Phoenix Dance Theatre, Mixed programme, Linbury Studio Theatre, November 27
Christopher Bruce opens Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Mixed programme 2014 with Shift, choreographed to the last movement of Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift. Although Bruce cuts this movement from its musical context he makes something complete and beautiful within it. In the present critical environment where length is an issue, it is too short. In its brief eight minutes Bruce creates a suite of lyrical dances for six dancers in 40’s costumes (from Bruce’s own wardrobe) like a letter written home in an effusive, youthful handwriting: Dear Mum and Dad, guess what we did today… There is that breathless quality of pure enjoyment mixed with images of daily toil that flow effortlessly through the dancers’ bodies as if the choreography was made on them (Bruce created Shift in 2007 and it has only just entered the Phoenix repertory). It doesn’t harm the piece either that the lighting is by John B Read who illuminates the movement as if from the inside. There’s another shade of Bruce in his next work, Shadows, to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for violin and piano. “To me, many of Arvo Pärt’s compositions evoke images of a European history and tradition steeped in over a thousand years of human experience and, frequently, suffering. These themes, and particularly the turbulence of twentieth century events, have influenced my reaction to his work.” In giving his reactions to the music colour and form (aided again by Read’s lighting), Bruce makes the music visible. Shadows describes the effect of an unseen external menace on the members of a family of four. There is a sense of sympathy and compassion, and in choosing Sam Vaherlehto as the father, Sandrine Monin as the mother, Vanessa Vince Pang as the daughter and Andreas Grimaldier as the son Bruce confers his emotional understanding with confidence. ‘The poetry is in the pity’ wrote Wilfred Owen in a preface to his war poems and in Shadows both the choreography and the music are in the tragedy of impending upheaval.
The same cannot be said for Ivgi & Greben’s Document. Set to music by Tom Parkinson the work purports to ‘see five dancers grappling with the darkest aspects of human emotion.’ I am taking a wild guess here, but I don’t think either Uri Ivgi or Johan Greben have experienced the darkest aspects of human emotion closely enough to begin to choreograph them. Instead we see an approximation of what they imagine it might look like which resembles uncannily the vision of other choreographers searching for a similarly degenerate scenario. The dancers work really hard making the shapes but Document fails to reach beneath the surface.
I should confess that I have just finished performing a piece that Darshan Singh Bhuller choreographed recently for Gravity & Levity called Rites of War, so some of his preoccupations in Mapping like the radio-controlled device and the camera on stage projecting live images on to a screen are familiar. According to Bhuller, the work is inspired by his father’s move from East to West, though travel is only suggested in the opening. The musical mapping follows a parallel trajectory though the choreography is firmly in the west. Bhuller loves clean shapes and it is no surprise that he chooses Ben Mitchell to carve out a lovely arabesque line as he strides like a colossus over the tiny blue globe that races around and through his legs. Circles form a predominant theme in Mapping and in the centre of the sweeping, swirling forms is Sam Vaherlehto as a young explorer with camera in hand (perhaps Bhuller sending selfies to his father) quoting from the nuptial pyramid in Nijinska’s Les Noces. Vaherlehto seems to draw around him the other solos (Monin in particular has a lovely lyrical quality), duets and trios like a benevolent progenitor. He also has a sense of humour and thinks up a wonderful game. Laying down a line of white tape, he instructs his friends to lie on the floor with their feet or hands or heads on the tape. It would not be that interesting for the audience but a camera is placed high above the stage so the floor becomes vertical in its projection on the screen (see Tony Nandi’s photograph above). The game turns into a flight of fancy that sees dancers tumbling impossibly through the air to land effortlessly on their feet and hands, an acrobatic illusion that has the audience in thrall. The whole episode has a high feel-good factor mapping perhaps Bhuller’s own return from west to east.
Thomas Adès, See the Music, Hear the Dance, Sadler’s Wells, November 1
The subtitle of this evening’s celebration of the music of Thomas Adès — the second in Sadler’s Wells’ Composer Series — is where dance and music share their inherent qualities: See the Music, Hear the Dance. Such complementarity, however, can be elusive and this evening is no exception. With Wayne McGregor, whose Outlier (to Adès’ violin concerto, Concentric Paths) opens the evening, it is not so much the music we see as the space in which he develops his signature physical dynamics, a visual environment in which dance, set design and lighting take precedence over the music. Lucy Carter is here credited with both lighting and set design and it is her symbolic concentric motif that provides a visual link to Adès’ score rather than the dance. Created for New York City Ballet, Outlier opens with a quintet of dancers that is subdivided into a trio with a duet, two duets with a solo and a duet with a trio that remains motionless. In the second movement, Thomas Gould’s solo violin sings above the turbulence of the orchestra while the choreography for a trio of dancers hits some turbulence of its own in clumsy lifts and interlocking partnering between the two men. Nine dancers start the third movement in three trios glued one behind the other dancing in canon. Carter’s circles yield to a rectangle of light framing a duet to the solo violin that the other seven watch in silhouette. There is a final visual image of a white circle of light on the stage into which a dancer steps with the last splash of the violin.
