Emerge Festival, Week 3

Posted: November 25th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Emerge Festival, Week 3

Emerge Festival, Week Three, The Space, November 17

Maëva Berthelot and Omar Gordon in Neus Gil Cortés' Left (photo: Patricio Forrester)

Maëva Berthelot and Omar Gordon in Neus Gil Cortés’ Left (photo: Patricio Forrester)

This is the third program of the three-week Emerge Festival curated by C-12 Dance Theatre at the intimate venue, The Space, on the Isle of Dogs. These small-scale festivals, like Cloud Dance Festival and Kaleidoscopic Arts Platform, give opportunities to young choreographers without any hierarchic selection process: it is a raw mixture of work from around the country that is never less than interesting and can include some gems. There has been a lot of discussion recently about the absence of female choreographers, but in the two programs I saw at Emerge, the majority of choreographers are women.

The only exception this evening is Dialect of War by Jean-Pierre Nyamangunda and Viviana Rocha of What Is Written Dance Company who join Sia Gbamoi to make a trio that starts off quite innocuously but grows in menace. Described as ‘the story of a warrior tribe whose lives are brutally disrupted’, the energy of disruption is carried in the choreography but the narrative of violence is carried in the presence of the dancers, most completely in Nyamangunda whose eyes convey both terror and pain. In Don McCullin’s war photographs it is the eyes of both victims and perpetrators that convey the ultimate darkness of the soul; the use of the face as an integral part of choreographic intent is no different.

Gemma Prangle’s Dance I made on my Bathroom Floor is about as far away from Dialect of War as a programmer could manage. Prangle starts behind a shower curtain in silhouette to the sound of running water and when she raises her arms above the curtain for a stylised soap dance the sound of lathering pervades the room. When she reaches outside the curtain for her towel we can see it is not there; it is a moment of expectation, a simple but effective piece of theatre. Prangle conceived the piece when she noticed how much time she spent dancing in her bathroom compared to the studio, but the attraction of such an idea is that she should be unaware of anyone watching. Who dances in their bathroom to an audience? By emerging from the shower (bone dry) and shielding her naked body with her arms, she acknowledges our presence. She then compounds the artifice by apologizing for leaving her towel in the audience and asking for the person sitting on it to throw it down before continuing her ablutions in all propriety. We are now effectively sitting in her bathroom and the inherent humour and absurdity of the idea has been flushed away.

Co_Motion Dance (choreographers Catherine Ibbotson and Amy Lovelock) present a quartet of women in FORCE, a highly energetic battle for power that relies on the strength and spatial precision of the performers. Some of the jumps also rely on split-second lighting cues for that are too demanding for the limited technical resources available and too much of a gimmick for the level of choreographic sophistication. The force of the work comes from the force of the performers: why contrive this brute physicality? Presumably to make it more interesting to watch, but I would argue that the construction and theatrical intent of the work have to be more interesting first.

The title of Tamsin Griffiths’ work, Duvet Cover, appears to follow a similarly domestic theme as Dance I made on my Bathroom Floor, but the duvet in question is a metaphor. It is the place of comfort, ‘an emotional home’ in a work that expresses the volatility of depression and bi-polar disorder. The piece begins with a film clip projected on to a white sheet showing Griffiths climbing into a giant duvet and relishing its warmth and comfort; the fuzziness of the image makes it look like an ultrasound image of a baby in a womb. At the moment the film ends Griffiths pushes from underneath the screen to lie supine on the stage. Her initial movements remain close to herself as she goes through the motions of adjusting drowsily to vertical and following the path of a hand that seems to have an agency of its own to a score that is dreamy if not hallucinatory. Griffiths’ entire body explodes into action as she follows a volatile narrative; there is no ‘why’ in these shifts of mood, these ‘phases of depression’ as they progress in a certain direction and then suddenly change course. Duvet Cover is a work that can be read on two distinct levels: one that doesn’t make sense and one that does. Griffiths is perhaps playing unconsciously on the ‘invisibility’ of depression and how that plays into misunderstanding about the nature of the disease. She controls her performance even when it seems most chaotic: she displays an effortless virtuosity in her ability to throw herself to the limits of her balance and return to equilibrium. Although she takes emotional risks, Griffiths is not challenged sufficiently in Duvet Cover to extend her range. Perhaps it is one of the challenges of working alone but one of the rewards is to see that raw honesty in a dynamic physical form.

