Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Posted: November 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2019: The Future Bursts In at the Linbury Theatre

Dance Umbrella 2019, The Future Bursts In, The Linbury Theatre, October 25 

Amala Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné in Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity (photo: Valérie Frossard)

The title of this Dance Umbrella evening at the Linbury Theatre, The Future Bursts In, is adapted from Alexander Bland’s Observer review of Merce Cunningham’s first performance in London in 1964. He wrote, ‘Merce Cunningham and his company have burst on the British scene like a bomb…Here is heart-warming proof that it is an art with a future, opening up ranges of possibilities which stretch out of sight; it ought to be celebrated with champagne in every dancing academy in the land.’

Over fifty years later neither Cunningham nor his musical collaborator and life partner, John Cage, are still with us, but their legacy continues through the Merce Cunningham Trust. It is not only Cunningham’s works but the technique he developed and taught that are revered for the very reasons Bland identified. But history moves on and the future continues to burst in, not necessarily through a single figure or a monolithic technique but with fresh approaches to dance practice and to training. 

Amala Dianor is a Senegalese dancer currently based in Angers. Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity, is a beautifully crafted trio for performers whose techniques are grounded in hip hop but borrow from classical and contemporary dance. Theirs is a collaborative venture in which the three dancers — Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné — have come together to make a conversation of their diverse techniques. After calmly taking stock of the audience, they turn their focus inward, gently teasing out each other’s ability, admonishing each other and competing with each other’s vocabulary; it’s as if we are watching them through a window. We see their silent gestures and feel their choreographic affinity; we hear the tracks they choose from a score by Awir Leon but the music is for their own delectation, not ours. The pleasure is in seeing their ability to find effortless equilibrium and poise in their shared virtuosity. It is not so much the future bursting in as the dance diaspora reuniting with vestiges of the past to enhance the present. 

Celebrating Cunningham’s legacy involves the more ticklish problem of looking back without the living presence of the man himself, who died in 2009. CCN Ballet de Lorraine presents two works to mark the centenary of Cunningham’s birth, a new commission by Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley, For Four Walls, based on a lost work of 1944, and a recreation of Sounddance from 1975. Jacobsson is the artistic director of CCN Ballet de Lorraine and Caley is its coordinator of research; both men worked closely with Cunningham as dancers in the 90s.

Members of CCN Ballet de Lorraine in For Four Walls (photo: Laurent Philippe)

All that still exists of Cunningham’s Four Walls — it had only one performance — is the piano score by John Cage, played here on stage by Vanessa Wagner. Jacobsson writes that ‘we choreographed For Four Walls not as a re-enactment of the original, but as a place that allows for our history with Cunningham to be reflected in it.’ The idea of reflection becomes an opening conceit as we see nine dancers transformed into a full company by floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels. When the full contingent of 23 dancers subsequently fills the stage, swelling the ensemble to the size of an opera chorus in a crowded studio, the conceit loses its effect. As an exercise in spatial awareness and choreographic prestidigitation, it is awe-inspiring but any sense of reflection on ‘our history with Cunningham’ is effectively curbed. 

After a short pause in which we watch the mirrors — and our own reflection in them — disappear behind the stage to be replaced by Mark Lancaster’s delightful flourish of a curtain with its tent-like opening, ten of the dancers return for Sounddance. Despite the pedigree of recreation by Meg Harper (from the original cast) and Thomas Caley, some of the classical rigidity Cunningham had encountered at the Paris Opera in 1975 and wanted to jettison in the creation of Sounddance seems to have crept in, either from the dancers’ exhaustion or a technical legacy of upper-body tension; they seem to be doing the movement rather than letting it happen, while entrances and exits are more circumspect than explosive.

In the same review, Bland imagined Diaghilev would have loved Cunningham for ‘talking in the language of today’. But what does ‘the language of today’ mean in a performance archive that is 44 years old? And wasn’t this the question Cunningham wanted to pre-empt as part of his legacy by planning the closure of his company and school after his death?


Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Posted: November 8th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Richard Alston Dance Company in Final Edition at Snape Maltings

Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Snape Maltings, November 1

Richard Alston, Final Edition
Joshua Harriette and Monique Jonas in Brahms Hungarian (photo: Chris Nash)

There is a natural link between Richard Alston and Snape Maltings through his long association with the music of Benjamin Britten, while his particular style of dance relishes the space afforded by the extraordinary stage area with its brick walls as precipitous as a cathedral nave and as expansive as a concert hall. Alston’s aesthetic seems to value the sanctity of choreography and music without wanting to divert too much attention from it, presenting his company like an orchestra on a concert platform — which is why Snape Maltings works so well for him. For the theatrical element, lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli washes the brick walls with colour while she enhances the clarity of the dancers against the grand scale of the space. But as soon as she inserts her own individuality, as in the rectangle of light she creates for Ellen Yilma and Jennifer Hayes at the end of their duet in Shine On, the image of a tomb seems too overtly representational for Alston’s choreographic imagery. Costumes for the men tend towards a puritan ethic, casual and utilitarian without embellishments, elegant variations on tracksuit pants and sleeveless tops, where bare arms show off Alston’s love of drawing and carving figures in space. The women are more colourful, especially in Brahms Hungarian where Fotini Dimou’s floral patterned dresses move around the body with a joie de vivre inherent in Brahms’ folk-inspired music. In Voices and Light Footsteps, Peter Todd’s costumes and associate choreographer Martin Lawrance’s lighting work together like a painting, where Alejandra Gissler’s red dress is the dynamic equivalent of one of JMW Turner’s painterly red marks. 

Alston’s choreographic style, derived from his two major influences of Sir Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham, combines a sparse but reverent classical technique with a romantic, flowing use of the upper body; his vocabulary is not broad but the interest and integrity of what we see is supported by his impeccable musicality that in turn demands the same of his dancers. Personality makes up for a lot in the present company, but musicality is not what it was when the likes of Liam Riddick and Oihana Vesga Bujan were performing, though Elly Braund is still there as a valuable guide. In watching the dancers there’s a suggestion of too much tension in the arms that at speed does not support Alston’s flow of the upper body, and a tendency, especially among the men, to land too heavily. There is something sensuous about soft, pliant landings that goes a long way towards bringing the choreography and the music seamlessly together.  

Over several years Alston’s company has had its portion of Arts Council funding to The Place — where it has been resident for the past quarter of a century — successively reduced to the point he feels he cannot run the company to the standards he needs; the present tour is called Final Edition. On the program is a relatively new repertoire, with two works from this year (Voices and Light Footsteps, and Shine On) and two from 2018 (Detour, and Brahms Hungarian). Voices and Light Footsteps, to a selection of Monteverdi madrigals, balli and sinfonia, sees Alston’s choreographic invention soaring with the music, creating a series of courtly dances that sweep up the voices into the air; there is a joy about the work that belies the tumultuous year in which it was created. Lawrance’s Detour, played out to a percussive score by Akira Miyoshi for solo marimba, is a contrast both in its dynamic pace and in the predominance of masculine energy; it features whipping arms and legs in a fast and furious choreography with brute overtones of anger and frustration.

Shine On, to Britten’s early song cycle On This Island for piano and voice (performed respectively by Jason Ridgeway and Katherine McIndoe), is clearly dark in tone, drawing its choreographic line from WH Auden’s poetry that begins with a fanfare (Let the florid music praise!) and turns through the haunting Nocturne to irrevocable loss (As it is, plenty). The symbolism is evident, and yet Alston returns in the finale to the opening musical fanfare with the dancers finishing in a reverence towards the public. Alston dedicates the work to Lizzie Fargher ‘whose enthusiasm for dance (and music) has sustained and encouraged me every time I have been to Snape and to Dance East.’

In closing the program with Brahms Hungarian Alston shows his undefeated spirit with a suite of dances to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for solo piano that Ridgeway plays with gusto. As Alston remarked stoically after the final applause, “I love this place and I’m not going to say goodbye!”


Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

Posted: April 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

The Merce Cunningham Centennial, Night of 100 Solos, Barbican, April 16

Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham (photo by Annie Leibovitz)

To celebrate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust live-streamed three shows in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London) that each presented 25 dancers performing 100 solos from the Cunningham repertoire. In London’s Barbican, where the Merce Cunningham company had performed regularly for the last 20 years of its life, Daniel Squire (with help from Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) arranged extracts from 54 works, the earliest being Dime a Dance (1953) and the latest Nearly Ninety (2009), to fit within a 90-minute format. The idea of presenting solos as a collage without the context of their parent works follows one that Cunningham had devised whenever the company performed in a non-theatrical venue like an art gallery or a gymnasium. Despite the paradox of creating this event in a proscenium theatre it nonetheless offers an opportunity to savour the extraordinary richness of Cunningham’s choreographic thinking over a fifty-year period. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1968, ‘Seeing Merce is always a very great pleasure.’

Denby had attended Cunningham’s very first program of solo dances in New York in April 1944, describing their effect as ‘one of an excessively elegant sensuality’ that contrasted with ‘one of remoteness and isolation’. These two qualities, both alone and in combination, could well define the range of solos chosen for the Barbican along with an all-embracing sense of playfulness and wit that point to one of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s work. In his last recorded interview with Nancy Dalva Cunningham responds with the nonchalance of accumulated wisdom to a question about what dance means to him: ‘We look out at life and that’s dance.’ 

The Cunningham company was famously disbanded as part of its founder’s legacy plan following his death in 2009, so although there are seasoned performers like Squire and Julie Cunningham on hand, this centennial celebration is staged with dancers who have never been part of Cunningham’s company even if some of them have studied his technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust explains that ‘in each city, a former dancer experienced in creating Cunningham Events will work with an associate stager and other Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni to impart the choreography to a new generation of dancers.’ There is more public relations than clarity in this statement as such luminaries as Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Catherine Legrand and Asha Thomas, while absorbing to watch, are hardly a new generation of dancers. Apart from sharing the centennial with a global audience (those who missed it can watch the live stream from all three cities online until July 19) Night of 100 Solos is also advance publicity as well as a preview for a raft of Cunningham performances later this year that the Merce Cunningham Trust has generously offered to companies and festivals free of licensing fees. In the UK these include Dance Umbrella, Rambert and the Royal Ballet; London, at least, will be spoiled for choice.  

The PR nature of Night of 100 Solos clarifies the choice of performers; we can expect to see them again later this year in a Cunningham work on one of three continents — hopefully with a contingent of company alumni too. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Ballet will deal with Cunningham’s work. While his choreography borrows from many sources that include the classical ballet canon his technique can prove challenging to classically trained dancers. In teaching the body to ‘move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering’ (to quote Denby again), his technique is more akin to the requirements of Astaire than to those of Petipa. Watching Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Joseph Sissens in their solos is to see a concentration on form struggling with the dynamics of freedom; Cunningham makes the body dance to its own rhythm and allows us to watch whereas classical ballet both relies on a musical score for its expression and demands our attention. Toke Broni Strandby in his solo with the chair and Jonathan Goddard in his soft shoe shuffle demonstrate how deliciously translatable Cunningham can be.

The influence on Cunningham of his creative and life partner John Cage, who died in 1992, was abundantly present in the sophisticated playfulness of the five musicians in the pit: Mira Benjamin (violin), John Lely (objects and electronics), Anton Lukoszevies (cello), Christian Marclay (turntables and objects) and coordinator Christian Wolff (piano, melodica, objects). To paraphrase Cunningham, what you’re hearing is what it is.


Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Masurca Fogo

Posted: February 13th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Masurca Fogo

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Masurca Fogo, Sadler’s Wells, February 9

Ruth Amarante in Masurca Fogo (photo: Zerrin Aydin-Herwegh)

This is difficult to write because I love the way Pina Bausch was able to distill experience into gesture and form with such elegance and wit. When she died unexpectedly in 2009, there remained her legacy of rich, exuberant works but without the exacting spirit that conceived them. Inevitably, despite the best efforts to keep the works alive by subsequent directors and by the dancers themselves, the company has had to remember this spirit instead of experience it; its focus remains on the past. For a lesser company a hiatus in its ability to maintain the repertoire after the death of its sole founder and choreographer might have happened five years ago, and it is a measure of the level of artistry in the company that we have been able for so long to enjoy the works Bausch built up from her seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. But eight years is a long time to be reviving the past and, significantly, a third of the present company never had the opportunity to work with Bausch. One of the ways she created material was to ask her dancers questions to which they would respond in movement, words in any way they felt appropriate; how can such a personal response be transferred from one dancer to another? While Masurca Fogo may not be the strongest work in Bausch’s repertoire, watching it on Thursday night I sensed the point has been reached that since the company is no longer challenged by Bausch’s presence to develop new works they appear to be losing the ability to fully inhabit her older ones. Last seen in London in 2003, Masurca Fogo is like seeing a Bausch work set on another company (I wonder how Rite of Spring will fare in the bodies of English National Ballet); it is not difficult to see the beauty in its inspiration, but its carefully conceived details — the very life of the work — had lost their brilliance for routine.  There are still moments that jump out as before, like the solo of Ditta Miranda Jasjfi or the interventions of Nazareth Panadero, but these only serve to remind us what we are missing.

Nostalgia, however, is a very powerful sentiment and Bausch’s repertoire works intoxicatingly on our memories, so brightly did these works dance in their day. But has a romantic notion crept into our attendance at these revivals whereby we unwittingly accept a weakening in Bausch’s unerring sense of living theatre in return for the pleasure of seeing them again? And if this ongoing pleasure on behalf of the audience (houses continue to sell out) remains, it is clear the incentive (however well-meaning) for venues to invite the company will continue. And if this is so, is there not a danger in this drawn-out descending spiral of artistic integrity that the performers are singing the praises of their muse rather than singing their muse’s inspiration? Or worse still, are the performers — at least those who worked with Bausch —in danger of becoming parodies of their former selves and thus condemning the works to a similar fate? All these questions occurred to me after seeing Masurca Fogo.

The question of a dance legacy has been raised before, notably by Merce Cunningham who established a three-year plan to address the process of dismantling his company and Foundation after his death, and more recently by Mats Ek, who has begun to withdraw performing rights for his work where he is no longer able to personally supervise their revivals. Perhaps Bausch’s sudden death rendered unresolved any plan for her legacy. For the 2017/18 season, Adolphe Binder, will be the first ‘outsider’ to take over the artistic direction of the company. Binder will be bringing in choreographers to create new works on the dancers, but she also has the responsibility, along with the other members of the company and their collaborators, to maintain the Bausch legacy. Cunningham closed down his company and established a Trust to ‘preserve and enhance’ his legacy; Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch has taken another path but one that, judging by this performance of Masurca Fogo, does not augur well for the artistic fulfilment of Bausch’s legacy. Even if she had wished it.


Rambert at Theatre Royal Brighton

Posted: February 28th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert at Theatre Royal Brighton

Rambert Dance Company, Theatre Royal Brighton, February 26

Miguel Altunaga in Christopher Bruce's Rooster (photo © Hugo Glendnning)

Miguel Altunaga in Christopher Bruce’s Rooster (photo © Hugo Glendinning)