Karole Armitage chooses Adès’ Life Story set to a poem of the same name by Tennessee Williams. There is a grand piano on stage with the soprano Claire Booth dazzling in sequins standing against it and Adès at the keyboard. Booth’s lovely soprano voice sings of the lazy aftermath of a first encounter between two lovers (danced by Emily Wagner and Ruka Hatua-Saar) lying on a bed ‘like rag dolls’ telling their life stories. It is not a context that immediately suggests pointe shoes and when one of Wagner’s shoes slips off her heel early in Life Story the intimacy of the setting is unforgiving. The classical vocabulary fails to find a correspondence with the jazzy score and the final manège to the line about people burning to death in hotel rooms just throws Williams’ cautionary tale to the wings.
Alexander Whitely created The Grit of the Oyster to Adès’ Piano Quintet. Both choreographer and composer are on stage in their respective dual roles and for the first time this evening the music and dance are in harmony. The Grit of the Oyster is a trio with three lyrical dancers (Whitely, Antonette Dayrit and Jessica Andrenacci) on a white rectangle of floor while the quintet plays behind. The lighting has the murkiness of an oyster bed with lime-green and blue costumes, but the fluidity of the choreography shines, particularly in Dayrit’s solos. During a turbulent musical passage she takes off her green top and puts on a white one, becoming a pearl. Whitely and Andrenacci return for a duet and at the opening of the third movement the trio whip through a fast section in unison. Dayrit dances one final, beautiful solo that leaves the musical line floating as the light fades.
Adès’ Polaris is a huge orchestral work and Crystal Pite responds with a cast of 64 dancers in superbly designed identical black costumes (by Linda Chow) that leave only the face and hands bare. An articulated mass of curved, crustaceous black bodies with hands like dead leaves slithers on to the stage in silence like a menacing, malevolent energy. It becomes a circle with heads rising and descending again before it unravels and moves across the space with the addition of a circular wave formation. Still the music hasn’t started, but when it does Pite has prepared us; we have already seen it. Pite fills the stage in the same way the music fills our ears; here at last is a complete expression of See the Music, Hear the Dance. The mass retreats leaving two figures like flotsam on the beach who struggle to remain attached until they are ripped apart by invisible forces. For the individual roles Pite uses six dancers from her own company, Kidd Pivot, and they are mesmerizing in their control of the details and dynamics of the choreography. The mass is an elemental force crossing like tectonic plates or two massed armies confronting one another, and the sextet rises above it like instruments above the orchestral turmoil. At one point all 64 dancers form a single entity, crouching with arms to the side, hands pointing to the floor. All we see is the fingers quivering but the image is one of powerful kinetic energy. Pite’s artistic control over the stage elements — choreography, costumes, lighting (by Thomas Visser) and backdrop (by Jay Gower Taylor) — corresponds to the way Adès controls the instrumentation and the Britten Sinfonia he is conducting: Polaris is a confluence of two imaginations in tune with each other. On the final musical crescendo Adès’ hand is caught in the light as it rises above the pit, his finger pointing upwards like a blessing or a warning. The dancers halt and suddenly all that energy discharges into the audience as a storm of applause.
La Veronal: Siena, Dance Umbrella, Queen Elizabeth Hall, October 30
Major art exhibitions often borrow works from museums around the world, but the Barcelona company La Veronal seems to have borrowed an entire room from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in which hangs Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Our seats in the Queen Elizabeth Hall are as it were behind a glass wall peering into the space. The details of the room are meticulously reproduced (courtesy of La Veronal and Enric Planas): benches facing the painting, a small descriptive plaque on the wall to its right, an attendant’s stool between the plaque and the doorway through which we see a corridor with red carpeting. The walls of the gallery rise to a classical cornice, and the lighting is diffuse with a soft spotlight on the face of Venus. The only thing missing is the ubiquitous audio guide though there are two recorded audio commentaries spliced into the score. Audio guides influence the way we see a work, but without the guide we may miss some useful context; it’s a choice we make each time we attend an exhibition. In Siena, there is no choice. Marcos Morau, director and choreographer of La Veronal, choses to provide a lot of recorded and spoken text (by Pablo Gisbert) but he strings it together in such a way that makes understanding problematic.
