Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Posted: January 3rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott: Some thoughts about dance in 2019

Some thoughts about dance in 2019, December 31

Bodyless thoughts on dance
Bodyless (photo: Hsin-Chien Huang)

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and work that have settled in my 2019 memory bank. It was a year when we had the UK Dance Showcase — which I will come back to later — and when so many artists created work in response to institutional power and epistemic violence.

Wendy Houstoun’s Hell Hath No Fury at Wainsgate Chapel, Hebden Bridge (part of Wainsgate Dances in June) took us to her Sunday school pulpit of philosophy and rage whilst delivering us from evil in a ferociously hilarious 45 minutes of wordplay and image making. Aided by the servitude and deferential bell ringing of Charlie Morrissey, Houstoun was our High Priestess, our sermon giver offering hope, hula hoop skipping, and water to those in need; as she commanded the audience to sit, stand and listen in our pews to ripostes against the 2019 political landscape she was swift and rapier-like. With Hell Hath No Fury Houstoun has demonstrated (and built upon from her previous works 50 Acts and A Pact With Pointlessness) her gift for rhythm, distillation and an ability to hold attention; she captures a mood of how some people are feeling and lampoons it. Wainsgate Chapel as a site of performance and Houstoun as prophet is an immaculate combination; in the age of fracturing communities and the slow death of theatre buildings I imagine a world where Hell Hath No Fury is a 2020 version of a mystery play travelling to chapels, churches and cathedrals across the country, a liturgical drama serving to shame our morally unanchored institutions of power.

Bodyless, directed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is a single-person 31-minute VR experience I saw at the Phi Centre in Montreal (part of an exhibition of VR work from Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy and Olafur Eliasson) in November. Bodyless is based on Huang’s memory and set during Taiwan’s martial law and colonial period of the 1970s. The repression and control of people through old (and new) technologies blended with pervasive digital surveillance to ensure this has a relevance now; what Bodyless achieves that no other VR art work I’ve encountered so far has done, is the technological holy trinity of embodied encounter, emotional narrative investment and graphical fidelity. As we move round a dark and oppressive system, we encounter multiple timeless episodes/scenes where we find bodies in differing states of control; polygon-twitching bodies in cells with rewilding plants growing through the bars, faded newspaper portraits of people who have been deliberately missing-ed or dozens of limp and floating bodies in a hospital or boarding school with limbs defying gravity. The intimacy of VR as a single-person experience heightens emotions as you glide, ooze, sink or float through landscapes; the fact that you have a level of agency, an ability to move, look at and focus where you want embodies this act of witnessing bodyless-ness in action. We see how people are erased from a society, and the emotional distancing that VR and screen-based work usually causes is dissolved by Hsin-Chien Huang in this fantastical response to the memory of trauma. 

From the macro power portraits of Hell Hath No Fury and Bodyless to a micro power portrait of Black male mental health, Elephant In The Room by Lanre Malaolu at Camden People’s Theatre in April is proof that Malaolu (supported by dramaturg Season Butler) has created a work of total theatre. We meet man, a multi-charactered everyman in control of his external body, but this control does not extend to his internal mind. Malaolu has a Hip Hop dance technique and execution that sparkles in its clarity; his physicality is accompanied by a command of language and a dexterity in verbal delivery that would cast long shadows at the RSC. He is wav(er)ing and popping; the use of these Hip Hop dance vocabularies is a fine foil for the wider debate around mental health: scrambled muscles that erupt and contract, dispersing clotted brain fog and bringing forth windows of clarity only to close again. Stability and control are bywords for mental health, and if you’re experiencing low level depression GPs recommend activities and inhabiting the types of spaces that Malaolu offers up in multiple scenes: football (exercise), Nando’s (food), barbers (community) and gym (self-worth). From a frozen barber, moving only his eyes and wrist with an imaginary shaver to a magnetic slapping of limbs and his back onto and into the floor and wall to an almost motionless slouch in a chair talking about too chewy chicken…Malaolu has the smarts and this work could and should have an international life like Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles. What Malaolu achieves is a transference of a heavy feeling and an internal spiralling which are sometimes impossible to give shape to; the 70-minute work whistles by and it is the monstrosity of his attack, physical commitment (which bordered on the painful), multiplicity of voices and choice of stillnesses and excesses of movement that made this a highly satisfying evening that has the ability to stimulate further discussions in this terrain.

