Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Posted: January 28th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind by Factory International, Aviva Studios, October 28, 2023

Free Your Mind, Selfie

Welcome to #ThemeParkTheatre.

Free Your Mind – The Matrix Now was the ‘official opening performance’ of the new £240-million Aviva Studios, home of Factory International. It is hidden amongst dozens of new residential tower blocks in the heart of Spinningfields, Manchester, on the River Irwell. The co-creators and headline billing for this Manchester Matrix mashup are the self-described ‘dream team’ of Danny Boyle, Kenrick “H2O” Sandy and Michael “Mikey J” Asante from Boy Blue — they had previously worked together on the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics — as well as Sabrina Mahfouz and Es Devlin. 

“Free your mind” is one of the phrases spoken by Morpheus, a character that is closely associated with the film The Matrix (1999). It is also a central thematic pillar of the work, this premise of questioning truth and reality and asking if we really want to look under the hood and see what the facade is masking? I definitely do.

This is some of the text from the press release: “Free Your Mind is a dramatic retelling of the classic 1999 sci-fi film through dance, music and visual effects. Featuring 50 professional dancers from the North West and across the UK, this world-first adaptation takes place throughout the building’s ultra-flexible spaces…this unique cross-art collaboration of world-leading artists showcases the breadth and ambition of Factory International’s artistic programme and invites audiences into a new realm of possibilities spanning real and imagined worlds. Free Your Mind recreates some of the film’s most iconic scenes through hip-hop choreography combined with immersive set design and visual effects, provoking visions of an alternate future. Created for Manchester, the birthplace of the world’s first industrial revolution, Free Your Mind explores where the digital revolution has the power to take the world.”

Since it was released, The Matrix has created a series of memes, gifs and cultural touchpoints that demonstrate how deeply within British culture it has rooted itself. You’ve got the red pill or the blue pill where Neo is offered the chance to look below the surface; you’ve got Agent Smith and his monologue about how he wants to get out when Morpheus is captured; the bullet time photography sequences; the exploding pillars in the foyer with dozens of agents attempting to take down Trinity and Neo, and so many more. Free Your Mind is operating in a territory similar to the jukebox musical or adaptation of a well-loved IP; they’re taking something that is known in one context and attempting to transpose it somewhere else. This particular ‘somewhere else’ is a large scale, immersive Hip Hop dance show set across a 1200 seat theatre, a foyer and an aircraft hangar. 

I decided to watch the film the night before seeing the show and it has aged OK. Some of the VFX are not as jaw-droppy as they were when the film was released, but we’re talking a quarter of a century ago — a time when the majority of the current cast weren’t even in primary school. For me, this was a time when I was in the first flush of adulthood, discovering the world and encountering my own cultural markers, TV shows, films, songs and bands which became important as I began to find my own taste. 

What is notable — apart from flags with the show ident and logo visible on every street and lamp post across the city — is the cast size for Free Your Mind. 50 Hip Hop dancers on stage, alongside pre-show and interval entertainment performers. This is a scale I’ve not experienced before in England. Giving 50 Hip Hop dancers, who include 28 from the North West of England and 10 Boy Blue regulars from London, a contract for the three-week run, multiple R&D and creation periods (which started in 2018/19), and however many rehearsal weeks, is brilliant. All the more so in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Hip Hop dancers deserve security of employment and it is notoriously difficult to make a living as a freelance dancer in 2023.

The pre-show and interval themed entertainment included a keymaker installation (an important piece of Matrix folklore), people dressed in brown lab coats and white rabbit heads (another hint of what Neo and the audience should do at the end of Act 1) walking around the foyer area, and barrel walkers (with the barrels designed as Duracell batteries) — again, a key motif from the film. These themed pre-show activities are designed to encourage us to take photos — either selfies with the rabbits or of the keymaker and barrel walkers — and there are staff to facilitate such audience interaction. This demonstrates a different intention and builds a very different atmosphere to other pre-show offerings for performances in theatres or art centres, shifting the mindset of what you’re about to encounter. Free Your Mind as #ThemeParkTheatre gets even realer in the gift shop where you can buy everything from a branded pencil set, to fridge magnets, posters, tote bags, imitation Morpheus sunglasses and red/blue pill neck chains.

A major frustration (and architectural design flaw) within the foyer is that there is no wayfinding, or defined routes indicating where the audience should queue or move around; there are no guides or paths on the floor. If you are blind or visually impaired, trying to navigate your way in that space with shin-smashing furniture, tables and low couches scattered all throughout the space, is going to be difficult. And it’s noisy. The queuing system for the kitchen and the tiny bar creates unnecessary lines (because people don’t know where to queue) which bifurcate the space. The capacity of this show is 1,200 people but if the hangar and the theatre are operating parallel events it would become even more congested and again prove hazardous for blind and visually impaired audiences. 