The most complete work of the evening is Neus Gil Cortés’ Left, a duet for Maëva Berthelot and Omar Gordon (Cortés shares the role with Berthelot on subsequent evenings). It has a simple starting point: ‘When we are alone, all we have left is our thoughts…’ ‘All’ is the operative word, for in this fifteen-minute duet there is a great deal to inhabit our imagination and Cortés leaves open that vital gap between choreographic intent and audience reaction. Gordon, who has the dark lines of a character in an El Greco painting, is the manifestation of a relentless, demonic aspect of Berthelot’s psyche. Despite herself, Berthelot circles around him like a moth around a candle and when he finally dissolves into the darkness she is left eerily reliving his gestures. They are two but they are not two, and their partnership is mesmerisingly intense. As a choreographer, Cortés handles the frailty and domination with a freedom and depth of detail that anchor the work in a youthful maturity. She also proves her intuition as director in creating an enveloping sound score around the music of Philip Samartzis and Mica Levi, costumes that enhance the narrative and in managing to create magic from the available lighting resources.

La Veronal: Voronia

Posted: November 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on La Veronal: Voronia

La Veronal, Voronia, Dance Umbrella at Sadler’s Wells, October 20

La Veronal in a scene from Voronia (photo © Josep Aznar)

La Veronal in a scene from Voronia (photo © Josep Aznar)

If the old paradox is correct that there is no theatre without a spectator, what exactly is the role of the spectator? One writer who develops the idea of the relationship between the choreographer/performance on the one hand and the spectator on the other is French philosopher Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator. Rancière begins by positing two difficulties about being a spectator. ‘First, viewing is the opposite of knowing: the spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals. Second, it is the opposite of acting: the spectator remains immobile in her seat, passive. To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.’ To overcome such difficulties Rancière positions the spectator differently in relation to the performance by recognizing his or her active knowledge and agency, what he calls the ‘emancipated spectator’. He compares this to a teacher-pupil relationship in which the pupil will learn not what the teacher knows but what the teacher can encourage the pupil to discover what he or she doesn’t yet know. In this sense the role of a choreographer is similar to that of a good teacher. Pina Bausch allows us to make our own discoveries through her open-ended imagery, whereas Marcos Morau, the artistic director of La Veronal, whose new production, Voronia Dance Umbrella presented this season, is keen to have us understand something he is passionate about: in this case, the concepts of evil and religion.

Last year Dance Umbrella presented the company’s Siena which embodied Morau’s take on art and the human body in the seductive setting of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In Voronia Morau has conceptually moved his world of darkness and evil to the deepest cave in the world, Krubera Voronia in the western Caucasus but the stage set is neither deep nor dark: designer Enric Planas has contrived what looks like a convention-centre setting for the last supper: a table laid for a feast in a banqueting room with its red carpet and scalloped beige curtains hiding a steel cargo elevator that doubles as an operating theatre. As we take our seats we see the company dressed in white overalls meticulously cleaning the carpet with vacuum cleaners, buckets of water, sponges and mops while a young boy (Jared Irving) dressed as a waiter looks out at the audience. Above the stage is projected the Latin phrase, ‘In girum imus nocte ecce et consumimur igni’, a riddle in the form of a palindrome that means ‘we wander in the night and are consumed by fire.’

