Dance Umbrella 2017: Out of the System

Posted: November 14th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella 2017: Out of the System

Dance Umbrella 2017, Out of the System, Rich Mix, October 16

Asha Thomas and Yinka Esi Graves in Clay (photo: Pari Naderi)

In another creative twist in the development of Dance Umbrella under the artistic direction of Emma Gladstone, Out of the System is a mini festival within the festival curated by guest programmer, Freddie Opoku-Addaie. He describes the title as a metaphor for the presence of diverse dance cultures within vocational and non-vocational structures outside the regular framework of dance presentation — not to mention the inclusion of bands Yaaba Funk & DJ Kweku Aacht, and Kioko who perform on successive evenings. It is also, like the Shoreditch Takeover, a crossover between dance curation and building management; this one involves four distinct works by artists from five countries in three different spaces within Rich Mix over two nights (which is a shame, as I miss Alesandra Seutin’s Across The Souvenir). Both here and at the Town Hall the programs weave together loose associations with what we might consider to be dance and turn them into a wealth of experience that can change that perception profoundly. There is a sense of open-ended raw material here, even if the works are finished: La Macana’s Ven seems to arise directly out of the audience; Sello Pesa’s After Tears throws time out of the window, and the improvisational energy of Asha Thomas and Yinka Esi Graves in Clay wants to break out of the confines of the stage and take over the entire floor.

I had seen Ven two years ago at Costa Contemporánea in Andalucia, and it is one of those works that can bury itself in the recesses of your memory and come out again unchanged. The intricate timing of the interaction between Caterina Varela and Alexis Fernández is breathtaking but it is also polished: it has to be. They are like two circus performers who eschew trapeze and ropes for the instruments of their own bodies; they climb on each other, jump on each other, lift each other, balance and counterbalance in a defiant flow of impossibility that resolves through the strength and sensitivity of their well-honed skills. Against such precision, the couple’s apparent nonchalance is matched by the delightfully offbeat songs of Einstuerzende Neubauten.

Sello Pesa’s After Tears undoes all preconceptions. Described as an investigation of ‘the mourning process and the strategies people use in order to cope with death’, it’s like a private ritual to which the Soweto-born Pesa has invited us. He makes no pretense of a performance as he practices yoga on a red rug at the entrance to the third-floor space; we aren’t sure if this is part of the work, so we watch until we are ushered through the door to pick up a folding chair and wait behind a curved shoreline of red tape. In his own time Pesa moves his rug into the space with a pair of boots, a couple of crates of beer and a transistor radio playing a local station as the central focus and sole source of sound. Pesa gives an eerie sense we aren’t in the same room and yet his trance-like presence is all-pervasive. He rolls himself up in the rug and lies like the deceased, but then wears the rug around his shoulders and his head like an enigmatic, animated spiritual guide before bludgeoning it with fists and boots to mark his resolve. He seems to span both the realms of the living and the dead so as to come to grips with the inner conflict of the ‘South African tradition of returning a person’s spirit to its rightful destination’. Utterly compelling, After Tears returns dance to its ritual roots, revealing new dimensions in both movement and performance.

There is little doubt, however, about the performative nature of the collaboration between Asha Thomas and Yinka Esi Graves in Clay. Whatever inner resources well up from within their minds and bodies are fully expressed in energetic and sensual form. The collaboration between an American contemporary dancer with Southern Baptist genes and a British flamenco dancer with roots in Jamaica and Ghana is just the beginning; what they share goes beyond their recent origins to ‘explore the connections between who they believe themselves to be, and the unconscious parts that make up who they are’. As they play off each other’s physical styles and sartorial taste, their individuality merges with an infectious sense of delight at the connections made — a body percussion sequence with guitarist Guillermo Guillén borders on the ecstatic — and like old friends they can complete each other’s rhythmic phrases. But there’s more here; we tend to think of flamenco as a Spanish phenomenon with Moorish origins, but recent research suggests a link, through the rhythmic musical structures, to the Spanish slave trade with the New World. In Clay, images of flamenco merge with South American religious iconography as Thomas adorns Graves as a participant in a Holy Week procession and wheels her across the stage. The two women finish playfully to Guillén’s accompaniment, like two sisters from the distant past revelling in their common roots.

I first heard Opoku-Addaie before I saw him, in a performance of Silence Speaks Volumes at BDE 2010 where his blood-curdling roar from the behind the audience announced his entrance. His voice has again preceded the choreographic action, this time not his own but of his own choosing. May the experiment continue.

Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere

Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere, Rich Mix, October 9

Jamila Johnson-Small in i ride in colour, no longer anywhere (photo:

Jamila Johnson-Small in i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

We need limitations and temptations to open our inner selves, dispel our ignorance, tear off disguises, throw down old idols, and destroy false standards.” – Helen Keller

What happens when an edge is invited to the centre?

Jamila Johnson-Small premiered her new solo work i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere at this year’s Dance Umbrella. Prior to the festival she was the subject of an in-depth portrait by Lyndsey Winship where Johnson-Small said: “I guess I still have my fantasies about not selling out.” Having encountered some of her other collaborative performance guises (Project O and immigrants and animals) I was curious to see the distillation of a solo voice and how it would manifest.

There’s a tension when an edge meets a centre. Nearly a month after I left Johnson-Small’s performance at Rich Mix I’m still carrying it, unable to shift it; there’s something inside this work that will not settle. It’s a work of resistance. One thing that tingles is the still image of Johnson-Small’s back as she is lying on the floor, head nestled in her arms, facing the same way as the projected images we’re watching. Her choice to stay on the stage, to be still and not remove herself from our gaze stays with me. This is her domain and we are guests who are fleetingly present and then disappear; she will remain. The projected film is full of deconstructed limbs twitching, rotating and removed from the baby-pink hooded torso of the architect of our experience. The edge and centre are in play again.

The need for change bulldozed a road down the centre of my mind.” – Maya Angelou

The lighting design by Jackie Shemesh tightly frames Johnson-Small for the first 25 minutes, isolating her body and framing legs and torso with hands bobbing amongst the shards of sidelight. Existing in a one-metre radius of space Johnson-Small is a groove finder and beat rider with a muted knee bounce despite encouragement from the score emanating from the towering sound system like a stage left shadow. With an 8-foot space rock fixed and glinting stage right the scenography and performance slowly suffocate the space.

What do you do when you meet a wall? How do you navigate it? This is what I’ve been wrestling with and I’m left in a void of emotion; I’m unsure which way my response faces. A resistance and tension were present and there’s the smell of a bristling Beckett character who is here yet not here, who acknowledges us but doesn’t necessarily want us to be here. However, something keeps whirring. i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere is hard to define. It’s not full of virtuosic or pre-supposed ideas of beautiful dancing; it’s numbed, reflecting different emotional states and different ways of being in this world.

The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps.” – Bob Black

Although it may feel like a stand-off with neither of us yielding attention, I think what I’ve encountered is an archive of the self. How does Johnson-Small not let her edge be pulled to the centre but still accept the offer and associated profile that comes with a premiere at Dance Umbrella? How do I let i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere enter my own archive? It’s currently resisting the established classification, so maybe I need to build a new space for it — closer to the edge.

Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit

Posted: February 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit

Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit, Venue 2, Rich Mix, February 20

Rhiannon Faith and Maddy Morgan in Scary Shit (photo: Tina Remiz)

Rhiannon Faith and Maddy Morgan in Scary Shit (photo: Tina Remiz)

Admittedly you might not invite your young children to a show called Scary Shit, but at first glance the brightly-coloured poster of Maddy Morgan and Rhiannon Faith cavorting on soft fuzzy cubes in an AstroTurf green field might indicate a fun romp for young audiences until you notice the tampon falling from the sky on a parachute and a recommended age limit of 16+ right under the venue and date. On the other hand, as a 16+ theatregoer you might not even consider attending Scary Shit just because the image appears to be aimed at young audiences. It’s a marketing conundrum, for while the image reveals the means by which Morgan and Faith arrive at their goal, it doesn’t prepare you for the goal itself. But that is the nature of Scary Shit: the comic naivety of Alice Barbero’s colours, costumes and props is a deliberate antidote to the maturity of the content about the shared phobias and insecurities of the two women. By the end you are wondering how they drew you so unsparingly into their innermost thoughts while play-acting with a pink telephone, a pink plastic poncho, a water pistol, and red inflatable boxing gloves. You go in the ‘Silly’ door and come out profoundly moved.

