Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon

Posted: August 12th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon

Martin del Amo, Paul White, Anatomy of an Afternoon, Purcell Room, July 11

Paul White in Martin del Amo's Anatomy of an Afternoon (photo:

Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon (photo:

While other dancers have portrayed Vaslav Nijinsky or danced his roles, Paul White is perhaps the only one whose expressive palette can approach that androgynous, feral quality that haunts the extraordinary images of ‘the god of the dance.’ Last year White appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, a work inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky had first choreographed one hundred years before. Tankard’s treatment and White’s performance were as much an exploration of the music as they were of the ‘conflicting forces of nature and man, masculinity and femininity, violence and nurturing, strength and vulnerability’ in Nijinsky himself.

This year White returned to the Southbank with Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon, loosely based on Nijinsky’s first choreographic work, the 1912 L’Après-midi d’un Faune in which he himself danced the faun. By divorcing his work from Claude Debussy’s original music Del Amo focuses on the nature of Nijinsky’s role, leading White that much closer to a portrayal of the man himself. In this sense, for those who were fortunate enough to see it, Tankard’s treatment of Nijinsky in the person of White prepares us for Del Amo’s treatment of White as Nijinsky and it is the interpretive qualities of White make both works not only rich but deeply moving.

In Nijinsky’s original work, an indolent faun is aroused by the sight of nymphs; one in particular becomes the object of his desire. In Anatomy of an Afternoon Del Amo takes away the object of the faun’s desire and directs it inward; the object of desire becomes White himself, who, while acknowledging the presence of the audience, maintains a cat-like aloofness from our attention (an attention heightened perhaps by an update email from the customer relations officer at Southbank Centre advising that the performance ‘contains some nudity’). Del Amo and White thus lead us on our own reverie, and it is not the performer that is unclothed in the process but the audience.

The score for Anatomy of an Afternoon is composed by Mark Bradshaw for a trio of musicians: Ivan Cheng on clarinet, Nic de Jong on laptop (for the field recordings and sound collage) and Adam Dickson on celeste. It makes for a rather other-worldly soundscape that fits the subject, ’that mysterious in-between-time, that lengthy period during the day which continues what the morning has set in motion and the evening hasn’t yet concluded – a time full of possibility and promise’ in which Nijinsky/White has ample room to reveal his enigmatic nature.

The choreography has already begun by the time we enter the auditorium. White in a pale green t-shirt and beige jeans is dreamily looking up into a spotlight like the Little Prince looking at a star. The three musicians are also at rest, grouped around the celeste just to his side. White’s movement is minimal, more studied animal than human, with time to concentrate or simply gaze. Part of the research for the work involved two visits to the zoo and White is clearly the focus of our attention like the prize leopard that fails at first to move in the way we expect. White’s head and eyes change focus but his body remains still as the audience fidgets and shuffles to their seats. As stillness and silence finally descend, the door opens to let a latecomer in despite the warnings that latecomers will not be admitted. Who would want to miss this performance?

The celeste player seems poised to begin but White waits a little longer for the audience to resettle. He looks away over his left shoulder, to the front, frowning, peering forward, head back, impassive, his left hand feeling the space to his side, his eyes and head following. The arms rest, the head returns to neutral and his feet still haven’t moved. As he sees White’s hand coming through his field of vision Dickson plays the first notes on the celeste. As White begins to move we see his animal posture and gestures but can’t help interpret them as human. Del Amo and White play this parallel ambiguity beautifully and it is enhanced by White’s prodigious strength and control. His feline quality is broken only once when he pounces on an invisible foe with an uncharacteristically heavy landing; he licks his thumb then balances on his haunches transmitting weight from one foot to the other without the least apparent effort. There are quotes from the Nijinsky faun, turned in and sideways both upside down and on his feet, in a lazy yawn and in his unselfconscious sexual arousal that leads from his undressing (to his underwear) to lying down on his own t-shirt in a consummation of desire. It is soon after this, towards the end of the work, that White  sheds the duality of his role unequivocally; we have been watching him behind imaginary bars but the animal now becomes all too human as the sweat glistens on his back and the exertion of the performance begins to tell. He returns to his initial movements, a weary but still clearly articulated, introspective act in a public space. As the lights go down he stands frowning at the audience as if he is waking from a dream and is uncomfortable at being observed.

Tanja Liedtke: Life in Movement

Posted: August 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tanja Liedtke: Life in Movement

Life in Movement, directed by Bryan Mason, produced by Closer Productions.

The news of Nigel Charnock’s untimely death has prompted me to finish writing about a film released last year in Australia about an artist who died too young to reach her full maturity: the German-born dancer and choreographer, Tanja Liedtke. Charnock and Liedtke perhaps knew each other, almost certainly knew of each other. They were in many ways kindred spirits: performance for both was a way of life and movement was their language. Coincidentally, each at one point in their lives found expression for their talents in DV8 Physical Theatre. The award-winning film, Life in Movement, directed by Bryan Mason for Closer Productions, is a memorial to Liedtke, who was at the time of her death about to take up the directorship of Sydney Dance Company. At the same time the film is about what remains: the lives of those closest to her, the dancers with whom she worked and the handful of works she created.