More dreamlike than rational, more abstract than logical, Siena is billed as ‘a haunting reflection on art and the human body (that) takes us on a journey through the history of art from Titian’s Venus of Urbino to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.’ That’s a long way to travel in an hour and almost impossible to digest in a single viewing. What comes through Morau’s dense layering of art, cinema and dance is a preoccupation with the nude female body as art object and with representation as a form of death. The result is a visually rich feast of symbols and images in which intellectual threads are undeniably present but woven in such a way as to be constantly unraveling. It makes you want to reach for an audio guide.
Manuel Rodríguez, an elongated, angular El Greco figure, brings the gallery to life as he enters through the doorway in a buttoned black suit, green shirt and red tie. He is both attendant and master of ceremonies, using his long limbs and torso to conduct events, knotting himself into tortured shapes and giving directions with equal facility. He turns to look at the painting. A blackout serves as a cinematic cut to a woman-in-green (Cristina Facco) sitting on a bench in front of the Venus. Rodríguez looks at her looking at the painting. Two fencers minus their rapiers enter, bow to each other and commence a danced duel of sharp thrusts and jabs. Rodríguez now serves as umpire to the duel. What are two fencers doing dueling in the Uffizi? We don’t know, but we are visually drawn in by the superimposition of images. A hospital bed with a body bag is wheeled into the gallery, an image of clinical mortality that runs throughout the work. Facco gets up from the bench, lies down on the bed and zips herself up in the bag. The fencers finish and wheel her off, waving goodbye like two astronauts about to enter their capsule. The young woman who wheeled in the bed now takes Facco’s place in front of the painting. The attendant looks at the lap dog in the painting with some interest. Sau-Ching Wong lies on the floor like Venus in a fencing outfit and talks about the constant mystery of seeing the naked female body over the centuries. A young woman undresses in the corner like Venus herself in contemporary form and lies on the gallery floor. Death stalks once again in the form of the hospital bed passing along the corridor.
Now that Morau has set out the central themes of death and representation, he plays with the elements in flashbacks, monologues (in Italian with English surtitles), two audio guide commentaries and a duet to the voices (so I was told) of Mussolini and Berlusconi. Adding these layers is one thing, but connecting them and bringing them to some kind of formal resolution is quite another. Morau’s poetry falters in a rather literal ripping out of the Titian canvas to reveal a funeral parlour and coffin (with Facco laid out) behind, while Rodríguez as a figure of death dressed in a shiny gray bodysuit looks as if he has climbed out of the pages of a comic book — a crude climax to the trajectory from Eros to Thanatos.
Siena is made up of so many fragmented, interacting episodes it is difficult to find a unifying element, unless we make Morau’s imagination the source — Siena as a kind of unintended autobiography. What does unite the entire work, however, is the sumptuous lighting (again a collaboration of La Veronal and Enric Planas) as one might expect from a director with roots in cinema and photography: the triumph of the visual over the intellectual.
Le Patin Libre, Vertical Influences, Dance Umbrella, Alexandra Palace Ice Rink, October 29
Two hours drive from Teddington should get you well out of London but on this particular Thursday it only got me to Alexandra Palace 15 minutes after the performance of Le Patin Libre started but as some kind soul who was wheeling his fold-up bike on his way to see the Hugging Guru in another part of Alexandra Palace told me, the time you arrive is precisely the time you should arrive. Notwithstanding the wisdom of his statement, I would have liked to see the beginning of Le Patin Libre’s Vertical Influences because what I saw subsequently was such a revelation.
Here you are on the ringside of this vast arena watching six skaters tracing lines in the ice like exuberant explorers, pushing space in front of them and pulling it behind them like a flock of birds. There is still a sense of the proscenium theatre because we are seated in a cosy rectangle on one side of the rink and the performers play towards us. But otherwise the dynamics of the conventional theatre are blown away by the sheer volume of this space, and also by the dance form. The origins of Le Patin Libre began on the frozen lakes and outdoor rinks of Montreal where ice underlies the national temperament. Every local park in winter has its seasonally constructed ice rink dedicated for the most part to hockey but also to free skating (patin libre). The photograph on the front of Dance Umbrella’s printed program gives you the idea. All but one of the members of Le Patin Libre took to the ice as naturally as we might learn to dribble a ball in the back yard. They then developed their skills in figure-skating competition but found the creative side limited. Alexandre Hamel got together a small group to develop a choreographic form on ice, and the rest, as they say, is icestory.
