Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

Posted: April 13th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on aspects of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre

On portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre, Spring 2020

Hip Hop Theatre. Botis Seva's BLKDOG
Shangomola Edunjobi in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

This early 2020 reflection on portrayals, examples and manifestations of masculinity in Hip Hop dance theatre presented across England was originally going to be longer; I had planned to feature eight works presented in different part of the country — in itself an indication of the community’s rude health — that could inspire a wider conversation around similar themes. But with coronavirus taking hold of and effectively shutting down the social fabric, my plan has been reduced to four pre-coronavirus works: Caravan Social Night 7 – The Soulquariains Tribute Edition by Caravan/Chris Reyes at Richmix on January 25; Far From the Norm/Botis Seva’s BLKDOG at Warwick Arts Centre on February 11; Company Nil/Daniel Phung’s Blowin’ in the Wind at Richmix on February 14, and Let’s Shine Mentorship Programme presented by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Vaults on March 14. Those I was unable to include are Artists 4 Artists showcase in Gloucester presented by Strike A Light featuring Happy Father’s Day by Dani Harris-Walters; Fig Leaf by Joshua ‘Vendetta’ Nash, and Man Up by Kloe Dean on March 17, and Born To Manifest by Just Us Dance Theatre at The Courtyard, Hereford on March 26. 

There are a number of journal articles and books looking at masculinity, Hip Hop culture and dance; some of those that have informed my thinking are: Toby S. Jenkins A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture from 2011’s Journal of Black Studies; Sara LaBoskey’s Getting Off: Portrayals of Masculinity in Hip Hop Dance in Film from 2001’s Dance Research Journal; Mina Yang’s Yellow Skin, White Masks from 2013’s Daedalus, and Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón’s Graffiti Grrlz published by New York University Press in 2018.

Sat amongst this, the Producer/Writer Tobi Kyeremateng (@bobimono) published a three-tweet thread on March 1 which feels more reflective of the dialogue, complexity and intersectionality currently in play at the edges of masculinity and race and although she wasn’t explicitly citing Hip Hop dance theatre it could be read in that way: 

“i’m more and more certain that i’m really not interested in creating or producing work on “the Black experience” that isn’t specific in its focus, pushes Blackness into a monolith or isn’t saying anything new or different or interesting. 
“afros, growing up in ends, road life, knife crime, Black girl magic, masculinity – all incredibly nuanced, but it doesn’t feel like artists are being challenged to push themselves to think about different and creative ways we can talk about these topics”
“also don’t care for respectability work either lol like two ends of the same spectrum”   

In early 2019 Botis Seva talked about the influence — on the early incarnations of his BLKDOG — of Sally Brampton’s compelling and graphic Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression; in it she charts reflectively a depiction of her own isolation, incarceration, addiction and patterns of repeated abusive behaviour (which feels even more resonant in our current situation). This book influenced some of the original thinking and continues to inform the choreographic axis of the now-70-minute version of BLKDOG, co-produced by Sadler’s Wells.

After winning the April 2019 Olivier award for the 20-minute version, the task facing Seva was to build, flesh out and construct this first of seven performance dates across England in Spring 2020; it is framed as ‘Botis Seva’s BLKDOG’ and not as authored collectively by his company, Far From the Norm. This foregrounding of founder and prominence of the auteur/creator/name is a growing London trend (hello Tony Adigun’s Avant Garde Dance and Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance) which in some way feeds a masculine ego — I don’t see Kloe Dean’s Myself UK Dance Company or Vicki Igbokwe’s Uchenna Dance — whilst backgrounding all the other people in the company who have fed into the process.

BLKDOG self describes as: ‘A genre-defying blend of hip hop dance and free-form anticsexploring the inner battlefield of an ageing artist trying to retain his youth. Performed by Seva’s powerhouse company, Far From The Norm, BLKDOG searches for coping mechanisms in the ultimate hunt for acceptance. Vital and gripping, BLKDOG is Botis Seva’s haunting commentary on surviving adulthood as a childlike artist.’ 

There are two tracts that BLKDOG explores; isolation as violence and, leading off from that, dance as violence on the self. A body placed in isolation deteriorates physically and emotionally; it fractures and is unable to heal. Shoot the Damn Dog offers an account of personal proximity to trauma, whereas BLKDOG offers an account of personal proximity to isolation. As an accompanying text — although Seva doesn’t foreground it in the programme notes or marketing copy — Shoot the Damn Dog is an illuminating portal for his thinking. With six dancers on stage (Jordan Douglas, Joshua Nash, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi, Naima Souhair and understudy Hayleigh Sellors, who replaced the injured Ezra Owen with 24 hours’ notice), BLKDOG is a work of two states and two halves that is clearly still in progress; with a second half dressed in dinosaur onesies and crowns (courtesy of Ryan Dawson Laight) straight out of Where The Wild Things Are, the first half is visually reminiscent of fresh 1970s asylum threads with bespoke quilted hoods. 

Seva has honed and expanded some of the choreographic palette and visual devices (gun toting/pointing and the duckwalkesque ‘nibbles’ that scuttle) from Madhead, his commission for the National Youth Dance Company in Summer 2019. The first half is the foundation of the original Olivier award-winning work demonstrating some of Seva’s core strengths: building rich and interesting choreographic movements that challenge the preconceptions of the dancing body. I like this focus on the half space. If level 1 is work/bodies on the floor, and level 2 is full verticality, there are oodles of sequences where the dancers are existing at level 1.5, demonstrating a gluteal strength and a bodily duality that is neither one thing nor the other —  ready to spring or ready to collapse. It is this space that Seva likes to inhabit as he deflects choreographic boxes and boundaries into which his ‘free form antics’ do not neatly fit.

