Lost Dog: Circus diptych at the Almeida Festival

Posted: August 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Lost Dog: Circus diptych at the Almeida Festival

Lost Dog, It Needs Horses and Home for Broken Turns, Almeida Theatre July 28

It Needs Horses

Anna Finkel and Chris Evans in It Needs Horses (photo: Benedict Johnson)

The Almeida Theatre has a stage like the apse of an old, disused church with stripped plaster walls that adapts perfectly to the circus ring of Lost Dog’s It Needs Horses with its wooden boarding in a semi-circle around the perimeter, beautifully lit by Jackie Shemesh. A rudimentary trapeze hangs to one side. Because of a last minute injury, Sita Ostheimer is replacing Anna Finkel. She has had only one day to learn it all, but at least she knows her partner, Chris Evans. Only weeks before they were performing as a couple in search of an idea in a lighthearted work, Accompany, for the Hofesh Schechter evening, In Good Company.

Drum roll. Cymbals. Lights up. Nothing. Ostheimer is standing on the trapeze as if she has been left there overnight, dressed in a rather seedy grey body suit with shiny, silver embroidered breastplates and crotch, a feather headdress and a rather mangy tail. Her face is painted white, her haunted eyes smudged black by tears, and her mouth enlarged by more than one application of lipstick. Evans, the ringmaster, in slightly better state, stands below her in the ring in yellow and red jester tights, white tee shirt and bowler hat (both costumes pulled lovingly out of an old circus bin by Holly Waddington) looking at his partner with a measure of contempt and futility, his shoulders bowed by impending defeat. His bearded, white face and expressive black eyes urge her to perform. Her eyes plead with the audience: she can’t get down. She whimpers a few notes of a song and Evans takes off his hat for contributions. Laughter, but no money from the crowd. He puts his bowler back on and helps Ostheimer slither down from her perch. The band starts up, and they begin a surprisingly energetic music hall routine as if on automatic, playing off each other’s rundown state until she falls. He continues dancing, trying to heave her back into action as part of the routine, kicks her to the music, pulls her, but she’s out for the count. Rushing to fill the ever-widening gap between expectation and fulfillment, the grim Evans tries juggling his pirate knives and apples, bungling both. He mimes in quick succession smoking a cigarette, fishing for the big one and steering a car, which he drives, and then reverses, over Ostheimer’s body, still to no effect. His last fragment is swimming, but the game is up. He offers his hat. Nothing.

Turning his attention back to Ostheimer, he runs his finger down her tail and miouws. He sits her up and feels her zipper. He unzips her enough to pull off one shoulder of her costume. As excited as he is inspired, he sits behind her and manipulates her hands like a puppet to caress her own breasts and thighs, then gets carried away by rubbing her crotch with animal passion. Aroused, she wakes up and hits him in the chest and then as they both get up, kicks him in the backside. All kinds of energy are beginning to flow. They struggle, the band strikes up again and they vaguely remember where they are. Continuing their routine to a crackly, slow foxtrot, she jumps in his arms but he tries to undress her more. She hits him again, knees him; he has his arms round her neck: a real catfight. She pulls his tee shirt off and thinking this might be the moment he pulls his tights down to his knees. His white Y-fronts look as if they have been washed rather too recently. Both parties catch their breath as they take stock of the situation. Whatever is going on has less and less to do with a desperately failing circus act and more to do with laying bare the emotions coursing behind the makeup and costumes: the frustration, the sexual energy, the passion, the madness, the fading dream.

Ostheimer takes the initiative, coyly slipping off her tail and launching into a sinuous display of unbridled libido as Evans remains rooted to the spot playing a muted mouth trumpet to her undulations. Her act really gets going, mouth wide open in animal abandon with associated guttural sounds, hands all over her body, her tongue on fire. She pulls Evans down on all fours and energetically humps him from behind with appropriate vocals. Ever the opportunist, Evans offers his hat for contributions. Nothing. He knocks her over, picks up one of his knives and puts it to her throat. He must regain control of his act, but she is all he has. To a simple musical theme that grows in emotional intensity and orchestration, he gets her running around the ring like a horse, to which he responds as ringmaster cracking his whip and whistling. He launches into a solo of excitement bordering on abandon, then joins Ostheimer jumping exuberantly around the ring though she is beginning to look and sound exhausted. She stops and won’t continue. He threatens her with the knife, but she is beyond being threatened. She walks off and he remains in the centre of the ring, letting the knife drop at the beginning of a final fitful dance of frustration leading inexorably to collapse.