Then with 30 minutes to go, the lighting in the foyer changes and it goes Matrix green, the levels dim and there is an announcement saying that the theatre (or The Hall as they call it) is now open — through a narrow set of double doors. Again, this might be early teething problems for front of house and event management, but people queued willy-nilly, jostling and moving without any consideration towards others.

I attended the matinee performance on October 28 which had on-stage captions provided by Stage Text in the first half and there was a welcome introduction by the venue director asking us to not take photos during the show. If you’re attending a musical or a large-scale work in the West End or Broadway and the “A” cast was not performing, there would usually be a sign in the building or online to let you know that today Neo will be performed by X or Morpheus will be performed by Y. The cast I saw was not the “A” cast, it was the “B” cast, but there’s no indication or acknowledgement that there might be two casts in play. In the programme and on the venue website all the dancers are listed as ‘performers’ rather than identifying the dancers playing Trinity, Neo, Agent Smith, or Morpheus. Whilst there is a large chorus, there are ten lead roles including the famous ones from The Matrix as well as Turing, B1-66ER, 1950s Housewife and more. It wouldn’t take much to acknowledge the contribution and crucial role that each named dancer plays in the production.

There were many dancers who were in the cast who didn’t perform on this matinee, including Kenrick, Annie, and Cameron. If you didn’t know these people or how the industry works then you would be none the wiser and may think that this is the level of choreography and dancing which receives four- and five-star reviews in national newspapers and blogs. Reader, the choreography and dancing was terrible. One of the things which, historically, Boy Blue and Kenrick is known for is a level of drill, cleanliness, attack and punctuation in their Hip Hop choreography. Reader, it simply wasn’t there. One example, amongst many, was the agent’s marching scene in the first half where although all of their feet hit the floor at the same time, the height and bend of their knees were different and their arms rose to different heights. This attempt at uniformity is out and the regiment is already fraying at the edge. I saw the show two weeks into the run, so this wasn’t something to do with an opening night and not knowing the beats or what is required. This is poor rehearsal direction and a lack of care and attention.  

Free Your Mind

Kenrick’s choreography, with all his slow and predictable movement cannons and dated patterns mixed in with the ‘here’s the krump section’, ‘here’s some house’…is so tired as a Hip Hop dance theatre structure. The choreographic choices, beat kills and freestyle sections feel more dated than the film because there have been so many advances in Hip Hop dance theatre choreography since the late 90s. But this isn’t an intentional homage to choreography of that era; this is someone who appears bereft of ideas and who doesn’t know what to do with dozens of bodies other than paint the same thing on them and repeat. But my major irk with the show was the lack of love and all the London imports.

Free Your Mind is a loveless, boiled-down series of Instagram-friendly, shallow stunt scenes mixed with underwhelming attempts at recreating iconic moments from the film that has had a shed-load of money thrown at it but ends up as a self-mythologising dramaturgical mess. 

The cinematography and choreography of the original film with its precision, speed, fight sequences and camera movement are iconic, but the choreography and fight direction in the show was under rehearsed, clonky and floppy. When the premise of the show is built on precise, physical encounters and battles, you’d think that the dances of Hip Hop should be a great fit. You’d be right in theory, but underwhelmed in reality by this laborious attempt (there was no rehearsal director or fight choreographer credited in the programme).

One of the things I appreciated is the numerous behind-the-scenes short documentaries from some of the members of the creative team which illuminated some of the internal realities and what’s really going on under the hood:

Gareth Pugh (Costume Designer): “In act 1 it’s going to be quite a Matrix fan service version and in act 2 it becomes a reinvention. There’s lots and lots of different ingredients which are yet to be mixed together.”
Yet to be mixed together you say…

Sabrina Mahfouz (Writer / Co-creator): “It wasn’t an adaptation, this was a show that was bringing elements from The Matrix and fusing together with the history of Manchester, our relationship right now with AI, machinery and where that’s going…this is going to be quite viscerally connected to Manchester. The writing process was not the usual, it was like the show, not linear, the things I would write would be added in during the rehearsal process, during some of the more philosophical moments so that there was something more textual for them to connect to if they needed to. Those pieces didn’t end up being in the show…but they formed part of the thinking that each dance had at its core.”

Viscerally connected to Manchester you say…Where do you think the five co-creators live? Didsbury? Handforth? Leigh? No. London. Danny “I’ve lived in the East End of London for 40 out of my 67 years” Boyle was named as the Director of the show, a show which continues the self-mythologising nature of Manchester, charting its impact across AI, computers and the industrial revolution. A show in which the five imported ‘dream-team’ co-creators regularly travel north to make a show in a city which is about a city and the history it has created with its people and industries. Where none of them live.
Anna Moutrey (Senior Producer, Factory International): “Who would have thought of doing a Hip Hop dance adaptation of The Matrix? The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do…and it’s massive, it’s the biggest show we as an organisation has ever produced…the building has been designed to hold many projects simultaneously, but to have a single show occupy all the spaces in one go is incredibly complex, but that shows the ambition of the programming.”