Back to Alexandra Palace where the skaters are like free spirits in autumn colours (courtesy of Jenn Pocobene) stamping out rhythms on the ice and swooping around the rink chasing each other, Hamel in an orange shirt darting in an out of the group. I am reminded of Paul Klee’s description of his doodle sketches as ‘taking his pencil for a walk’. Taylor Dilley doodles on one leg for long, slow stretches, but for the most part the skaters take their entire shape around the ice at high speed, skating with ballet bravura without having to compete for points. All six skaters have characters that brim with confidence without ever getting haughty about their skills or precious about their choreography; they have removed themselves from the trappings of figure skating and simply dance on ice, drawing the audience into their performance with endearing modesty. Perhaps it’s because I lived in Montreal for so long that the performance touches me deeply, but I felt at Alexandra Palace that I was not alone.
By taking the sport and artistic competition out of skating, Le Patin Libre presents a new dynamic of dance, one that allows shapes to glide and swoop and turn at dizzying speeds. And because the performers need so much space to move, the dance venue has expanded to heroic stature. Alexandra Palace is not exactly beautiful but tracking these dancers as they course around its rink is exhilarating. It is as if our senses grow into the new volume, enlarging our perceptions and expectations. Perhaps this is what Edward Gordon Craig had in mind when he wrote about his vision of theatre having heroic stature. There is much to explore in this new form and it is an inspired co-commission by Dance Umbrella.
After the interval, the ‘front’ has changed from the side to one end of the rink where we are seated on benches on a covered section of the ice. The skaters enter from the furthest point from the audience gliding endlessly towards us in Lucy Carter’s brilliant backlight until they turn effortlessly at the very last, impossible moment to regroup in the distance. In between these long patterns that resemble cloverleaf motorway intersections, the skaters introduce their individual skills in a narrow band of light across the front of the ice. Coming forward again, they stop suddenly in the silence of snow. Jasmin Boivin, doubling as the composer for the group, smiles a wicked smile in front while the others weave down the ice in S-curves and in beautiful counterpoint Boivin skates up the ice as the others race down towards him, splitting around him like water round a pebble. There are quartets, a lovely turning solo by Pascale Jodoin and a superbly articulated riff by Samory Ba with his elongated body in shirt and orange pants that has the syncopated, ice-tapping rhythms of free improvisation. The others join for more gliding patterns at speed, their camaraderie as palpable as their joy of movement.
Driving home was a breeze.
TAO Dance Theatre, 6 & 7, Dance Umbrella, Sadler’s Wells, October 21
TAO Dance Theatre’s two works, 6 and 7, on the Dance Umbrella program are an uncompromising integration of concept and movement. This is how Artistic Director Tao Ye puts it in words: ‘I deeply understand the narrowness of the individual, and that the possibilities of humanity are created precisely within the limitations of that narrowness. The body, the physical existence that bears within itself the intrinsic order of life, is where the greatest wisdom lies.’ In distinguishing the wisdom of the body from the narrowness of the individual, Tao Ye equates dance with wisdom and his work can be construed as giving that wisdom a physical form while eschewing the dominance of the individual. This approach precludes the possibility of narrative because there is no subject to narrate: this is dance as a purely visual form. The proscenium becomes a frame and the lighting fills the frame with a painterly wash — engulfing the dancers in a masterly fog in 6 and highlighting them in shadowless light in 7. The sense of two dimensions is enhanced by Tao Ye’s approach to colour: ‘We live in an era of dazzling colours; my chosen path of thought in such an era is to create a single distilled colour.’ 6 is a study in grey and black, 7 in white. In formal terms, Tao Ye reduces the planes on which the dancers perform to a single line from which they never break free (nor from each other): ‘When it comes to pluralism versus binary opposition, I believe more in the existence of the single unitary.’ This heady package of philosophical concepts with parallels to traditional Chinese landscape painting challenges western ideas of space, perspective, being and eternity. It is, however, the radical integrity of the concept that gives 6 and 7 a calming, meditative quality. Tao may be the name of the company’s founder, but it also signifies — in its English spelling at least — a universal principle.
Within this carefully constructed conceptual framework the choreography is remarkably fluid. The six dancers in 6 (and the seven in 7) are of similar heights and qualities, dressed in long stretchy costumes that transmute gender and individuality into a single (binary) form. They move in unison throughout and because their bodies are so supplely articulate they undulate together like a single organism with several heads. In both works their hands are held close to the body so the entire visual vocabulary remains focused on the pliant vertical axis of the body, from freely rolling head to planted foot.