The context of Scary Shit is Faith and Morgan’s introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) through the psychologist Joy Griffiths ‘in order to learn more about themselves and maybe, just maybe, find a future free of fear.’ The focus at first is on Faith; she sits on a (pink) throne, her coronet emblem hanging on the (pink) Scary Shit heart above her head. She is holding an oxygen mask to her mouth as Morgan duly pumps air into it from a (pink) foot pump. Morgan has the mien of the put-upon, hard-pressed, underpaid, under-appreciated drudge of a royal hypochondriac, but Faith is too preoccupied by her phobias to entertain delusions of grandeur. She and Morgan recite some of the A-list phobias from Arachibutyrophobia (fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth) to Necrophobia (fear of dead people) but Faith’s real phobia is talking on the telephone with unknown people as a result of a traumatic telephone dumping. She relives the guided revisualization Griffiths (who happens to be Faith’s mother-in-law) suggested as therapy, starting with an introduction to CBT in a fight-or-flight sequence with Morgan that resembles an in-flight demonstration. Movements were suggested (so I learned later) by viewing body language filmed during the therapy sessions.

Morgan at this point begins to differentiate her phobia from Faith’s by marking out her own small square of red tape and standing in it; she has not intimated what her phobia is but she demonstrates innocently enough some of her father’s sailor’s knots. While continuing to act as Faith’s sidekick — helping her to illustrate a dry hump during Faith’s story of losing her virginity — we sense a frustration building up inside her as she tells her own story and dances her darkness behind a suspended balloon covered with tangled knots that bears an uncanny resemblance to a brain or a womb. As Faith’s self-confidence and her smutty-mouth returns, she takes on the topic of fertility but her attention (and ours) is drawn to Morgan’s predicament. Faith plays Puccini’s aria, O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi to calm her down but Morgan steps into her ring wearing the inflatable boxing gloves. At a loss, Faith tries everything from cock jokes to a funny dance get her to talk and after a while she does, reciting a bruisingly personal poem with the refrain, Baby Box Blood Bath, about her periods in which no blood is running. Griffiths’ calming voice returns, Morgan pops the knotted balloon, she and Faith wrap up the bloody remains in the pink poncho like garbage to be thrown out and do breathing exercises on the creaky throne. The audience is absolutely silent.

Like the therapy that underlies it, the superficial appearance of Scary Shit may be an unpalatable or unattractive prospect, but after seeing the performance you may well feel restored, patched up and grateful for the experiences of these two generous, unwitting clowns. Or you may prefer to keep everything knotted up inside like Morgan until it pops. Like all good theatre, Scary Shit offers a cathartic lift for the head and heart.

Scary Shit will be at The Pleasance on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 February at 7:30

Hetain Patel: Be Like Water

Posted: February 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hetain Patel: Be Like Water

Hetain Patel: Be Like Water, Rich Mix, February 2

Hetain Patel in Be Like Water

As with the popular evolution of wine, dance has gone from its traditional forms through international styles to ethnic cross-fertilization. Hetain Patel’s Be Like Water is such a delight that it reminds me of a recent comment by a wine writer who said that thirty years ago the idea of the best-tasting burgundy coming from Hungary would have been unthinkable. Be Like Water’s humour and intelligence, conceived as a Bruce Lee-inspired autobiographical fragment by a Bolton-bred first generation Indian video artist and a Taiwanese dancer, make it one of the most refreshing works I have seen in a long time.

Patel is a visual artist whose video installation To Dance Like Your Dad was included at Dance Umbrella last year. Parts of that installation find their way into Be Like Water, which was originally conceived as a video work but passed through several transformations before emerging as a dance theatre work with a multitude of elements and a deceptively simple path. All credit to Patel and Yuyu Rau for the text, and to Eva Martinez and Michael Pinchbeck for the dramaturgy, seamlessly weaving together a video tour of father Patel’s coach building factory with the son’s superimposed guide to his stage set, Bruce Lee with the erhu, China with Bolton and Kung Fu moves with Rau’s spirited solo of childlike enthusiasm that closes the performance.

As varied and beautiful as the individual elements of Be Like Water are, what ultimately holds it all together is the theme, which is contained in the title. In his To Dance Like Your Dad, Patel is clearly in awe of his father, and in Be Like Water he conjures out of the air the words Every now and then in my life I have tried to be like my father. Trying to be someone else has its hazards: as a student Patel adopts a fake Indian accent and grows his hair and moustache like his father which allow him to get a discount in Indian stores but he finds the moustache is so out of proportion to his own face that it makes him forget who or what he is trying to be. In imitating Bruce Lee he ends up in a police station for disorderly behaviour delivering a kick to a dustbin in the street (an action picked up ironically on CCTV). On a residency in China he learns a paragraph of Chinese from a Chinese woman, but discovers that he has picked up his teacher’s inflections (Patel has a particularly acute sense of mimicry) that make him sound to the Chinese like a woman. Throughout the work, Patel uses his self-awareness and humour to reveal these inconsistencies of expression through anecdote and well-conceived video work (with the aid of digital artist, Barret Hodgson).