Cardiff Dance Festival hosted Montreal-based Daina Ashbee in residence during the festival in November and over the course of her stay in Wales Ashbee spent some time researching a new work, J’ai pleuré avec les chiens, which will be ready in 2020 as well as remounting and recasting her 2016 work When the ice melts, will we drink the water? We saw around 50 minutes of When the ice melts…performed by Lorena Ceraso in Chapter Arts Centre Studio. With Ceraso on the floor, back flatted and knees triangled, we understand early that her pelvis lies at the root of the work and at the centre of this bodily discourse on survival and endurance. Time is experienced slowly and there is a sparse choreographic landscape but one that is littered with violence, perceptions of the female body and sexuality. Slow quarter-turn rotations at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock see Ceraso address all sides of the audience with her ascended and descended pelvis, flickering edges and glacial eyes, but as she presents each suite of movements four times we witness multiple angles, new and unseen details that were previously hidden from view. When the ice melts…was named the best dance piece of the year at Montreal’s 2016 Prix de la danse awards and in the intervening years it has only gathered relevance with the attention drawn towards violence against women from the #MeToo movement; what it does is build an atmosphere that is so charged and so unpleasant that silence blankets the audience — we barely breathe as we pay attention to every sound and movement emitted from Ceraso’s body. The feelings of anxiety created by the work echo the pressure and internal questioning of should/will/how do we speak of violence against women when we are unsure of what it is we need to say or do in response to it.  

Violence towards women was consistently visible in a lot of the works I saw by female choreographer’s in 2019; another example (and a rare one because it is made for outdoor settings) was the 30-minute Scalped by Initiative.DKF. Created by Damilola DK Fashola and Wofai, with movement direction and writing by Fashola, Scalped was part of the opening night 
of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in Woolwich in June. ‘For black women one of the most common shared experiences is a passive but ever-present scrutiny. From what you wear to the way you walk, and most especially hair. Whether permed, braided, or in locs, black hair is political.’ Scalped is a work that demands your attention, holds it and then brings you in, which is credit to the company in the context of outdoor presentation when there are dozens of other distractions to compete for your eyes. Patience James, Audrey Lobe, Bubsy Spence, DK and Bimpe Pacheco climb, frame, pose and move around their scaffold set and wheeled boxes telling stories of discrimination, can-I-touch-your-hair violence and desire for freedom. The choreography is big, the performances are huge and the company is rightfully taking up space and presenting politically and narratively strong work in public spaces; Scalped is relentless in its power and energy and forces audiences to at least think about the discrimination consistently faced by Black women in British society. Representation and visibility is crucial and Scalped is one of the very few outdoor works made and performed by Black artists in the UK; Fashola has written and directed a new work Fragments of a Complicated Mind which runs at Theatre 503 in London from January 21 to February 1, and this interrogation of race, religion, sex and cultural expectations is sure to see her star shine even brighter.

Creative responses to institutional power do not always have to be heavy or filled with activist sensibilities; they can achieve just as much from a position that sparks joy, refreshes perspectives and brings people together socially. The Box of Delights by 2Faced Dance Company is a fine example of that (full disclosure: I work with 2Faced Dance Company as Executive Director and had a small performance role in the work). Running for seven nights from December 17-23 as part of their 20th Anniversary programme, what co-directors Tamsin Fitzgerald and Tim Evans have created with The Box of Delights is something that I’ve not seen before from a company in the UK; with the first act of 50 minutes taking place outdoors at night at over 20 locations and performance interventions throughout the historic centre of Hereford, they guided an audience of 80 towards The Green Dragon Hotel for a second act which contained a meat or vegan three-course meal prepared by executive chef Simon Bolsover and the continuation of the narrative taking place over 1hour 45 minutes. The seamless shift of the narrative and audience experience from outdoor to indoor, altering perceptions of place alongside the inclusion of food, is an innovative model for presenting work and place-making which suits audiences, performers and companies alike.

