Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Posted: May 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project, The Place, May 6, 2017

Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd in The Happiness Project (photo: Chris Nash)

Happiness is an elusive state and like the Mona Lisa’s smile remains enigmatic under scrutiny. There have been a couple of dance projects at The Place created around the concept of happiness: Robert Clark’s Promises of Happiness and now The Happiness Project by Didy Veldman, her first independent work for her own company, Umanoove. As their respective titles suggest, neither Clark nor Veldman set out to put their finger directly on happiness, but instead gather together some of its more familiar signifiers as a point of departure to explore it and disseminate their findings.

There are many such explorations in The Happiness Project, but the principal vehicle of Veldman’s work is the dancing itself. Veldman, a Rambert Company alumna, rejoices in the sheer pleasure of dancing, and the dancers with whom she created the work — Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd — respond in equal measure (Kidd, however, was unable to perform the work and was replaced at short notice by Madeleine Jonsson). The movement is loose-limbed and generous, it jumps and turns with joyous intensity and is at times ecstatic.

In turn the dancing is inspired by the music, in which The Happiness Project is blessed with the presence on stage of composer and violinist, Alexander Balanescu. Balanescu takes on the central role of agent provocateur, a wandering musician who incites movement and laughter in his comrades. He is passionate in his playing, and his gestures are in themselves a form of dance linked directly to the music. Sometimes he plays solo and sometimes accompanied by a recorded ensemble, but he is always animated and his musical presence is pivotal to all that happens.

The inclusion in The Happiness Project of these two exalted expressions of music and dance are more than enough to fulfill the project’s promise; witnessing the dionysian nature expressed so fully in both musician and dancers is intoxicating. But for Veldman there is an additional rationale for the work: sorting out her approach to happiness by illustrating what it might be and rejecting what it is not. For a spectator this is less uplifting than it is interesting, for to follow Veldman’s illustrations is to learn as much about her thought processes as about happiness itself.

Her illustrations are in turn amusing, poignant and clichéd. They range from an individual desire to find love and inclusion to the pursuit of eternal youth, from the commercial association of happiness and fashion to sexual gratification, and from winning a pub quiz to enjoying Sunday mornings. With four dancers Veldman can vary reactions to a given stimulus, most notably in the episode on fashion. Hurst pulls out a piece of clothing from a box, announces its brand name and passes it to Jonsson who admires the design but passes it to Merlos who is generally unimpressed and passes it to Geffré who goes into fetishist rapture. The brands keep coming until Geffré comes too, Faun-like, on his pile of clothing. (Veldman is fond of quoting, and this is not the only dance reference; in a duet with Geffré and Jonsson there is a particularly egregious one from Pina Bausch’s Café Müller, which Geffré himself used in his duet, What Songs May Do). Veldman also questions notions of happiness through its antithesis: Hurst is a figure who at times stands back from the enjoyment of his peers like a cloud on a sunny day or dances up a storm to wreck what he sees the others enjoying. Geffré, in one of the more surreal episodes, carries desire to masochistic extremes.

Laughter is often synonymous with happiness though more as signifier than the state itself. In the same way, Veldman indicates happiness through an early performative display of slow-motion laughter (reminiscent, as one audience member pointed out, of Bill Viola), and Balanescu later conducts the quartet of dancers as a laughing chorus. In both cases the dancers appear to be happy but we cannot be sure. In a section where they each perform their response to the question, Are you happy?, a sense of equivocation infuses their words and gestures and when they display on a large piece of plastic sheeting what makes them happy, the scope of happiness is reduced to written indications. There is thus a dual nature in The Happiness Project: the more Veldman explores happiness, the further away she seems to get, and yet the vehicle of her exploration — the dance and the music — are singing its praises all along. In the question and answer session following the show, audience questions were uniquely about aspects of the performance rather than about happiness. I’m not sure if that is a mark of success or failure.


Charlotte Spencer Projects, Is This A Waste Land?

Posted: May 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , | Comments Off on Charlotte Spencer Projects, Is This A Waste Land?

Charlotte Spencer Projects, Is This A Waste Land?, Larkfield Bus Depot, Glasgow, May 12

Louise Tanoto in Charlotte Spencer Projects’ Is This A Waste Land? (photo: Pari Naderi)

Cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.” – John Steinbeck

Sited on a former bus depot that has since been razed, we’re aware that there are histories in play; where once buses came to rest for the night, to be repaired and re-fuelled, Charlotte Spencer Projects invites us to inhabit a land and question its former and future use. Armed with headphones and protective gloves we are offered a choice of industrial detritus to carry with us. Is This A Waste Land (ITAWL)? begins with a set of straightforward instructions delineating the boundaries of space and rules of engagement, and then we stop and fill our eyes with the landscape and fill the landscape with our 40 bodies. Instructions begin and we become the temporary workers invited to toil and till the land.

Building upon Spencer’s previous immersive headphone work, Walking Stories, ITAWL? uses six additional professional bodies who work with the site and its contents on a larger and more choreographed scale. The audience is split into three streams indicated by a different coloured LED on their headphones; sometimes we are one, sometimes one mass and at other times broken down into smaller working parties to fulfil particular tasks. Neither Walking Stories nor ITAWL? leave room for dissent; if you want to be an outlier or renegade there is little space for that and it is clear where the power lies. With each member of the audience isolated in their headphones, it is Charlotte Spencer who is in control.

I feel like a doozer from Fraggle Rock as the fetch-carry-and-build endorphins created by using my body in the performance leaves me feeling giddy and engaged; the questions asked in our ears are all achievable as the objects of our labour differ in weight but all bodies can move them. After 10 minutes of building we feel rewarded with a driving soundtrack nestling under the calm invitations to participate and a constant stream of small words of praise reward our behaviour irrespective of whether the task is complete or whether we’re satisfied with our wall of detritus, rope and stick pen or towers of waste creation. The omniscient voice is happy and we must progress on to the next task leaving no time to dwell.

