Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Posted: January 6th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018, December 31

Mele Broomes in VOID
Mele Broomes in VOID (photo: Jack Wrigley)

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”- Gabriel García Márquez

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and choreography that have settled in my 2018 memory bank. Shining brightest this year was the wealth of solo, female performance/ choreography/direction taking place outside London. 

Sitting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall to see VOID (a V/DA & MHz Production directed by Bex Anson and performed/choreographed by Mele Broomes) I was blasted for the first fifteen minutes by the ferocity of Broomes’ performance; VOID takes JG Ballard’s words, transfers them to a distressed body and leaves us in a visual glitchfield unable to settle. A deserved winner of the Total Theatre Award for Dance, VOID punctures the eyes and leaves us snagged in a net of inbetweenness. 

Unkindest Cut by Sadhana Dance made the windswept trip to Sidmouth Science Festival entirely worthwhile, spending 30 minutes in a pair of AV-filled shipping containers with Subathra Subramaniam looking at deliberate self-harm and mental health amongst young people. With Subramaniam’s intimate bharatanatyam solo I was gifted an intensity of subject and focus by the claustrophobia of the environment, the skilled AV collaborators (Kathy Hinde, Matthew Olden and Aideen Malone) and the repetition of gesture. 

I’ve previously acknowledged two works I saw in 2018: one at Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia, Première Stratagème’s Forecasting performed by Barbara Mattijevic (which is coming to The Place, London on February 26 and Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham on May 1 2019) and the other at Tanzmesse, Oona Doherty’s HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus. Both bear repeating as they’re exceptional works performed by two highly skilled and captivating women.

Parade by Tomoyo Okada was the standout solo performance at TPAM 2018 in Japan, delivered with lashings of integrity and wit; Okada spent her childhood walking along the Yokohama seafront and this walking-centred work is inspired by her memory of the Yokohama Port Centennial Parade over 50 years ago. Parade is a performative memorial delivered with a gentle fizz and confidence by a distinguished performer whom I could have watched all night.

Nestled alongside these solo works there are a suite of exquisite performances including Hannah Sampson (aided and abetted by Dave Toole) who delivered an emotionally devastating first half performance at Circomedia, Bristol during Stopgap’s recent tour of The Enormous Room. Restrained and nuanced Sampson brought her vulnerability to the fore connecting with audiences and delivering Lucy Bennet’s choreography with aplomb. Ladd, Light and Emberton’s Owain Glyndŵr Silent Disco descended on Abergavenny Castle to tell the story of Owain Glyndŵr — the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence with the aim of ending English rule in Wales — with a crate full of disco classics. With dozens of giddy families shepherded around Welsh heritage sites and headphoned, this family-friendly performance successfully demonstrated that rare combination of dance, heritage and audience interaction. It is also worth noting that The Hiccup Project’s Lovely Girls at Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol was an utter delight and landed a number of skewering blows to the patriarchy and reflects the reality and expectations on women in the 21st century. Although it was advertised as a work-in-progress,  its full 60 minutes had more material, comedy and charm than a lot of works that claim to be finished. Their Spring 2019 tour begins at Bath Spa Live on March 8 (International Women’s Day) and heads to Liverpool, Bridport, Exeter and Hereford with more dates to be announced.

There have been personal stinkers, too (which have garnered otherwise positive critical and audience response) including Lost Dog’s Juliet and RomeoAkademi’s The Troth directed and choreographed by Gary Clark and Barely Methodical Troupe’s SHIFT. I also saw a preview performance of Clark’s Wasteland— a sequel to his multi-award-winning Coal — at Cast, Doncaster; it is a carbon copy of his previous work fast forwarded a few years and transplanted to the 1990’s rave scene.

I have to admit to a small personal itch forming at the gap between how we look at, write about and respond to the work an artist has created, and the influence on that work of the institutions/organisations/venues that fund, support and champion it; they have a powerful steer and consume considerably more resource than the artists. The White Pube is a fine example of such cross-referential critical reporting/writing and it corresponds to my own feeling about a work with which I had a particular problem last year, Stillhouse’s SESSION at Bernie Grant Arts Centre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). 

SESSION is 45 minutes of live music from Empire Sounds (on keyboards, vocal, drums, guitars and laptop) driving the ears, feet and eyes of the assembled crowds with luscious afrobeats shaking the courtyard and concrete frontages of the venue accompanying 25 dancers drawn from two crews of Tottenham’s Steppaz Performing Arts Academy. Diamond Elite and Diamond Bratz deliver a suite of short commercial hip hop and afrobeat routines with a fine musicality. With the audience set up on three sides as cypher, members of Diamond Elite blur the edges of performance and stage by stepping in and out of the audience feeding their energy into the performance arena with the consistent hip hop cry ‘let’s go’ driving on their peers as the remainder of audience remains silent. 

Stillhouse choreographer Dan Canham has a history of guesting and spending extended periods of time in and with other communities to make his performance work; so SESSION isn’t out of context in the way he creates: 30 Cecil Street is a haunting solo made from the memories of ghosted pub goers in Limerick and Ours Was The Fen Country saw the last generation of East Anglian eel catchers share their memories through an impressive and evocative verbatim dance theatre quartet. This response is approached from a position of critical closeness. 

Judging by the marketing copy, this would appear to be the same for SESSION: ‘Made in collaboration with an extraordinary group of young performers SESSION is a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging. Still House join forces with Steppaz and North London’s afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds to create an exhilarating night of dance and live music where everyone is welcome. Dance performance, gig, social, and rave, SESSION moves across hip-hop, contemporary folk and afrobeats vocabularies to create a new movement that is all and none of these parts.’ The language frames SESSION along (in)side the Hip Hop community with the likes of Boy Blue Entertainment and Avant Garde Dance who bring young people to the heart of their shows because their training, position in the community and knowledge distribution is central to their ethos. 