The aforementioned works are some of the great ones I saw across the year, but it wasn’t all as good as this. The first outing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal at Bristol Old Vic in April was both under and over baked at the same time; their portrayal of excess felt muted and duller in comparison to their previous successive portraits of excess in SEXBOX and Da-Da Darling. Rosie Kay Dance Company premiered the scaled-up version of 5 Soldiers…10 Soldiers (complete with 10 dancers) on the main stage at Birmingham Hippodrome in May which saw a dull 30-minute prequel tacked on to the previously successful 60-minute 5 Soldiers. The first half was meant to show the time getting in the army, but emotionally, physically and tonally it mirrored the second half leaving me questioning its purpose. The work clearly resonated with people who had a personal connection to, and involvement with, the army, but as a work at this scale, when the company hasn’t presented in this size auditorium, why would we expect it to be good immediately? Maybe after three or four shows when they understand that the intimacy, nuance and detail that made 5 Soldiers so good needs to shift considerably for grander and less subtle inferences. However, the work I had most trouble with this year was Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer by Shane Shambhu at Gloucester Guildhall, part of Strike A Light’s festival in March. In a year when there have been so many works of dance, performance and theatre exploring the effects of immigration/race/displacement/othering like Demi Nandra’s Life is No Laughing Matter, Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement, Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much or Rachael Young’s Out, Shambhu’s Confessions is a lite and frothy idiot’s guide to bharatanatyam made for White people. Peppered with anecdotes about his relationship to Indian dance and performing his arangetrum, it asks little of you and there’s little empathy, emotional investment or calls to action. Shambhu is a likeable mimic, scatting between citizenship issues and the physicalities of his family members, and while the work is well constructed it plays into the self-exoticisation that so many contemporary bharatanatyam creators attempt to repel. There are short bursts of 10-15 seconds of classical movement, which are not the cleanest and he is sometimes out of breath when coming out of a movement sequence straight into speech. There’s a nice reveal towards the end, an emotional hit that shows a duality: that this is part of him and that he wants to reject it but is unable to because it has partially formed him and how he is in the world.  

…and back to the UK Dance Showcase, phase two of the Surf The Wave project conceived by Deryck Newland before he left PDSW in February 2017. The UK Dance Showcase was curated by 11 people and of those there were no women on the committee who weren’t white, there was nobody who worked in an organisation north of Salford, there were no people with a disability, no female artists and no producers. Surf The Wave is ‘the major project led by PDSW, on behalf of the National Dance Network (NDN)’ but it is telling how the other 26 members of NDN have been very public in distancing themselves from the project and choose/chose not to publicly or privately acknowledge the reality, successes or failures of Surf The Wave. 

Artists and producers are always in the position of least power, least resources and least privilege in their relationships with institutions, and what has been heartening in 2019 is see how they have spoken up, back to, and in solidarity with others while forging new alliances en route. The relevance of the majority of cultural institutions and how they behave in society and with their community demonstrate at best a wilful ostriching ignorance of how society is shifting and at worst a consistent and harmful contribution that perpetuates outmoded thinking, broken systems and systemic bias.  

With the total funds raised at more than £1million — on top of the other public subsidy added to the total from the time spent by salaried organisations across the UK — the narrative presented back to NDN and to other funders has been that some of the artists who attended the event have achieved some positive outcomes, built tours and new relationships. While this is brilliant for those artists who presented/pitched work that appealed to small-scale, non-dance specialist arts centres across England, the active choice not to invite international programmers rendered the entire narrative as a sweet set of Tory Leadership/Brexit analogies (taking back control of our borders/exports), and conservative leadership breadcrumbs (Jeremy Hunt’s I’m an Artist as Entrepreneur) that beggars belief. What has not been reported is the anger, frustration, bitterness and experiences of unprofessionalism in the way artists who were ‘selected’ were engaged in the lead-up to the event. Delaying the timeline of announcing selected artists (ensuring artists missed funding windows to apply for support to enable their presence at the event), offering fees to present the work, reneging on that offer and then offering a lower one to the same artists or selecting work that is not in a touring window and expecting artists to absorb the costs of remounting it, were some of the examples (there were many more) of how artists were treated. While it is acknowledged that those who programme work congratulated the PDSW team on a well-organised showcase event, the structural debris of damaged and fractured relationships has mirrored our political situation. Those holding power are ever more desperate to preserve old models and thinking, whilst those in receipt of the email vacuum of silence are left to wonder how to engage in the future.

I wrote a whole other piece (unpublished) about my experience at one of the Artist as Entrepreneur events but it follows a similar vein. Artists and producers are often encouraged by organisations and institutions of power to acknowledge their failures and mistakes in the creation and presentation of work — a growing focus and thematic consideration of a number of dance works including Epic Failure by Cultured Mongrel and The Unwanted by Shaper Caper. These and other works in development offer a personal, interesting and critical perspective on human fallibility, but until our organisations and institutions of power begin to acknowledge their own failure, or offer a public narrative about things which went well or not so well, then things will never change, and the power imbalance shall remain.

Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Posted: July 2nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Knowbody II, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, June 24

ELIXIR FESTIVAL at Sadler’s Wells, London, UK ; 22 June 2017 ; Credit : Johan Persson

Company of Elders in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here (photo: Johan Persson)

Something interesting has happened to the bipartite formula for Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir dance festival celebrating lifelong creativity. Three year’s ago, the main stage performance Knowbody was clearly the headliner of the festival while the Extracts, based predominantly on community dance, were the supporting acts. This year the quality of Knowbody II has declined while the first evening of Extracts has shown a marked advance in mature amateur dance to a middle ground between community dance and the main stage. One of the reasons is that the current programming of Elixir has not reflected what has been happening in mature dance in the intervening three years, both in this country and in Europe. Despite Sadler’s Wells membership of the large-scale, EU funded co-operation project, Dance On, Pass On, Dream On (DOPODO), that nine dance institutions from eight countries have developed to address ageism in the dance sector and in society, this year’s Elixir has the same format, some of the same performers, and the same division between professional and amateur companies as before. While the inclusion of Berlin’s Dance On Ensemble (a professional company for the over-40s) and some amateur performances from Holland, Germany and Denmark in the Extracts are welcome, it is a shame that Charlotta Öfverholm’s company Jus de la Vie, a signatory of the DOPODO agreement, could not be included on the main stage event this year. Öfverholm’s presence alone would have countered the tiresome absurdity of Annie-B Parson’s The Road Awaits Us and the misplaced, if respectful inclusion of Robert Cohan’s Forest Revisited. And if Elixir is addressing ageism in dance, why are such artists as Wendy Houstoun and Liz Aggiss, who are battling on the same front, missing from the lineup for the second time? But there is a much larger question that Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship Company of Elders raises that remains to be resolved.

There is a fundamental but vitally important distinction between presenting age on stage and celebrating age on stage. To watch Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely on the main stage in Mats Ek’s Axe is to celebrate the unique contribution of the mature performer, and the same is true of the performance by Holland Dance of Jérôme Meyer and Isabelle Chaffaud’s My tasteful life in the first program of Extracts. It is not the difference between amateur and professional that counts but the degree to which performers can project their maturity in all its richness and complexity. This doesn’t happen, however, in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here, choreographed for Company of Elders as part of Knowbody II; it opens promisingly with a wash of crimson costumes in glorious light but descends quickly to a composition of seated dancers waving arms, and such is the design of the chairs and the way the dancers are seated that a comparison with wheelchairs is unavoidable. This is a display of age dressed in glorious costumes and lights where the individuality of the dancers is replaced, in formal terms, by the identity of the group. If someone of Jeyasingh’s creativity cannot make a work on Company of Elders that celebrates their age, there is a problem. Perhaps the makeup of the company means she has had to create on the abilities of the weaker members to the detriment of the expressivity of the stronger ones, but no work of value can ensue from this compromise and the notion of a flagship company for mature dance sinks with it. For all the advantages Company of Elders receives as the Sadler’s Wells resident performance group for the over-60s — working with renowned choreographers, a highly visible platform, touring and high production values — its qualities are no more developed than its counterparts in Brighton, Ipswich, East London and Greenwich (all of whom were presented next door in Extracts). It would seem the opportunities laid at Company of Elders’ feet are being exploited rather than fully realised. Auditions may be one way forward and a re-selection of current members according to ability. And if Sadler’s Wells wants Company of Elders to share the main stage with professional dancers, shouldn’t they, too, be paid?

Another feature of this edition of Elixir that compromises its value is the presence of so many young dancers on the main stage program. Pascal Merighi, who choreographed a solo for Dominique Mercy at the last Elixir has for this one created a duet for Mercy and his daughter, Thusnelda. Why? In Forest Revisited, some of the dancers who once performed Robert Cohan’s Forest (Kenneth Tharp, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, and Christopher Bannerman, joined by a younger Paul Liburd) are seen teaching it to a new generation. Is Elixir becoming an intergenerational festival? Artistic director Alastair Spalding describes Elixir as ‘an evening featuring choreography created and danced by older artists’ while his programmers seem to be doing something else. What Extracts has confirmed, however, is that works for mature dancers are gaining in quality and interest; hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years for the next edition of Elixir festival to see mature dancers in a new category of work that is currently coming of age.

Wendy Houstoun: 50 Acts

Posted: November 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Wendy Houstoun: 50 Acts

Wendy Houston: 50 Acts, Dance Umbrella, Platform Theatre, UAL Central Saint Martins, October 14

Wendy Houstoun in 50 Acts. Photo: Chris Nash

‘This is the beginning. This is Act 1. This is the bit where the lights go down and this is the bit where I turn around and walk to the back.’ Thus begins Wendy Houstoun’s 50 Acts; there is no artifice, just a slight inflection of her voice, but her delivery absorbs all our attention, drawing us inescapably into her world. This is one of the shorter of the fifty acts, some as brief as a stage direction and none longer than a Chopin Prelude. Collectively they contain tightly packed layers of poetry (Houstoun’s own), music clips, recorded interviews, political speeches, telephone messages, psychic consultation, health and safety regulations, and archival film that Houstoun (with lighting designer/production manager, Nigel Edwards) converts through the miracle of transubstantiation into a potent theatrical form exploring two of her bêtes noires: dangerous thinking around the issue of age and idiotic marketing speak.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.’ Like Shakespeare, Houstoun uses the stage, and her presence on it, as an analogy for life (‘how dare you take up centre stage when you are clearly middle aged…’) but concentrates her fifty acts on the latter ages (and some other irritations). ‘I am looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference.’ She does, convincingly, because she is such a brilliant performer.