At the beginning he speaks in Chinese — to avoid any assumptions, he says, about his northern accent — and Rau translates into English. He then admits what we have begun to suspect, that he only knows one short paragraph of Chinese that he repeats on all subsequent occasions with varying emphasis while Rau dissembles by delivering a consistent English text. Patel thus wraps himself up in disguises that fool nobody but himself. On the other hand, one senses his father, an Indian immigrant who speaks with a broad Bolton accent, has no need of disguise and is very much himself. Rau reminds us that Bruce Lee found in Kung Fu the only way he could most honestly express himself and Rau herself learned classical ballet as a child in Taiwan but only when she started studying contemporary dance in London did she find her true expression (which makes her final solo dance to erhu accompaniment so poignant). Patel’s moment of realization seems to come as he sits listening to Ling Peng ‘translate’ his Chinese into notes on the erhu. As Ling Peng plays (beautifully), a live projection of her hands on the bow arching across the strings expresses the oneness that exists between musician and instrument. It is as if Patel himself finds his voice in soaking up the influences of his collaborators, in assimilating his own experiences and in reaching his conclusions; he becomes one with his work. Be Like Water has the wisdom of a modern fable, expressed imaginatively and generously, speaking to us all.

Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu: a rich mix

Posted: May 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu: a rich mix

Akademi presents Arunima Kumar and Shane Shambhu at RichMix, April 28.

The evening offered a rich and thought-provoking comparison of the ways these two artists, both trained in classical dance (Kumar in kuchipudi, Shambhu in bharatanatyam), have chosen to interpret their respective dance form for today’s audiences.

Kumar uses her remarkable qualities and her understanding of the dance to reveal the essence of classical form in a contemporary creation. From the moment the lights pick out the crimson presence of Kumar in her latest work, AUM kara, a sense of mystery prevails. She seems to dance from a point of stillness around which her arms and hands are fluid expressions. Connected powerfully to the floor, her body is nevertheless lightness itself and her eyes remain calm and reverent in the face of divinity.

In DHeeM – Dance of the sculpture, the subject is well chosen, for the sculptural qualities of grace, beauty, rhythm and ecstasy are those that Kumar inherently possesses. Her torso is again held in total control, like a block of stone out of which the emotional body emerges. There is a feel of love and compassion, and a deep contentment – even ecstasy – while her physical and rhythmical mastery remains supreme. There is something more of Kumar herself here, which may be a subtle evolution in her creative approach.

In her final offering, Maheshwara – Celebrating Shiva, Kumar chooses a piece of traditional choreography by Padmashri Guru Jaya Rama Rao in which she gives full expression to her virtuoso technique. It is a revelation how such a small gesture as the opening of a hand can be magnified into an event of breathtaking power. Throughout her dances, Kumar’s beautiful shapes and mastery of every fine detail are a joy to watch.

Classical dance, whatever its roots, carries with it a cultural identity. In Pogunilla, Shane Shambhu explores how deeply ingrained such identity is. Symbolically, he divests himself of his outer robes to reveal a shirt and jeans. It is the beginning of a journey in which he re-choreographs a section from a well-known classical bharatanatyam work in a contemporary idiom. The contrast with Kumar’s classical form is revealing. Shambhu’s body is more relaxed, his centre more fluid, and his gestural conversation is more informal. Kumar’s dance is essentially upright, whereas Shambhu’s is in all directions, engaging the floor in ways that would be unthinkable in classical form. Shambhu relishes this freedom of movement, but if the outer form has changed, his cultural and religious attitude has not. This is what he cannot escape.

In his second work of the evening, Dr Jagad & Mr Haridas, Shambhu is in full theatrical mode, with a table of phials, a chart of scribbled formulae and a plastic rat that suffers a squelchy death. In this retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story with a DNA twist, the point at which Dr Jagad creates his alter ego, Mr Haridas, in the laboratory is where the dance begins. Finding new forms to portray psychological drama is the fertile ground of contemporary dance and Shambhu experiments with the DNA of bharatanatyam to this end with great conviction.

Since the evening’s works inevitably invite a comparison of the approaches of these two artists, it is this: Kumar keeps her subject matter – and her music –close to the roots of her cultural and spiritual heritage, and even when she creates a work, her form is never far from an expression of classical dance. Shambhu, by contrast, thrusts himself into a contemporary situation and challenges himself to devise a grammar that is pertinent to his narrative. Both approaches are valid, and each brings to the stage a living response to the cultural and spiritual heritage they share.