But the very language of how things are described and who offers the invitation reveal an inherent system of power and privilege; the copy frames SESSION in what might be called an elite European Performance Makers League — companies like Campo, Gobsquad, Lies Pauwel, and Forced Entertainment who make work with teenagers/children as the central performers for the left-leaning, middle-class arts audiences. A more critical reading of the work might be, ‘SESSION is a concept of a transplanted white male choreographer invited and commissioned by LIFT to spend time in an unfamiliar (to him) North London borough with two partner organisations at multiple intervals over a three-year period. Out of these working sessions choreographer Canham has created a project that has a clear lineage from his previous work but treads a dangerous line around the edges of appropriation.’

The reality is that LIFT wouldn’t have commissioned or presented the work of Steppaz and/or Empire Sounds as companies in their own right or on their own terms; they needed the external frame and validation of someone like Canham to make it ‘marketable’. There can be no doubt that with all its LIFT scaffolding SESSION is a slick production. However, in every town there are hundreds of private dance schools and youth groups that exist outside the subsidised arts world creating ambitious productions and training opportunities. This is where the majority of young people first experience and consistently engage with dance over many years; however, the festivals and theatres that claim to be integral parts of their respective communities repeatedly ignore them. SESSION is in this sense a manufactured community, complete with a mandatory audience invitation to get up at the end to lean, bop and ankle shuffle with the performers until the music dims and the energy dissipates leaving a lukewarm fuzzy in your feet and head. After leaving the venue I noticed in the town hall next door an Afro-Caribbean wedding with guests and music spilling out onto the street; here was an example of joy, dancing, music and community that SESSION had attempted to recreate but would never be able to emulate.

A final thought on the most unusual performance of the year, at TPAM’s Steep Slope ShowcaseDogman’s Life by Office Mountain (directed and choreographed by Taichi Yamagata) featured a cast of eight performers who played out (entirely deadpan) a day in the life of dog/humans at work in an office. Presented in a polystyrene-tiled room with simultaneous English captions, the choreography offered stiff canine simulations mixed with low-key energy reflections on the culture of overworking and emotional repression in society. There are some images that once seen you cannot unsee and Dogman’s Life  had an absolute bucketful of them


The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

Posted: January 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

The Bolshoi Ballet, The Nutcracker, Livestream, Brighton, December 27

Margarita Shrainer and Semyon Chudin in a scene from The Nutcracker

For the nine years I danced in Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens I performed The Nutcracker so many times — from mid-December to early January every year — that the ballet has become synonymous with Christmas. Even thirty years later the association is so specific that it’s enough for me to hear a few notes of Tchaikovsky’s score to be immersed once again not so much in seasonal celebrations but in the sensory atmosphere of the theatre at that time of year. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ production by Fernand Nault was a colourful retelling of the E.T.A. Hoffman story with lots of children in the first act playing themselves at the Stahlbaum Christmas party and even more playing mice in the ensuing battle with the toy soldiers. The company dancers played elegant, but far too young parents in Act I before the women rushed off to change for the Snow scene while the men fought on against the mice; we were all back for the divertissements in Act II. The memory of that particular production is so engraved on my mind that it has been difficult to watch another Nutcracker with any objectivity. 

Many productions present The Nutcracker as a ‘fun-for-all-the-family’ entertainment, an association that has given Tchaikovsky’s score, despite itself, a false superficiality. The invitation to see the live streaming of Yuri Grigorovich’s 1966 version for the Bolshoi Ballet has broken that spell. The performance was broadcast live on December 23, with a reprise the following week. Directed by Isabelle Julien for Pathé Live, it gives you in effect ‘the best seat in the house’ while also offering glimpses of the dancers warming up on stage before the curtain. In the intermission Katia Novikova interviews the great ballerina Ludmila Semenyaka about Grigorovich’s vision for The Nutcracker and the role of Marie she once danced; she talks with her eyes and hands as if the wonder of discovery is forever embodied. 

Grigorovich’s staging interprets the narrative as Marie’s journey from childhood to adulthood. As explained in Novikova’s introduction, Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker was influenced by the death of his beloved sister Sasha; it has been suggested that the character of Marie came to embody his feelings towards his sister. Grigorovich’s treatment restores the score, played here by the Bolshoi orchestra under the baton of Pavel Klinichev, to a sense of self-worth without betraying the spirit of Marius Petipa’s exacting storyline. The principal characters — Margarita Shrainer as Marie, Semyon Chudin as the Nutcracker and Denis Savin as Drosselmeyer — weave in and out of the two acts as characters whose paths are integral to the entire story rather than as observers or instigators of their own entertainment. At the same time Shrainer’s identity as Marie in both acts lends a sophisticated choreographic continuity between them in which her sense of youthful anticipation and fulfillment is entirely believable. Chudin has a younger alter-ego as the Nutcracker — unfortunately unattributed in the program — whose diminutive, articulate body is played with, fought over, damaged and repaired before giving his life for Marie in the battle against the Mouse King (Alexander Vodopetov) and his army of mice. It is only after seeing the guests depart ‘outside’ the house that we return inside to see the limp body of the Nutcracker under the tree slowly awaken as the Prince. The simplicity and gravitas of this transformation both in the music and the choreography matches the sublime yet deceptively simple opening of the grand pas de deux in the second act; both are moments that indicate clearly this is no longer a children’s ballet but a sophisticated paean to youthful metamorphosis. The national dances Petipa had sketched as divertissements become in Grigorovich’s scheme a metaphor for the richness of cross-cultural exchange. 