He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” – Saint Francis of Assisi

The six performers (alongside Charlotte) operate inside the work with us; they too are fellow assemblers, preparing scrap teepees and dismantling objects that have come before. However, their tasks are a little more adventurous and pre-meditated, there are clear moments when the focus shifts from the self to them and we must watch them perform a rehearsed set of actions on the site. This creates a divide, a them-and-us, and it is clear they are existing outside the instructional landscape we’re inhabiting. We the participants can be called upon to do remarkable things when instructed, as when we feel against our back the weight of a giant elastic tensile rope in a 30-metre diametric circle we are leaning into and letting it take our weight. The world has been set up so we experience the same place at the same time, we share tasks together and silently encourage each other; if we as nodes were connected a little more often, asked to forge alliances, this would build an even stronger bond under a dwindling light as the city of Glasgow flickers to orangeade and shifts into night mode.

In the programme note there is no mention of the words ‘dance’, ‘dancers’ or ‘choreography’ – this is a work of assemblage and human cartography; individual journeys tracked and mapped onto a waste land as we inhabit it once more creating a new set of histories. Spencer builds and balances our labour and attention over the 90 minutes of the work to offer an analog nourishment to our human form. There’s a simmering of activist intentions to be found alongside a political bite questioning our collective privilege to land and our access to it; if this tone had been introduced earlier it might have coloured our earlier endeavours and how we viewed the work and our part in it. Triggering a set of alternative thoughts on waste as we are gathered together at the end I think about the natural passivity and physical wastage of audiences when work is performed in the theatre; here we may be intellectually or emotionally stimulated but ITAWL? invites us to absorb a work through our bodies as well, leaving us with a dust and physical residue embedded in our pores. Looking at the pattern of exertion between Walking Projects and ITAWL? the next performances by Charlotte Spencer Projects might ramp up the level of investment and industry. I for one would relish the shape of that labour.

Our toil must be in silence, and our efforts all in secret; for this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be his greatest strength.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula


Evangelia Kolyra’s 10,000 litres

Posted: May 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelia Kolyra’s 10,000 litres

Evangelia Kolyra, 10,000 litres, Rich Mix, May 12

Justyna Janiszewska and Evangelia Kolyra in 10,000 litres (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The title of Evangelia Kolyra’s new work derives from an estimate for the amount of air that passes through our lungs each day in the process of respiration. After the Rich Mix performance of 10,000 litres I was walking to Old Street tube station when I saw a man in his crash helmet lying very still on his back beside his motorcycle and the van with which he had collided. In the theatre, respiration had been in play, while on the street respiration was held in the balance between life and death. The contrast was stark but rather than influencing my feeling about 10,000 litres, it served to underline the sense of lightness I had felt in Kolyra’s theatrical treatment of something that in a different context appeared so vital and precarious.

It would be safe to say 10,000 litres is not primarily concerned with the physiological phenomenon of breathing but rather with its primary role in the process of movement; without breath, as with the image of the motorcyclist, there can be no movement. In effect it is the lungs of the three dancers (Joss Carter, Justyna Janiszewska, and Kolyra herself) that are given principal roles in 10,000 litres, costumed in hooded plastic breathing suits designed by Sisters From Another Mister, and amplified through the use of microphones embedded close to the chest. The set, designed by the same Sisters, is sparse with a white floor and two black metal chairs while Sherry Coenen’s lighting completes a predominantly clinical environment for these breathing machines.

We first see two of them, Kolyra and Janiszewska, lying supine side by side as if laid out on two hospital beds. They begin a conversation, distorted by speaking through the inbreath as well as the outbreath, about the present and future as if the two are on the verge of dying and departing to the unknown. The words are full of ambiguity with a nod to the absurd, but there is an uncertainty as to where the scene has come from and where it is going. The program note suggests that ‘three individuals take movement right back to its most essential function and use it to define their personality and create relationships whilst touching upon issues of existence, power and freedom.’ This opening would fit into that premise if movement was used as its primary means of expression, but it is the words that take precedence. It comes across as a false start, for elsewhere in the work Kolyra develops physical images for the working of the breath that, without recourse to words, are more eloquent. When the trio of dancers plays a game of mutual gagging, repeatedly stopping each other’s breath with their hands to the point of exhaustion, the image has political and military overtones. Unfortunately the costumes seem out of place in this sinister usage, diverting any sense of threat to a clinical exercise. There is a similar mismatch of costume and tone later in the work when Carter places a harmonica in his mouth to extrapolate his volatile breathing as he tests his increasingly precarious balance on a tilting chair. However costume and movement do work together when the three dancers lie side by side and use their undulating chests, two harmonicas and Janiszewska’s voice to create an amoebic musical trio. Kolyra’s horizontal flip over Carter’s supine form during a sequence of lateral shifts is the kind of physical humour that seems to derive naturally from her brand of theatre. Costumes aside, these physical explorations seem to respond more closely to the promise of 10,000 litres and I wish Kolyra had developed them further rather than resorting to the textual links which tend to dilute the significance of the work to a level of lightness and frivolity that the accident outside only exacerbated.


Mikhail Baryshnikov in Brodsky / Baryshnikov

Posted: May 14th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mikhail Baryshnikov in Brodsky / Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, Apollo Theatre, May 7

Mikhail Baryshnikov reading the poetry of Joseph Brodsky (photo: Janis Deinats)

In the foreword to a 1973 collection of Joseph Brodsky’s poems, WH Auden wrote, ‘One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honour to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.’

