relentless in its power and energy and forces audiences to at least think about the discrimination consistently faced by Black women in British society. Representation and visibility is crucial and Scalped is one of the very few outdoor works made and performed by Black artists in the UK; Fashola has written and directed a new work Fragments of a Complicated Mind which runs at Theatre 503 in London from January 21 to February 1, and this interrogation of race, religion, sex and cultural expectations is sure to see her star shine even brighter.

Creative responses to institutional power do not always have to be heavy or filled with activist sensibilities; they can achieve just as much from a position that sparks joy, refreshes perspectives and brings people together socially. The Box of Delights by 2Faced Dance Company is a fine example of that (full disclosure: I work with 2Faced Dance Company as Executive Director and had a small performance role in the work). Running for seven nights from December 17-23 as part of their 20th Anniversary programme, what co-directors Tamsin Fitzgerald and Tim Evans have created with The Box of Delights is something that I’ve not seen before from a company in the UK; with the first act of 50 minutes taking place outdoors at night at over 20 locations and performance interventions throughout the historic centre of Hereford, they guided an audience of 80 towards The Green Dragon Hotel for a second act which contained a meat or vegan three-course meal prepared by executive chef Simon Bolsover and the continuation of the narrative taking place over 1hour 45 minutes. The seamless shift of the narrative and audience experience from outdoor to indoor, altering perceptions of place alongside the inclusion of food, is an innovative model for presenting work and place-making which suits audiences, performers and companies alike.

The aforementioned works are some of the great ones I saw across the year, but it wasn’t all as good as this. The first outing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Bristol Old Vic in April was both under and over baked at the same time; their portrayal of excess felt muted and duller in comparison to their previous successive portraits of excess in SEXBOX and Da-Da Darling. Rosie Kay Dance Company premiered the scaled-up version of 5 Soldiers…10 Soldiers (complete with 10 dancers) on the main stage at Birmingham Hippodrome in May which saw a dull 30-minute prequel tacked on to the previously successful 60-minute 5 Soldiers. The first half was meant to show the time getting in the army, but emotionally, physically and tonally it mirrored the second half leaving me questioning its purpose. The work clearly resonated with people who had a personal connection to, and involvement with, the army, but as a work at this scale, when the company hasn’t presented in this size auditorium, why would we expect it to be good immediately? Maybe after three or four shows when they understand that the intimacy, nuance and detail that made 5 Soldiers so good needs to shift considerably for grander and less subtle inferences. However, the work I had most trouble with this year was Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer by Shane Shambhu at Gloucester Guildhall, part of Strike A Light’s festival in March. In a year when there have been so many works of dance, performance and theatre exploring the effects of immigration/race/displacement/othering like Demi Nandra’s Life is No Laughing Matter, Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement, Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much or Rachael Young’s Out, Shambhu’s Confessions is a lite and frothy idiot’s guide to bharatanatyam made for White people. Peppered with anecdotes about his relationship to Indian dance and performing his arangetrum, it asks little of you and there’s little empathy, emotional investment or calls to action. Shambhu is a likeable mimic, scatting between citizenship issues and the physicalities of his family members, and while the work is well constructed it plays into the self-exoticisation that so many contemporary bharatanatyam creators attempt to repel. There are short bursts of 10-15 seconds of classical movement, which are not the cleanest and he is sometimes out of breath when coming out of a movement sequence straight into speech. There’s a nice reveal towards the end, an emotional hit that shows a duality: that this is part of him and that he wants to reject it but is unable to because it has partially formed him and how he is in the world.  

…and back to the UK Dance Showcase, phase two of the Surf The Wave project conceived by Deryck Newland before he left PDSW in February 2017. The UK Dance Showcase was curated by 11 people and of those there were no women on the committee who weren’t white, there was nobody who worked in an organisation north of Salford, there were no people with a disability, no female artists and no producers. Surf The Wave is ‘the major project led by PDSW, on behalf of the National Dance Network (NDN)’ but it is telling how the other 26 members of NDN have been very public in distancing themselves from the project and choose/chose not to publicly or privately acknowledge the reality, successes or failures of Surf The Wave. 

Artists and producers are always in the position of least power, least resources and least privilege in their relationships with institutions, and what has been heartening in 2019 is see how they have spoken up, back to, and in solidarity with others while forging new alliances en route. The relevance of the majority of cultural institutions and how they behave in society and with their community demonstrate at best a wilful ostriching ignorance of how society is shifting and at worst a consistent and harmful contribution that perpetuates outmoded thinking, broken systems and systemic bias.  