Ellen Ruge’s lighting for 6 is allied closely to the choreography, controlling the opacity of the fog, picking out the moving heads like glints of armour, highlighting hands and faces, stretched-up necks or the fineness of the jaw. With backlight Ruge detaches the group from the fog to focus our attention on the willowy forms of the dancers, their subtle changes of direction and unexpected variations, always in mesmerizing unison, always in the same relationship to one another. Xiao He’s throaty, sonorous score is neither subservient to the choreography nor overpowers it; it seems to exist within the bodies of the dancers and like them never tires. There is a point at which the dancers stop suddenly; they backbend and roll through their hips to kneel in one fluid movement. Their knees gently touching the floor is a rare punctuation but when the music starts again they slowly roll up to the vertical and continue without any sense of exhaustion as if the tide has just turned. The score is the only element that carries a sense of beginning and end (one feels the dancers could go on forever) and it heralds the end with a frenzied passage of bowed strings. The dancers hinge to their knees once again but when they rise they slowly recede into the dusk as the music fades. After the curtain descends there are no bows. The relationship of the dancers is with the plane in which they move and with each other, like a painting in a gallery. We do not applaud a painting but it is a convention of the theatre that Tao Ye cannot control.
Before the curtain rises on 7, there is a cryptic announcement that for this new work the choreographer would appreciate if the audience would remain silent as any noise will affect the performance (it turns out that the dancers create their own score with their voices that are amplified by overhead microphones). The curtain rises on a stunning opening scene in white, brightly lit (by Ma Yue), with seven dancers in long, white, stretchy costumes on a white floor. There is an irrepressible burst of laughter in the audience. From this point on, the formal elements of 7 follow closely those of 6. The dancers once again form a single entity in a single plane and the unison movement is equally fluid…and equally mesmerizing. The addition of the dancers’ voices is eerily beautiful, but haven’t we just been down this philosophical route in the first half? Tao Ye states that ‘…through my work I hope to return attention to the essence of the process of sensing and perception — what makes dance truly express its purity and progression. When we allow ourselves the freedom to see without controlling pre-conceptions, only then can we experience a genuine dialogue with the true nature of what is in front of our eyes, and finally begin to walk into the infinite unknown.’ It is perhaps Tao Ye’s explicit purpose to emphasize in white the concepts he has covered in black and grey as he progresses towards ‘the infinite unknown’, but on the choreographic side this suggests a limiting form for the wisdom of the body. I have not seen Tao Ye’s works 1 through 5, but on the evidence of 6 and 7, his choreographic conception seems too self-referential to allow for the freedom he espouses.
Eduardo Fukushima’s Crooked Man and Eleanor Sikorski’s Big hands, big heart, Dance Umbrella, Siobhan Davies Studio, October 26
Great artists are those who can transform their weaknesses into strengths. I don’t know what Eduardo Fukushima has had to deal with in his life, but his artistry reveals he has challenged his demons and won. Short and stocky in stature with an expansive and sympathetic personality, he stands motionless against the end wall dressed in a black pants and high-collared jacket watching the audience arrive. His eyes seem to take in each person. The second-floor studio of Siobhan Davies Studio is divided into three as if for a fashion show, with a broad performance corridor down the middle stretching from one wall to the other with benches and floor cushions either side for the audience.
There is a blackout with a blinding distraction of sound and when the lights come up again Fukushima is standing in the same place, in the same pose, in the same high-waisted black pants but bare chested. This sleight of hand, this piece of magic by Fukushima and stage director, Hideki Matsuka, marks the beginning of Fukushima’s pilgrimage that sees him traveling tirelessly down this corridor of experience towards the light. It is as if we are witnessing the struggle in his head, the fevered hallucinations that work their way through his body, the body of the Crooked Man.
At first Fukushima doesn’t seem to move but there is an almost imperceptible struggle going on that is tightening his arms behind his back, pulling his shoulders back and leaving his chin jutting out like someone being tied to a stake. His face is imperturbable, noble, his body vulnerable. Then his shoulders relax, his arms come to his side and he stumbles forward as if untied to embody a series of images that will develop in the course of the work into a fully modulated study of a man whose suffering is his gift; it is all he has. His reward for offering this gift is his redemption.
Fukushima builds his images through distorted poses like crossed turned-in feet, in the way he walks at times on the knuckles of his toes, hands that are taut and tensed as they stutter out their message, an unexpected shudder that shakes his entire frame like a fever, his fluttering eyelids and his mouth opening and closing in dumb astonishment. There are certain leitmotifs: the sudden release to a back bend, the violent rotation of his upper body and undulation of his hips that test his precarious equilibrium on the floor and an occasional kneeling as if in reverence or proud defiance. Images of a bullfighter and a pugilist pass briefly before our eyes only to be deconstructed in the constant procession of nightmarish forms and shapes that keep pace with the relentless beat of Tom Monteiro’s score. In this masterful depiction of feverish states of mind, Goya comes to mind, and like Goya Fukushima sublimates his journey into something beautiful; terror becomes pathos, grotesque distortion becomes wholeness, suffering becomes compassion. He reaches the far wall and stands facing it. His shoulders list very slowly to one side as the illumination round him increases. From stillness he is suddenly drawn back up the corridor, feet scuttling and arms raised as if pulled involuntarily to his starting point where he stands purified. He has managed to transport us there, too. Sublime.