For Auden, Brodsky evidently passed the test, even if he was reading the poems in English translation (by George L Kline). As he explains, ‘A really accurate judgement on a poem as a verbal object can, of course, only be made by persons who are masters of the same mother tongue as its creator. Knowing no Russian and therefore forced to base my judgement on English translations, I can do little more than guess.’ Sitting in the Apollo Theatre watching a performance of Brodsky’s poetry by Mikhail Baryshnikov with surtitled translations by Jamey Gambrell, I felt in very much the same position, but I left the theatre enamoured of Brodsky’s poetry and desirous to get my hands on a copy of his Collected Poems in English.

Baryshnikov recites the poems in their original language, but it is his body, the repository of Russian ballet training and years of sublime performance, that translates Brodsky as much as Gambrell herself. Auden’s ‘verbal object’ has become the body of the dancer while his ‘unique perspective’ is the articulation of that body in space. But this is no metaphysical conceit: Brodsky and Baryshnikov shared both a common language and a close friendship enhanced by their experience of exile; this not only provides the starting point for Brodsky / Baryshnikov, but colours the entire performance.

Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940, began writing poetry at the age of 17, was tried for ‘social parasitism’ by the authorities, was banished and then forced to emigrate in 1972. Baryshnikov, eight years younger, defected to the West in 1974 while on tour in Canada and met Brodsky in New York the same year. As he writes in the program, ‘From that night on, our conversation continued, unabated, for over twenty years. We talked, if not every day, then every week. He phoned on the evening of January 27, 1996 to wish me a happy birthday. A few hours later, he was no more.’ Brodsky wrote nine volumes of poetry in Russian and English, two plays and numerous essays, all of which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The two men instinctively understood and admired each other’s art, so that Brodsky / Baryshnikov is not simply the recital by a great dancer of the poetry of a great poet (in Auden’s terms), but the merging of their two forms of art into another dimension of expression.

Kristīne Jurjāne’s set resembles a fin-de-siècle wood and glass pavilion or entrance hall, what the French might call a ‘salle des pas perdus’ (a room of lost footsteps), where the paths of Brodsky and Baryshnikov meet and cross. Waiting for a new coat of paint, its wiring exposed and sparking intermittently, the structure has seen better days, like the past depicted in Brodsky’s poems. The front doors open on to a narrow strip of stage with a bench on either side; it is here that Baryshnikov becomes indistinguishable from his friend, carrying his exile’s suitcase, rolling a cigarette but unable to find his lighter, taking out his glasses with a flicker of frustration at the process of ageing, enjoying a swig of his favourite Jamieson’s whiskey and reading, sometimes whispering his poetry as if he is in the act of creation or hearing it for the first time; you can almost feel it on the breath of his voice.

Clutching the rations of exile,
Embracing a jangling lock,
Arrived at the place of dying,
Again I am wagging my tongue…¹

Like the consummate performer he is, Baryshnikov takes on the character he is portraying so completely that we lose him. His entrance through the pavilion is his passage into the life of Brodsky and his exit 90 minutes later along the same path is his release out of it (though it is not hard to imagine the two of them coming together again after a performance and swapping notes over a drink and a cigarette).

When Baryshnikov is dancing inside the pavilion, there is not a pirouette or a sauté in sight; his body language is quietly understated, inspired by the forms of Kabuki, Butoh and flamenco filtered through the mastery of his own physical repertoire. We see his body interpreting a poem as we hear it recorded by Brodsky himself (signified by the old reel-to-reel tape recorder that sits on one of the benches). The two friends are in the same space at different times, setting up a palpable movement between both past and present and between poet and dancer that fluctuates constantly as it builds a living image of the poetry. Director Alvis Hermanis (artistic director of the New Riga Theatre in Latvia) has spliced together these temporal, spatial and kinetic worlds with a skill and sensitivity that perfectly match the colour palette of Brodsky’s words to that of Baryshnikov’s physical expression. The effect is the poetry of not one but two.

¹ From Clutching the Rations of Exile…(literal translation by Jamey Gambrell)

With thanks to Sophie Kayes, executive producer of Bird & Carrot, producer of the tour of Brodsky / Baryshnikov, who very kindly and unflappably came through with a press ticket for me on this final, sold-out performance of the run.


Katie Dale-Everett Dance, Digital Tattoo

Posted: May 13th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Katie Dale-Everett Dance, Digital Tattoo

KDE Dance, Digital Tattoo, The Circle Arts Centre, Portslade, April 21

Caileen Bennett in Artefact 1 of Digital Tattoo (photo: John Hunter)

A new company, a new venue. Katie Dale-Everett, artistic director of KDE Dance, studied choreography at Falmouth University, graduating in 2014. She is a freelance dancer, teacher and choreographer and has wasted no time in putting together and performing projects with a focus on how dance can be written and read. In Digital Tattoo she is exploring writing dance in the service of a social project. In this context, Dale-Everett’s writing takes on the French use of the word ‘écrire’ (to write) to describe the notation of the choreographic process whereas in English we prefer the verbs ‘to make’ or ‘to create’.

Recently I have seen different approaches to writing dance: Joe Garbett’s work No. Company takes its point of departure from choreographic text messages; Fevered Sleep’s choreographic performance of Men & Girls Dance is wrapped in a written project, and here in Digital Tattoo is a trio of works within a single program that comments on the concept of privacy in social media. Such an approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Whereas dance can provide an emotional entrance to the understanding of a social concept, there is always a danger that the written aspect, if taken too literally, will take precedence over its imaginative choreographic content, that the image becomes too directly linked to its meaning. It doesn’t have to; it is worth remembering that fairy tales in their written forms were imaginative vehicles for understanding social concepts or cultural values even if today the production values and aspects of the performance — in say the balletic form of The Sleeping Beauty — tend to obscure those lessons. Dealing with contemporary social concepts through dance is thus a complex balance between the rational and the imaginative, one that Dale-Everett sets out to resolve by dividing Digital Tattoo into three separate elements.