Long-term music collaborator Torben Lars Sylvester (Seva’s whole creative team is male apart from producer Lee Griffiths) spoke in the post-show conversation of the process of one-upping each other, finding patterns, inflexions and musicalities that the dancers could ride and that would in turn cause him to build extra tracks and layers into the score to create an additional mood for the dancers. Thinking back on the work three days later (when I wrote this and now six weeks later in revisions) I cannot recall the score or any of the emotional drivers behind it.

The proximity of choreographic isolation in both time and relationship for each dancer ensures they do not infect those around them; like a virus they remain immune to each other. There is no being influenced or influencing, and apart from the last 10 minutes when Jordan Douglas really shines brighter, hits harder and erupts, the cast of six are diminished and muted; either in their cumulative number or choreographic difference. We have six ones, rather than one six. 

If this is the first time you’ve seen Far From the Norm in a theatre — and for those non-London audiences it is quite possible — what you will encounter is a band of dancers who are fiercely committed and deliver a slippery blend of choreographic putty under the guidance of the good ship Seva. The first time you see a Norm it is refreshing; you’re in the presence of a set of dancers that don’t look like Hip Hop, don’t look like contemporary dance and don’t look familiar — they are defined by what they are not. Seva is isolating himself from easy choreographic definition and at the same time making a choreographic lineage hard to attribute or to see where the seeds of his influence(s) will fall next. 

Heavy is the Head is the last track before the show begins and Ultralight Beam is the first track after the no-bow; we have BLKDOG as the filling in a Kanye and Stormzy masculinity sandwich. However, having seen six of his works since 2015/16, including his break-out work Reck, it feels like Seva’s choreographic language is intact; he still has a knack of creating unusual moments, motifs and visual food, but (I may be incarcerated by my/his own expectations) five years down the road his ability to sustain interest, to shift a mood or shake a mono dynamic, to think of an audience as a complex layered entity able to receive multiple signals and modes of address, needs further development. He’s in his own suburbs. 

It’s worth reiterating that this was the first show of the tour that should (coronavirus permitting) continue touring into Autumn 2020, and as a work tours and beds in with new audiences it will shift and be modified. I look forward to meeting BLKDOG again at a later junction.

Presented and commissioned by Chinese Arts Now, Daniel Phung/Company Nil’s work Blowin in the Wind self describes as: ‘…a powerful and dynamic dance theatre piece addressing the complexity of the current patriarchal society, it challenges our perspective on ‘power’. Four characters who are forced to place their ‘power’ within patriarchy, use mind blowing Contemporary and Hip Hop dance (emphasis is mine) to take you through multiple episodes of masculinity: Sensitivity, emotion, conflict, aggression and adolescence. It is an emotional response to these following questions: What is masculinity? Does masculinity exist? What is cultural masculinity? Does cultural masculinity exist?’

This is the first full-length work Phung has created, and these are some large claims and questions he attempts to answer with four performers in several episodes over 50 minutes. Either the questions are so grandiose that they are impossible to answer or are so simplistic that we’ve heard them before. There are a few nice sketches and motifs — mainly featuring Fern Grimbley who has a physical elasticity and watchabilty that warrants a deeper choreographic challenge — but a tender wrestling duet in which two people try to wear the same jacket is indicative of Blowin’ in the Wind’s facile representation. It offers a 2D stereotypical masculinity that belongs in the Daily Mail with little thread or authorial commentary. Despite a couple of nice lift sections and a solo for Grimbley that showcases what a fine dancer she is, the visibility of a Hip Hop choreographic language is hard to find and the throwing of paper aeroplanes into the audience and inviting their return is a fine but shallow attempt at audience engagement. I find myself leaning back to what Tobi said earlier around a need for nuance: masculinity is a big word, with a set of expectations alongside it; it isn’t a monolith. A smaller, tighter focus is needed if Blowin’ in the Wind is going to add to any future dialogue around masculinity and Hip Hop.

The possibilities offered by the choreographic, masculine Hip Hop dance theatre body are numerous; it can be expanded, reduced, presented in binary or opposition, it can be fragile, in mourning and in so many other different states. Yet I find it hard to recollect a Hip Hop dance theatre work made recently that offers either a new narrative or an alternate angle on masculinity without relying on what Yang calls: “…overt displays of masculine swagger and power, and built on a value system derived from the streets of corporeal risk-taking, competitiveness, and improvisation.” I am left yearning for the complexity, prowess, emotional strength and honesty of Kloe Dean’s Man Up which I wrote about last year and now consider a yardstick for other Hip Hop dance theatre works. So far nothing has come close. 

Caravan Social Night 7: The Soulquarians Tribute Edition was an evening presented by Caravan — a project founded by Chris Reyes — which celebrated the legacy of artists J Dilla, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, James Poyser (all who shared the Aquarius starsign) and the wider 90s Neosoul movement. Although definitely not a Hip Hop dance theatre work in itself, Caravan Social Nights are primarily events and fundraisers for Reyes’ other Hip Hop dance theatre work; they are a place for some of the community to gather, to showcase and see peers exercise different creative muscles, inviting and encouraging acts to bridge music, art, dance and improvisation with all the rich pollination that comes from them.