Act 2 introduces us to Houstoun’s aphorisms, which appear as scrolling text on the screen behind her – almost too fast to read let alone write down, so I can’t really comment, but based on the quality of Houstoun’s live delivery, these aphorisms deserve more generous treatment. A book, perhaps? Dance Umbrella printed mugs and tee shirts? Ironically all I remember is ‘Time and space died yesterday.’ Act 3 is a triumphant yes yes yes, and Act 4 a defiant no no no. Act 5 is an affirmative yes to the human race and a sardonic yes to the rat race, in which silent film footage of crowds running in the streets haunts Houstoun who dashes about the stage to avoid them to the accompaniment of one of Chopin’s nimble Preludes. In Act 6 she feels her pulse.

Chopin and Shakespeare are both big influences here. In Act 9 Houstoun recites a prologue in Shakespearean rhyming couplets: ‘…advancing time, which lazy thinking calls decline’ with a searing reference to old age as ‘sadfucks past their bloom…clogging up time’s waiting room.’ It also contains the first of many failed magic tricks to make herself disappear (‘the absence there for all to see.’). Like a consummate clown, she can get away with making people laugh at serious issues, even matters of life and death.

It is easy to get caught up in watching Houstoun perform (the content of the piece) and not realise how carefully 50 Acts is constructed (the form). In her program note, Houstoun writes candidly that she has been trying to make this piece for some time. ‘Somehow the form meets the content in a way I have not achieved before (I have to thank Matteo Fargion for that).’ I have seen 50 Acts three times and each time it is slightly different, but this time I would concur with an audience member I overheard: ‘She absolutely nailed it.’ The form of each act — and of the whole — consists of a complex layering of meaning: sound effects, music, projected text and props reinforce Houstoun’s own finely-tuned speech. The advantage is that whereas she can only speak one word or phrase at a time, this vertical layering adds to her expressive palette like a painter applying impasto. Consider the broadcast, in the final acts, of platitudinous politicians defending austerity measures. The speech is overlaid with off-stage screams, the chiming of Big Ben, a spliced parliamentary chorus of Here! Here! and Peggy Lee singing Where or When? while Houstoun sits quietly waiting in the shadows of her final acts. The cumulative effect is such disillusion that it might come with a health warning were it not for Houstoun’s brand of dark humour.

50 Acts takes a break from the question of ageing to let off steam on another topic: ‘The world of questionnaires, idiotic marketing speak and non-stop initiative drivel has been driving us mad for some time so I am happy to get a little of this irritation out of my system.’ Houstoun dons a hard hat and an ANSI Class 2 safety vest, and cries, Heads! while samples of health and safety regulations like Do not carry loose objects scroll down the screen. She is subject to various assassination attempts from gunshots throughout the piece — one of the hazards of the job — and regularly checks her vital signs: putting a microphone to her heart on one occasion we hear a thumping beat; she puts it to her head and we hear an ambulance siren. Houstoun is not beyond making fun of herself to make a comment about our mental well-being.

After the half-time interval, in which we remain in our seats watching Houstoun taking a breather, an alarm like a school bell sounds. Houstoun brings on a music stand with a score, a wooden stool with a pile of vinyl records and a hammer. We hear an interview in which two women are talking about our need to breathe more deeply and to use time as tendrils that we can pull out as a way of foreseeing the future. Houstoun is busy unraveling a cassette tape. There’s a drum roll followed by another Chopin Prelude. Houstoun stands with her eyes on the score, a hammer raised in her right hand and a vinyl record resting on the stool in the other. On an emphatic chord in the music she smashes the record with the hammer and prepares another, hitting the accents in the music (and the records) with perfect timing until the Prelude – and the pile of records – is finished. This is perhaps what she means by ‘getting a little of this irritation out of my system.’ She returns to the cassette tape, feeding its tendrils through her fingers like a medium looking into the future. ‘I’m getting a cross; it’s in the south: a southern cross…I’m getting a pension….no, no, I’m not getting a pension…I’m getting labels, labeled…I’m just getting the odd word now: tainted, cradle, grave, burden, tax…We’re in a dance hall, a palace of wasted steps…We’re doing the dance of the daft, the half-light limbo, the dead leg mambo, the go-and-get-pissed…All the steps are disappearing, one by one.’ Another, rather mournful Chopin Prelude now, and over the top Houstoun plays the end of a telephone message on her cassette player: Cheers then, lots of love which she rewinds and plays over and over again while bleached family photographs display on the screen. It is an act that has the poignancy of autobiography.