There is no better antidote to Fukushima’s Crooked Man than Eleanor Sikorski’s free-spirited Big hands, big heart, but it comes before not after. Sikorski herself, dressed all in red to match her lipstick ushers us in to the first floor studio, escorting certain individuals into place like stage props. In the middle of the space is a collection of large red inflatable latex toys including a sofa, a lilo, a dragon, some skittles and a large beach ball. Once we are all in place Sikorski launches herself with total abandon on to the inflated toys and lands sprawled on the floor on the other side. She remains there for a moment; nobody seems to want to see if she is alright. She gets up when the the pulsing music starts, and begins to pulse herself, jumps like a firecracker, does a brief highland dance and skip-hops towards her toys. She picks up the beach ball and launches it through her legs. The musical pulse slows and Sikorski winds down with it until it stops. She lies down on the lilo to catch her breath in silence. We wait; car headlights criss-cross the walls and ceiling. Scarves are coming off as the heat in the room rises, knee joints creak as weight is transferred. Oblivious, Sikorski remains supine. On a whistle she jumps up and gives the lilo to a group of four to hold. ‘Just hold it’, she explains. ‘Are you allergic to latex?’ she asks, followed by ‘Is it possible to buy a ship on the Internet?’ ‘I don’t think so’, ventures one (what half-hearted performers we are). Sikorski hands another group the latex dragon. ‘Feel the bass’, she urges, ‘just feel the bass.’ Since there is no music, it seems an odd command. She invites another member of the audience to sit in the armchair and hands out the remaining skittles. The pounding bass notes begin and shake the floor, us and the latex toys. We are feeling the bass. Seeing we are occupied, Sikorski leaves the room while we stand vibrating with amused (or bemused) expectation. Both Sikorski and Fukushima have big hearts, expressed in such contrasting ways. Great programming.
DMD+, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, September 28
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.
Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet & Romeo, Sadler’s Wells, September 27
When you are familiar with a particular interpretation of a classic work it tends to provide an emotional and intellectual framework to which a new one will inevitably be compared. The first Romeo and Juliet I saw was Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production for the Royal Ballet and its story line, characters and its Prokofiev score have since become a benchmark. Now, nearly fifty years later, Mats Ek has produced a new version of Shakespeare’s play for the Royal Swedish Ballet, but its break with MacMillan’s treatment is so fresh that it commands attention.
Perhaps most importantly, Ek has chosen to cast aside Prokofiev’s original music in favour of a composite score of Tchaikovsky’s familiar and less familiar works (chosen by Ek and adapted and arranged by Anders Högstedt) that are nonetheless rich enough in fanfare, emotion and minor keys to colour and support the action. The choice of music frees Ek — who can draw from his experience as stage director as well as choreographer — to establish his own vision of Shakespeare’s play.
The backdrop of Verona is dropped, too, in favour of Magdalena Åberg’s set of steely, movable panels that suggest no particular place or time and which, rearranged by the dancers and transformed by Linus Fellbom’s lighting, become the walls, alleys and interior spaces in which the story unfolds. This choreographic manipulation of the stage elements echoes a constant theme of encroaching violence: Åberg‘s elegant, autumnal-coloured costumes engulf the bright yellow dress of Juliet but cannot extinguish it and the trapdoor in the stage through which Romeo first appears becomes the lovers’ grave.
Ek has stripped the cast of principal characters to a minimum. There is only one family, that of Juliet: her mother and father, her cousins Tybalt and Rosaline, her nurse, her nurse’s servant, Peter, and her suitor Paris. By comparison, Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are seen as stateless outsiders. The only figure of (ineffectual) authority is the Prince whom we first see skating into a headwind to the opening theme of the First Piano Concerto in B Flat minor.
Those who search for the story in the printed program may be flummoxed and perhaps irritated by the lack of a synopsis as not all the characters are immediately identifiable. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s play does not begin with an outline of the plot, either. He provided the dramatis personae and the setting but it was left up to the audience to deduce the story from the snippets of chorus and the dialogue between the characters. Ek’s approach is the same: the ‘text’ is his richly poetic choreographic language in which metaphor and simple character traits are juxtaposed with such mastery that he can transport us vividly not only into the lives of his protagonists but also into his overarching themes. If you see Juliet & Romeo in the same way you might listen to Wagner without knowing the story, the emotional clout will remain with you long after you have studied and forgotten the complexities of the narrative.