In the program note, Morau invokes the philosophies of Saint Augustine to state that in the same way that darkness is the absence of light, so evil is the absence of good. According to Morau, ‘humanity created God to secure the boundaries of morality; God serves as the keeper of goodness and a moral refuge for humankind. But in the hands of man, religion has gone to seed. For to kill in the name of God is to kill God and the absolute moral system.’ (As I write Paris is under a state of emergency following the terrorist attacks). In its printed form this is a cogent argument — a one-on-one with the reading spectator. But what happens when it is translated into the layered imagery of the stage with its surtitled text, visual imagery, dance, operatic music and spoken word? More importantly, what happens to the relationship between performance and spectator? In such a hybridization of media in the service of such a rational argument, it appears Morau and his dramaturgs Roberto Fratini and Pablo Gisbert have meticulously prepared all the translation and interpretation in advance, leaving the spectator to unravel an intellectual puzzle in which he or she wanders passively through a bewildering set of images to return at the end, for want of clarification, to the printed proposal. Part of the problem is that some elements of the layering do not read in the theatrical space — it is difficult to take in the texts of Saint Augustine while watching the action below, for example — and others, like the choreographic language cloned from the idiosyncratic Manuel Rodriguez or the soundscape that devolves from a heartbeat into a series of rousing opera choruses are not developed sufficiently to make them integral to the creative arc. But the major problem is the withdrawal of control from the spectator by the creator. It is like a teacher whose determination to inculcate his knowledge leaves no room for the pupil to learn.

Candoco Dance Company, CounterActs

Posted: November 5th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Candoco Dance Company, CounterActs

Candoco Dance Company, CounterActs, Laban Theatre, October 8

Candoco dancers in Alexander Whitley's Beheld (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Candoco dancers in Alexander Whitley’s Beheld (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

There is something remarkable in the way Candoco’s dancers bring out the best in the choreographers they work with and how the choreographers bring out the best in the dancers. CounterActs is no exception, a chance to see again Hetain Patel’s witty Let’s Talk About Dis and to see a new work, Beheld, by Alexander Whitley. It is the latter that catches my attention immediately as I arrive late to see the end of a duet between Joel Brown and Adam Gain. Its virtuosity — especially from Brown in his wheelchair — and spatial ingenuity set the tone for the solo by Tanja Erhart that follows. Whitley does not so much create steps for Erhart as carve dynamic space around her; she is often in silhouette like a shadow puppet with her supports, revealing shapes that are starkly beautiful. The screen behind her, conceived by Jean-Marc Puissant and realised by Jessica Dixon and Amanda Barrow, is made up of four panels of stretched elastic material that looks like a silver metal barrier under Jackie Shemesh’s cool lighting but the dancers behind it bring it alive by pressing their faces and hands into it and lure Erhart towards them. As she approaches in a dream-like state — a quality the music of Nils Frahm conjures up beautifully — she abandons her crutches and presses herself into the material, invisibly supported on its vertical surface as if on water. Erhart shines in this subtle transference of weight and strength until the surface tension eventually gives way and the whole thing comes rippling down around her.

Whitley writes about his current interest in ‘how choreographic ideas can be extended into material forms beyond the body.’ The material the dancers handle in the opening (which thanks to the company I later saw on video) and later sections is a metaphor for bringing out not their differences but what binds them together; in their handling of the material they are all on the same footing and Whitley weaves this equality into playful, complex choreographic patterns.

Another achievement in Whitley’s work is its virtuosity, particularly in Brown’s duet with Gain where he spins on to his back in his wheelchair with a speed and precision that matches Gain; when the latter raises his legs over his head, Brown does the same effortlessly with his wheelchair. With his powerful torso and arms Brown makes his wheelchair subservient to his virtuosity until it becomes almost invisible. Beheld is a work that brings the company together in ways I haven’t seen before in Candoco’s repertoire and in doing so Whitley makes the company look brilliant.

In Let’s Talk About Dis (a witty reference perhaps to DV8’s Can We Talk About This?) Patel talks about attitudes to disability with an openness and humour that was missing from Lloyd Newson’s choreographic sermon on attitudes to multiculturalism. Patel’s idea of Let’s Talk About Dis is to throw all our preconceptions about disability up in the air, play with them, redefine them and let them fall back to the ground of our understanding. He takes his time to set the scene as the dancers wander on, take off their shoes and carefully mark out a square with white tape, a space in which a game of political correctness will be played by the home team on its home ground. Patel’s text, like all his works, is meticulously scripted and shaped (Eva Martinez helped with the dramaturgy); he loves voices both for what they say about the world and for what they say about the person. In his own solo shows he takes on any number of voices himself but here he has gifted his voice to the dancers and, like Whitley’s material, it allows them to compete on equal terms. As a gifted mimic Patel knows his way into the life behind the voice and by listening to the dancers’ stories and their banter he brings out their lives through their words, filtering their offerings through a sense of humour that verges on the absurd. The masterful trio of Toke Broni Strandby mis-translating into English Laura Patay’s story in French about what children have said about her missing arm with Andrew Graham signing in BSL is a like a Mozart aria in its witty complexity and beauty while Erhart relating her sex education in vocal harmony with Strandby is both poignant and gives the signers some hilarious moments. Patel succeeds in talking about dis, or more importantly getting the dancers to talk about dis, in a way that demystifies it, that breaks down barriers. The dancers look relaxed in Valentina Golfieri’s costumes and under Shemesh’s lighting as if their personalities have come dancing into the light, but as Gain says at the end, ‘We’re going to keep talking about it until we don’t need to keep talking about it.’