Grigorovich’s collaborator, the late Simon Virsaladze, was responsible for the original designs of both set and costumes. He plays with the sense of scale, using the grand Stahlbaum home as a visual reference from which the environment in subsequent scenes grows ever larger as part of a psychological framework rather than a purely visual one; his sense of colour and period costume creates a unity with Grigorovich’s choreography and Tchaikovsky’s score. 

The abundant energy of the performance and one or two suggestions of nervous effort may have been because Grigorovich was reportedly in the audience that night. For the 610th performance of a work he created 52 years ago, it retains its freshness and appeal but more importantly recalibrates the drama of Tchaikovsky’s score in relation to Petipa’s synopsis. 


Kamala Devam Company: Ankusha and Other Mysteries at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Posted: December 12th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Kamala Devam Company: Ankusha and Other Mysteries at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Kamala Devam Company, Ankusha and Other Mysteries, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, December 1

Franco Conquista, Kamala Devam and Tamzen Moulding in Ankusha (photo: Vipul Sangoi)

Kamala Devam has a lot going for her and she is making the most of it. Ankusha and Other Mysteries, presented at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, is an ambitious program of five works, four of which she has choreographed on herself or on her company, and the fifth is the 2013 film, The Art of Defining Me, which confounds the political box-ticking of cultural assimilation in which she is inevitably caught up. As she quips in the film, she’s the ‘white pinup girl for Indian dance in England’. As a child of California Hippies she began learning bharatanatyam at the age of five and has reached a level where she can command the stage in a classical solo. She also studied western contemporary dance so inevitably her style blurs the edges of both techniques; this is what makes her fascinating to watch. The energy and motivation of a contemporary arm movement will suddenly make an appearance in the course of a bharatanatyam solo, and in contemporary work her clarity of gesture derives from her classical training. 

The opening work of Ankusha and Other Mysteriesis a case in point. Less of Meis a solo Devam created in 2014 in which she ‘reflects on the space she has inside her’ following surgery to remove a cyst. Sitting on the floor facing away from us, she seems to tell the story through her expressive back while using text to provide her thought processes. It’s a gem of a work that explores her disbelief in losing an internal growth only to find the body is still miraculously fully functional without it. It is reminiscent of Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal; both works are concerned with deepening the psychological and somatic understanding of the body as an expressive medium while using the body as the means of investigation. 

Seeing the short film, The Art Of Defining Me, directed by Devam and Seeta Patel, in the interval between Less of Meand Devam’s bharatanatyam solo, Jati-Swara-Leela, is to watch the very fluid question of identity first in satirical theory and then in practice. It says a lot about the pioneering work of Patel and Devam that five years after the film’s launch its influence can be felt in the programing of such works as Patel’s Not Today’s Yesterdayand Devam’s Ankusha and Other Mysteries.

In the great Indian tradition of the intimate, often improvised connection between dancer and accompaniment, Jati-Swara-Leelais graced with three accomplished musicians on stage playing a composition by Prathap Ramachandra: Danny Keane on cello, the versatile Pirashanna Thevarajah on percussion and Swati Seshadri as nattuvana. Choreographing on herself and costumed by Martina Trottman, Devam naturally inhabits the traditional style and at the same time suffuses it with contemporary sensibility; for all her refinement of bharatanatyam gesture and pose, she employs a spatial awareness and attack that redefines the form in her own image. 

The title of the next work, Babushka vs. Renaissance Man, points to another amalgam of cultural identity but despite the geographical allusions Devam describes it as ‘a choreographic investigation into the meeting points between the movement cultures of popping and kalaripayattu, a South Indian martial art’. The solo, set on popper Kamila Lewandowska, extends Devam’s choreographic evolution by negotiating a dialogue between two separate dance forms on a body that is not her own but it’s a more artificial composite than Jati-Swari-Leela where her intrinsic ability to channel two forms is entirely organic. It also raises the question of what you do once the two dance forms have met; Devam has made the introduction and Lewandowska’s body engages in the conversation but the choreographic form of Babushka vs. Renaissance Man remains too self-consciously contained to fully develop the relationship. 

The final work, Ankusha, moves in another direction in which Devam develops the action through three performers: herself, Tamzen Moulding and Franco Conquista. An ankusha is an elephant goad but Devam suggests it’s symbolic connotation as the Hindu god Lord Ganesha directing souls toward their destiny and keeping them on track. Ankusha keeps the vast theme of fate intimate in the way the paths of the three performers wrap tightly around and over each other, but while the philosophical idea is clear the acrobatic authority of Moulding and Conquista, who are both circus performers, too easily governs the narrative elements. Nevertheless Devam is clearly taking the lessons of Ankusha to push — and pull — the boundaries of her work in a direction that arises from her own unique identity. 


Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio

Posted: December 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio

Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio, October 25

Eva Recacha

Eleanor Sikorski and Charlotte McLean in Aftermath (photo: Jackie Shemesh)

How do you choreograph ennui? Eva Recacha has tackled it in her latest work, Aftermath, which was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells as part of its 20th anniversary, and received its world première at Lilian Baylis Studio. As a state of mind, ennui is not about what ishappening but about what isn’t, which had become a central concern of Recacha after becoming a mother and experiencing the ‘social isolation that can accompany this new role.’ Dancers have to move in order to think and prolonged inaction is akin to a slowing down of creative brain activity. Recacha has called Aftermath an ‘ode to pointlessness’ but this is perhaps as much a self-deprecatory acknowledgement of her starved creativity as it is a challenge to define her subject. In a post-show talk she described her transition from choreographer to mother as one in which she had no time for creative work and no sense of when that time might become available; beyond the celebration and excitement of motherhood it was for her a period of tedium that caused a feeling of inadequacy. Aftermath derives its keen sense of the absurd from trying to put a finger on the malaise she felt.