The first, Artefact 1, is a short film, subsequently picked up by Channel 4’s Random Acts, with a simple overlay of social media images on a naked female torso, equating privacy with sensuality. The underlying focus of the tripartite program is the notion of the Right to be Forgotten — the right to erase our online footprint whenever we choose. In the film (with John Hunter as director of photography), we see a woman, Caileen Bennett, reaching round her back to erase the projected images by frenzied scratching but the merging of the two surfaces is an illusion. All we see is the scratched red marks underneath the images becoming deeper and more painful while Bennett’s breathing becomes more strained and frantic. The message, like the image, is simple and strong.

The second element, Conversations about the Digital, brings us back into the everyday through a performative quiz on stage with eight willing members of the audience (one male, seven females on this occasion), each with his or her own smartphone. The quiz consists of a series of recorded questions about smartphone usage to which the participants — classified demographically at the beginning as either digital immigrants (born before 1980) or digital natives — respond through gestures, movements, selfies and tweets. The goal is to promote awareness of our online digital presence, the influence it has on our social behaviour and on our understanding of our world (fake news is a current hot topic). Even though the questions stimulate an element of self-reflection, the self-confessional nature of the staged format leaves too much wiggle room for dissimulation which waters down the effect.

The third element, Digital Tattoo, is essentially a recapitulation of the first two in a danced duet performed by Jonathan Mewett and Sophia Sednova with a musical score by Tom Sayers that traces the development of their online meeting, its development and, once concluded, a unilateral effort to erase it from digital memory. Even if the preceding context informs our understanding of it, the structure of the duet is clear (as one would expect with Lou Cope as dramaturg), so that it could stand alone in its depiction of love at first byte, highlighting the self-comment, self-deprecation and self-consciousness engendered by the creation of an online relationship. Dale-Everett enhances the choreographic message with an effective use of digital light (developed with the help of Nic Sandiland), giving Mewett and Sednova the ability to use their fingers as on a keyboard to write on each other’s bodies their interjections and exclamations expressed through ubiquitous emojis. Real life events, like a scene at a party where Sednova loses control, are witnessed through selfie gestures as they might appear on a tagged Facebook page with self-accusatory hashtags.

It might seem counter-intuitive to depict an online relationship in a choreographic duet; the structure is necessarily complex, constantly blurring the distinctions between online and offline. My principal concern is that the educational framework of Digital Tattoo holds back the emotional aspect of the choreography; while Mewett and Sednova are convincing as its exponents, it appears circumscribed by its didactic function. In using dance for purposes that are not inherently choreographic this will always be a danger, even if the social orientation of the project is effectively served.


Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Posted: April 28th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Swallowsfeet Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 24-25

Swallowsfeet

Alicia Meehan and Gavin Coward in A Blighted Life (photo: Claire Nicolas Fioraso)

And you see a girl’s brown body dancing through the turquoise,
And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea.

These lyrics from Cream’s 1967 Tales of Brave Ulysses suddenly came to mind while I was thinking of Swallowsfeet Festival. Even if Hove faces the Channel and not the Mediterranean, there are both colourful and erotic elements in the heroic onboard fare that make you follow the footprint laid out for this fifth edition of the festival. Curated around themes of sexuality, gender, health and identity, eroticism is close to the surface in Masako Matsushita’s Un/Dressed and, with darker overtones, in Gil Kerer’s Between Us. You can’t miss the colour in Alice Labant’s installation, Current Biopsy, with painter Caroline Hands, or in Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, and there’s a heroic sense in Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, in the partnership of Iain Payne and Gabriel Moreno in The Howl of the Old Leopardi, in Jan Möllmer’s miniature epic, When You’re Smiling and in Joe Garbett’s spirited riposte to arts funding cuts in No.Company. Presented together over two days in a variety of locations within The Old Market, these works form a stimulating journey through which the white-overalled members of the Swallowsfeet collective guide the audience with dinner bells and semaphoric gestures. And if it’s all too much, down in the basement there’s Hamish McPherson’s Nonexistent Activity Outside The Capitalistic Time in which you can alternately relax and minister to the relaxation of others (if Ulysses was ever becalmed, this is where it happened). McPherson succinctly underpins all that is going on upstairs by suggesting that if we don’t care for each other the purpose of the arts has lost its way. Through its inclusivity, Swallowsfeet is more than a festival of international dance; it’s an event of human proportions in which dance, music and silence express contrasting aspects of the human condition.

With 280 submissions from 39 countries culled to nine performances, the collective has worked hard to produce a coherent and stimulating program on a small scale and a small budget. Perhaps because it is David to the region’s Goliath (the Brighton Festival), Swallowsfeet has failed four times in its last five applications for financial support from Arts Council England, but its dance programming is far more adventurous than its conservative relation further along the seafront. Swallowsfeet dips into areas that are rich seams for exploration even if the resultant works may hang on to their form by their fingernails; but in a festival setting this is preferable to the programming of rich formal works whose seams of exploration have long since been mined.

Take Iain Payne’s pairing with Gabriel Moreno. Both men are from Gibraltar, and while the sturdy Moreno lends his rich mellifluous voice and his guitar to songs and poetry, Payne is like an old bibliophile arranging books — the traces of his culture — around the island of his stage. He races forwards and backwards, slides and slips in his impatient race to keep abreast of history while Moreno’s voice is the rock of his stability. Payne builds a bridge of separate tomes to a cliff of books on which he balances precariously; but these are the very words Moreno keeps alive with his voice. The influence of the two men collides, producing the enigma of cultural identity.