Comprising roughly five 20-minute stage sets (with a drinks interval between each), live painting by Isaac Bonan and Gatien Engo and hosted by the triple threat Ashley Joseph, the luxurious opener saw L’atisse Rhoden slow jam to Marli Artiste’s vocals and Vicky ‘Skytilz’ Mantey on drums; next up was Ben Ajose-Cutting (aka Mr Ben of The Locksmiths) with a playful set where he would control the various instruments/band members (including Turbo on drums) by lightly stamping an imaginary start/stop button in front of each musician as he layered/stripped away levels of funk and lyrics to lock to. There were other sets featuring T-Boy and Inga Be with a New-Style Hustle partner duet leading into an improvisation with Dani Harris-Walters, a work from Reyes himself, and Boy Blue’s Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy topping off the night spitting J Dilla’s Pause with a trio of male dancers.

Caravan is without doubt a valuable space for some of the Hip Hop community; the event was slick, full of original content and one of the few places to see artists trying something different without the pressure of their own brand. There was a consistent acknowledgement of Reyes as the driving force and focus of the night, shouted out by Joseph as the man who got the funding and who made it happen (not the producer of the event, Emily Crouch). 

However, what I found strange was that Reyes had a ft. in all of the stage works as well as his own set, whether that was taking over as conductor in Mr Ben’s locking stamp band, dancing in Ken’s work or improvving during L’atisse’s opener. While there’s respect for Reyes having made the evening happen and for bringing people together, when is that line crossed? When does the consistent presence of masculine ego draw focus away from the other acts? What signals does the continued attempt to assert a veneer of alpha status send to the audience and participants? 

Do people in Hip Hop dance theatre really want to talk about masculinity? Do they see how some may be perpetuating problematic behaviours of masculinity? Are they able to engage in the complexity that surrounds the question? Or is it a shallow and facile fundraising hook on which to hang a set of technically adequate routines whilst looking winsome and drawing attention to themselves?

In 2013, Just Us Dance Theatre (JUDT) set up Let’s Shine, a mentoring project to empower young Hip Hop performers and provide them with tools and opportunities to develop as artists and individuals. In the latest edition of the programme (which runs weekly) ten young men aged from 16 to 23 have worked with Joseph Toonga and Ricardo Da Silva to create and perform a response — entitled Let’s Shine, like the project — to Toonga’s work Born To Manifest. Part of the problem of not having seen Born To Manifest is that I’m unable to gauge the success of this 40-minute response by the seven Let’s Shine dancers, but since the original was inspired by first person accounts of young Black men from across London, there are multiple things that need acknowledging in such a political and socially resonant work. The lived experience and racial profiling that young Black men in London face is radically different from any other cultural or racial group; in 2018 43% of the Metropolitan Police’s Stop and Search targets were Black people who make up just 15.6% of the London population. In the same report it said that the likelihood of Black people being stopped is 4.3 times higher than White people. In 2018, 76% of homicide victims were male, with 62% being of African-Caribbean heritage aged under 25, and in relation to victims of knife injuries under the age of 25, 455 were White and 1,370 were ‘BAME’. 

Sat alongside these statistics and lived realities, this 2017 study — Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability — published by the American Psychological Association says: “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men’s physical size may play a role in this process. The results of seven studies showed that people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men.” Toonga has himself received some highly problematic language in previous reviews of Born To Manifest, like “Toonga, an imposing presence who wouldn’t look out of place at the Rugby World Cup”, which again plays into the inflammatory stereotype that is perpetuated by the majority of the UK media. This is only some of the societal context within which this work operates.

Let’s Shine attempts to provoke, make us answer questions on our own biases and pose deeper questions about masculinity and power. We are presented with examples of choreographic contagion as one dancer emerges from the bunch, delivers a dance popularised by the video game Fortnite in a swift Tik Tok burst and suddenly all seven are mimicking, summoning up a collective energy. Then it disappears as quickly as it manifested, only to be replaced by another authored by someone else and repeated. This cycle is a fine demonstration of the difference in the behaviour and psychology of a man on his own — what he would/could do and what he can/can’t do in comparison to the behaviour of a group of men when they’re together.

Arnold Tshibangu is an absolute stand out fizzing with a performance magnetism, focus and an ability to draw and hold our attention when he is on stage, like an echo of a young Ivan Blackstock; previously he was Tin Man in the 2017 version of ZooNation’s Groove On Down The Road. The other performer that had a cleanness in execution and a barrelfull of energy was Musa Mohamed aka Moose; knowing that Born To Manifest is a duet, I’d be interested to see if the pairing of Mohamed and Tshibangu could step up to the full work at a later date.

Choreographically Let’s Shine cycles through Hip Hop and funk styles; the stage is peppered with krump jabs and oodles of pops and muscular contractions. Though technically it’s not the cleanest in execution, the musicality, the energy passed between them, the sweat and believability masks any technical deficiency in the wider cast. With some animal noises on the soundtrack mixed with gorilla vocal imitation by some of the cast, we see a relationship between the krump jab and the gorilla chest pound — but which do we see, Gorilla or krump? Violence or expression? Again, Toonga and Da Silva are playing on the edges of our assumptions/stereotypes to intelligent effect. Some of the chorus and crowd scenes were a little wafty, filling air, and were too much of a distraction to the solo/duet focus, but this is a minor quibble. 

In creating Let’s Shine — both the work and the wider programme — JUDT have created an interesting model that is asking socially relevant questions about masculinity using Hip Hop dance theatre. It is a soothing antidote to the growing number of over-produced Hip Hop dance theatre works that feeds us empty calories or fail to adopt a political position. I’m not saying that all work needs to be about something or answering a societal need, but if you’re making a work that is autobiographical, it does not automatically make it about masculinity or femininity. If you’re making something lighter, for entertainment purposes, ensure your intention is clear and let audience know.