The opening is set somewhere in the stillness of the mind, in the heart of tedium itself. Kaspersophie’s set design is clearly not a domestic scene; it’s more like a clinical laboratory for the study of tedium with white walls, a couple of chairs (one upturned), a pile of toilet rolls, and red arrows on the floor to stimulate some kind of direction. The two patients are Charlotte Mclean, who lies prone and lifeless like an accident victim and Eleanor Sikorski, who although alive and sitting on a chair staring at the audience, lacks evident motivation. Time passes in a series of blackouts (part of Jackie Shemesh’s clinical grammar of lighting) and the only sound is piped birdsong (part of Alberto Ruiz Soler’s musical motivation). Recacha must have been aware that as long as there is life there is still energy, however small. It comes from Sikorski’s voice and while the message is bland — a series of statistics about ambition — there is something in its sardonic delivery that wakes up Mclean. It’s as if Sikorski is the idling conscience and Mclean its flattened ego. Once a connection has been made, however, the level of energy ramps up with the conscience changing from ignition to vituperative encouragement (“Stick to it, for fuck’s sake!”) until Mclean breaks out in an unintelligible rant.

Having established this desolate territory of the mind, Recacha is ready to recognize its positive value and sets out to challenge its engulfing presence with a generous dose of humour; Aftermath is thus both an uplifting narrative of internal psychological combat and its end product. Her highlighting of the toilet roll as variously a sculpture, a projectile, and a banner is an apposite metaphor.

Sikorski’s conscience is a fickle figure at best, pulling back her encouragement when Mclean’s creative energy is beginning to flow again, disdainfully tapping her green nails on the white chair beneath her pink dress until Mclean calms down (we learn later from Sikorski that the colour pink makes people calmer). But to function she also needs Mclean; it’s a love-hate relationship that sees their mutual dependency assuaged and exacerbated in oscillating fashion. It’s perfect casting with Sikorski as the acerbic, calculating wit and Mclean as the mercurial creative force; their two trajectories start on a fragile thread and fuse together to the point of familiarity and mutual admiration.

With its cross between The Private Life Of The Brain and Monty Python, Aftermath is as much an exploration of ennui as a picture of the divergent elements of artistic endeavour. For a choreographer who has experienced motherhood, perhaps the two are conjoined.The press release for Aftermath explains that ‘during the making of the show, Recacha carried out an outreach program for mothers and their small children, immersing herself again in that period of early childcare and its impact on the mother’s sense of identity and agency.’ While it must have taken Recacha back to the sense of tedium that inspired Aftermath, the Sadler’s Wells commission has given her an opportunity to move forward into the studio and to find within her own experience material for a work that in its level of craft, its wit and absurdity, shows no sign of creative lethargy.


Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place

Posted: November 29th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place

 Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Knot at The Place, November 20

Umanoove

Mai Lisa Guindo, the arm of Angela Venturini, Dane Hurst, Mathieu Geffré, Oliver Chapman, Sara Harton and Sam Costello in The Knot (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Choreographer Didy Veldman describes The Knot as an enquiry into contemporary marriage. She writes, ‘Together with my collaborators and dancers, we have explored different aspects of marriage, our fears, expectations, the meaning of “forever” and the wedding party.’ This is not the first time Veldman has translated the results of an enquiry into choreographic form. In The Happiness Project — her first work for her company, Umanoove, in 2017 — she interrogated the idea of happiness and built a response in the theatricality of the performance. She also built the musical framework around a single composer and musician, Alexander Balanescu.

In The Knot Veldman calls on much larger musical forces: Igor Stravinsky’s iconic score, Les Noces, an intricately rhythmic work inspired by a traditional Russian peasant wedding. For a contemporary exploration of marriage this is challenging for while it might anchor Veldman’s purview ‘over the last 100 years’, its ritual aspect contrasts with a contemporary view of marriage that, as Veldman writes in the program note, ‘could even be seen as part of our throw-away culture.’

To have more freedom and space for her choreographic ideas Veldman invited composer Ben Foskett to provide additional sections that would ‘weave in and out of Stravinsky’s dense sound world’. The dreamy opening of The Knot is one of these as the seven dancers (Oliver Chapman, Sam Costello, Sara Harton, Dane Hurst, Mathieu Geffré, Mai Lisa Guindo and Angela Venturini) enter in a procession wearing only their undergarments with their wedding attire draped neatly over their arms. The men form a line on one side of the stage and the women on the other and all attend to their respective sartorial and cosmetic preparations. In a concession to choreographic style the performers do not include shoes over the socks — they mime them into place — which diminishes the sense of nuptial formality but the introduction is nevertheless elegant in its simplicity and its choreographic ritual is close to Stravinsky’s conception. Paradoxically, when Scene 1 of Les Noces follows Foskett’s opening, Veldman’s choreography abandons ritual for long-limbed, exuberant sliding steps that suggest the party has started before the nuptials.