Identity is at the heart of Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, more histrionic tableau than performative theme but its raw emotions, its African beat and vivid colours take us on a hedonistic journey with three dancers (Coward, Alicia Meehan and Patrick Ziza) with scarves, flags, cross dressing and undressing, high heels, and rubber car tyres. Grayson Perry is quoted in the program as saying, ‘Identity is an ongoing performance not a static state’ which is very much the nature of A Blighted Life, though it appears more permissive than blighted. The only suggestion of repressive homophobic attitudes comes through recorded commentary, which provides insufficient counterweight to the ebullience of the performance to make a political statement.

I saw Möllmer’s When You’re Smiling in the first-night performance on the paved area in front of The Old Market, where dancer Uwe Brauns mapped out a dance for two pairs of shoes. Using his hands inside the shoes he creates a soaring conversation between them and has them dance duets to Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. In a wonderful overlap of the imaginary and the substantive, the owner of the neighbouring house opens his door to see what is going on. A few minutes later Brauns calls someone’s name from another house but, disappointingly, nobody responds. Having traced a series of magical stories as mime and puppeteer, Brauns finally picks up both pairs of shoes and walks them back into the theatre.

In Current Biopsy, painter Caroline Hands could simply be recording Alice Labant’s performance, standing on the side of the stage, Chinese brush in a hand hovering over ink and paper, but she’s an integral part of the performance. She watches Labant who lies on a corner of the barroom floor like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, her eyes closed. When she opens them she impishly instructs us to close ours. Once opened again — with her permission — we see Labant kneeling then rising in a dress the colours of the sea. Current Biopsy is a danced improvisation that plays with sumptuously coloured textiles Hands has fashioned, brought alive by Labant’s effusive, swirling movement. The work is an experiment in using the dynamic body to set materials in motion but it is also the materials that frame the body’s fleeting form. Paradoxically Hands tries to capture it with sketch after sketch, paper flying to the floor while Labant’s brother Boris plays a musical reverie on guitar. As rich as the materials from which it arises, Current Biopsy celebrates a path of light and tangible beauty in both limited space and time.

There is more form in Gil Kerer’s Between Us through his use of the body’s sinuous psychology. A duet with Kerer and Alex Shmurak to a score by Ori Avni, Between Us is an intimate portrait with brutal overtones. Trained in Gaga, Kerer’s body manifests the shades of intimacy, from generous to possessive, and he can swing his moods without warning; Shmurak is part foil and part accomplice. This emotional uncertainty keeps tension in the work while the precision of the interaction between the two maintains a visceral dynamic.

I have written elsewhere about a previous manifestation of Joe Garbett’s No. Company. In addressing the problem of rehearsal and production costs constantly outweighing financial resources, Garbett has hit on an idea that resolves an aspect of the equation while being inherently alluring. Using as his creative input text messages from a number of choreographers working in pairs on social media, Garbett leaves the dancers’ imagination, humour and ingenuity to interpret the messages. Garbett himself provides only direction and enough studio time in which to put it all together. This time he has used three texts from three pairs of choreographers (Perrine Gontié, Elinor Lewis, Maria Lothe, Alice Labant, Amy Toner, and Connor Quill) to create two independent duets, one with Lorea Burge Badiola and Ellya Sam, the other with Jacob Bray and Richard Pye. There are some similarities in the two duets, performed separately, but the dancers’ animated response to the input gives the duets an improvisational freshness that makes them a joy to watch.

For Un/Dress, Masako Matsushita is dressed in nothing but a surfeit of underwear. The multiple layers only become visible as she lowers one after another (seventeen or eighteen in all) to form a long tube dress of bright colours and patterns. She already makes an art of dressing but with the undressing the cool perfection of her flesh suddenly freed from clothing is intense. And just at that moment the drone of the score changes pitch, embracing and underlining the act so effectively as if the music itself had been caught unawares by the transformation. Matsushita allows us to experience the state of undress as the obverse of dressing rather than as a reduction to nakedness. Billed as ‘a metaphorical performance that…becomes an inquiry into the role of clothing and body in modern society’, Un/Dress is an exquisitely controlled deconstruction that places the body and clothing on the same aesthetic plane.

Perhaps the most formal work of the festival is the main stage performance on Friday night of Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, focusing on solo performer, Maija Karhunen. The formality is in the presentation but the subject is a flight of fancy that ‘oscillate(s) between real and fake, private and public, quotidian and theatrical.’ Karhunen, who was born with glass-bone disease, guides us consummately through the irony of following a yoga instruction video by a lithe young woman on a New York rooftop with its drippingly spiritual commentary: “Try to release all the pressure you have accumulated in the past, all anger, all the concerns…Allow the light to penetrate into your spine; feel confident about yourself.” Karhunen, who has all the confidence one could wish for in a performance, fast forwards to a more palatable section until she calmly closes the laptop. Pulling out a gold lamé shirt and a fur stole from a small cardboard cupboard behind her, she takes on poses of an exotic dancer, constantly challenging the norms, calmly cranking open the gap between our expectations and hers to the point hers make just as much sense. She tells a joke but the humour is in her self-deprecating inability to remember the punch line; she defiantly dances on her back with her eloquent arms and hands reaching the musical crescendo, and she rolls herself up in her yoga mat and makes faces by pulling out the edges of her mouth. We are watching an expressive mind and body interacting powerfully with the audience. For a finale she reads our horoscopes like an oracle divining the augurs from a selection of items collected prior to the show from members of the audience. We want to believe her, but she doesn’t always reach her mark. She might not be a great oracle, but she commands the stage.