‘Twelve dancers trapped in a hell of their own making’ is how Barak Marshall describes his work for Rambert, The Castaways. They are certainly trapped, in an intriguing design by Jon Bausor that recreates a sub basement where refuse ends up after falling from a shoot that features prominently out of reach on one of the walls. At first sight the dancers lie on the floor as if they have just been emptied out. Jon Savage is the first to stir and introduces the cast like a compere in an underground cabaret. It is a catchy beginning, the archetypes expressed effectively in Bausor’s costumes and in the believable mix of characters among the dozen Rambert dancers. Then the first track of an eclectic playlist ‘taking in Balkan folk, Yiddish pop and Soviet pomp’ (arranged by Robert Millett and played live in the orchestra pit) starts and a dance begins, formed, shaped and cropped out of nowhere. From here to the end there is a sense of pastiche choreography, episodes of gratuitous violence and argument interspersed with group dances that resemble each other too closely with their flair for flamboyant despair. The only sparks fly from Estella Merlos and Miguel Altunaga who could be playing Anita and Bernardo in a Yiddish version of West Side Story. Intriguingly, there are similar character traits between The Castaways and Christopher Bruce’s Rooster: Vanessa Kang comes in for bullying in both, which is a bit worrying, and the men are unashamedly macho.

Richard Alston’s Dutiful Ducks, taken from the title of the sound score by Charles Amirkhanian, is a solo for Dane Hurst that begins in full flood and ends all too abruptly a few minutes later. Hurst is completely at home in this sinuous, fluid work and dances it to perfection, every little inflection and change of direction clearly and cleanly depicted. It may be short but the memory lingers.

There is a connection between Alston and Merce Cunningham that goes some way to introducing the latter’s Sounddance, though it is by no means a natural segue. Cunningham is an acquired taste and, I imagine, an acquired style that is uncompromisingly modern with a classical base. Sounddance is, according to Nancy Dalva, ‘a dance about dance, and about dancing.’ What marks it is the apparent lack of motivation, or linear construction, and there is an absence of any conceit or ego even if the presence of Cunningham the creator (with a wry sense of humour) is ever present. It is thus an opportunity to observe each dancer in the act of dancing, which is a treat (Adam Blyde and newcomer Carolyn Bolton stand out in this work). To a score by David Tudor (played with deafening enthusiasm by Robert Millett), Sounddance unfolds from a velvet-draped rococo screen through which Blyde swirls into being like the creator himself (this was a role Cunningham danced). His physical control and smooth dynamic contains the seed of the whole piece. The other dancers appear from the same velvet drapes one by one, increasing the complexity of the spatial and sexual interactions until the stage is close to controlled chaos before the dancers split off, one by one in a reversal of their entrances, passing back through the same curtained womb from which they had emerged. Blyde winds up the proceedings by whirling off at high speed.

There is one more work: Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, which has remained out of the company’s repertoire for thirteen years. The eight songs of the Rolling Stones to which Bruce created the work date it back even further to the 60s and 70s. Rooster is, Bruce writes, ‘a celebration of the music and of the times these tracks were recorded.’ It is also a celebration particularly of the men in the cast: Miguel Altunaga, Mbulelo Ndabeni, Adam Blyde, Dane Hurst and Stephen Wright who strut and soar with all the cockiness and virtuosity of the music, which is where Bruce uncovers the keys of his choreography, from the more obvious jutting thrust and pumping wings of the rooster that appear throughout as a leitmotif to the the more subtle courtly flourish suggested by the harpsichord in Lady Jane. You don’t see gratuitous steps in his work. The same sensitivity drives the choice of vivid costumes by Marian Bruce and the superb lighting by Tina MacHugh. All these elements come together to create moments of pure magic: Altunaga as the prancing dandy in Little Red Rooster, light fading on Patricia Okenwa as Not Fade Away begins, Hurst’s non-stop twisted and contorted aerial solo in Paint it Black, and Merlos hurling herself into the arms of four men who throw her high into the air, long red dress flying, at the end of Ruby Tuesday. And while Wright has a fling with Kang in Play with Fire, a feather from her red boa lodges in his hair like a lick of flame or a devil’s horn for the start of Sympathy with the Devil. You couldn’t ask for better.

Bruce not only develops his own language and ideas, but he develops his dancers both technically and expressively. The excitement is palpable on both sides of the curtain.