We are on to end-of-life questionnaires on the screen: Did you find your life experience a) satisfactory or b) unsatisfactory? Your opinions are important to us. Another abortive disappearing trick leads to the sound of a woman sobbing overlaid by a voice saying, ‘Preview’. Houston tries one last time to disappear — in vain — before delivering a Shakespearean epilogue imagining the visible specks of dust floating in the spotlights are living entities from beyond who may ‘tell us things we need to learn.’ She places her microphone in the air and manages to pick up scraps of speech and thoughts, not always welcome. This is where the political speech on austerity begins, and Houstoun sits it out under a light at the back, doing a seated soft-shoe shuffle. Acts 47 and 48 flow into one another as the clock ticks inexorably. By Act 49 she is still seated as if in a waiting room. There is a drum roll, but no action. We reach Act 50. Houstoun is gently nodding. On the screen a series of suggestions on how to finish the act scrolls down the screen (more slowly, as time has taken a break). I could sidle off into the shadows…sing a gently lullaby so everyone feels cared for…rage against the dying of the light…like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore…recite a poem. No, that would be too wordy. Lights out. It is the performance of a lifetime.

Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play

Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play, Laban Theatre, October 17.

Annie Hanauer and cast in Set and Reset/Reset. Photo: Hugo Glendenning

Programming is everything in a triple bill; it can be an uneasy alliance of repertoire and new work, an indigestible three-course meal, or it can be like three acts of a play, an analogy Candoco Dance Company adopted for its most recent triple bill. Two of the acts are welcome re-stagings — Trisha Brown’s Set Reset/Reset and Wendy Houstoun’s Imperfect Storm — and the third is a new duet for Mirjam Gurtner and Dan Daw, Studies for C, by Javier de Frutos.

I saw Set and Reset/Reset last year in the company’s Turning Twenty program and thought it suited the company beautifully. It still does. Robert Rauschenberg’s design floats above the stage, though it seems there is a little less floating than before. Even though there is a structure to the choreography, the dancers seem to walk or run on as the spirit takes them, joining in Laurie Anderson’s musical procession that strolls down the west coast of California with its bells, assorted sirens and vocal improvisations in a spirit of carefree timelessness. There is a seductive dynamic of improvisation in the dance, too, a freedom of movement in which the dancers bump into each other and ricochet off each other with singular unconcern. The wings are of diaphanous material so we see what is going on off stage as well as on, a spatial continuum that Brown clearly enjoys and which is enhanced by Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. The dancers are quite at ease, partly because the choreography is at ease and partly because the dancers have contributed to some of the choreography in the creative re-setting process. ‘Go with the flow’ seems to be the philosophical underpinning of the work, with its random connections, playful exits and entrances and a lightness that comes from Brown’s joy in exploring the air. As might be expected, there is no purposeful ending; the music fades away into the distance and the dance continues until we can no longer see it.

Dan Daw and Mirjam Gurtner in Studies for C. photo: Hugo Glendenning

Studies for C is pure magic. The setting suggests a domestic hearth with a carpet and two chairs, drawn in to an intimate space by de Frutos’ own lighting and haze, but the context suggests a wrestling ring with Daw and Gurtner fully masked and wearing leather jackets covered in painted phrases like ‘Better to Die’, and ‘The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks’. The inspiration is more Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real than Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but the songs by Lila Downs take us definitively to Mexico. In this rich juxtaposition of influences, Daw and Gurtner converse or argue with mute passion in their carpeted ring, giving a rich reading of the characters. The effect of the masks pushes the physical element to a stifling pitch of psychological intensity. Gurtner is mad, and flies across the floor. Daw is upset and stands truculently with his hands on hips. They are a couple that feels trapped by their familiarity, and struggles in vain to break free. The masks add an insectile quality to the characters and the inclusion of the song of La Cucaracha suggests two cucarachas down on their luck going through their death throes, legs in the air, trembling on the edge of extinction. They crawl over each other, Daw pulling at Gurtner’s mask. She kicks him, he howls and after a semblance of compassionate support, the two retreat to their respective corners to the lament, Yunu Yucu Ninu. Gurtner starts to take off her mask as the lights go down. Will she break free? We never see her face.

