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.
KnowBody, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, September 12
The image on the front of the program (above) is of Mats Ek and his wife Ana Laguna in a duet called Memory. It is a fitting image, not only because Ek and Laguna in that fleeting moment express all the joy and sensuality of their lived experience, but almost the entire evening — the opening salvo of Sadler’s Wells Elixir Festival — is about memory, the kind of memory that dancers call body, or muscle memory. Dancers don’t simply learn steps like facts to repeat them on stage; they embody them on both a physical and emotional level through the mechanism of repetition and the stimulus is often, but not always, music. The body and mind of a dancer thus constitute a treasury of memories that can, as the Elixir Festival proved convincingly, offer up their remarkable wealth or even be coaxed out of a state of voluntary hibernation.
Matteo Fargion and Jonathan Burrows do just that in The Elders Project, weaving remembered movement phrases of a select group of retired dancers into a droll, intelligent, touching collage of their dancing lives. Kenneth Tharp, Geraldine Morris, Linda Gibbs, Brian Bertscher, Anne Donnelly, Christopher Bannerman, Lizie Saunderson, Betsy Gregory and Namron provide a unique glimpse into what once was, but more interestingly, what still is and could be again. There is a palpable emotional response from the audience who are either reliving past memories or are simply drawn into the delightful euphoria of the work, or both.
Mats Ek is one of the early champions of mining the expressive quality of mature dancers, and with his extensive experience in theatre and dance he has developed a mastery for choreographing theatre. His first duet with Laguna, Potato, is a reminder that a simple idea — sharing a bag of potatoes — can be heightened into something universal by the corresponding depth of experience of the dancers performing it. Ek’s work is not overly concerned with technique, but more with ‘a lyrical approach which conveys through movement the underlying emotions and feelings rather than just the narrative detail.’ His pared-down and often idiosyncratic vocabulary draws in the spectator through its unpretentious, ludic sense of reality.
To watch Dominique Mercy in the solo, That Paper Boy, created on him by Pascal Merighi is to be transported to a state of physical and emotional weightlessness, nowhere more so than in the section he dances to the Reckoning Song by Asaf Avidan (‘one day baby we’ll be old, think about all the stories that we could have told…’). With fourty years of performing with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, he can elicit the same kind of attention whether he stands still (as he does at the beginning), dances, recites an existential text on silence and death, or scans himself with a neon light. As with Ek and Laguna, his every stance or gesture, however small or transitory, is filled with both genial abandon and infallible conviction; his physical and emotional intelligence leaves no room for half measures.
In an evening that celebrates the value of maturity, Hofesh Shechter chooses to restage part of an existing work, In Your Rooms, by replacing younger dancers with older ones (Sadler’s Wells own Company of Elders). According to the program notes, this is an adaptation ‘to suit the bodies and life stories of this older group of dancers’ but in the overpowering music and claustrophobic choreography there is more a sense of oppression than setting free. Perhaps that is what Shechter wants, but it sets his choreographic vision above the potential of his dancers.
Jane Hackett, the creative producer and guiding spirit behind the Elixir Festival, invited the Chilean company, Generación del Ayer, to perform at the Elixir Festival after seeing them in their hometown of Santiago. Unique on this evening’s roster, this is an artist’s collective founded in 1996 specifically to allow professional dancers to continue their artistic life cycle beyond what is culturally accepted. Lo Que Me Dio El Agua (what the water tells me) is choreographed by Sonia Uribe as a tribute to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and is inspired by her painting Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas). Both Uribe and Carmen Aros perform with a passion and pride commensurate with their inspiration, but the ritual stylization of the work sets it apart from the predominantly European aesthetic in which it is presented.
The evening finishes with another duet, Memory, from Ek and Laguna that reminds us yet again of the huge gap that exists in current dance repertoire where youthful athleticism trumps the art of age. Ek and Laguna dispel this myth with a poignant refusal to take leave, a gentle kicking against the dying of the light that is candid, playful and yes, timeless.
John Ross Dance, NACA showcase Triple Bill, Hackney Empire, September 17
It was at a Cloud Dance Sunday at the Giant Olive Theatre that I first saw John Ross in his Man Down, then Wolfpack later at a Cloud Dance Festival. Thanks to Matthew Bourne and his friends who provided the initial funds to start the New Adventures Choreographer Award, Ross has stepped up to another level by winning the 2014 NACA Showcase award. As a result his company, John Ross Dance, is presenting a triple bill at the grand Hackney Empire in a full stage production and a printed program to rival those at the Royal Opera House or Sadler’s Wells.