It feels somewhat ironic that seven out of the eight works on my list were authored by men; is this an (un)conscious positioning, creation and affirmation of their Hip Hop masculinity in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Is it a bias and set of active decision making in programming by venues to present men over women? We know this is a consistent problem across the wider dance industry, including the work Sadler’s Wells and Breakin’ Convention choose to present and tour.

I see few attempts, inquiries or acknowledgements from the England-based Hip Hop Dance Theatre scene to engage with different types of masculinities that intersect with communities of disabled, trans, gay or femme artists. There are conversations happening elsewhere around Hip Hop and masculinity including the two Minnesotan rappers Kyle ‘Guante’ Tran Myhre and Tony The Scribe and their nine-episode debut podcast season of What’s Good, Man? which self describes as ‘a podcast on men, masculinity, and culture. Featuring two hosts who sharpened their analyses in the worlds of Hip Hop, cultural organizing, and movement-building, it’s also a response to a specific call: men need to speak up more about issues like consent, gender violence, and sexism, especially with other men.’  What England-based artists are currently dealing with is a very narrow masculinity; if they’d seen each other’s work they could have had an active dialogue or hosted a wider discussion around their thoughts on masculinity and its relationship to Hip Hop.


Jaivant Patel, YAATRA at Blue Elephant Theatre

Posted: August 20th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jaivant Patel, YAATRA at Blue Elephant Theatre

Jaivant Patel, YAATRA, Blue Elephant Theatre, July 16

Jaivant Patel in YAATRA
Jaivant Patel in YAATRA (photo: Matthew Cawrey and Joe Armitage)

One of the beauties of watching dance is that the nature of time spent in the theatre expands infinitely when the performance is good (but by the same token, when the performance is not so good, time can simply stretch unsparingly between two points — entry into the theatre and departure from it — with little additional value). Jaivant Patel’s YAATRA, a meditation in two parts that offers ‘a fresh perspective on South Asian LGBTQ+ narratives, faith and spirituality’ is one of those works that expands time as it fluidly crosses national and gender boundaries, and on the tiny stage of Blue Elephant Theatre it defies space as well. 

Patel is a striking figure in whom aspects of male and female flow with assured ease and elegance; he also exudes a childlike joy and intensity in all he does that conflicts with the idea of ‘performance’. These qualities make his work unselfconsciously ‘in the moment’ and give his performance, despite the presence of an active creative team behind the work, a sense of inspired improvisation. If the rallying cry of LGBTQ+ is to challenge the notion of binary, Patel is its natural advocate.

There are two works on the program, the first, Awakening, a Kathak piece on which Patel collaborated with choreographer Nahid Siddiqui, and the second, Yaatra, for which Ben Wright, Shane Shambhu and Urja Thakore worked as mentors. The pairing displays two sides of Patel’s art but his ability to blur the distinctions between Kathak and contemporary dance suggests a unity rather than a diversity of form. It’s not that the technical details are lacking; Patel’s gestural and postural Kathak vocabulary is convincing while his musicality, even if he is dancing to recorded music by Hassan Mohyeddin, communicates the vibrant, rhythmic precision of the form. The unity derives rather from Patel’s presence as a traditionalist who questions tradition and a contemporary who invokes it. 

In Awakenings Patel subtly subverts Kathak by challenging the traditional notion that gods in Indian mythology can be non-binary, while their human interlocutors cannot. In Yaatra, he explores his contemporary practice in relation to traditional values, both mischievously — “Boys don’t wear scarves”, says a recorded motherly voice as he adjusts one around his shoulders — and sincerely as an LGBTQ+ man of faith living in a culture that has difficulty accepting the combination. Awakenings and Yaatra thus form a seamless narrative line that shuttles between past and present in which Patel is the constant — and consistent — narrator of his search for validation. 

The theatre is evidently where Patel feels at home and can let go; in the relationship between himself and his audience he can — and does — hold court with evident delight and without fear of censure, even if he suggests — especially in Yaatra — that thespian freedom is no match for society’s prejudices. The stage is conceived as a spiritual locus, subtly lit by Joanne E L Marshall, with its overhead grid of small hanging bells that Patel can strike at arm’s length or set in motion, and Ryan Laight’s rich red tunic and complementary scarves establish Patel within a dual framework of traditional costume — replete with ankle bells — and gender fluidity. Patel is in his element, and it shows. At the end of Awakenings he lets down his long, black hair as if signalling the relaxation of one identity and preparing us for the next; it is still Patel, of course, but in Yaatra he takes on a more secular idiom while maintaining the signification of his cultural heritage.

He returns in his red tunic and ankle bells but with a bag over his shoulder that he sets down as if for a picnic. Out comes a banana that he will later eat with relish. Immersing us in his personal iconography, Patel luxuriates in the sense of time and space it provides, but throughout there is a sense of internal dialogue marked by Ali Harwood’s concise fragments of spoken word that act like signposts. Patel’s choreographic journey is one of coming to terms with himself and with choices he has made; one of Harwood’s ‘signs’ states, ‘So how we act becomes our skin.’ If Awakenings sees Patel supported by his cultural heritage, Yaatra sees him setting out on his own symbolic journey. The final upbeat rhythms and swinging bells read like an anthem of hope and Patel’s final gesture of emptying a scarf full of ankle bells on the floor one of relinquishing the confines of tradition. 