With the total funds raised at more than £1million — on top of the other public subsidy added to the total from the time spent by salaried organisations across the UK — the narrative presented back to NDN and to other funders has been that some of the artists who attended the event have achieved some positive outcomes, built tours and new relationships. While this is brilliant for those artists who presented/pitched work that appealed to small-scale, non-dance specialist arts centres across England, the active choice not to invite international programmers rendered the entire narrative as a sweet set of Tory Leadership/Brexit analogies (taking back control of our borders/exports), and conservative leadership breadcrumbs (Jeremy Hunt’s I’m an Artist as Entrepreneur) that beggars belief. What has not been reported is the anger, frustration, bitterness and experiences of unprofessionalism in the way artists who were ‘selected’ were engaged in the lead-up to the event. Delaying the timeline of announcing selected artists (ensuring artists missed funding windows to apply for support to enable their presence at the event), offering fees to present the work, reneging on that offer and then offering a lower one to the same artists or selecting work that is not in a touring window and expecting artists to absorb the costs of remounting it, were some of the examples (there were many more) of how artists were treated. While it is acknowledged that those who programme work congratulated the PDSW team on a well-organised showcase event, the structural debris of damaged and fractured relationships has mirrored our political situation. Those holding power are ever more desperate to preserve old models and thinking, whilst those in receipt of the email vacuum of silence are left to wonder how to engage in the future.

I wrote a whole other piece (unpublished) about my experience at one of the Artist as Entrepreneur events but it follows a similar vein. Artists and producers are often encouraged by organisations and institutions of power to acknowledge their failures and mistakes in the creation and presentation of work — a growing focus and thematic consideration of a number of dance works including Epic Failure by Cultured Mongrel and The Unwanted by Shaper Caper. These and other works in development offer a personal, interesting and critical perspective on human fallibility, but until our organisations and institutions of power begin to acknowledge their own failure, or offer a public narrative about things which went well or not so well, then things will never change, and the power imbalance shall remain.


Ian Abbott on Impermanence Presents…

Posted: February 6th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Impermanence Presents…

Impermanence Presents…at Bristol Old Vic, January 2019

Jane Mason in Night Flying (photo: Benjamin J Borley)

Impermanence Presents… is the result of a meeting between Tom Morris and Impermanence Dance; a season of curated works (five in a row from the 15-19 January followed by one each in February, March and April) presented in the newly refurbished Weston Studio by Impermanence Dance. The season is completed (on April 25) with Impermanence’s latest iteration of BAAL on the main stage; Bristol may have a new addition for small scale and experimental dance presentation adding value to the programming at Wardrobe Theatre and Trinity Arts.

Consider for a moment Pink Suits, Figs in Wigs, Jane Mason, Laila Diallo, Crystal Zillwood, and Tom Thom: what they have in common is quiet, intimate technique combined with virtuosic movements laced with shocking, live art pop and big cabaret bombast. If you whisk these artists, their voices and sensibilities in a performance cauldron you would come out with something very close to an Impermanence show; the presentation of these artists demonstrates both a dissection and curation of Impermanence’s own DNA. I will focus on the two full-length works I saw in the first week; Night Flying by Jane Mason with David Williams and Solo For Two by Jean Abreu.

Jane Mason and The Choreography of Things™ is an anchor to which Mason returns after employing this performance mode in her previous works Singer(string, tape, stage weights, sewing machine), Life Forces (slides, cardboard tubes, projectors) and now Night Flying. Jane Mason and The Choreography of Things™ is one of two operating modes: Jane doing and Jane dancing. It is a rare skill to be able to sustain attention while demonstrating an alternative function of everyday objects, but she succeeds in unfolding a mirrored Jacob’s Ladder, scattering galaxies of fine-grained sand or revealing a reflective blanket/satellite. She imbues these objects with a sense of importance and handles them with a care and delicacy that reflects her as a choreographer and performer.

As we enter the studio we see all the composite parts (wigs, fan, guitar) laid out on the floor, to be revealed over the succeeding 70 minutes. We know what is coming but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying as the objects slowly make their way onto the stage through the bodies of the two performers. Night Flying self-defines as: ‘Drawing on ideas related to deep time, the night sky and landscapes of being, Jane Mason and her long-time collaborator David Williams explore a constellation of associations related to memory, change, wonder, scale and materiality’s imagination.’ It’s a choreography for the small hours, a choreography for the darkest part of the night, for the 4:07am in you when the streets and cities and landscapes are stilling, when the world has evacuated the day, when you are yet to meet the sunrise. 