Man Down is a visceral solo about a commissioned officer killed in Afghanistan, while Wolfpack is a slice of contemporary youth culture. Both works make intelligent use of theatre and dance that have pathos, drama and in the case of Wolfpack, a dark sense of humour. Neither, however, prepare me for the first work on the NACA showcase, Eclipse, that Lee Smikle, artistic director of Shoreditch Youth Dance Company, commissioned Ross to create on his dancers earlier this year (Smikle is also Ross’s producer and a former dancer in Matthew Bourne’s various companies, so this is a close family affair).
Eclipse is pure dance with an inventiveness, excitement and musicality that is matched by the beauty and conviction of the Shoreditch dancers (Joey Barton, Kathy Collings, Hester Gill, Eimi Leggett, Joe Martin, Will Thompson, Elena Zube Perez and guest artist Jordan Ajadi) who take ownership of each detail of the dance. All the elements of the production come together seamlessly: the music is a blend of tracks by Greg Haines, If These Trees Could Talk and Ezio Bosso, while the costumes by Lez Brotherston (with original skirt design by Sara Rigden) serve the swirling rhythms of the dance to perfection. The work is based on the ancient Chinese notion that an eclipse is caused by a creature eating the sun and yes, there is a deep orange orb and a smaller black eclipse (both made by Amber Scarlett) that the dancers glide across each other to illustrate the tale. There are global echoes in an opening circle of dancers and a final tableau of arms like fiery tentacles appearing from behind the sun but in between Ross deploys a thrilling use of pattern, space and form in the choreography that to someone who has seen only Man Down and Wolfpack appears to arise out of nowhere, fully formed. Stunning.
How do you follow that? At this point it is perhaps just as well that Matthew Bourne makes an appearance in front of the curtain to introduce the NACA awards, like a palate cleanser in between courses. He ends by introducing Wolfpack, reworked for a new cast (Fionn Cox Davies, Stephen Moynihan, Erik Nyberg and Lewis Wilkins) that depicts four lads who start off a little the worse for wear and work backwards through the rambunctious, phantasmagoric events that got them there. Wolfpack started life as a piece called Occupied for six male dancers in a male bathroom. Ross has evidently kept one of the flushing toilets (offstage) but otherwise leaves the location of the action to our imagination. You get the picture quite quickly, but it is Ross’s wealth of imagery (complemented by Emma Robinson’s surreal masks) and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of camaraderie and self-destruction in his characterization that keeps the performance constantly on the edge. The music, an eclectic blend of tracks by Modeselektor, Moderat, Goran Bregovic, Brian Eno and Fennezs, weaves through the work, sometimes in front of the action and sometimes behind, so Ross keeps our attention moving in subtle and some not so subtle ways, juggling all the elements at his disposal.
Taken together, Eclipse and Wolfpack suggest Ross has the ability to create a full-scale West-End production, and that is almost what he provides with the second world premiere of the evening, Little Sheep. Inspired by the London riots of 2011, it is an outpouring of anger and frustration painted in large brush strokes that cover political incompetence and the impunity of social revolt. Lez Brotherston has moved the street on to the stage with crowd control barriers ready to be deployed where needed. Smoke hangs ominously over the set as does a large painted effigy of David Cameron with a blacked-out slogan that is revealed bit by ironic bit throughout the action (but only fully at the end). Given the cast is just seven strong (the four from Wolfpack plus Ana Mrdjanov, Maria Fonseca and Pauline Raineri) there is no possibility of massing police against rioters, but Ross appears to contradict the combined forces of Lucy Hansom’s ominous lighting, the foreboding set and the brooding complexity of the original score (by After They Left) with an uncharacteristic touch of caricature, first for the police (in full riot gear) and then the rioters. Strength in imagery returns with Maria Fonseca being dressed for action and with Fionn Cox-Davies reeling from a dose of tear gas, but it is only when Stephen Moynihan takes up the megaphone with an impassioned call to arms through to the final capitulaton of ideals that Ross’s conviction comes through. Little Sheep is his first large-scale creation but while the evidence of his past work indicates he is more than capable of handling the subject there are elements here that diminish its full expression and undermine his true talent.
BalletBoyz theTalent, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 16
The images in the program are familiar: semi-naked, muscular young men curving through the air or wound around each other like antiseptic ads for lycra. Last year this rather saccharine, homoerotic aesthetic permeated the stage work of the company as if choreographers Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett had been seduced into perpetuating the notion that a group of young men with fine physiques and plenty of testosterone think only of dressing down, playing war games and showing off to each other. This year’s trio of Royal Ballet choreographers — Alexander Whitely, Kristen McNally and Christopher Wheeldon — seems capable of breaking this spell, but what will the company look like if they are successful?