CounterActs at Dance East in Ipswich next week is sold out, but the company will be performing it again at the Bristol Old Vic on February 12, 2016

Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Posted: October 27th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Umbrella double bill of Idan Sharabi & Claire Cunningham

Dance Umbrella: Ours & Give Me a Reason to Live, Lilian Baylis Studio, October 17

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason to Live

Quite apart from its obvious physical dimension, contemporary dance is invariably a touchstone for truths and notions from the worlds of philosophy, art, history, metaphysics, politics and whatever else a choreographer might wish to draw on as material. Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live is rich in resources, leading you into her landscape of preoccupations that range from the nature of sin, empathy, faith, the visibility of minorities, the depiction of cripples in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, Nazi euthanasia of the terminally ill and disabled and the consequences of our present government’s welfare reform. Of course all this is not readily apparent in the performance; you have to dig to find what informs the movement, but without it Give Me a Reason to Live would not be the powerful polemic it is. Cunningham does not have the range of movement of an able-bodied dancer — she suffers from a debilitating form of osteoporosis — but what she does with her crutches and her limited movement is to directly embody her ideas, to live them on stage and because she knows what she is talking about she evokes a visceral response. When she strips off her outer clothing and lays her crutches beside her to stand unaided, there is no pretense. It is a physical and mental struggle that she experiences in real time and she succeeds through sheer willpower until she can endure it no more. What differentiates this naked physical act from the intention behind it is that landscape of preoccupations I mentioned earlier. The word ‘understand’ has the meaning to stand under, or support. Cunningham’s test of endurance is not about her but about what she stands for, about who she supports. She is standing for the countless victims whose disabilities relegate them to the invisible margins of society or worse. Remarkably Cunningham achieves all this through dance.

Standing is but one of the images she invokes on this journey. When we first see her she is slowly extracting herself from a corner as if she had been placed there by history, leaning forward on her crutches as extensions of her arms against the walls. A shard of light (from the palette of Karsten Tinapp) illuminates a thin sliver of her body from head to foot, as if sunlight were falling through a high rectangle of light (the harsh angles in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin come to mind). Another ineffable image is her rocking gently forward and falling back balanced on her crutches (see photo) to the hauntingly fragile Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, after which she slowly collapses to the floor in the form of one of Hieronymous Bosch’s spindly cripples (‘a distorted symbol of human baseness’), crutches at her side. But the final image, the one to which all previous images seem to lead both physically and spiritually, is Cunningham as a Christ-like figure suspended on her elongated crutches braced against the back wall singing (yes, Cunningham trained as a singer before finding her vocation in dance and has a beautiful mezzo voice) Bach’s Cantata BWV 4, Verse 2 with a breathless purity that crowns the journey she has undertaken in light.

No one could defeat death
among all humanity
this was all because of our sins,
no innocence was to be found.
Therefore death came so soon
and took power over us,
held us captive in his kingdom.