Conventionally, the start of the enquiry into contemporary marriage is the traditional couple at the altar — Harton is the bride and Hurst her groom — even if Costello has to coax a dazed Hurst into kneeling and Geffré has to place a bouquet in his rigid hand. It’s not an auspicious beginning but Veldman seems to relish the humour as she piles up other ideas like snapshots in a wedding album: Geffré makes a predatory move on Chapman, who is not interested; a disconsolate Harton then sits down beside Geffré who offers her an imaginary ring in a box that she refuses. Costello takes her place and again Geffré finds his advances rebuffed so he takes out a torch and looks for someone in the audience while the other three couples are dancing up a storm to Foskett’s jazz rhythms. There’s a same sex ceremony for Geffré and Chapman, a brief discussion about what is desirable in a partner, a scene with the women taking off their dresses to catch the eyes of the men, Costello tossing the bouquet and an invitation to some of the audience to be part of the wedding party on stage.

The problem is that Veldman’s tightly conceived snapshot observations lose intensity in their staged context. Unlike in The Happiness Project, the role of the dancing is here one of independent display that suits the abilities and predilections of the dancers rather than connecting the theatrical ideas into any kind of choreographic enquiry, while Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Joana Dias’ set of numerous chairs and hanging lights, while serving as a metaphor for ritual, only emphasizes the bland volume of the stage.

When Bronislava Nijinska first choreographed Les Noces in 1923, she embodied in her conception her convictions and ideas about the role of women in marriage and sculpted those convictions and ideas in a choreographic form that matched the rhythms of the score precisely. Veldman understandably steers clear of Nijinska’s enormous influence on the score, yet without finding her own form for her choreographic enquiry that is anchored in her chosen scores, she risks allowing the images she has created to float free of both her intellectual framework and her personal convictions. What does she really think of marriage? The Knot is just too loose to be an effective answer.


Julie Cunningham: To Be Me at Laban Theatre

Posted: November 22nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Julie Cunningham: To Be Me at Laban Theatre

Julie Cunningham: To Be Me, Laban Theatre, November 9

Julie Cunningham

Julie Cunningham by Rick Guest

Julie Cunningham’s program, To Be Me, presented at Laban Theatre, follows less than a month after her performance of m/y that was part of Reckonings at Sadler’s Wells. Both performances are a celebration of self, in part inspired by Monique Wittig’s 1973 novel, The Lesbian Body, in which the author articulates ‘feminine desire’ through her experimental use of language. In the 1990s Judith Butler questioned the idea that gender is biologically innate suggesting that it complies instead with the individual’s adherence to social norms, that it is in other words performative. Whilst we all to various degrees articulate our own identities around existing cultural narratives, Butler argues for the freedom to express one’s own gendered life.

This is the choreographic challenge Cunningham takes up in the first half of the program: a solo created on herself, m/e, that borrows from Wittig’s experimentation in language and Butler’s intellectual argument to confer on her dancing body a confidence and freedom that surpass the physical. Wittig’s novel seems to have set Cunningham free to unravel the multifaceted performative possibilities of her body as if she has emptied herself of the outward trappings of any previous dance form she has known — Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark are strong influences — and kept only what is necessary for her own ‘writing’.

m/e opens with Cunningham facing back; dressed casually in a t-shirt, track suit top and pants, she tries out steps to the nimble rhythms of Fever Ray’s To the moon and back, demonstrating the fluid possibilities of free choice through her ability to move in whatever direction at whatever moment and speed. Her style is sparse but with an understated eloquence that derives from her singular choreographic instrument: not only a body that is articulate and beautifully extended but a gaze that remains within the confines of the stage rather than projecting itself beyond it; when she looks in our direction it is as if she is in a studio and we are behind the mirror. It is this duality of extension and containment, of exterior and interior, that makes the section she dances to the Andante of Shostakovich’s piano concerto No. 2 such a revelation. She does not allow the emotion of the music to move her but imposes her own quiet will on it; it is her spatial relation to the musical phrasing that attunes her sense of identity. After this meditative interlude Cunningham interrogates the first of two pieces, Triangles, by composer Nell Catchpole in which she experiments with vocabulary as Wittig may have experimented with language; she plays a conceptual game with a blue ball that makes a re-appearance from m/y before returning to her upbeat exploration of space to Catchpole’s second piece, Skipping, where you can almost sense her changing her mind, dodging and darting like a sprite with dizzying self-confidence. Having exhausted her experimentation she walks forward as if to say, ‘I still haven’t really showed you who I am’ and walks calmly into the wings. True to the spirit of containment, she does not return for a bow.

To Be Me is also the title of the second work, set to Kate Tempest’s spoken word, in which Cunningham is joined by Hannah Burfield, Eleanor Perry and Seira Winning. They are all costumed (by Stevie Stewart and Cunningham with a hint of Clark) as mirrored pairs, one pair in red tops and black tights, the other in black tops and red tights. At the beginning the lights stay up in the auditorium as Cunningham arrives on stage with her cast to exchange knowing glances with every one of us as we listen to Antony and the Johnsons song, For Today I am a Boy; she lets the song and its message play over us on its own terms. The inspiration of To Be Me is the ancient myth of Tiresias, the blind clairvoyant who was turned from male into female and back into male, in which Cunningham continues from m/e to further recite the fluid embodiment of both male and female narratives in a choreographic pairing, mirroring, crossing and rupturing between the four performers. She doesn’t have quite the same freedom of self-expression as in her solo, but her musicality enables her to harvest the images, narrative threads and the rhythms of Tempest’s language and to translate them for the quartet into a counterpoint of movements whose precision and abstraction embody the sheer potential of gender performativity. And she does so with wit and joy, the occasional half smile testifying to the pleasure and confidence of self-discovery.