The Swallowsfeet Collective can be proud of this event; the works stand together and support each other within a format that allows experimentation while not being afraid to fail. The festival deserves more attention from national arts funding sources and from the dance development leaders up the road. Great art doesn’t always come from great venues or festivals, but arises where the circumstances are propitious. Swallowsfeet Festival fits the bill, and high attendance proved its attraction. In the hope it will continue its journey, it might be worth remembering that Ulysses managed to navigate the perils and temptations of his epic voyage home not only with his courage and tenacity but with a little help from the gods.


Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Posted: April 19th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance, The Place, April 13

Matthew Morris and two of the girls in Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance (photo: Matthew Andrews)

I came away from Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance at The Place with an empty feeling that had started during the performance; for a theatrical presentation this means a failure. The empty feeling developed into a sense of annoyance, all the more vexing as there was nothing specific I could identify in the show that supported it and it was in marked contrast to the upbeat vibe of an audience who evidently loved it.

The idea for Men & Girls Dance started innocently enough when the directors of Fevered Sleep, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were auditioning trained male dancers for a project the day after seeing young girls performing in an end-of-term dance school show. Wondering what they might produce by bringing two such groups together, they explored the social and political implications of men and girls in our society. As Butler and Harradine explain in their newspaper of a program, ‘Men & Girls Dance hopes to offer provocations about, and ultimately solutions to, what we feel has fast become a problem around the culture of adults, and especially male adults, just being with children today.’ ‘We want people to be troubled’, says Butler elsewhere, to which Harradine adds, ‘To be troubled by witnessing playful, tender relationships. Why should that be troubling? But it is…’

The common language between men and girls is play, and this is where the production works best. The set is covered in newspaper pages, crumpled up and heaped at the back or carefully taped together in sheets like a quilt in the centre of the floor. Leaving aside the metaphorical significance of media coverage as floor coverage, the games played in this arena draw me into the engagement between the nine girls and the five men (including a brilliant entrance for Robert Clark who emerges from the crumpled newspapers at the back, dressed in…crumpled newspaper) with a theatrical sophistication that stands on its own. But beyond this delightful play, the choreographic ideas have the drawn-out quality of blandness with a giggly smile.

Part of the popularity of Men & Girls Dance undoubtedly has to do with the young girls who are auditioned locally wherever performances take place. In London the girls are Pebbles Doughty-White, Molly Beasley-Martin, Maya Demetriou, Belesther Huberson-Abie, Chadni Miah, Neve Seekings, Momoka Taniguchi-Warren, Amber Worboys Sayers and Rania Yarde. It must be a wonderful and nerve-wracking experience for them: wonderful to be performing with these five men (Clark, Kip Johnson, Luke Crook, Nick Lawson and Matthew Morris) and nerve-wracking to be learning both text and choreography to performance level in a short space of time. They do it brilliantly.

The other draw for Men & Girls Dance is that it’s a project whose premise you can’t easily reject: to create ‘a public space which allows play, tenderness, trust, empathy and love’ between men and girls. One can understand, for example, why the Wellcome Trust would want to support it and how the hype around the show generates ticket sales (the run at The Place has 9 performances, up to and including Saturday April 22). But a theatrical performance is more than its premise, and my empty feeling perhaps has its origin in the distance between the proposal and its manifestation. Men & Girls Dance treats a subject that is both light and dark, but its presentation on stage is only light; so where is the provocation, and to whom might it be addressed? It seems the only troubling thing about Men & Girls Dance is the absence of anything troubling. It’s a show the girls in their intuitively playful way might have choreographed and then asked the adults to formulate emotionally and intellectually. While the parallel social implications may well be contentious — the 64 pages of program text are an indication of how sensitive the subject can be — the choreographic manifestation in a controlled public space where the men need DBS checks to perform loses all pretensions of being provocative.

Could it be that an unintended consequence of current written funding applications is that what ticks the right boxes is the social significance and implications of a proposal rather than the quality of the performance which, at the point of application, may not yet have been created? Fevered Sleep has written a carefully worded newspaper about the subject of men and girls to accompany the show, offers discussions on the subject within each community where it plays and has garnered plaudits for broaching the subject — all valid — but it feels as if the company has sold us the funding application rather than the show.


Ian Abbott on Marc Brew: Building His Brewband

Posted: April 11th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Rehearsal | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Marc Brew: Building His Brewband

Building The Brewband…Marc Brew at Renfrew Town Hall, Renfrew, January 19 and 20

Marta Masiero and Alice Sheppard rehearsing Brewband (photo: Ian Abbott)

I am a Marc Brew Company writing roadie, invited into the studio as Marc continues the creative process developing his new work BREWBAND. The company describes the work as, ‘Scotland’s new super band — that blurs boundaries and challenges people’s perception of identity.’ BREWBAND is being created in the glorious, high-ceilinged Renfrew Town Hall by award-winning choreographer Marc Brew and brings together the musicians Graeme Smillie (Unwinding Hours/The Vaselines), Jill O’Sullivan (BDY_PRTS/Sparrow And The Workshop), Peter Kelly (Galchen/The Kills) with dancers Martyn Garside (San Francisco Ballet), Marta Masiero (Scottish Dance Theatre) and Alice Sheppard (Axis Dance Company).

The first week is primarily about building confidence and trust between the performers; Marc is consistently asking them to go to places that are unfamiliar but the way he holds the studio and frames the workshop tasks is supportive and this checking in — asking if everyone is OK and making time for care — reaps enormous creative rewards.

Even the trio of post-rock musicians are involved in the physical exercises. None of them has encountered zip-zap-boing and blindfolded touch exercises before but immerse themselves fully before offering these responses: “In the blindfold exercise I was tracing lines on Martyn’s body — it was like a constellation; I was totally buzzing and decided to throw myself in and say touch me, pull me,” and “Being touched on the face is so unexpected; I use my fingers a lot but never really think about them — this is about bringing attention to our body.” This physical and emotional bonding acts as a shortcut and is right out the MIT leadership guide to building a new team; Brew ensures the mission, goals, rules, language and communication are clear and open which leads to a happy and productive team.