The idea of choreography as a constellation or way of mapping the work is in play; there are clearly defined episodes when Mason and Williams orate themselves and their own histories, amplify their physicality when bedecked in cheap wigs, playing guitar or revelling in imitated bodies. While the ‘glue’ between these episodes isn’t always immediately clear, they exist together rather like planets in a bigger galaxy. 

The presence of Williams as performer and as co-creator alters the tone in comparison to Mason’s previous works but he slips into her orbit and complements the intensity and energy. Williams is a chameleon with significant solo moments as an end of the pier comedian/local radio DJ/bingo caller with exquisite rapid-fire, deadpan, witty wordplay; a gentle, sand-blowing floor sculptor or as lead dancer in his accurate skewering of the false curtain call modesty of European modern dance theatre with repeated bows, thumbs up and the humble chest touch. Together they fit.

As Mason describes the tale of her grandfather as author of an aviation manual on how to fly in low visibility, there is a neat parallel in how people may respond to the work. There are times when some may be unclear on what is going on and why certain things are happening but Mason and Williams are our deep space guides, inviting us and acknowledging us with a rich and considered visual terrain matched with an elegant deployment of language. Night Flying offers us a portal into significance and insignificance; it’s crafted with intimacy and delivered with poise. It’s everything and nothing. We are together and we are alone.

Jean Abreu’s Solo For Two is a 60-minute trio featuring Abreu (as choreographer and performer), Rita Carpinteiro and a robot: ‘Two dancers, two sides of the same coin, caught in a struggle to find their place in the world. A little robot called Macheba both interacts and observes the dancers, mirroring and absorbing our human identities.’ Guy Cools is on dramaturg duty and Michele Panegrossi is the creative technologist behind Macheba, which seems to be less a robot than a remote-controlled vehicle with a few basic modifications: a pivoting birdie that could turn on/off and nod, a palm sized projector intermittently casting green/grey visual noise and a sizeable bluetooth speaker giving directional sound capabilities. While recognizing that the creation of sophisticated robotics is an expensive process, Macheba is nevertheless distinctly underwhelming as a device and in the way it is used choreographically.

Abreu and Carpinteiro are admirable performers executing their movements with fine levels of punch and nuance, but what they are delivering is a choreographic vocabulary and narrative that is familiar, unnecessary and stale; how the work self describes and its translation into my audience reality is poles apart. Broken into around eight sections there are duets (where Carpinteiro displays fine physical execution by climbing all over, in and around Abreu whilst not touching the floor (echoing James Cousins’ There We Have Been seven years ago), solos (full of stuttering beginnings) and a particular passage that left me in a minor rage:

Contemporary Dance enters (stage left). Contemporary Dance continues to role, slap and sweat itself on the floor moving earnestly to an inconsequential soundtrack. Eight minutes pass. Contemporary Dance is enjoying the solo. The ceiling of the newly refurbished Weston Studio has some architectural merit but having attended three nights this week I can confirm the angle and lack of lower back support in row B leaves a considerable ache and discomfort in my body each night (I shall not be returning to the Weston Studio to see any more dance whilst this seating is in place). Contemporary Dance continues. We are still in a haze-filled semi-darkness. The robot has not moved. 

Both Night Flying and Solo For Two are made by artists who have been choreographing their own work for more than 10 years and performing for nearly double that; I’m left asking questions around the currency of ideas, audience connectivity and how artists continue to develop and exercise their practice. 

I recognise there is some comfort in familiarity (this is how the majority of film franchises, ballet and Company Wayne McGregor work) by following the tried and tested methods, ideas and executions, but Solo For Two left me with a conceptual hollowness, smelling the funding bid tick boxes (hello robot) and a weary emotional dissatisfaction. It is littered with the tired clichés that some artists/venues/curators working across dance are attempting to dismantle, ensuring audiences are not frustrated but embraced. 

A triple bill started the week featuring a solo from Bristol-based Laila Diallo — who choreographically christened the studio — recycling material from two previous works in a 25-minute short offering, a mix of pedestrian movement, a marking of the time/space with lx tape and a delicious recurring choreographic balancing astride a chair revealing mixed with a broken ballet technique; as a keeper of time and movement Diallo is a study of concentrated movement. 