Victoria Malin in Imperfect Storm. photo: Hugo Glendenning

Annie Hanauer takes the microphone at the beginning of Wendy Houstoun’s Imperfect Storm, surrounded by her group of actors. ‘Tonight we were going to do The Tempest, by Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. But we found it a little wordy.’ Deciding to act it without the text, the only way to get people on and off the stage is to use the stage directions, she explains, and to use lighting (by Chahine Yavroyan) to create a series of tableaux, like paintings layered with costumes. Enter Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio; enter Ferdinand and Gonzalo; enter Prospero; enter Boatswain. Miranda’s already at the microphone. John Avery created just the right music, and Nicola Fitchett found just the right ruffs, hats and other assorted costumes and props. Each character picks a vestige of costume from the overturned costume rack. Sound of storm and lashing rain. Daw puts on his Boatswain’s hat, while others are quaking from the storm, pitched and tossed across the stage. Alonso pulls in a string of lights and drapes then around the shipwrecked group. Victoria Malin begins to recite snatches of Prospero’s lines, which devolve into a commentary on the progress of the play (‘we got trapped in this corner…by lighting’) as three characters fight with two wooden swords and a coat hanger. Malin continues with a brilliant monologue on the courage to stay… while all the characters leave. She then describes the stages of a storm that Daw illustrates in an extended solo, dancing in the spotlight. It is wonderful, from feeling the wind in his face (stage 1) to leaves rustling (stage 2) to whole trees in motion (stage 5) and widespread structural damage (stage 7) by which time Daw is running around in a circle jumping and flapping his arms. Alonso and Miranda enter and Daw is carried off, exhausted.

For all its apparent chaos, Imperfect Storm is a sophisticated work with beautiful writing (Houstoun takes sophistication and writing to another level in her 50 Acts). Houstoun allows the dancers to be themselves on stage while playing a failed amateur drama group without hamming it up. What comes across is a work that seems built up from an acute observation of what the dancers can do, and with their creative cooperation: a work that is not imposed on them, but grows out of them.

We have arrived at the finale, the end. Hanauer muses on how best to achieve the ending since everyone has already left and there are no more stage directions. Perhaps the lights fade slowly to black, or the lights could go off one by one, or there could be hundreds of candles we could blow out, or someone with a torch and the battery runs down. Or perhaps…

And as she continues to muse, the lights go suddenly and convincingly to blackout.

Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Antonia Grove, Small Talk, directed by Wendy Houstoun, Soho Theatre, October 2

It was an inspired decision for Antonia Grove to hitch her star to that of Wendy Houstoun. An original ten-minute sketch of Small Talk was worked out by the two of them in 2010, and the version performed at the Soho Theatre upstairs last week evolved from that sketch. If anyone can get a grip on a mercurial, conflicted, miasma of a personality and create from it a compelling piece of theatre that makes us laugh while keeping us unsettled, it is Houstoun. This is not one of her own solos she has adapted for someone else; she has got under Grove’s skin, into her psyche and coaxed out something that is not a portrayal, nor a story, but Grove as you will never be able to know her. Houstoun says of the work that it ‘hovers around the territory of theatre but it sidesteps character and motivation and instead pushes for an immediacy that I often feel is missing from acting.’ Grove sees her role more from the performer’s perspective: ‘The woman, the women, they are all me and they are not me. They are themselves and they are not themselves. They know something and they don’t know anything.’ Small Talk is the confluence of these two complementary ideas.

Grove’s first line of defence for her many personae is a line of disguises. She begins in neutral territory, arranging her props and costume changes on a table to the side of the stage. She pulls out a chair into the centre of the room and wanders back to her table. She puts on earphones and a pair of high heels, checks her phone and takes off her tracksuit top to reveal a slinky mini dress. Attractive and voluptuous, the starlet Grove nonchalantly wanders out to her seat. She looks out at us but doesn’t see us. It is as if we are looking at her through a two-way mirror. Her eyes are very dark and piercing, or would be if they were brought into focus. Instead they seem to stare into the indeterminate foreground that stops just where the audience starts. Instead of looking out from her face, her eyes seem to be drilling back in, trying to get their bearings, trying to find out who is in control. We in the audience are wondering, too.