The film begins with one of Liedtke’s earliest memories: “People used to ask what do you want to be when you’re older? I was three at the time and I said I really want to be a flower. I didn’t understand that wasn’t possible. Then I went to see my neighbour in a school concert, a really little production of the Waltz of the Flowers and they had these tutus and things on their heads and they were flowers and they were dancing and I said, oh, all these adults telling me I can’t be a flower, but I can; I’ve seen it happen.”

She died at 29, hit by a garbage truck in the early hours of the morning near her home in Sydney.

The film cuts between performance clips of her works to reminiscences of her dancers, from her family to clips of her improvising and clowning in front of the camera in her living room, a hotel room, a bathroom or a studio. There is a beautifully sinuous and playful quality to her movement, but there can also be a ruthless self-criticism, as when she slaps her face repeatedly to the refrain of ‘pull yourself together’. Here is someone whose diary consisted of fragments she would haul up from somewhere deeply anchored in her life and express in movement. Life in Movement shows clearly how these fragments wove themselves into the fabric of her work, which gave it a unique quality that was – and remains – universal. There is a clip of Liedtke that recurs throughout the film: she has a bag on her head. She is talking through the bag: “So this is all about baggage. I’m wearing it at the moment. I’m right inside it. In fact I’m consumed by it. But I have hope.”

Liedtke was born in 1977 in Stuttgart. Her family moved to Spain where she started dance classes, then moved to the UK where she was accepted into Elmhurst Ballet School. Theo Clinkard, who met her at Elmhurst, said she was an outsider from the beginning, but some grainy clips from that time show an unusually bright and creative force. Once she knew she wanted to express herself in contemporary dance, she spent a year at the Rambert School before moving to Australia where she joined Australian Dance Theatre in 1999. In 2003 she returned to England to join DV8, for whom she appeared in Just for Show as the incomparable compere and in The Cost of Living. Lloyd Newson’s comment that ‘This woman was not going to say no to any challenge” was prophetic.

Returning to Australia to work on her own choreographic projects, she gathered around her a small, unified and dedicated group of dancers (Amelia McQueen, Kristina Chan, Anton, Paul White, Julian Crotti) for whom she created her two major works, Twelfth Floor and Construct. Twelfth Floor explores forced cohabitation, how people react and deal with it, based on the eight years Liedtke had spent in various boarding school establishments. Construct is about what we construct in our lives, a journey to find a dream place, though it may not be what you think it will be. It is a lovely insight into how we go about building our lives. For Liedtke, there was no differentiation between life and dance. “Whatever is happening, you put it into your work.”

She and her partner, Sol Ulbrich, made these projects happen. Ulbrich was producer, stage manager, tour manager and rehearsal director, while Liedtke was the creative force and motivator. What the interviews with her dancers reveal is how Liedtke drew out the best in them, sometimes under duress, and how difficult it was for them to keep that sense of unity after her death. Chan, a beautiful dancer in her own right, said she had found the person with whom she had wanted to work for the rest of her life; how sad that she would never be able to work with her again. Crotti expressed the difficulty of going from someone whom he trusted with the final say to taking direction from a lot of people. He perhaps understated the case when he added it was an ‘interesting transition’. The film is honest enough to expose these and other tensions and fissures. As Ulbrich says, “What are you going to do when someone who formed the group, led the group, inspired the group and had vision for the group is no longer there?” An image, the film suggests, like a lighthouse that loses its light.

What is left is the work itself, which is still luminous. London audiences were privileged to see Liedtke perform in her own work in 2007, when her company performed Twelfth Floor at Southbank Centre (look for a wonderful clip of her performing on what looks like a small rectangle of green, her hands like hummingbirds, her body’s motion inexpressibly beautiful). Eighteen months after her death Ulbrich remounted Construct and Twelfth Floor for a final tour to share her work with those who hadn’t yet seen it. One stop was London in March 2009 and the final performance took place in Stuttgart, Liedtke’s birthplace.

Crotti said of Liedtke’s work: “As an artist, if you put all you have into everything you do, then you are in it, your story is in it. So when she left, there she was in the work. It was an amazing dedication, an amazing life that she was able to do that.” I would add that not only is she there in her work, but her dancers demonstrate to what extent her work is in them. To see the film is to be awed by the unity of inspiration and performance, of vision and execution. In the final clip from the final performance of Twelfth Floor, Chan comes back on stage through a door, climbs the wall and disappears over the top into the dark: it is a metaphor for Liedtke’s all too brief exit from a life of inspired movement.

Official trailer for the film

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