Reckonings: works by Cunningham, Seva and Seutin at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reckonings: works by Cunningham, Seva and Seutin at Sadler’s Wells

Reckonings: Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva & Alesandra Seutin at Sadler’s Wells, October 13

BLKDOG

The cast in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Johan Persson)

Marking its refurbishment 20 years ago as a production house catering uniquely to dance, Sadler’s Wells has commissioned 20 new works, three of which form Reckonings, a celebration of the future featuring UK-based choreographers Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva and Alesandra Seutin. Sadler’s Wells has lavished its production capacity on each and the result is a richly textured triple bill unified by Tom Visser’s lighting that demarcates regions of the stage into which the dancers can withdraw from sight and from which they can emerge; there are no theatrical exits and entrances. This corresponds particularly with the fluid spatial staging of Cunningham’s m/y and with Nell Catchpole’s engulfing interior soundscape. The work is a translation into choreographic form of Monique Wittig’s attempt in her novel, The Lesbian Body, to ‘create a new language that can function outside the dominant structures of patriarchal power’. It is not the cast of six women — Cunningham, Eleanor Perry, Hannah Burfield, Seira Winning, Sara Ruddock and Stephanie McMann — that suggests a lesbian discourse but the subtle structures that link them together, a fine weaving of almost abstract strands with sapphic overtones that creates a space in which no muscular, patriarchal figure would ever feel comfortable; the performers, dressed in Alexa Pollman’s body suits with diaphanous outer layers, seem to relish this independence. It is a pleasure to watch the way Cunningham opens up the space with such intellectual rigour; it starts in muffled containment as if the cast is an operatic chorus in a prison cell and develops into a sense of lightness and emancipation that Catchpole’s score reaffirms in its trajectory from dark clouds of industrial effluence to the open air, from interior rumblings to serene silence.

After the first intermission the contrasting, dark masculine energy of Seva’s BLKDOG is immediately palpable. In combination with Visser’s lighting, Ryan Dawson Laight’s wrapped anonymous costumes and Torben Lars Sylvest’s visceral score, Seva has invented a haunting, powerful reflection on depression inspired by Sally Brampton’s Shoot The Damn Dog. It was Winston Churchill who termed his depressive condition ‘The Black Dog’ from which Seva derives the title of his work and on top of Sylvest’s score are recorded voices from an imagined therapy session: ‘Let’s start with how you’re feeling.’ Set in a hip hop vocabulary on six dancers — Joshua Nash, Jordan Douglas, Ezra Owen, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi and Naima Souhair — BLKDOG seethes with an inner malaise that explodes in tight, controlled gestures and broods in hooded acquiescence. Seva has developed an intricate and eloquent language within an urban context that manages simultaneously to get inside the head and flow through the body, seamlessly bridging emotional abstraction and a harrowing social narrative — an effect that is more Crystal Pite than Hofesh Schechter. In a work that depends for its affect on precision in both individual gesture and unison articulation it is a tribute to the dancers and to the rehearsal director Ekin Bernay that Seva’s conception is so fully embodied.

Like the two previous works, Seutin’s Boy Breaking Glass has a literary inspiration, this time through Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem of the same name. Breaking glass becomes in Seutin’s conception a metaphor for breaking through what may seem transparent but proves impassable, otherwise known as inequality of opportunity. She writes that five other authors ‘were all invaluable in my research about inequality, the act of survival and self-love.’ The problem is that however clear Seutin may be in her intellectual research such clarity fails to coalesce on the stage. From the outset there is a contrast between the formal volumes of the set — a broad white platform at the back for her five-piece band with a white dance floor bordered in black for her seven dancers — and the informal, folk-inspired choreography ‘inspired by Senegalese and Southern African traditional and social dances’. Visser’s liminal lighting is again on display but he seems unsure how to unite these contrasts. The members of the band are visually dominant which gives an importance to their presence and their music over the narrative taking place on the stage below them, while Randolph Matthews as the central figure among the dancers — the victim of inequality — is a vocalist. Attention on the primary theme is thus dispersed among the performative elements and while they are independently rich in expression, Seutin and her dramaturg/co-director Maxwell Golden have not succeeded in synchronizing their full value.


Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis (European première)

Posted: February 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis (European première)

Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis, Patrick Centre, Birmingham, February 16

#Je Suis

Aakash Odedra Company in #Je Suis (photo: Sean Goldthorpe)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I picked up recently a copy of Arundhati Roy’s 2001 polemic The Algebra of Infinite Justice. About the role of the artist in our post-9/11 society she writes: ‘Painters, writers, singers, actors, dancers, film-makers, musicians — they are meant to fly, to push at the frontiers, to worry the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected things, to find magic in places where others never thought to look. If you limit the trajectory of their flight, if you weight their wings with society’s existing notions of morality and responsibility, if you truss them up with preconceived values, you subvert their endeavour.’ Roy’s concern here is the insidious nature of censorship, a form of oppression that is the subject of Aakash Odedra’s new work, #Je Suis, created for the post-hashtag-Charlie age and given its European première at the Patrick Centre in Birmingham. Having met a group of Turkish dancers while teaching in Istanbul, Odedra promised that when he had his own company he would create a work for them. As he writes in the program, ‘#Je Suis began as a conversation with these extraordinary dancers about what it is like to be living in Turkey right now, but quickly grew to occupy a much more universal landscape.’ In its seamless unity of artistic and polemic intentions, #Je Suis suggests a direct lineage from Kurt Joos’s The Green Table — to which there are references — but also from Roy’s ethical thinking in Odedra’s questioning of cultural bias. ‘The piece explores oppression in all its guises, layers and contexts. It acknowledges that some acts of oppression are more loudly heard and deeply felt than others. While #JeSuisCharlie brought solidarity, comfort and solace to a world grieving the horrific attacks in Paris 2015, other equally appalling attacks took place in Kabul and Istanbul, but failed to capture the attention of (social) media in quite the same way.’