A self-help relaxation tape is playing. Allow your mind to relax and sink deeper into this place…even deeper…you are in an open body position, legs uncrossed (she crosses them). Just breathe in and let it out. Grove closes her eyes and smiles enigmatically. With her iPod she selects some breathing music. Her voice cuts through it with a nasal American accent, giving us a movie scenario about sweet young American school girls being caught up in a European torture ring, and dying in horrible ways, delivered in a tabloid-dispassionate way. ‘We create whatever we want to be…Lauren lives in the moment…Heather is such a good actress…’ As her small talk threads through self-help, self-realisation and self-delusion in a flawless continuum, she crosses and uncrosses her legs as if they are somebody else’s, slips off the lip of the chair and recovers, in one long, slinky move. She shakes out her hair, laughing self-consciously and steps behind her chair, keeping her gaze on the imaginary screen between us. ‘Exelle seems very innocent, but she knows how to get what she wants…’ Grove dips down as if her legs give way, keeping the small talk going as her mercurial body recovers its glittery poise. Sitting down again, she blows away a strand of hair from her face, traces her finger down the front of her chest, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She continues the scenario about fighting mutants, ‘rocking them and killing them,’ she laughs, opening her eyes and closing them again. She changes to a motivational tape and moves the chair to the side. What do you want to become? Who do you want to become? You have the power to change… She changes shoes, another pair of sexy high heels. She puts on a tiara and takes a single rose stem, poses at the back of the stage, a camera without a film. A new persona emerges, and more small talk to camouflage it. She steps forward like a model, over-crossing each step but slowly, balancing unsteadily on each forward movement. ‘I guess I’m shallow,’ she concludes. ‘I think I’m kind of a chicken actress.’ Her eyes are glaring (and she can glare convincingly), as she picks off rose petals distractedly, speeding up, madly dismembering the stem and discarding the remains at the feet of the front row. Nobody dares touch it.

She sidles to the microphone and sings. ‘Some say I’m a devil, some say I’m an angel, but I’m just a girl in trouble’, her voice a crevice of vulnerability from an emotionally turbulent soul. She throws off her shoes and the tiara and puts on another disguise, taking the time to get ready. Grove takes a sip of a drink and dances a spin to the appropriately named Foggy Notion by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers before downing another shot, losing herself in uncontrolled laughter when she is already lost. Her wig unseats during the turbulent dance, and she adjusts it back in place. We hear the same warning shots as in Houstoun’s own 50 Acts, though here they miss their mark; Grove seems unaware of any danger. Status Quo plays Down Down as the tape continues: And you allow yourself to drift down to this warm comfortable and safe place. Down deeper, letting go, down deeper. She crouches on the balls of her feet and pushes her knees forward slowly to the ground, then bends back revealing quite obliviously her black trunks and smooth legs. She rolls over and lies exhausted. Time for a change of persona. Taking off her wig, she puts on a cowboy shirt, and replaces the short wig for a long one. Donning a leather jacket she stands at the microphone. ‘Funny comes from smart…accidental funny comes from not so smart.’ She tells a crap wedding story she alone finds funny, her eyes looking around, mouth in a grimace. We hear a lot of people laughing, but she is not; her eyes are lost and sad while the mellifluous female self-help voice assures her she is on her way to being able to make other people laugh. Grove steps into the shadows away from us and turns back to reveal a large red clown nose. Good, says the voice. She begins to clown around with crazy moves while the woman’s voice continues to encourage her. Her mouth is in a grimace, then a smile, going through the motions of a twitching guitarist, a crazed rock and roll musician. Punching the air, jumping, bouncing, her wig falling over her nose, she throws off her jacket, and her wig follows. More taped laughter. Another shot rings out; Grove grinds to a halt and puts her wig back on, taking stock. Over at the table she opens a beer and drinks it. At last you love your life. Notice how your outlook on life is enhanced. You are calm (as she drinks a beer). You are working towards the person you were always meant to be. The new you.

Grove puts on her cowboy boots and hat and sings beautifully accompanied by a toy xylophone. The song is interlaced with the other voice. Grove seems to be herself when she sings, but the voice talks of ‘leaving everybody permanently’. We are not sure who she means by everybody. The many personae, perhaps. One marvels that Grove can inhabit them all so convincingly. Perhaps she will be left with herself. Perhaps not. She puts on her jacket, gathers all her accessories, her shoes and tiara into a plastic bag. ‘I want to say thank you to so many people…I’m just trying to matter… I’m just trying to make work that means something to people.’

It is a stunning performance from Grove; for more performance dates, see her website. And if there is any doubt about Houstoun’s ability to make work that means something to people, she was the dramaturge for h2dance’s Duet that recently won the audience vote to participate in The Place Prize final; her Imperfect Storm (based on The Tempest) for Candoco can be seen next week at the Laban Theatre, and her own solo, 50 Acts, is at Dance Umbrella this Friday and Sunday.