Graeme is the only musician who had participated in the first research period in 2015 and offers a thread back to some of the original thinking: “Collaborations are really fertile ground for me because we’re trying new things, challenging habits, and with the introduction of Jill it adds really strong vocals into the band which we didn’t have before. In the improvs I have to be more comfortable about not always trying to remember everything all the time as it isn’t important at this stage; it’s allowing room for experimentation but trying to get that feeling/energy back when it comes to the making.”

The creative tasks involved in the presentation of dance challenged Jill’s preconceptions: “I had some trepidation before the project started. There’s something in musicians, we play in the dark in dingy places and don’t have people looking at us. Marc commented that a lot of musicians have hair that covers their face and I suppose we do. What we’re doing with our bodies here is nothing like I’ve done before. I thought I was fit, but I’ve discovered new muscles that ache at the end of the day and it’s shattered my preconceptions of what dance is in a great way. When I see a dancer respond immediately and physically to what I’m playing — which is really unusual — it makes me play better as I am not only aware of myself, the song and other musicians but of the dancers as well. I’ve already noticed after 4 days that I’m a better musician because of this process.”

In creating BREWBAND there was some discussion from the musicians around repetition; how their bodies default to certain positions whilst playing a song 50 or 60 times before it’s familiar. Humans encounter a lot of repetition in daily routines; familiar faces, habits and pathways enable a certain level of comfort. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, has spent time investigating why repetition has a profound effect on us: ‘One of the reasons this kind of repeat exposure can cause an earworm to burrow in our mental soundtrack is because repetition actually changes the way we listen to music. Repetition changes the way we orient to sound and it tends to draw us into a participatory stance so that we’re imagining the next note before it happens.’

Repetition makes us listen and see things differently; it offers a chance to pay more attention to the nuances and subtleties in the choreography and composition as we are no longer occupied with just trying to process the main melodic or visually harmonic content. Each day Jill led a short vocal warm up mixing do-re-mi scales, lip-rippling-exhausted-horse exercises and joint head humming all the while stressing the importance of not over-warming up the voice: 10 minutes is often enough. After the warm-up ended it melted into a rich and unforeseen vocal improvisation; with Bjork’s Unravel playing, Alice began riffing in and out of the melodies before passing the mic to Martyn who brought acres of emotion and richness into the speakers. 15 minutes later there was a set of material that was stage ready, demonstrating the mutual trust and each person’s ability to respond to the delicate energies in play.

The structure of each day focused on a morning of skills development and bonding, working towards a creative something in the afternoon which may or may not make it into the final work. Peter offered an insight into how Marc created this mutually supportive environment: “When you join a new indie or rock band there are some salty road dogs who’re in their 60s, on cocaine every night and part of a clique. Here everyone is equal, slightly unsure but also so encouraging. I don’t think about each limb doing different things when I’m on the drums — you’d just fall apart if you did. You zone into it. We did this exercise with a deconstructed drum kit spinning on risers; playing was almost dizzying and a little like Tommy Lee from Motley Crue where he’s in the cage upside down in the audience. We’re working out how all the fills, flourishes and the ends of the tracks work, as well as working out how people work together. Touching strangers sober isn’t something you normally do.”

The shared musical palette of Mogwai, Nils Frahm and Godspeed You! Black Emperor offer a clear set of influences from which the music burrows under your skin and when they played live for the first time in rehearsal their movements — if you removed their instruments — were so compelling to watch. Melodies, rhythms and time signatures pulse through bodies: their physicality is mesmerising and BREWBAND is building.


The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite

Posted: April 5th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite

The Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 23

Kristen McNally and artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern (photo: Johan Persson)

This is a program of repertoire works by former Royal Ballet dancers, David Dawson and Christopher Wheeldon, wrapped around a new commission by Crystal Pite, the first female choreographer to perform her work on the main stage in a long, long, time. Despite this landmark achievement, Pite is not a classical choreographer, nor are her works in the classical idiom. Borrowing a leaf from Tamara Rojo’s astute book, the Royal Ballet has brought in a lauded contemporary name on a contemporary theme at an appropriate moment. It is also borrowing from the book of Sadler’s Wells associate artists. Much as I love Pite’s work, Flight Pattern blends uneasily with both the accompanying repertoire and the surroundings. It’s a beautifully fraught work (beautiful and fraught) about the fate of migrants, not a subject that lends itself naturally to the velvet and gilded glamour of the Royal Opera House. It’s an oddly imbalanced program, too, because Flight Pattern is not a natural closer, and neither Dawson’s nor Wheeldon’s work prepares for it in any way; it comes out of nowhere. It is nevertheless a sublime conception, both scenically and choreographically, for a mass of 36 dancers with the suggestion of a lead migrant couple (an incongruous notion) of Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambé. Anyone who saw Pite’s monumental Polaris on the Sadler’s Wells stage for the See The Music Hear The Dance program just over two years ago will remember her powerful massed forms of 64 dancers responding to Thomas Adès’ orchestral storm of the same name. Flight Pattern is more poetic and less menacing, influenced by the eerie refinement of the first movement of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, but its subject is harrowing. The work visualises the endless lines of stooped humanity on a desperate trek to an unknown future but Jay Gower Taylor’s set, Thomas Visser’s lighting and Nancy Bryant’s costumes bestow epic proportions on the entire journey. The movements of the dancers are muted and repressed throughout the work, hemmed in by heavy overcoats and by the giant partitions of the set that close inexorably on them until only a gently rocking McNally and a seething Sambé remain isolated. It is a moment that almost spits with rage but Sambé at this crucial point allows his pyrotechnical wizardry to infiltrate his character, dissipating Pite’s entire psychological build-up.