BalletBoyz: Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall

Posted: November 18th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BalletBoyz: Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall

BalletBoyz, Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall, November 14

BalletBoyz

Matthew Rees in a clip from the film of Young Men (photo: BalletBoyz)

BalletBoyz’ artistic directors, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, decided early on that Young Men would be ‘a slightly abstracted version of soldiering and war’ rather than having a philosophical or political stance, and that it would avoid any identification of one side over another. The original 2014 stage production with choreography by Iván Pérez, music by Keaton Henson, costumes by Katherine Watt and lighting by Andrew Ellis was commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Sadler’s Wells before morphing into a film that premiered on BBC2 on Armistice Day 2017. Now, at Wilton’s Music Hall, the two productions have been combined to mark the centenary of Armistice. With the stages of development so closely following the timeline of the First World War the directors’ claims of abstraction are problematic.

Since 2000, BalletBoyz has made a name for itself as a company of male dancers. While the age and physical qualities of these young men are close to those who set off from the platforms of Victoria Station with such eagerness to get across to France to fight for their country, they never quite separate the soldier from the Boyz with the exception of Matthew Rees who plays the role of a young sergeant with more than a hint of authenticity; had he not joined BalletBoyz he would have completed his first stage application to join The Royal Marines. Playing a sadistic parade-ground sergeant he anchors what narrative there is with his erratic and threatening behaviour that might now be ascribed to battle fatigue. Pérez, whose choreography for the original stage production was adapted for the film, uses Rees as the tension that holds the small company of seven young men together, but the effects of fatigue — from the highly physical routines on the parade ground and no man’s land to the scenes in the misty trenches — have an aesthetic rather than a psychological value. He takes military actions, whether it’s drill, shell shock or dying on the battlefield, and smoothes them into balletic exercises. It’s the choreographic equivalent of singing commemorative hymns, an attempt to bridge the gap between the unknowable experience of the trenches and peacetime civilian life.

One of the characters in Timothy Findley’s novel,The Wars, is a mother who has just seen her son leave on a troop ship. She walks out of the sermon in church the following day in a moment of acute incomprehension: “What does it mean – to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?” One hundred years on it is a question that is still unanswered.

In another commission from 14-18 NOW, They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s film of the First World War offers a salient explanation. Footage of training, battle conditions and the Armistice from the archives of the Imperial War Museum has been digitally enhanced to bring the action hauntingly to full colour and speed. The commentary throughout is from soldiers who were involved in every aspect of the fighting. At the very end, as one soldier tries to re-find his place in society, he observes that nobody is interested in hearing about the war; nobody wants to know.

So if Young Men sets out commemorate the war, what aspect is it commemorating? Youth would be an obvious answer; the enthusiasm in the country to sign up for service galvanized a generation of young men from all backgrounds. For many survivors war was the crucible in which their maturity was rudely forged but for those who died or were maimed, it was the devastation of youth. The youthful culture alone of BalletBoyz, as conveyed in Young Men, is clearly incommensurate with the range of experiences in the trenches.

In the program, Nunn and Trevitt write of their wish to acknowledge ‘the tenacity and great courage of women’. Elizabeth McGorian and Jennifer White join the company for both the film and the stage performance as, respectively, mother and sweetheart of Bradley Waller’s character. Their presence broadens the emotional palette of Young Men, but the superficiality of the male material gives McGorian and White little scope for the development of tenacity and great courage beyond their token roles.

With a commemorative stance that values entertainment over substance, what is left of Young Men is an aesthetic approach to war that is little short of a romantic myth. The project is thus complicit not in remembering but in forgetting what happened to an entire generation of young men — not once but three times.


Ian Abbott on Duwane Taylor’s Conform to Rebel at Redbridge Drama Centre

Posted: November 14th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Duwane Taylor’s Conform to Rebel at Redbridge Drama Centre

Duwane Taylor: Conform to Rebel, Redbridge Drama Centre, October 26

Duwane Taylor

Duwane Taylor in Conform to Rebel (photo: Simon Adrians – Tangle Photography)

There are no norms. All people are exceptions to a rule that doesn’t exist.” – Fernando Pessoa

Conform to Rebel is Duwane Taylor’s first mixed-bill performance at Redbridge Drama Centre, commissioned by Artists 4 Artists, the increasingly valuable collective of Lee Griffiths, Joseph Toonga and Emily Crouch that works as a vehicle for change in the hip hop dance community; it’s achieving a lot more than 99 per cent of other dance development/venues who are paid to do a similar job.

As a performer Taylor has a fine hip hop pedigree as one the UK’s leading exponents of krump. As well as creating work for his own krump crew, Buckness Personified, he has performed with ZooNation, Boy Blue Entertainment and a suite of others. As a choreographer he has made a number of shorter works including the seven-minute Candle in the Dark presented at British Dance Edition in 2014, Speak presented as part of Resolution 2018 at The Place and he was one of four choreographers to work with LIFT 2018 and East London Dance’s East Wall under the overall direction of Hofesh Shechter.

Advertised as a mixed bill, the evening consisted of three works but with a first half of two works with a total duration of less than 20 minutes Conform to Rebel offers more of a choreographic tasting of Taylor’s range rather than fully developed works. With Taylor presenting the mixed bill under his own name rather than that of his crew, he follows a trend of some artists like Tony Adigun (Avant Garde Dance) and Kate Prince (ZooNation) stepping out of their company to profile themselves first and their company second.

Project producer Emily Labhart offered an overview of Taylor’s choreographic offerings as an introduction. The first work, Anchored to The Beat, (6 minutes) had been made with three emerging dance artists and one member of Buckness Personified in little over a day. It is unfair to offer any critical judgment on their performance or on a work that has had so little time in the studio; while it is noble to offer a platform to the emerging artists, putting them in front of an audience with so little rehearsal time feels a little exposing.