The result is a work in which the feral quality of the choreography and the mastery of the dancing match the intensity of its subject. #Je Suis erases the divide so often seen between narrative and framing because these dancers are the subject of both. There is just enough setting — a long table and chairs, a radio, a hanging lamp, a pile of papers, a rubber stamp and a microphone — and costumes (all conceived by Ryan Dawson Laight) to suggest, with Alessandro Barbieri’s dense lighting, a claustrophobic interrogation room that is everywhere and nowhere. The lighting works with the choreography in the way its thick haze can dissolve unnecessary details into the dark or illuminate them when needed. Clearly the creative team, with Nicki Wells as composer and Lou Cope as dramaturg, are all on the same page, but it is the dancing that holds the attention in the space because it gets under the surface of both terror and resistance. As Odedra writes, ‘Notions of oppression are not specific to any time, country or religion. Sometimes the oppressor is a political figure, sometimes a culture or sometimes a friend; and sometimes, of course, it is inside us: our fear, cowardice, expectation and doubt.’ In their shifting relationship to each other the seven dancers invoke the ambiguity in these forms of oppression with an intensity and fluidity that blasts through the fourth wall and buries their emotional generosity in our hearts and minds, reminding us not of a specific narrative but of a disturbingly pervasive and volatile phenomenon.

#Je Suis is constructed on an appeal to apparent contradictions — the freedom of expression to convey a state of oppression is central — and the dual symbolism of physical language and of everyday objects. Animal gesture becomes an expression of both domination and subservience and virtuosity is the pitch of both. The radio set becomes, in white-gloved hands, a puppet that is either a source of solidarity or the voice of authority; the lamp is both instrument of illumination and of interrogation, and the headpieces of wrapped plastic hint at the facelessness of oppression while protecting specific identity. This thread of duality maintains a tension in the work that the dancers weave into a rich fabric of experience enhanced by their humility of approach. They do not set out to change the world, nor to propagandize, but to express their life in all its fullness from a perspective of freedom and its absence. Odedra dedicates #Je Suis ‘to all people whose stories and plights have not yet been “hashtagged”…It comes from the belief that the strength of the collective, and our ability to speak out and together, will see us through to brighter times.’

In short, #Je Suis is both vital and unforgettable.

 

Preview performances of #Je Suis at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2017.


Gianluca Vincentini, Wild Card

Posted: November 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gianluca Vincentini, Wild Card

Gianluca Vincentini, Wild Card, Lilian Baylis Studio, November 23

Gianluca Vincentini Wild Card

Amarnah Ufuoma Amuludun and Stefania Pinato in Encounter One (photo: Danilo Moroni)

For his Wild Card program at Lilian Baylis Studio, Gianluca Vincentini presents dance makers based in the north of England: Carlos Pons Guerra, Crystal Zillwood and Jamaal Burkmar. Having been artistic director of VERVE (the postgraduate company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance) for five years, Vincentini knows these dancers and choreographers well. Prior to the main program, he presents his own company, Möbius Dance, in a short film, Encounter One, with Amarnah Ufuoma Amuludun and Stefania Pinato, followed by a structured improvisation to guitar accompaniment by Otis Jones with the same two dancers among the pre-show audience in Fox Garden Court. According to its website, Möbius Dance has two dancers (Amuludun and Pinato) and four collaborators, all of whom are presented or represented in the film. The program note for Encounter One — ‘Can I allow myself to let boundary lines blur while being within myself and accept compromises as part of co-existence’ — is so fluid and open-ended that the presence of two bodies moving in space is enough to fulfil its premise, and they do. But for those who enjoy a little more meat, Pons Guerra’s O Maria on the main stage hits the spot.

Written for two women, a man and a ham, it is played by two women, a man and a ham but gender correspondence is not on the menu. Concepción (Marivi Da Silva) and Armando (Azzurra Ardovini) are at home one evening, though all we see is the domineering Concepción sitting at the dinner table in a dress as black as her eyes with the wrapped or bandaged figure of Armando at her feet. There’s another wrapped figure (Phil Sanger) lying a little distance from the table, and a wrapped ham on the table. Clearly Ryan Dawson Laight has had as much fun with the costumes as Barnaby Booth with the lighting. The relationship between Concepción and Armando is described as ‘an unhappy marriage’ but this is an understatement; the ties that bind have turned to rope and bondage. In a beatific vision, Sanger’s arising — or arousal — as anything-but-the-virgin Mary is the catalyst that releases poor Armando from his wrapping to reveal his true gender and entangles Mary with the leg of ham. The program note for O Maria serves notice of nudity and sexual references but the satirical treatment of suffocating religious hypocrisy in 1950’s Seville is positively seditious.

Evolutio is one of three solos Zillwood will include in her creation, Spiral. In it she examines evolution with a little scientific guidance and abundant inspiration. She enters the stage out of darkness, from a distance too far to comprehend. Her postures on that first diagonal towards the light suggest the successive stages of human evolution but in reverse order, finishing on her haunches before repeating the sequence; at the third attempt she evolves into a dancer. Zillwood moves quietly and lightly along her exploratory journey, dancing a language that derives from classical technique but which breaks into a series of organic images derived from the natural world: from invertebrate motion to a human embryo, from a bird in flight to an anthropoid marveling at the stars. Her final pose is balancing on her coccyx, floating in the vastness of evolutionary history. She sketches these images fluently and fluidly against the musical phrases of a haunting arrangement by Nigel Kennedy of a Polish folk song, Ederlezi, that she has digitally altered and extended to fit the dynamic range of her choreography. There is nothing of the anthropological museum in Evolutio; it reveals itself like the spark of an idea with an intelligence that matches Zillwood’s musicality.