How do you pair this extraordinarily rich 35-minute work with another without detracting from it in any way? Dance Umbrella’s artistic director Emma Gladstone’s decision to open the evening with Israeli choreographer Idan Sharabi’s Ours is a stroke of genius. On the surface Sharabi’s male duet to songs of Joni Mitchell is funny, engaging and superbly danced by himself and Dor Mamalia, but its central question of what is ‘home’ in Israeli society has a profundity and a vulnerability that shares Cunningham’s preoccupation with invisible minorities and the duet’s suggestion of homosexual love — ‘our little opportunity to find our home together’ — takes on political significance in its context of a strongly homophobic society. Sharabi and Mamalia don’t dwell on this but simply embrace it with tenderness, compassion and a sense of humour that draws the audience in to the work’s humanity. But there is perhaps another, more insidious connection between the two works: hovering in the air between Ours and Give Me a Reason to Live is a commentary on the ever-present spectre of persecution.

Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Posted: October 26th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses, NCP Car Park Farringdon, October 16

The setting of Dan Canham's Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

The setting of Dan Canham’s Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

There is something unconventional if not transgressive in putting on a contemporary folk dance event atop a multi-story car park on an October night in London, but that is what Dance Umbrella and Dan Canham have done with Of Riders and Running Horses that opened this year’s festival. It is an apt pairing, for while Canham aims with his dance and music to carve out a space for people to gather, Dance Umbrella aims ‘to be a catalyst that introduces…the audience to artists in new ways.’

Canham is one of the most grounded choreographers I know and has compelling arguments behind each of his projects. Of Riders and Running Horses is the confluence of two principal ideas: to reimagine the transformative effect of folk traditions like the Molly dances of East Anglia, the straw bear festival of Whittlesea or the tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary, and to recreate the kind of urban public space where such events might happen. In his two previous works Canham proved adept at finding language to translate tradition and geography into dance: a paean for his childhood countryside in Ours Was the Fen Country and a tribute to the ghosts of an abandoned theatre in Limerick in 30 Cecil Street. His choreographic ideas grow not from abstract ideas but from fertile soil, from the life of the countryside he knows and loves. This is what makes his works not only graspable but memorable.

In thinking about what might constitute a modern folk idiom — one that eschews ownership and belongs to the life of the community in which it is practiced — Canham has taken aspects of house, jump and street dance as his point of departure for the work. And in the age of the Internet where the concept of ‘local’ is no longer bound by parochial geographical boundaries, Canham has borrowed and adapted steps he had seen in video clips of street dance in other parts of the world.

Of Riders and Running Horses is choreographed on five dancers: Anna Kazsuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tilly Webber and Tanya Richam-Odoi. To be more precise, the choreography developed through both Canham’s input and the dancers’ improvisation to the music of drummer Luke Harney (aka Typesun) and singer Sam Halmarack. These two are the ‘Riders’ in the title and the dancers are the ‘Running Horses’. In other words it is not always clear who is leading the way but once they get going there is no stopping them. It is Halmarack who cuts through the crowd’s chatter with a singing voice that instantly commands attention. Canham has each dancer in turn jump, step or fly out of the audience to begin dancing to Harney’s complex musical rhythms with a mastery of undulation and quicksilver footwork that builds into high-energy ensemble sections with thigh-slapping rhythms punctuated with calls. In between these group dances, four of the five performers merge back into the audience while a fifth dances alone, giving free rein to her personality until the group reassembles. Although there are shared elements in the vocabulary, each solo has variations in temperament; on one end of the scale Kazsuba is contemplative, winding down with sinuous grace to an eloquent whisper of movement, while the space around Egyiwan has no chance to rest. Yet when they all move together they are an irrepressible quintet.

The NCP car park in Farringdon is perhaps more exciting in theory than in practice. Its promise as a communal urban space is diluted by fixing the boundaries of the performance area at one end of the top floor, surrounded on three sides by the audience and an inner sanctum of a tent for the two musicians behind. The stage may be open to the elements but it is effectively a theatrical culture (with its ethos of watching rather than participating) transposed to the rooftop instead of an organic congregational format where people are drawn into the activity to watch, mingle and wander at will (a format suggested in Paul Blakemore’s photograph on the cover of the festival program).

Perhaps because the audience is so formally arranged around the ‘stage’ the celebratory aspect of the performance doesn’t physically ignite the audience, however hard the dancers try and however gleefully they reach out to the front row of hands as they pass. It is only at the end that the dancers breach the wall and invite the audience on to the dance floor. The opportunity to warm up may be one reason for the eagerness to join in but it also suggests a desire to engage with the dancers and musicians that has been too long withheld by imposed convention.