It Needs Horses, conceived and directed by Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer, won the 2011 Place Prize. It is performed here as part of the Almeida Festival with a second, consecutive work, Home for Broken Turns, which is conceived, directed and choreographed by Duke himself. It is, in Duke’s own words, a work in progress, though more advanced than the day before.

There is no program for the evening, so we are left to figure it out. First is the transition: a trio of girls (Lise Manavit, Ino Riga and Solène Weinachter) clean up the knives and apples and assorted clothes from the ring to an ethereal banjo score (by James Keane); they dismantle the perimeter boards, stacking them neatly at the back. On a bare stage a fourth girl (Laura Pena), dressed to look older in country clothes of a distinctly Latin American flavor, plants herself authoritatively centre stage, legs apart, cigar in mouth, calling incessantly and distraughtly for ‘Anna’. The other three girls, similarly dressed, unfold two sun chairs and seat a skeleton in one with a bottle of wine. They then unroll a black road with a white-painted centre line along the front of the stage. This is the link to the outside world. Ostheimer stumbles along this road like a ghost, still in her costume. Perhaps she was making her way here at the end of It Needs Horses, but she doesn’t seem to recognize the place and passes unnoticed: the three girls are too involved in their wild harvest dance to look up. She returns from the other direction, crosses the stage and is gone again. The sound of an approaching bus catches the girls’ attention, bringing them expectantly to the side of the road with a begging bowl, speaking French and Spanish. No luck. The girls berate their imaginary customers, asking one after the other for money, a bus ticket, or a pen, while the cigar-smoking, gap-toothed matriarch – we’ll call her Mama – at the back keeps a constant eye on the proceedings. A gentleman evidently asks one of the girls if Anna lives there. No, désolée. One girl expresses frustration bordering on madness, the second girl comforts her, and the third is just pulsing with pent-up emotion. After the bus has gone, Ostheimer walks by again. Is she Anna? It is not clear, but we will assume so. There is a cockerel on a tall pole in the yard to which Mama prays in forcefully pious Spanish. One girl plays distractedly at riding a horse, a second drives a car that crashes. Another bus stops, but nobody gets off. Mama says life is like a shit biscuit and each day we eat a little bit of it, then she collapses from lack of food and a loss of hope; two of her girls try to revive her, turning her upside down and throwing her to the third, but Mama slides down her body to the floor. Anna drifts back along the road like a vision, and this time the girls grab her and throw her in the direction of the matriarch, who has a catatonic fit in voluble Spanish and the vision is carried off just before another bus arrives – this is a busy thoroughfare. Mama says I’m sorry, Papito veni, but with a gesture of resignation, picks up a chair and the bottle of wine and settles at the back. One of the girls barks, which sets off the pack of girls barking at passers by (where did they all come from?), and when they aren’t barking they’re smiling and begging for coca-cola, a fag or bubble gum, raising their skirts, and offering their favours. Two of the girls dance a desperate duo while the third moves sensuously, practicing the tongue gymnastics we saw in the ring earlier. This is evidently where it is all learned, the school of desperate performance. The girls monitor each other’s progress and success, both of which seem limited. Mama is now drunk and breaks up the party. The girls pretend to ply the skeleton with drink and wrap its bony arms around Mama: a macabre variation on the dance of the dead to a ghostly piano variation on the Pink Panther theme. The skeleton’s arms smack her backside then grab her from behind, doggy position – another image we have seen earlier in the ring – until a roaring, throaty climax. One of the girls removes the skeleton and takes Mama back to her chair; a second rehearses another dance of seduction while a third, hands gripped and fingers tense, dances on one leg. Anna is back again, and this time the three girls follow her in a reverential line on their knees, hand to ankle, but they can’t keep up. On Anna’s return Mama finally greets her, kisses her, hugs her. “Anna?”, she asks. Anna kisses her and retreats. The girls look to where Anna left, then gather up Mama for a ritual peasant dance to an earthy drum rhythm.

Graduation time has arrived, and one of the girls is chosen to dress up. She puts on her headdress, and slips out of her jeans and top into a costume exactly like Anna’s. How do I look?, she seems to ask, proudly. She leaves along the fateful road, another graduate on her way into an uncertain world, and meets Anna coming in the other direction. They stare at each other. The desperate cycle is completed, and repeats.