Whitely seems most susceptible to the company aesthetic in his The Murmuring. He projects a quote from Robert Burns on the backdrop that proves prescient for the evening, if not for the work itself: Look abroad thro’ Nature’s range, Nature’s mighty law is change. Ironically, his groupings of undulating bodies facing some unknown challenge in the downstage wing alternating with a cypher-like semicircle of young men watching one of their own writhing in the middle seems business as usual: dynamic shapes of muscular isolation and contortion in short athletic bursts of mock aggression that just as quickly wind down into ambulatory mode before starting up again. Like the lighting by Jackie Shemesh Whitely focuses on the bodies of the boyz and in so doing his choreographic idea is subsumed.
In Kristen McNally’s wittily titled Metheus it is her choreographic idea that begins to draw attention away from the dancers, as much by pattern as by humour (a much-needed ingredient for the company). With live music by Johnny Greenwood, comic lighting cues and some playful characterization, Metheus pries open some unused potential of the company. By the end of the evening Wheeldon has continued the process by putting the boyz through their dancing paces in Mesmerics, coaxing them through the complex rhythms of four Philip Glass compositions (played live) in some seriously classical choreography that tests their technique and stagecraft to the limit. But a funny thing happens: the boyz’ aesthetic has not prepared them to deal with this level of sophisticated choreography and although they manage to keep the energy going their manufactured personality drops away. Artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt make the mistake of projecting a gratuitous promotional film of the company between Metheus and Mesmerics as if to resuscitate their aesthetic, but it only serves to emphasize how much McNally has already challenged, and how much Wheeldon is about to challenge the status quo: mixed messages that brand the evening’s bill as neither one thing nor the other.
Another fortuitous confluence of ideas: driving home one morning last week I heard part of an interview with Sir Ken Robinson. I was captivated by his articulate and confident championing of creativity in education and, as an example, of dance as a subject with equal importance to mathematics. ‘We are not brains on a stick,’ he pointed out with characteristic wit. ‘We are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’ Robinson was once on the board of the Royal Ballet, but he is not promoting his special interest nor is he being merely controversial. He is making the point that any educational syllabus suffocates creativity because of the way it promotes certain subjects over others. In a TED talk in 2006 he said, ‘There isn’t an educational system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics…As children grown up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ He cites the example of Gillian Lynne who was not happy at regular school until her mother was encouraged to take her to dance school where she discovered people like her who couldn’t sit still, who had to move to think.
Robinson’s talk has been viewed over 28 million times unsurprisingly, but I began to wonder how Robinson’s vision for dance could be embodied in a syllabus without getting stymied by the insistence of this style over that, or this school of technique over another.
At the end of the week I attended a showing, through the initiative of Independent Dance, of Becky Edmunds’ documentary Turn Your Fucking Head at Siobhan Davies Studio. Edmunds’ film documents the final Solo Performance Commissioning Solo taught by Deborah Hay to a group of twenty dancers at the Findhorn Community Foundation in which Hay’s frequent incitement to ‘turn your fucking head’ is her more mischievous version of ‘think outside the box’. Hay was present and following the film gave a talk on the process of her research. Hay does not associate herself with any style; she comes from the American dance revolution that bubbled to the surface at Judson Church in New York in the 60s and she subsequently worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom influenced her thought processes. By the end of the talk, which spanned the last ten years of her research diary suffused with a lifetime experience, I felt confident Hay’s approach is what Robinson may have had in mind when suggesting dance could be taught at the same level as mathematics. One caveat: at the beginning Hay discloses with a wry smile that her research is ‘impossible’. She doesn’t teach, she questions. ‘Questions are made to expand the way we perceive; they are not questions to be answered.’ The material for her syllabus consists of the number of cells in the body. In the 1970s it was thought there were five million cells, which was more manageable than the zillion or so now, but dance, in Hay’s universe, is the interaction of these cells with time and space. ‘I replace movement with my understanding of time and space.’ What our mind (wherever it is) can bring to this interaction is responsible for the individuality of our responses. If there is a pitfall in Hay’s approach, it is that students may feel drawn to imitate the kind of dance Hay herself embodied, as if the form belongs to the process. This would be anathema to Hay; turn your fucking head, after all, is a militant call to focus on our own bodies, not someone else’s. ‘Focusing on my own body is dance; focusing is bound by time and space. Noticing is not.’ She talks with self-deprecating humour, not suggesting for a moment that she has any answers at all, but what she wants to instill is the freedom of the body to express itself in movement without worrying about getting it wrong. ‘Dance is how I learn without thinking.’