Opening night of Costa Contemporánea

Posted: October 17th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Opening night of Costa Contemporánea

Costa Contemporánea, Centro de Artes Escénicas de Nijar, Almeria, September 2

Anna Borràs in SIQ, winner of Il Certamen Mujer Contemporánea

Anna Borràs in SIQ, winner of Il Certamen Mujer Contemporánea

It is with huge thanks to my friend Agustin Ferrando Castellano, co-director and technical director of this festival, that I was able to attend.

The costa in question is the southern tip of Andalucia in Spain, a volcanic landscape with a desert climate on an exquisite coast. Costa Contemporánea is a contemporary dance festival founded and directed by Nerea Aguilar that has carved a reputation in the region over the last six years. All festival participants stay in the beautiful natural park, Cabo de Gata; morning classes are on the grounds of the camping site or on the nearby beaches while performances are in indoor or outdoor venues in local towns.

The opening of the 6th Festival of Dance and Performing Arts is a gala at the Centro de Artes Escénicas de Nijar that presents the winners of a solo female choreographic competition, II Certamen Mujer Contemporánea. It is headlined by a filmed choreography by Ana Cembrero, Lost Archive, followed by the three performances of finalists Sara Cano, Hung-Wen Chen and Anna Borràs.

Lost Archive is the seed of a longer film, or so it seems, talking about memory and how it is maintained or lost in archival forms. The film evokes memory not as a stream of consciousness but in a rational and seamless juxtaposition of images and danced movement over a haunting musical score and spoken text in English and French. Dance is a perfect metaphor for memory as it relies on that fragile retention of something inexpressible through means that are incomprehensible. Lost Archive equates the fragility of documents that can be destroyed by fire with dance that is susceptible to visual extinction.

In A Palo Seco Redux, Cano creates a path from flamenco to contemporary dance; it is soon clear that her training is in the former and that she has thought through where the influences might overlap. In three separate circles of light she creates a different fusion that is cumulative over the performance. It begins with a decidedly flamenco form in all its energetic rhythms and arched elegance and finishes in contemporary with its brash looseness and sinuous flow. In the process Cano gathers elements of contemporary technique into flamenco, fitting them together with consummate skill so that on the physical level the edges of each are softened to make the fusion seamless. In terms of expression, however, the inescapable pride of flamenco and the abstract physicality of contemporary makes the fusion less apparent, as if the glue of the work does not mix quite as it should. It is the one element that holds back Cano’s work from an expressive whole.

In Renew Chen uses costume initially to erase her features, identifying herself on the outside by her grunge but chic black clothing, sunglasses and hat. Her choice of music hints at a discordant society with which she is in sympathy but her refined sense of movement indicates a self-awareness and confidence that sets her apart; perhaps she is playing with the dual role she must experience as a Taiwanese living in Germany. It is only when a rapid transformation sees her outer disguise fall as if she is sloughing off her skin that she becomes herself. While the synthesized score resembles a swarm of bees she remains serenely unfazed, contained within a cocoon of movement whose sudden, intense changes of direction are so smooth and unctuous that we do not see how she resolves them. Her body has an ability to move at speed while a stray arm or head reads slower, occupying a space that is finely delineated whatever her surroundings. Renew is thus a process of reinventing one’s identity without discarding what is essential.

Anna Borràs is a qualitatively different performer, a passionate dreamer with gritty edges. At the beginning of SIQ she backs on to the stage holding a small sack of flour to her chest. Her spatial choreography becomes a visual pattern as she throws, sows and tosses the flour around her with the expressive force of a shaman and the fragility of a dreamer. Her body is at the centre of her magic, the eye of a storm and like Chen she moves fast in tight spirals then unwinds. The dispersed flour remains suspended in the air like a universe in which she suddenly seems small, struggling to find her place, to assert herself. She writes of wanting to show the intersection of moments of adversity in periods of deep happiness, a universal theme that reminds me of an ancient poet relating epic tales of life lived fully. Having exhausted her resources — the equivalent of finishing the tale — she simply retreats into the darkness to recover her energy. Impressive.