After seeing It Needs Horses, there is a sense that Home for Broken Turns is related (if only because the Ostheimer character reappears in it) but the stylistic relation is more difficult to see. Going from one to the other is like going from the structural tautness and poetry of a Beckett play to a narrative in a nineteenth century novel, of which most is in a foreign language with a high level of emotional distortion. The first has coalesced as a form, has found its particular place and character, and is complete in itself, while the second is still searching for its identity, like the characters themselves. Home for Broken Turns is for now an emotional outpouring of an imaginary precedent for an uncertain future, a bringing together of past, present and future in an inflammable alliance of passion and despair: a vibrant, gutsy performance in search of its true form.

Hofesh Schechter dancers: In Good Company

Posted: July 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hofesh Schechter dancers: In Good Company

In Good Company: New works by the dancers of Hofesh Schechter Company. The Place, June 23 at 8pm.

Last of his Act: Yeji Kim

In the dim opening light we see just Yeji Kim’s back, at the same level as the lamp, higher than we expect. As the light enlarges, we notice she is clutched to Sita Ostheimer’s torso, her arms tight around Ostheimer’s neck. We hear an electronically manipulated voice emitting globs of sound so guttural as to be close to choking or vomiting. It is the first of many disturbing juxtapositions in Kim’s Last of His Act that seem to derive from a divorce of experience and wisdom as articulated in her program notes: ‘We, women, can express our mind differently from what we really have in mind.’ This separation is expressed in a series of contrasted episodes. After a brief blackout we see the two women lying centre stage, the strong sensuous curve of Ostheimer’s hip highlighted in front of Kim’s concealed form. They embrace and mould themselves to each other along the musical line of a distorted cello migrating to synthesizer: Apocalyptica to early Pink Floyd. Joel Harries’ sound comes in thick layers, wrapping the movement in an almost suffocating embrace from which Kim and Ostheimer emerge as light to the sound’s shade or as waves to the sound’s depths; it is the sound that seems to release them or hold them in place. A powerful bass pulse shakes them free of each other and we see a dance of two frenetic, isolated individuals, their hands wide open like a Rodin sculpture. The guttural globs resume as the two women return to the front of the stage, breathless from exertion. Lit from the floor, they look out at us in the silence, prompting applause, but the women stand their ground until an ominous knock at a massive door focuses our attention once again. We hear the door creaking open on to a section of more antagonistic images and sounds: Kim gently raises the hem of her dress, peering at her sex, to applause or perhaps it is heavy rain, then portentous booted steps. Ostheimer performs the same ritual examination, placing her hands over her womb to the sound of a dog barking and snarling: fragility over violence, courage over intimidation, life over death. We hear fragments of a song in which the words ‘pain’ and ‘strain’ are distinct in the increasing cacophony that drives Kim and Ostheimer to a frenzied state. Never quite out of control – they are both consummate dancers – they manage to draw their movements closer to the body, held in tight like a seething anger. Exhausted, Ostheimer lies down in submission; Kim remains standing close to her in the dying light, but gravity and the dwindling sound undermine her will and release her finally to the floor.  ‘Sometimes’, writes Kim, ‘the free will of women can give us distance through cynicism. Conversely, this will can make us feel empathy for others’ lives, mistakenly. We question ourselves if we know them or not’.

Lukewarm and loving it: Philip Hulford

A lampstand upstage left glows faintly, barely revealing Hannah Shepherd standing next to it. A translation from Matthew 6.22-23 is projected on the backdrop: Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder, your body will fill up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and dishonesty your body is a dank cellar. There is for me an uncomfortable distinction here between advertising an idea for a performance and evangelising. The title of the work is the subject of a sermon by Francis Chan, an American Christian pastor, equating lukewarm with lack of faith, and in his program acknowledgements, Hulford cites the example and teaching of Jesus. Because there is so much ‘message’ before the dance begins, one wonders what role the dance has. Perhaps Hulford should have considered the first verse of Matthew 6, in the same translation, that contains the admonition: Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