Jamaal Burkmar presents The Calm, one of three works he created for the New Adventures Choreographer Award showcase he won in 2016. Inspired ‘by family, home and music’, The Calm is a quartet of solos to a quintet of funky, soulful songs. Burkmar focuses first on the songs, playing Angie Stone’s Makings of You in the dark, and a second, D’angelo’s Send It On, as the four dancers — Burkmar, Lucia Chocarro, Tom Davis Dunn and Kasichana Okene-Jameson — lie in a stylised heap on the floor. As a choreographic device the heap is clichéd and artificial; no effort is made to suggest how the dancers arrive in that place, nor in the heap, nor how they relate to each other. Nor does the rest of The Calm offer any further clarification, but focuses instead on the individual choreographic responses to the music. Here Burkmar and his dancers are far more interesting, especially Okene-Jameson who blasts into her theatrical space with a freedom and invention that is all her own; if the others make it happen, she lets it happen. She also uses the direction of her head and eyes as she dances, which takes her expression to a level that is as generous as it is self-reinforcing. The Calm, however, ends on a note that is as anti-climactic as it is predictable, with the music fading and the lights dying slowly on a heap of dancers.

 

My friend Ian Abbott has also written about Carlos Pons Guerra’s De Nada Dance in a triple bill at mac last year. 


Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Posted: May 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Gary Clarke Company, COAL, The Place, April 15

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

“She defined and overcame the great challenges of her age…” – David Cameron in his tribute to Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

“Thatcherism…reeked the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage on this country…” – Glenda Jackson in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

It is an uncanny coincidence that the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike should occur at a time the current Conservative government is trying to dismantle another longstanding institution, the National Health Service. Gary Clarke’s COAL, commemorating the 1984/85 miners’ strike in choreographic form, comes as a salutary reminder of how politicians who capitalise on the self-aggrandizing belief they are ‘overcoming the challenges of (the) age’ can ruin the lives of entire communities. Clarke understands this firsthand, having been brought up in Grimethorpe, a mining town in South Yorkshire. ‘It’s deeply, deeply personal, and I just wanted to share how it felt to live through these times. How it felt then, and how it feels now as the pain, loss and division linger on in our stranded communities.’ It is memory that drives the work forward.

COAL is divided into three acts: the first is a slice of early-morning ritual in a single home that suggests the foundation of social life in a mining community. The wife (TC Howard) peels spuds in a bucket while the husband (Alistair Goldsmith) sleeps under a blanket; she is cook and feisty timekeeper, long-time lover and loyal supporter. Costume and set designer Ryan Dawson Laight takes delight in the details (Howard is reading a newspaper with the headline ‘Tory Cuts’) and Clarke fashions the spirit of comradeship in an earthy dance among the assembled miners (Goldsmith, Nicolas Vendange, James Finnemore, Joss Carter and Connor Quill) on their way to work. The second act is set underground (the pit cage and tunnels beautifully delineated in light by Charles Webber); it is a long section and full of tension. The qualities of their movement are a reflection of both the physical effort and their underground minds, a brutal existence spurred on by chalked targets, punctuated by bells and constantly threatened by hazards to limbs and lungs. It is perhaps the first time the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony has been used at the coalface and Daniel Thomas’ soundscape exaggerates the sense of pressure and confinement until we can’t take any more. Act three takes us up again into the air to the relative freedom of a social gathering, a chance to party and to relax, which is the moment Clarke introduces the figure of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (Eleanor Perry with the voice of Steve Nallon). This is the dramatic fulcrum of the work, the moment that defines the beginning of the end. From the intimately complex social solidarity of the first two acts, Thatcher’s intervention turns the community into a toxic, socially divisive battleground with Perry prowling like a bird of prey on one side of a picket line that bears a chilling resemblance to a gallows rope.

Clarke maintains COAL is not a political work but the politics are inextricable from the story and he plays the political aspect directly to the audience. If Perry doesn’t get booed during a performance she feels she hasn’t wrung a sufficiently derisive charge from her role. This raises questions as to the exact nature of COAL. In choosing to interpret this story through the medium of dance — particularly using his five muscular, handsome dancers as interpreters — Clarke mixes a social and political polemic with a soft image; he has us bathe in the action until we are as helpless in the face of fate as the miners with whom he is siding. The form of COAL thus straddles the tragedy of a community and an epic story of resistance, but in pointing the finger at Thatcher we collectively miss the opportunity to challenge our readiness to fight such injustices in the future. As Ernst Fischer wrote in The Necessity of Art when discussing Berthold Brecht’s use of emotional detachment to appeal to audiences’ reason and critical action, ‘The work of art must grip the audience not through passive identification but through an appeal to reason which demands action and decision.’

What Clarke has achieved is an intimate, nostalgic memoir in which the material is still full of pain and anger. The work is rooted in the communities he is honouring: apart from the permanent cast of Perry, Howard and the five male dancers, the supporting characters come from local mining communities or have a relationship to them and he uses songs played by colliery bands from areas of the country in which he is performing. This close-knit network of performers strengthens the cohesion of the work, but it is the lack of artistic detachment that weakens the dramatic impact. It implodes rather than explodes, draws us in rather than spits us out on a path to change. It is designed to rouse the emotions of the audience — and is more or less successful depending on where it is performed — to reaffirm the sense of betrayal that continues today.