There’s plenty of legitimate technical display on the rest of the program, however, and the men get a thorough workout in Dawson’s first work for the Royal Ballet, The Human Seasons, to a commissioned score by Greg Haines. You know you’re at the Royal Ballet with this level of technical skill, though the loud landings (and there are many of them) of the men in particular exhibit some weakness in execution. The women are on display too, especially when upright; they are less so when being dragged unceremoniously along the ground.

Seeing The Human Seasons (2013) side by side with Wheeldon’s After The Rain (2005) one can’t help seeing similarities; both are in the neo-classical style with stripped down costumes, and there are one or two quotes by Dawson of Wheeldon’s lifts and slides. Where the two works differ is in the use of space as part of choreographic form. For all its intense movement, its entrances and exits, and its asymmetrical groupings, The Human Seasons, unlike Keats’ sonnet that inspired it, is constantly crying out for some kind of form to hold them all together. This is amplified by a lackadaisical deportment in the men in between partnering duties or bravura steps; they just amble over to the next sequence, killing the dynamics. Haines’ score can’t hold the work together either, so with all these holes Dawson’s form fails to gel, leaking out in all directions over the course of the work’s 35 minutes.

Scored for three couples, the first section of After The Rain is set to the first (Ludus) movement of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; as soon as it begins, Wheeldon’s spatial stagecraft is apparent. The form is held in place by the harmony of the music allied with the harmony of the choreography, pumpkin rolls and all. The second movement, to Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, is joined to the first but not closely related. It is often performed as a separate duet and its renown makes it appear as the feature film we’ve been waiting for. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares make it a powerful meditation on the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty, where each gesture is thought through and flows seamlessly to its natural resolution. But while the consummate elegance of this movement is framed on one side, the absence of a final, contrasting movement leaves it floating in splendid isolation; it should either be set free for good or the frame completed.


Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me

Posted: April 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me

Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, Chapter, Cardiff, March 17

Deborah Light in a sharing of Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me (photo: Warren Orchard)

Four years after chipping away at the inner life of the nineteenth century paleontologist Mary Anning in The Curio Cabinet, and six months into carrying a third child, Deborah Light has been turning her choreographic imagination to an excavation of her own life in an array of objects collected from the rocks and crevices of her mind and body. In this sharing of a development phase for a new work, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, she regales the invited audience in the studio at Chapter with a running commentary of her evolution that Darwin himself might have enjoyed if not fully appreciated. Nevertheless, her condensed trajectory from chordate to choreographer and from mollusk to mother is an accelerated but otherwise totally convincing line.

The studio is laid out with tables (they could be glass cases in a museum) on which are arrayed the objects and specimens Light has chosen to represent her. There is no particular order but they include balls of wool and knitting needles (her mother’s influence), fossils, rocks, seeds (her partner’s influence), her grandfather’s mantle clock, flowerpots and books (her private passion), all of which she invites the audience to inspect and handle. There are two other tables that are littered with notes or laid with paper for our written suggestions and interjections.

Kneeling on all fours in front of the clock Light demonstrates with rhythmic dorsal undulations the early chordate’s need for structural reorganization, then evolves into the shape of the mollusk’s hard shell and with evolutionary haste bypasses the seed’s slow-burning life with the vital attempt to stand up. This leads her to the table marked What’s Important on which she asks someone to add, ‘standing up’ and, as she catches her breath, ‘breathing’. As a mother of small children she also adds ‘dry pants’ to the growing list and as a human being she adds, ‘world peace’. In the space of an hour Semi Detached – An Archeology of Me builds up delightfully disparate layers of autobiographical sediment that form Light’s own particular landscape, her own history at this particular moment in her life, and as the unique curator she animates it all as both subject and object. She listens to the sounds of her own name as we might address it, as her mother might have pronounced it, as her children might call it, as she might have called her mother. It is harrowing and deeply moving to hear her label herself with these inflections of welcome, caution, fear and love, scratching under the name to give it life, identity and meaning.

Light has learned from raising her children that the art of dissembling can be very effective in keeping cool under fire. The way she leads us to believe the ‘indispensable’ bear, Mishu, is indeed borrowed from her five-year-old son as she proceeds to dissect his wooly chest with clinical precision is a master class in psychological manipulation. It also turns into a lesson in genetic association at a molecular level and a brief survey of an endangered species. ‘This species of bear will have to adapt’, she adds firmly as we all take a deep breath and follow her at a distance with our eyes.

Continuing to conflate the structures of archaeology and family, Light recreates a symbolic generational skeleton that she animates with her great grandmother’s Motherhood Book as brain, stones as vertebrae, the clock as biological time, a pot of seeds as ovaries and a rock as fused pelvis. She reinstates Mishu as the heart covered in a pinafore handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.

As if her version of evolution is totally logical, she totters across the room in two flowerpots with a ball of wool that she strings between pieces of table and chair like a game her mother used to play. She is gently inciting us to respond like children, to break through the historical into the present moment, but I think the episode with Mishu has kept us at arms length.

Archaeology and family life come full circle; Light’s final intervention reminds us of the nature of time, of the cyclical nature of starting and finishing. She takes off her outer garments and lies supine in her underwear on the What’s Important table, lying there so still like a living sarcophagus with her belly breathing two lives, while a recording of Handel’s aria Ombra Mai Fu infuses the image with the beauty of both life and death. When she rises to signal the end of the performance, some of the felt tip words are imprinted on her back. At moments like this you know something profoundly significant has just transpired, held in the moment and never to be repeated. It is a privileged moment for Light to be performing this and for us to be witnessing it, but the inspired and nonconformist workings of Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me clearly have life after birth.