This is a rather long digression on a personal issue, but as Hulford has made it a primary element in his work, it asks to be addressed. The choreography juxtaposes the appropriately named and dreamy Shepherd, dressed blandly in jeans, a jacket and sneekers, against the dynamic duo of Frederic Despierre and Karima El Amrani, who quickly launch into a disco number fragmented by a strobe light, pushing their limits and swaying violently from side to side to a throbbing, high-decibel beat. Are they the squinty-eyed ones against Shepherd’s wide eyes, or are they the heat to Shepherd’s lukewarm? I tend towards the former interpretation, as Shepherd seems to develop confidence and conviction in the course of the work, culminating in a dynamic and assured solo to lyrics by Jars of Clay: The smile on the outside that never comes in…You break me open, turn on the light…Let the show begin. But if Shepherd develops, there is no corresponding growth for Despierre and El Amrani, which leaves the work rather one-sided and incomplete. Hence the ambiguity.

Like Hofesh Schechter, Hulford is a musician and has composed the score in collaboration with Joe Ashwin of the progressive death metal band, Stone Circle (Ashwin also plays guitar in the Hofesh Schechter band). What sounds like the electronically manipulated buzzing of a bee breaks the opening silence followed incongruously by a stubborn starter motor. A pounding, reverberating pulse underlies the first duet with Despierre and El Amrani, and Shepherd is given a quieter, more pensive treatment, though the general tone of this layered sound leaves little room for subtle expression.

No way but down: Sam Coren

A thunderous rumbling introduces the soundscape by Alberto Ruiz. We see a painting hanging in an artist’s studio, a view of sky and clouds. Perhaps it is the one source of light on this rather seedy, unhealthy interior, designed with particular attention by Kasper Hansen. We see a bicycle on a stand and then the figure of Igor Urzelai get up from bed still covered in bed clothes. He offloads them in a heap. By the look of his costume (Sophie Bellin Hansen must have had fun putting this together – and got it just right) we are not expecting a virtuoso dance. In fact there is no dance at all, unless the furious pedaling can be considered a pure form. No matter. Urzelai pedals to generate electricity to light the room, an introduction to the refreshing but dark sense of humour that pervades No way but down. Urzelai is part pirate, part vagabond. He sorts his collection of cassettes and selects rather prophetically The Handsome Family’s The Lost Soul. What an awful day, when the judgement comes. And sinners hear their eternal doom but the volume is too high for such a crappy machine (perhaps the only instance in the work where production values are divorced from the ‘reality’ of the stage). He sings along, using a bicycle pump as microphone, then breaks off to lay his makeshift table with a plastic sheet, and a large spoon. He selects a can of beans from the collection stacked against the back wall and on his way back to the table changes the ambience by putting on a recorded sound of a restaurant buzzing with activity: clinking plates, teaspoons and conversation. Tucking a newspaper under his chin as a bib, he opens the can and savours the contents. One might be forgiven for thinking of the last supper without the disciples. The spoon then takes on a life of its own: food sprays up, Urzelai’s anger erupts and he throws the can’s contents in his face. To calm down he searches for another recording: a reading (by Ben Coren, read by Jason Jacobs). Chapter two. Companionship. When you are feeling frustrated or irritable with your partner, just remember you are lucky to have each other…Inspired, he puts a waste bin inside the hood of a jacket to shape a partner and performs a grim thé dansant. More music maestro, please; but he has to pedal first to generate more electricity. He plays Graham Lindsey’s Deathtrip Blues. And soon I will be dead…another self-fulfilling choice. Urzelai shines a torch at his partner’s face, then places the light on the table and sits down for a tête à tête. Smoke suddenly appears from under the door on stage left. Urzelai lies his partner on the floor and rushes over to fan the smoke away, peeling off his outer garments (there are many) to stuff under the door. He returns to his act of creation by stuffing another waste bin in another hooded jacket (there’s a pile at the back) and introduces this second figure to the first, laying them side by side on the floor. He pauses, then thoughtfully places the sleeve of one over the torso of the other. Pleased with his work, he removes the clothing from under the door and sits inhaling the bellowing smoke: hope and the light are snuffed out together, leaving that patch of painted sky and clouds above his make-believe lovers.

I don’t know if Sam Coren has direct experience of this condition, but he has created a portrait of despair with a masterly dose of sympathy and understanding unadorned by morality. It is a movingly nuanced portrait by Urzelai, too, who is utterly convincing.