The judges awarded Borràs the first prize, Cano the second and Chen the third, with Cano receiving the audience prize.

The remaining performances over the next four days were in a small open-air arena in Rodalquilar. But more of those later.

Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men

Shobana Jeyasingh, Material Men, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 16

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh's Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

Sooraj Subramanian and Shailesh Bahoran in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men (photo: Chris Nash)

I saw Shobana Jeyasingh’s double bill of Material Men and Strange Blooms with a friend who has contributed the following review. I had seen Strange Blooms before and although it is a different cast with some changes to the production I have not written about it again. 

In a time when borders are closed and fences built, Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men feels both poignant and topical. In the note to the performance, Jeyasingh reminds us that the abolition of slavery in 1833 caused a wave of migration from the Indian subcontinent as European colonies sought cheap labour. Inspired by such a long history of migrant displacement, Material Men is a reflection on the ways in which cultural memories transmigrate across places and generations and how individuals mediate, absorb, long for or reject them; how memories — whether integrated or suppressed — contribute to forge individual identities. How the past, which is both historical and mnemonic, roots and haunts us at the same time. Choreographed for two male dancers on an original score by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (played on stage by the Smith Quartet) with sound design by Leafcutter John, the piece opens with Sooraj Subramaniam and Shailesh Bahoran slowly entering the stage wrapped together in an orange silk sari. The account of their own family stories of migration can be heard in the background. The sari that ties the dancers together is like the fabric of histories and memories that weave shared pasts across times and places. It is the fabric that binds cultural, social and individual identities, the material with which each of us has to deal. It is ‘the continuous thread’ — as Marcel Proust writes — ‘through which selfhood is sewn into the fabric of a lifetime’s experience’.

As they unwrap themselves from the sari and release it, Subramaniam and Bahoran display their different bodies and responses to the fabric of the past that links them. Tall and elegant, Subramaniam is trained in the classical bharatanatyam tradition. He is bare foot, and wears traditional make-up and jewelry. Shorter and slighter, wearing shoes and knee pads, Bahoran exudes tense physicality: he is a hip-hop dancer. These differences are indicative of the distinct styles of dance and modes of performing that Material Men bring together. Bharatanatyam is a highly formal dance that has been transmitted and refined across the centuries; hip-hop comes from street performance and a subversive mixing of influences from rock to Afro-American dance. Jeyasingh’s choreography seamlessly weaves these two types of dance into a complex tapestry of patterns that seems to follow an intersecting of symmetries and asymmetries as she elaborates the quintessentially distilled and minutely precise movements of bharatanatyam with the hybrid dynamics of hip-hop. Hence, hands and feet positions are mirrored and at the same time fractured, extended and taken in new directions as one dancer responds to the other in a physical dialogue that constantly draws upon a canopy of contrasting movements from which transpire no less conflicting feelings and emotions. Joy, tenderness, antagonism and suppressed rage intersect as limbs and gestural patterns crisscross. Subramaniam and Bahoran may be said to encounter in each other the stranger that according to Julia Kristeva we all carry within us and which forms us from histories of psychic, cultural and historical migration. The dancers variously accommodate and contend with each other, and with the ‘stranger’ that each of them reflects back to the other.

From this encounter, visual and figurative forms emerge and disappear and in-between, in the interstices between sequences, moments of stillness are perceptible, as if they were ‘formless’ spaces, gaps saturated with possibilities and contradictions. It is in such dynamic flow of movement and stillness, of tension between form and formlessness that the transcultural features of the piece become palpable. Like the pleats with which Subramaniam carefully folds the sari, the layers are many and complex. Labels such as classical and pop, traditional and contemporary are reductive for what is a reconfiguration of the significance of dance movement as a medium that conveys the deeply embodied affect of cultural trajectories, backgrounds and individual histories. The work and the quest within it, however, are never nostalgic. The cultural allusions proper to bharatanatyam and hip-hop are conducive to the present, to the highly individualized interpretation that the dancers and choreographer confer on them by generating new synergies, overlapping rhythms and gestures. The piece concludes in a slow sequence in which Subramaniam and Bahoran move sideways off stage, one next to other, the arms parallel to the floor, half squatting. The movement feels endless as if melting into infinity, as if harmony and balance between pasts and presents, histories and memories were possible. As if continuity and reciprocity were not estranged by inner or outer boundaries.