I won’t mention the indulgent waste that was Ways of the Blue by Bandi Meszerics; the only redeeming feature being a knitted cyan balaclava tentacle beard that he wore for six minutes, but I do want to mention Tom Thom. Bookending the night in their double block colour boiler suits, slow-ankle-tapping and totem-pole-shuffling in the foyer on our arrival, Tom Thom continue at the interval until their stage time as the final part of the night. With their super worn soft leather footwear (even the soles had been worn away through the 1000s of repetitions) we are treated to a 15-minute remix of slow dance approaches to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax that never quite lets us get to crescendo. They are a classic performance art-pop cabaret duo with an act that makes audiences visibly recoil and cover their eyes in reaction to the way in which their shuffle/hug/dance manifests. An act of physical virtuosity.


Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX

Posted: November 11th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX

Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX (The Garden of Orgonon), October 15, Ugly Duck, London

Members of Impermanence Dance Theatre in SEXBOX (photo: Jeremy Reider)

Members of Impermanence Dance Theatre in SEXBOX (photo: Jeremy Reider)

Pleasure cannot be shared; like pain, it can only be experienced or inflicted, and when we give pleasure to our lovers or bestow charity upon the needy, we do so, not to gratify the object of our benevolence, but only ourselves.” – Aldous Huxley

Bristol-based Impermanence Dance Theatre is a controlling mistress; in their dungeon loft your eyes are softly spanked for 60 minutes with a series of carefully crafted and choreographed episodes of pleasure. Played in the round at the top of Ugly Duck, SEXBOX is a feast of punctuated movements and sticky visual images from seven dancers with exceptional musicality.

SEXBOX is inspired by the pioneering but little-known German electronic musician, Ursula Bogner and her fascination with the writings of Wilhelm Reich, a controversial feminist psychoanalyst for whom a healthy discharge of sexual energy was the crux of humanity’s salvation. (There is rumour a-plenty about the existence of Bogner and whether or not she is the construction of veteran electronic music producer Jan Jelinek; it is at the edges of bliss and untruth that SEXBOX exists.)

We live in a community of people not so that we can suppress and dominate each other or make each other miserable but so that we can better and more reliably satisfy all life’s healthy needs.” – Wilhelm Reich

The seven dancers met at the Rambert School 10 years ago and are now exploring new models of non-hierarchical collaboration; with SEXBOX they achieve an impressive visual cohesion and choreographic consistency. The costumes and characters could have stepped out of Reich’s Orgone Accumulator with their 60s sci-fi futurism from the palette of costume designer Pam Tait: unitards, reflective white plastic, and silver cheek-heightening makeup are tailored for ease of movement and for the accentuation of the body. Each of the fragments of pleasure (this would make an interesting response work to Pop-Up-Duets by Janis Claxton Dance) features duets, trios or the entire company and their pacing is exquisite; when interest almost begins to wane or is in danger of repetition, extra bodies are injected into the scene to shift focus, add texture and intelligently puncture (sometimes for just a few seconds) our visual rhythm.

With lingering hands and crotches itching to play with each other, six pairs of gnashing teeth hungry for the sex box of the carcass of another, and all manner of exposed and freshly-squeezed cheeks on display, there’s a controlled depravity across the dozen-plus episodes without a full-on BDSM experience. I left not sullied by SEXBOX but in state of visual buzz having witnessed seven accomplished performers in complete control of their material and their audience.

Sex without love is as hollow and ridiculous as love without sex.” – Hunter S. Thompson

The memory of pleasure and the pleasure of memory is something I’ve been wrestling with; part of the reason for the delay in publishing is my endeavour to see how SEXBOX fits into my own internal reward memory system. I have memories of mirth and appreciation on the night yet it is difficult to re-create those same feelings on the page. Did it stimulate the eye? Yes. The images were sharp, transitions were electric and the lip-syncing film recreation was a hoot. Did it stimulate the heart? I don’t think so but I don’t think that was its intention. What SEXBOX has done is reinforce my belief in Impermanence as a company that creates work that is impressive, controlled and quite unique in the dance/theatre ecology of the UK. Wilhelm Reich was once denounced as the orchestrator of a cult of sex and anarchy; with SEXBOX, Impermanence takes on that mantle and becomes a throbbing cult of pleasure, anarchy and dance.