True rebels, after all, are as rare as true lovers, and in both cases, to mistake a fever for passion can destroy one’s life.” – James Baldwin

Letter to My… is a 10-minute solo that ‘explores the concept of absent fathers, which is often perceived as a recurrent reality within black communities’ with a score remixed by Jean-Pierre Nyamangunda and Taylor featuring Jay-Z and Will Smith’s spoken word. Taylor emerges with his face masked under an oversized rubbery hoodie which absorbs his arms and offers an interesting possibility of masking and swallowing his movement so that it becomes undefined and abstracted. Sitting facing an empty seat, Taylor plays the dual role of absent father and present son with a range of unsubtle reactions; he bursts out of his seat and hoodie to demonstrate the intensity of feeling while lip-syncing to some of the lyrics. It is well executed and technically proficient, but offers little choreographic, emotional or performative development from some of Taylor’s earlier works.

Seeing Conform To Rebel a week after Ffion Cambell-Davies’ evolving 20-minute solo Womb Paves Way offers an alternative perspective on how krump can be used in a hip hop dance theatre context. Womb Paves Way looks at gender violence and colonialism whilst using a number of theatrical techniques and styles of dance, including a short use of krump. Although it feels like the work is still evolving and not yet settled, Campbell-Davies uses that brief window of krump in such an intelligent, restrained and nuanced way that demonstrates an exceptional choreographic awareness and ability to shift the emotional plane of her audience.

Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul.” – Virginia Woolf

With a voodoo and ritualistic frame, the third work, Conform To Rebel, Rebel To Conform, gives Taylor and Buckness Personified the space and time (twenty-five minutes) to demonstrate their krump technique alongside a wider hip hop dance theatre vocabulary. Claire Hough skulks with menace and krump erupts from her limbs and face with a controlled power and threat which is mesmerising to watch. Her eyes and facial delivery have an almost abinhaya-like quality amplifying what her body is conveying as she corrals the other dancers into conformity with her choreographic line.

There is a consistent debate and schism within hip hop between those who wish to preserve the foundation and codified movement vocabulary and those who wish to experiment, evolve and re-present those original forms in a choreographic and theatrical setting. Taylor clearly wants to evolve, and there are riveting moments when he brings Viviana Rocha on to his shoulder in an expression of double-decker krump and mixes the jab into a wider choreography. There is also a series of floor-based sequences with the performers on their backs; seeing krump on different planes, where the movement comes from within the body and projects into space is something I’ve not seen before.

There’s a definite Shechter influence in some of the travelling sequences and if the work is on a conformity-to-rebellion scale, it would sit in the light rebellion spectrum. However, there is something interesting in Taylor’s choreographic voice; Conform To Rebel, Rebel To Conform demonstrates that Taylor can create and integrate the use of krump and other hip hop dance forms into a powerful and resonant work.


Rambert2 Triple Bill and Rambert’s Ghost Dances at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: November 11th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert2 Triple Bill and Rambert’s Ghost Dances at Sadler’s Wells

Rambert2  Mixed Bill and Rambert’s Ghost Dances at Sadler’s Wells, November 6

Rambert2

Joshua Barwick and Salomé Pressac in publicity shot for Rambert2 (photo: Nicholas Guttridge and Benoit Swan Pouffer)

Rambert 2 is, according to the publicity surrounding its launch, the newly-formed junior company of Rambert, made up of 13 dancers (nine of whom were trained in the UK) from an audition of 800 international applicants. The name relates it to companies like NDT2 or Ailey II but its reality is different. The dancers’ contract is part of an MA in Professional Dance Performance accredited by Kent University which makes Rambert2 more like a conservatory company on the model of Laban’s Transitions or London Contemporary Dance School’s EDGE except that it has the advantage of being able to use the name of a prestigious company in its advertising and, with support from the Linbury Trust, is offering the students a tax-free bursary to cover tuition fees and the equivalent of a London Living Wage. The competitive stakes in the city’s postgraduate dance ecology have been raised. The MA lasts 15 months, and the Rambert School is already posting for auditions in early 2019 for the next cohort with a new lineup of choreographers; the ‘newly-formed junior company of Rambert’ is set to become an annual event.

The project was devised and planned by Rambert’s executive director, Helen Shute, its then artistic director Mark Baldwin and Rambert School principal, Amanda Britton. Three choreographers were chosen for the first Rambert2 cohort: Rafael Bonachela, Sharon Eyal and Benoit Swan Pouffer, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey and for ten years the artistic director of New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. With Baldwin’s departure around the time of the first auditions, Shute invited Pouffer to oversee them and subsequently appointed him as guest artistic director of the main company while ‘a thorough and rigorous process’ is in place to find Baldwin’s successor *. Since Bonachela and Eyal each provided a seminal work from their existing repertoire, Pouffer found himself in the fortunate position of being able to handpick 13 dancers from 800 on whom to create a new work.

Like the publicity surrounding it, Rambert2’s program at Sadler’s Wells (who commissioned this inaugural season) blurs the distinction between a repertoire and a conservatory model; the former is based on the impact of the program while the latter aims to give all the dancers a chance to experience each choreographer’s work. Bonachela’s E2 7SD is a duet and Eyal’s Killer Pig is set on seven dancers; Pouffer obliges by making Grey Matter the only work that uses all 13 dancers, but it is the impact of the program that prevails on a durational, visual and aural level.