Sign me up.
Hillel Kogan, We Love Arabs, Teatro Enrico Cecchetti, Civitanova Marche, August 9
I was very kindly invited to attend one of the two weekends of Civitanova Danza by its director, Gilberto Santini. After an afternoon panel discussion on Dance and Audience, there were three evening performances in three different theatres.
There is a police presence in the theatre this evening which is unusual for a dance festival but not surprising given the subject and timing of the performance: We Love Arabs treats in choreographic form coexistence between an Israeli and an Arab. What better moment for this carefully modulated, sardonic work by Hillel Kogan in which the only casualties are our preconceptions.
The stage is small and Kogan is alone in the light, looking down, balancing on one leg while the other hovers in counterbalance. It is a stance that reflects perfectly the precarious nature of Kogan’s proposal. He breaks off abruptly to share his thoughts with the audience, talking slowly with long, hesitant pauses. This is cerebral choreography and the very tortuousness of the argument is a vehicle for an ironic — to the point of absurdity — exposé of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He speaks in English with a translation into Italian projected on to the backdrop (which perhaps makes Kogan’s delivery even slower to accommodate the delayed reactions of the audience). ‘Where we stand in space defines the way we move,’ he suggests. The problem is there are some parts of the space that ‘I feel are rejecting me. They are not me…it is not a pleasant feeling at all.’ His introverted movement phrases explore the stage while reflecting his internal thought process until he distills it in a startling conclusion: ‘The space that is not me belongs to an Arab…It frightens me…What can I do with that as an element?’ Adi Boutros answers the question with his entrance, thus initiating the choreographic resolution.
After introductions, Kogan, who asks all the questions and answers most of them — he is the only one with a microphone — carries on his banter, unaware (in his stage persona) that he is constantly tying himself up in irony. Boutros answers when required, more with his eyes than with his voice, his willingness to participate leading Kogan further towards crossing the barriers he tries to impose. ‘We have to identify one another,’ says Kogan, getting Boutros to draw a Star of David on his t-shirt. ‘That’s funny that you start with the downward triangle,’ he balks. In return he draws a crescent shape on Boutros’ forehead. ‘What did you draw on me? Boutros asks. ‘It’s like a brioche on top of a minaret. ‘But I’m a Christian.’ Next Kogan divides the stage with an ‘imaginary big wall’ so that each will have his own space: ‘You are on one side and I am on the other but we are equal facing the wall. You understand?’ Kogan gives Boutros the directive to mirror his movements that he then delivers at breakneck speed. ‘Good, good,’ concedes Kogan. ‘Let’s try some improvisation. What kind of improvisation have you done?’ ‘Contact improvisation’ replies Boutros. ‘No… no contact’ responds Kogan quickly. ‘No, show me who you are. It’s like an identity card in movement…very nice, but don’t show me what dancer you are but what person you are. You understand the difference?’
Up until now Kogan keeps his distance from Boutros, but the distance is diminishing, the façade is dropping. ‘We are now going to explore objects from daily life.’ He takes a knife and fork, gives Boutros the knife and keeps the fork. They improvise around each other and end up in a ballroom pose, forehead against forehead, hand on the other’s waist, Boutros’ knife raised behind Kogan’s back, the fork at Boutros’ waist. Kogan defuses the image by taking the knife in his mouth and puts the fork in Boutros’ mouth. ‘Now we are going to explore something else…It’s about responsibility….I want to work with hummus, because that for me is the symbol of being Israeli… but (on reflection) it comes from you.’ Kogan pastes hummus on his own face before doing the same for Boutros. You sense they are beginning to enjoy each other’s company. ‘The last part is a dream,’ explains Kogan. The Andante to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 starts up and smoke is fired on to the stage. Irony gives way to allegory. The two engage in a slow-motion homoerotic battle in which Boutros ends up at the top end of a press-up while Kogan niftily inserts his body under him and turns over to face him. They roll over and Kogan pulls Boutros down to him. There is another fluff of smoke and they run around the stage lifting each other with a contagious sense of exhilaration. Boutros upturns Kogan, holding him round the waist as he looks at us through his legs. ‘Put me down on the edge of the stage,’ directs Kogan. They descend into the audience, holding hands and joining with members of the front row. Kogan asks the soundman to crank up the Mozart to emotional dream level while Boutros fetches the bowl of hummus and Kogan fetches some pita. It’s as over-the-top in its emotion as the earlier irony was over-the-top in its starkness. They break bread, share the hummus with each other then offer pieces to the audience, a simple communion with a Jew and an Arab and the public. Now that’s a dream.