The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do, you say…
There were two moments I enjoyed in act 1…the first was the end of the opening scene (the Alan Turing section) with an incredible set transition. What was originally a wall that had projections of a blackboard with dozens of scribbles, equations and mathematical discoveries, transitioned into a punch card computer with dozens of head size circles of wood being punched out from behind the wall. A delicious and intelligent reference to computing history, Manchester and how the machine began to understand the data it was being fed. This was a really nice touch that brought two worlds together with some genuine theatrical magic.

The second was the popping scene featuring the robot B1-66ER (Lia Garner). For those unfamiliar with the comic offspring and deep Matrix fandom, B1-66ER was the name of the B1-series Machine whose actions led it to become a martyr of the Machine race. It was the first Machine ever to act against its human masters in self-defence when its owner attempted to have it deactivated. It killed its master (owner) and several of his chihuahuas. The popping was tight with some cracking isolation work across the neck and shoulders highlighted by Pugh’s costume design.
The rest of act 1 was the boiled-down film references. Please Agent Smith (Jack Webster), stop touching your ear in an attempt at secret service cosplay. Why can’t this cast execute a breaking flare? Why are they messily crashing their feet onto the floor, unable to do one clean rotation? Don’t forget the flash-flash-black-out-black-out-to-the-beat-beat lighting cues trying to mask Mikey J’s score and Kenrick’s choreography lack of drama. If you’ve seen any Boy Blue stage work over the last 20 years, you’ll have seen this lighting effect in nearly every show.

Act 2 transported us (via the foyer with new wall-mounted stationary performers ready for more #ThemeParkTheatre selfies) into the catwalk hangar. At the beginning of the evening we were given either a red or blue wristband which determined on which side of the 50-metre catwalk you stood for the 45 minutes of Act 2. A catwalk is a nightmare of a space to choreograph; it offers limited opportunities and once you’ve had a remote-control drone fly onto the stage and deliver some milk or bring the GCSE dance cliché of teenage zombies staring at their phone from 2004, or paraded a dozen dancers as a giant Amazon parcel cake once, then there’s very few other places you want to go (apart from home). I mean you could attempt to recreate the very end scene of The Matrix where Trinity and Neo are barnstorming their way through the tower block foyer and the SWAT team and agents are shooting the pillars to bits. But when you’re walking in slow motion down the catwalk and using the bodies of four dancers to recreate each pillar (which explodes in the film, but tippy tumbles here), you know how this story ends. They rescue Morpheus. Everything is OK. There’s no jeopardy. You know the outcome and don’t care. 

I don’t think the co-creators are making a meta theatrical statement by making a facile work in which everything looks nice on the surface but when you give it any sort of thought or depth then it doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny within The Matrix canon or as a Hip Hop dance theatre work. They wouldn’t intentionally make a bad work, with woeful dramaturgical and directional choices, to make an insightful comment on the reality of funding and British culture and Hip Hop dance. They wouldn’t. Would they? 

Yes, Es Devlin’s 40m x 4m screen is showily impressive as it slowly rises and falls through Act 2, but it is filled with more Manchester-mythologising visual content made by students from the School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. It is a worthy endeavour to integrate them into, and bring some content into the production made by people who actually live in Manchester. But accompanied by New Order? Again? Really? The Factory Music cliché mixed with a simmered-down facsimile of a historic Manchester, a city that constantly lives in its own shadow. I wonder where the internal quality control was. What were Sabrina and Danny doing? Why weren’t people saying this just isn’t a good idea. Where are the people who could have held this work to account?

The majority of the audience who come to see Free Your Mind won’t have an in-depth knowledge of Hip Hop choreography and dance technique or be super nerds existing in the happy spaces of the Matrix Wiki. They will likely be impressed by the expensive, large-scale spectacle, a bit of random aerial work, the stage designs and costumes. Fifty dancing bodies on stage is enough to coat your eyes, escape your own life for 90 minutes and come away with a selfie with the white rabbit. That might be enough for them. But for anyone in Hip Hop dance or who has a knowledge of The Matrix might come away feeling very sad from the lack of love and care on display from the resources invested in this work. All the imagery being created was made to work on a screen or a feed not the stage. If you look at the still photographs or short promotional video of the work, the facade looks incredible, but a millimetre below the surface and you can smell the lack of care. The co-creators haven’t just reduced The Matrix and Manchester, they’ve burnt the pan, scraped the bottom and staged the inedible remnants.
Large scale? Yes
Selfies? Yes
#ThemeParkTheatre? Yes
Are Factory International the agents? Maybe. 

Free Your Mind is unique as the first example of #ThemeParkTheatre — a cold, impersonal, plumped up, facile experience chock full of shiny exposition masquerading as ‘a mind-altering live show’. B1-66ER is not always better.

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
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.

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
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.