While the choreography carries the story — in particular the love duet at the end of the first act between Juliet (Mariko Kida) and Romeo (Anthony Lomuljo) that contains all the rapturous enthusiasm and abandon of first love — there are two characters who rise above the story through the fullness of their portrayal. Ana Laguna as Juliet’s nurse has a heart that balances compassion for her ward with an irreverent sense of fun. The weight and authority of her gestures and her freedom of expression make her utterly convincing. The portrayal of Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Jérôme Marchand) as a brash, warm-hearted homosexual attracts both the devotion of Benvolio (Hokuto Kodama) as his chirpy guardian angel and the venom of Tybalt (Dawid Kupinski) whose steely machismo astride his Segway bears an eerie resemblance to Vladimir Putin on horseback. Bare-chested in his black leather pants and tutu, Marchand is like a jester whose convoluted and bawdy personality is at constant risk in a homophobic society. When Tybalt kills him in a brawl, the ugly sub-story is one of gay bashing. When Juliet dies at the hand of her father (Arsen Mehrabyan), the ugly sub story is that of honour killings. These two deaths are not lost in the mists of history to contrast with a beautiful love story, but are a reminder that such insidious violence can erupt — and does erupt — within our own society.
The impression Juliet & Romeo leaves is that of a morality play of our time, a meditation on the tragic consequences of discriminatory authority. The final scene of the full cast lying on their backs and raising their legs in solidarity with those of the upturned corpses of the two lovers is Ek’s transcendent metaphor for change.
Seeta Patel, Something Then, Something Now, Lilian Baylis Theatre, September 25
Wild Card is a series of specially curated evenings from a new generation of dance makers bringing fresh perspectives to the stage. For each Wild Card, an up-and-coming artist is given the opportunity to present work that excites them alongside their own.
Something Then, Something Now is both the title of Seeta Patel’s Wild Card evening and a way of understanding it. The evening is divided into two, with Patel dancing a Bharatanatyam solo to live Carnatic music in the first, and Pushkala Gopal performing a series of Abhinaya — the facial, gestural and character aspects of the Bharatanatyam tradition — with the some of the same Carnatic musicians in the second. In both cases, the compositions originate in the past (between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries) but the interpretations are very much in the moment. Because both the artist and the art form are inextricably linked, we are not simply watching historical compositions reconstructed for the present: it is the past in the ever-present that makes the evening so rich.
Patel is one of a new generation of dancers who are born in England of Indian parents but she is considered an Indian dancer because she looks Indian and she dances an Indian form. Identity is something Patel has already tackled with playful irony in a short film she made with Kamala Devam, The Art of Defining Me, but for her Wild Card program she sets out to dispel the equally equivocal notion that Indian dance is an exotic, ethnic import. She sees Bharatanatyam as a classical form in the same way, perhaps, that Beethoven’s or Rossini’s music is part of the classical tradition independent of its cultural origin. It is a differentiation that may be lost on those who thrive on compartmentalization but for the two packed houses at her Wild Card program, the freshness of her approach and the quality of her dancing are indisputable.
Lighting designer Guy Hoare creates a cocoon of hazy light that engulfs the musicians seated at one side of the stage in the preamble to the performance. The violinist’s sliding fingers, the flautist’s swaying torso, the percussionist’s lightning fingers on the taut skin and the vocalist’s rich voice all prefigure Patel’s dance. Mavin Khoo, who sits with the musicians as conductor and vocal percussionist, half explains, half intones the story of praise and love Patel is about to dance, after which Hoare lowers the lights to prepare us for her entrance: first her hand and then her arm, then her entire body appear through a thin sheet of light. For the next fourty minutes Hoare integrates Patel’s dance and the Carnatic music into an intoxicating drama of mystery and light.
The focus of this eighteenth century work from the Raga Anandabhairavi is the relationship between three characters (the heroine, her friend and Lord Krishna) and the dual nature of love and devotion. Patel as the heroine and sole narrator is exquisitely beautiful, dressed in a turquoise costume accented with filigree gold and adorned with jewels that themselves seem to dance in the light. She uses her richly expressive facial features to convey the full spectrum of feeling and emotion and her graceful hand and arm gestures symbolize the motifs and details of her story.