The program is a display and celebration of youthful energy that devours all in its thirst for experience. Grey Matter may be a lament for memory loss but the synapses around the brain malfunction — personified by Faye Stoeser — are still fully charged and sensual, and go about their cerebral tasks costumed by Cottweiller to the throbbing Ghettofuturism of GAIKA. E2 7SD is a love-hate duet — wrapped in Oswaldo Macia and Santiago Posada’s sound sculpture and lovingly re-staged by Antonia Grove — between a towering Conor Kerrigan and a feisty Aishwarya Raut that has the rawness and angst of teen spirit but ends up oddly sentimental, while Killer Pig, at a relentless 45 minutes, is a visceral paean to club culture and sensuality engulfed in a body-beating aural collage by Ori Lichtik. I saw it some years ago in a nightclub in Tel-Aviv and its sinuous, androgynous energy completely silenced the capacity clientele.

Killer Pig might have worked better if it had closed the evening after E2 7SD but instead it was preceded by Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances performed by the main company. A protest against the brutal Pinochet régime in Chile doesn’t fit between a Hackney Road postcode and a Tel Aviv nightclub, either in spirit or in choreography. For some undisclosed reason the classic work is being withdrawn from Rambert’s repertoire two years after reviving it and the company has chosen this inaugural season of Rambert2 to cast it off. There’s perhaps a coded message in the composite photograph by Pouffer and Nicholas Guttridge on the company poster and program cover. In the shadowed background stands Rambert’s Joshua Barwick as one of the dead in Ghost Dances. He has lost his skeletal mask that lies in the foreground by the statuesque pose of Rambert2’s Salomé Pressac wearing, we are told, Simon Albo. Her front leg has been photographically distorted and her thigh retouched to generate a muscular anomaly but her outstretched arm and upturned hand are aligned to give the mischievous impression of pushing Barwick defiantly off the stage.

*Pouffer was appointed Artistic Director of Rambert on December 12, 2018.


Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion at the British Library

Posted: November 9th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Contagion at the British Library

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Contagion, British Library, November 2

Contagion

Noora Kela (not in this cast) in Contagion (photo: Chris Nash)

The fact that the first wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic erupted across the globe in the last year of the First World War has contributed to its sidelining in our collective memory where the memorialization of the war has taken precedence. Yet according to recent calculations it killed far more people than the warring nations combined and while troop movements inevitably contributed to the spread of the virus, its devastating effects on the armed forces may also have been one of the factors that led to the end of hostilities. It is therefore appropriate that 14-18 NOW has commissioned a work about the pandemic as part of its commemoration program. Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion is precisely what one would expect of her work: carefully thought through, well researched, and adapted to the choreographic form with a wealth of visual, aural and corporal metaphors.

In the absence of the fathers, husbands and brothers who had been called up to fight, Jeyasingh’s all-female cast — Avatâra Ayuso, Catarina Carvalho, Vânia Doutel Vaz, Sunbee Han, Rachel Maybank, Estela Merlos, Emily Pottage and Ruth Voon — represents the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters whose ‘acts of kindness’, as she writes, ‘were the only beacons of kindness in an otherwise dark world.’

The spread of the pandemic followed its own logic but with the dearth of viral science and a lack of any health measures it seemed to strike indiscriminately. Even this aspect has been assimilated into Contagion by presenting it in places that are not customarily dance venues. Merle Hensel’s white rectangular plinths can drop into any size of communal space, from Winchester Great Hall to the British Library mezzanine, serving as seating, beds and sarcophagi — the macabre order of architectural elements encountered in the course of the disease — and as lighting boxes and projection surfaces. With the performers’ plain, neutral-coloured leotards, their bodies become opaque under Yaron Abulafia’s lighting and seemingly transparent through Nina Dunn’s projections, a visual battlefield on which the symptom of creeping cyanosis spreads as well as the movement of the virus entering the cellular microcosm and reaching its noxious tentacles throughout it. The patterns on the bodies are reminiscent of the lurid stippling the artist Egon Schiele used to define the volumes of his painted nudes. He died of the flu in 1918, just three days after losing his pregnant wife to it. Families were wiped out ‘in the blink of an eye’.

While the aesthetics of Contagion derive from the virus’s pathology the performers embody both the intensity of the victims’ physical attributes and the emotional response of those caring for them. The work begins with gestures of supplication in the face of the onslaught and closes with stoically resilient gestures in retreat; in between we hear the harsh inhalations from damaged lungs or see victims sitting shivering in delirium on the plinths, their faces distorted and fearful. The intricate pairing of dancers becomes a metaphor for the way the virus replicated itself, with bodies locking together and falling away behind the plinths juxtaposed with archival footage of soldiers offloading their stretchers.

Graeme Miller’s soundscape, in which accounts from the Indian poet Tripathi Nirali and an extract by Francisco Henriques Loureiro from the Collier Archive in the Imperial War Museum are embedded, is conveyed through the intimacy of headphones, as well as a children’s rhyme repeated to a flickering moving image of a girl skipping:

I had a bird
It’s name was Enza
I opened the window
And in flew Enza.

Nothing, it seems, can contrast the everyday devastation more poignantly than the ludic preoccupations of children but like all the creative inputs in Contagion their significance has a menacing undertone; the projection of birds in flight and the wild flapping of wings we hear conflate innocence with the avian origins of the pandemic.

In drawing together diverse fields of artistic expression, Jeyasingh’s gem of choreographic intensity extricates from relative oblivion a historical event that in its impact on world populations was more devastating than the war it outlived. While commemoration of the First World War seems more concerned with patriotism and the political rhetoric surrounding death, a viral war has no battle lines so there is no possibility of one side declaring victory over another. Irrespective of nationality, Contagion reminds us that compassion is the great healer and that art, as Columbian artist Doris Salcedo suggests, ‘brings into experience those aspects of reality that our society ignores and keeps in obscurity’.

 

(For those who missed it, Contagion at Winchester Great Hall was filmed and can be found on YouTube.)