We want COAL to succeed because what it depicts is vital to an understanding of these blighted communities and of our collective history but it falls short primarily because of its desire to entertain. The reality was and is far worse than COAL can ever admit but commemoration can also be a call to action; the struggle for the survival of the NHS is history repeating itself.


Deaf Men Dancing in Hear! Hear! and Rosa

Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Deaf Men Dancing in Hear! Hear! and Rosa

DMD+, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, September 28

Deaf Men Dancing (photo: Mikah Smillie)

On the morning I start writing this the postman coincidentally delivers a product catalogue from Action on Hearing Loss that is addressed to a previous tenant. The devices advertised in the catalogue were not available to Mark Smith — the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing — when he was growing up. Diagnosed as severely deaf at the age of 4, he had to wear a ‘constrictive harnessed hearing aid box’ that was strapped to his chest, but with this he was able to hear piano music at his sister’s ballet class and went on to train as a dancer. He founded Deaf Men Dancing in 2010 to bring together similarly hearing-impaired male dancers — five including Smith — and for their program at the Lilian Baylis Studio (part of Sadler’s Wells’ =dance strand) Smith includes a woman, which accounts for the + after DMD.

What makes Deaf Men Dancing unique is their ability to develop a gestural language that merges dance with signing. When I first saw the company at the Integrated Summit at Pavilion Dance South West, it was a revelation. The gestures are eloquent because the intention behind them comes not only from a desire to communicate but from a need to communicate. There is a world of difference and one doesn’t need to understand sign language to appreciate its clarity. Smith was inspired to incorporate sign language and dance after seeing Caroline Parker’s work. Parker has training in mime and her development of dramatic and emotional aspects of sign language derives in large part from this visual language of the entire body.

The image on the backdrop at the beginning of the show is a witty expression of Smith’s starting point: we see him in close-up holding a gramophone-sized horn to his ear. There is a harsh light on his shaved head that could be simply the reflection from a shiny surface or a cerebral conflagration induced by the difficulties in hearing and the scourge of tinnitus.

Smith explores these elements in the first work, Hear! Hear! which begins with a personal recollection. Four men enter rather sheepishly wearing the hearing contraption Smith remembers wearing as a child. They stand in a line bewildered by the straps and wires, gesturing silently amongst themselves how it might work. Once they have it figured out, Joseph Fletcher, Anthony Snowden, Kevin Jewell and Denny Haywood each perform a short solo about the new sensations of hearing, both the discomfort of certain frequencies and the delight of comprehension. Snowden dances two poems (by Joyce Mear and Donna Williams) that are recorded by Jacqui Boatswain with the words projected on the backdrop alongside a photograph of a young boy — possibly Snowden himself — seated in a world of silence. Snowden breaks through that silence with gestures that are almost audible; he is bewildered then shocked by the new sensations. Smith has layered the score with a poignant song of deaf musician Pete Waller (aka DeafboyOne), Please excuse me for the interference… Jewell’s concentration of expression is strikingly beautiful throughout this demonstration of different aspects of deaf communication: all four men lip synch the song, sign the words and incorporate the signing with dance. The picture on the backdrop changes to a fuzzy TV screen and we hear a poem that begins, ‘Tinnitus in many guises comes…’ with the kind of high-pitched sounds someone with tinnitus might experience. Again, the gestural resources of all four men are developed to express both pain and discomfort, dancing in a trio, then a quartet as if they are breaking through a barrier. The muscular, bearded Haywood, who has trained in hip-hop, moves as one as he bounces and undulates through his movement. There is a final song, Silence will sing again once more, that the men interpret as if from the inside, their bodies and articulated hands integrated, their eyes following their gestures, in an art that is perhaps closer to the Indian dance tradition than to classical ballet. The hearing of these four men may be limited, but there is no limitation in their communication.

The second work on the program is Rosa, based on monologues from Shakepeare’s As You Like It. The monologues have gone through different permutations: translated into modern English, then into British Sign Language, then adapted into Sign-Movement and finally incorporated into the choreography. Dressed in shorts and fanciful beach wear with seventeenth-century ruffles (designed by Ryan Dawson Laight), the same four men as in Hear! Hear! file in as four manifestations of Orlando. Fletcher has now frizzed his hair and Haywood is bare-chested with feathered wings like a plucked and very muscular bird. There is a lot more dancing in Rosa, more conventional movement in which technique comes to the fore. Michael England’s synthesized, percussive score drives the narrative while playing creatively with the register to give us, the hearing audience, an idea of what a deaf person might sense: it’s like listening to music in one of the Regent’s Canal tunnels. England neatly frames the Shakespeare monologues that are recorded once again by a velvet-voiced Jacqui Boatswain.

Natasha Volley — the plus of DMD+ — enters as the flirtatious Rosalind in laced bodice and long skirt with a lovely smile and unctuous gestures that she incorporates into a dance that is all about delight and freedom. The four temperamental Orlandos ignore her but not for long. Haywood is the first to be drawn in by her charms: he is wild, lascivious and powerful, showing off his moves as if competing for her favours. He is. Jewell steps in, petulant and unforgiving and similarly unsuccessful. He is followed by Snowden who doesn’t have a chance because he can’t contain his angry and abusive behaviour. Fletcher with all that hair is altogether softer, romantic and kind; Volley is clearly smitten and after a few clichéd romantic ballet gestures they kiss. This is where the gestures and signing start to go out the window: the lights go up and all the dancers enter into a jazzy sequence with smiling exuberance, which looks like a lot of fun, but conceptually it has gone somewhere else. Smith calls this a new departure but it is not one that develops the unique opportunity he has in DMD+ — and which he has begun to mine in Hear! Hear! — to create a powerful integrated dance language.