Throughout the dance there is a heady sense of improvisation between Patel and the musicians that requires a heightened musicality from both. I don’t want to take my eyes off her, and the musicians never do. Between the narrative sections are the pure dance or rhythmical sections in which she becomes one with the music like a human instrument. Her rapid footwork, darting arm gestures and fast — unbelievably fast — turns are nevertheless clear and fully articulated as if there is a still point within her around which, and from which, everything moves. No wonder Anna Pavlova recognized the parallels between Indian dance and classical ballet.
In the second part of the evening, Pushkala Gopal sits authoritatively on a platform surrounded by the same group of Carnatic musicians with Divya Kasturi as an additional vocalist. Abinhaya are performed to explore texts written mostly, Gopal says in her introduction, by men fascinated by heroines in love. Her gestures arrive out of the words and the layers of meaning in the song. As in Patel’s dance, the symbiotic relationship between Gopal and the musicians is exhilarating.
The final song is about an Untouchable whose interest in seeing Lord Shiva is so pure that he succeeds against all odds in achieving his goal. It is appropriate that such a story should conclude the evening in which Patel has put her talent and passion at the service of an art form she wants to champion in this country. Patel is, to our eyes, an accomplished dancer but in the timeline of her art she can be seen as just a beginner, as Khoo — her teacher — pointed out in the post-show talk. It is lifelong artistic investment that lies at the heart of classical art, but with a public funding system that cannot look with confidence beyond the five-year political cycle there seems little hope of an enduring solution. Great art for all requires great artists, and great artists can’t mature on a fast-food project basis. But if an untouchable can see Lord Shiva then we can look forward to enjoying Patel’s long-term development in her chosen art.
Jennifer Jackson, Making Room, GOLive Lab, Giant Olive Theatre, September 20
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf makes the controversial claim (for 1928 when she delivered the original series of lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges in Cambridge) that in order to write a young woman needs to have money and a room of her own. Jackson, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and subsequently danced in both Royal Ballet companies, acknowledges Woolf’s claim in her opening remarks of Making Room and in her subsequent demonstration suggests that a dancer’s room is none other than her own body.
Currently senior lecturer in dance at Surrey University, Jackson is well versed in feminist attitudes to ballet — she quotes Germaine Greer who famously described it as ‘cultural cancer’ — but at the same time she can’t dismiss the truth that her bones, ligaments, muscles and sinews are inalienably shaped by classical ballet training. In Making Room, Jackson doesn’t back away from her feminist values but confronts the rhetoric on ballet by parsing its core values from the more superficial aesthetics to arrive at a place within her own body where classical form finds contemporary relevance. She wittingly dispels the ballerina image by clomping on stage in thick-soled shoes, slacks and a loose grey top as if addressing her students at the beginning of a lecture. Indeed it is in her role as lecturer that she begins her defense of classical ballet, even though, as she wryly admits, ballet dancers aren’t supposed to speak.
Clearly bruised by Greer’s harsh attack, Jackson turns to the more sympathetic Martin Creed (as in Ballet Work No 1020) and to a great theorist of the moving body, Jacques LeCoq: ‘Vertical movement situates man between heaven and earth, between zenith and nadir…‘ Jackson is on more familiar territory now and it is a short step for her to reveal the essence of classical dance: the contrasting en dehors (outward) and en dedans (inward) movements that allow the verticality of the dancer to express the fullness of classical technique. By also using en dehors and en dedans as metaphors, Jackson now turns ballet inside out through a series of improvisations on four very different musical compositions — though she carefully discards her clunky shoes before she begins.
In the second movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, written almost 30 years before the period of romantic ballet began, Jackson establishes her classical movement language in a series of port de bras and spirals that are both grounded and free. ‘Now how might this feel to John Cage?’ she asks as Donald Hutera’s finger slides the dimmer button low. In improvising to Cage’s 4’33” of silence, Jackson continues to makes the movement speak but interestingly we are more keenly aware of the language (as anyone familiar with the work of Cage’s partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham will recognize). When Jackson’s language combines with the String Quartet No. 2 by South African composer Kevin Volans (which reminds her of her childhood in Rhodesia), she takes on — perhaps unconsciously — the gestures of a playful young girl, crawling on all fours at one moment and skipping the next. As the music comes to an end, she kneels, covers her face, and looks up as if contemplating maturity. György Kurtag’s piano miniature, Blumen die Menschen, brings her once more to her feet in a short, wistful epilogue.
Entirely at ease with herself in her body, Jackson shows eloquently that classical ballet technique is a somatic practice with an aesthetic that radiates out from within. In a 2006 research paper, My dance and the ideal body: looking at ballet practice from the inside out, Jackson committed her ideas to paper. Here in the Giant Olive Theatre she is giving those same ideas physical form, in a room within a room.