Martin del Amo, Paul White, Anatomy of an Afternoon, Purcell Room, July 11
While other dancers have portrayed Vaslav Nijinsky or danced his roles, Paul White is perhaps the only one whose expressive palette can approach that androgynous, feral quality that haunts the extraordinary images of ‘the god of the dance.’ Last year White appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, a work inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky had first choreographed one hundred years before. Tankard’s treatment and White’s performance were as much an exploration of the music as they were of the ‘conflicting forces of nature and man, masculinity and femininity, violence and nurturing, strength and vulnerability’ in Nijinsky himself.
This year White returned to the Southbank with Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon, loosely based on Nijinsky’s first choreographic work, the 1912 L’Après-midi d’un Faune in which he himself danced the faun. By divorcing his work from Claude Debussy’s original music Del Amo focuses on the nature of Nijinsky’s role, leading White that much closer to a portrayal of the man himself. In this sense, for those who were fortunate enough to see it, Tankard’s treatment of Nijinsky in the person of White prepares us for Del Amo’s treatment of White as Nijinsky and it is the interpretive qualities of White make both works not only rich but deeply moving.
In Nijinsky’s original work, an indolent faun is aroused by the sight of nymphs; one in particular becomes the object of his desire. In Anatomy of an Afternoon Del Amo takes away the object of the faun’s desire and directs it inward; the object of desire becomes White himself, who, while acknowledging the presence of the audience, maintains a cat-like aloofness from our attention (an attention heightened perhaps by an update email from the customer relations officer at Southbank Centre advising that the performance ‘contains some nudity’). Del Amo and White thus lead us on our own reverie, and it is not the performer that is unclothed in the process but the audience.
The score for Anatomy of an Afternoon is composed by Mark Bradshaw for a trio of musicians: Ivan Cheng on clarinet, Nic de Jong on laptop (for the field recordings and sound collage) and Adam Dickson on celeste. It makes for a rather other-worldly soundscape that fits the subject, ’that mysterious in-between-time, that lengthy period during the day which continues what the morning has set in motion and the evening hasn’t yet concluded – a time full of possibility and promise’ in which Nijinsky/White has ample room to reveal his enigmatic nature.
The choreography has already begun by the time we enter the auditorium. White in a pale green t-shirt and beige jeans is dreamily looking up into a spotlight like the Little Prince looking at a star. The three musicians are also at rest, grouped around the celeste just to his side. White’s movement is minimal, more studied animal than human, with time to concentrate or simply gaze. Part of the research for the work involved two visits to the zoo and White is clearly the focus of our attention like the prize leopard that fails at first to move in the way we expect. White’s head and eyes change focus but his body remains still as the audience fidgets and shuffles to their seats. As stillness and silence finally descend, the door opens to let a latecomer in despite the warnings that latecomers will not be admitted. Who would want to miss this performance?
The celeste player seems poised to begin but White waits a little longer for the audience to resettle. He looks away over his left shoulder, to the front, frowning, peering forward, head back, impassive, his left hand feeling the space to his side, his eyes and head following. The arms rest, the head returns to neutral and his feet still haven’t moved. As he sees White’s hand coming through his field of vision Dickson plays the first notes on the celeste. As White begins to move we see his animal posture and gestures but can’t help interpret them as human. Del Amo and White play this parallel ambiguity beautifully and it is enhanced by White’s prodigious strength and control. His feline quality is broken only once when he pounces on an invisible foe with an uncharacteristically heavy landing; he licks his thumb then balances on his haunches transmitting weight from one foot to the other without the least apparent effort. There are quotes from the Nijinsky faun, turned in and sideways both upside down and on his feet, in a lazy yawn and in his unselfconscious sexual arousal that leads from his undressing (to his underwear) to lying down on his own t-shirt in a consummation of desire. It is soon after this, towards the end of the work, that White sheds the duality of his role unequivocally; we have been watching him behind imaginary bars but the animal now becomes all too human as the sweat glistens on his back and the exertion of the performance begins to tell. He returns to his initial movements, a weary but still clearly articulated, introspective act in a public space. As the lights go down he stands frowning at the audience as if he is waking from a dream and is uncomfortable at being observed.