The Age: James Finnemore

A couple stands on stage in the dark. We hear a repeated phrase of three words, like dark age heart, on a score by Joel Harries, followed by a deep pulsing bass track – a common musical feature in the scores this evening. The couple is still, their faces indistinct, with their legs illuminated by a bank of lights on the floor behind them, until the overheads come up and we see their intent look. Victoria Hoyland steps back and Philip Hulford reverentially takes her hand, kneels, lets her sit on his knee, then gently takes her weight as he stands. They dance a ballroom waltz, in very small and faltering steps before disengaging, taking hands and looking out again into the audience as if posing for a photograph. Hoyland takes another position on all fours, and Hulford sits on her back. They repeat their movement sequences but more rapidly. She is now like a wind-up doll in waltz position, with arms in place for an absent partner, turning half turns continuously while Hulford walks to the centre and looks out intently once again. While Hoyland turns, Hulford dances powerfully and mysteriously in the blue light, quick and dynamic, almost manic – one of the most searing images of the evening. The music develops into a heartbeat and finishes. Hulford regains his breath and tries to express something, but he cannot speak. He is on the point of walking away from us but turns to face us in silence. Hoyland and Hulford seem unsure they should be here, as does the audience, who applauds, but it is not the end. Hulford is evidently in discomfort as he begins a dance of shell-shocked fatigue. A blackout and a new pulsing bass line plumb the depths of his being and he begins to jump in place, passing through another blackout to appear standing next to Hoyland with his hands behind his back, she with hands in front. They both walk over to the bank of floor lights that has started up again and to an upbeat, rhythmic march they dance the same elastic, powerful movements, descending deeply to the floor and rising up, accelerating and morphing into an energetic bunny hop from which Hulford disengages and walks one last time towards us with his intense gaze. The Age is a rather bleak work, but full of almost dream-like images, both still and moving, that Hoyland and Hulford so effectively portray.

Accompany: Sita Ostheimer and Christopher Evans

After visiting some of the more profound life states for much of the evening, it is a relief to bubble to the surface with Sita Ostheimer and Christopher Evans in their Accompany. The program note says simply that Sita and Chris are a couple. Onstage, they definitely are, in which case the description is redundant; so presumably it refers to their offstage status. Certainly there is a naturalness in their antics and banter, most of which is recorded. So here is a couple playing themselves with their recorded voices, performing the process of creating the work you are now seeing that finishes with its starting point like Escher’s famous hand drawing itself. It is refreshingly relaxed but its craft is not to be underestimated. We have already seen Ostheimer dance in the first piece, so it is good to see and hear her sense of fun. We see tantalizingly little dancing from Evans but what do you expect in a performance of unrealized expectations? There is no music either, as Ostheimer explains; just background sound, for which the program credits Charlie, Lawry and Ed. They have dressed the silence with layers of recorded voice, distorted voice, snatches of song and conversational snippets between Ostheimer and Evans that unify the conceptual nature of the work. There are songs listed in the credits – Damien Rice, Stephan Micus and Meret Becker – but they seem to have shared the fate of the African idea, the highway idea, the pulling-people-out-of-the-front-row idea and the speaker idea. The best idea is the idea of the work itself.

I recently attended a choreographic evening by Rambert Dance Company and it is interesting to compare the two. Both companies are giving opportunities for aspiring choreographers to hone their choreographic skills and gain experience in a performance setting with full production values. The differences arise from the nature of the two companies: Rambert has a varied repertoire by different choreographers, whereas Schechter is the sole creator, both of music and dance. Rambert has a policy for their choreographers of working with commissioned scores played live – for the most part – by an orchestra. Schechter’s dancers used three scores from two of the company’s own musicians, Joel Harries and Joe Ashwin, and there is a clear influence of the engulfing Schechtian sound on all five works. The works at Rambert were varied between narrative, abstract and psychological, whereas Schechter’s group was surprisingly narrowly focused on expressing (however well) the somber-bordering-on-depressing psychological states, notwithstanding the lighthearted bounce at the end. It would be interesting to see what the Schechter choreographers would do with an orchestral score, and what the Rambert dancers would do with a Joel Harries soundscape. Perhaps it is simply the natural process of young choreographers expressing the dominant influence of their respective companies, but I had the feeling that the young Rambert choreographers were creating in a more open environment than those in Schechter’s. What is important, however, is that these choreographic evenings continue to be supported, and that the choreographers who choose to develop their ideas will find their own voices.