Jeyasingh’s Material Men is a thought-provoking work. And Subramaniam and Bahoran are both superb performers.


Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Posted: October 6th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Martha Clarke and Signature Theatre, Chéri, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 30

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

The combination of Martha Clarke and Alessandra Ferri seems irresistible. I remember vividly a piece by Clarke called Nocturne, a poignant portrait of an ageing ballerina. With its unerring sense of the absurd Nocturne was painted with strokes of beauty and compassion and a wicked sense of humour. What might she create with Ferri in the adaptation of Chéri, a novel by Colette describing the love between a young man (Chéri) and an older woman (Léa)? In Nocturne Clarke seemed to have taken to heart Colette’s advice to writers: ‘No narration, for heaven’s sake! Just brush strokes and splashes of colour…’ and in the opening section of Chéri she does just that: Ferri relishing the taste of strawberries at the breakfast table while her tousled partner, Herman Cornejo, gets out of the rumpled bed; the playful exchanges over a pearl necklace; the passionate airborne embraces, the petty jealousies, the smiles and the tenderness. But as Chéri develops Clarke appears to repudiate Colette’s advice in favour of narrative elements that serve to attach the dance to the story in overly literal ways.

Firstly, the set by David Zinn — a comfortably sparse, fin-de-siècle Parisian apartment — dominates the stage in its theatrical detail and reduces the dancing area to the spaces between furniture. There is a grand piano in one corner at which Sarah Rothenberg plays (mostly) French repertoire by Colette’s contemporaries with studious attention. She is on stage but she is not in the apartment; Léa and Chéri do not hear her playing — the music serves, like Zinn’s set, as an anchor to a specific time and place — but it provides a structure to which they dance. It is not Colette’s structure, however. For that, Clarke asked Tina Howe to adapt Colette’s novels and to shape a text to be spoken by Léa’s friend and Chéri’s mother, Charlotte (the actress Francesca Annis). Charlotte is thus both a nominal character in the work and a one-woman chorus. Like Rothenberg, she doesn’t seem to be in the apartment but slips invisibly into the room like a spiteful ghost to poison the surroundings with her prattle and hasten the story to its end. Her interventions are directed to and for the benefit of the audience; Chéri and Léa overhear her but remain mute. For the purposes of unity, I wonder if Charlotte’s role could have been divided into a program note and a third dancer and if the grand piano could have been replaced — with no disrespect to Rothenberg’s playing — by a gramophone.

Taken on its own level, the dancing is beautiful. Ferri may be older than Cornejo but when they dance we see two young lovers. The initial vocabulary of intimate partnering sings of romance, sex and their complexities — the two can’t keep out of each other’s arms and legs — even if in subsequent scenes the partnering does not evolve sufficiently to give a sense of development in the relationship. It is in two solos that Clarke allows her characters to express their inner feelings more completely. She translates Léa’s despair following Chéri’s arranged marriage into movements close to the floor, leaving behind as much as possible the trappings of classical ballet to reveal Ferri’s embodied experience. Nevertheless, when Ferri dances there is something of the consummate artist in her that expresses her fragile state in a body that is too confident of its ability. Cornejo’s solo is more substantial; it comes in the final scene of the work, an adaptation of Colette’s La Fin de Chéri, which portrays the unstable, frenetic mind of the young man burdened by his experiences of the First World War and aware that his relationship with Léa is over. Cornejo is very much the romantic antihero here and like Ferri his effortless technique makes him appear much stronger than his state of mind might otherwise indicate.

I read Colette at school and remember the excitement of imagining forbidden, sensual relationships at a time when they seemed so out of reach. Without advocating complete realism on the dance stage, it is rather disappointing to see Colette’s vision turned into a scrupulously censored version where Cornejo and Ferri make love in their underwear and sleep and wake in their costumes. Clarke is fully aware of this; for one brief moment she has Cornejo pull down his underwear to present his bare backside as he falls on top of Ferri in bed. It is another gesture meant only for the audience, a naughty peak in a peep show that at best titillates and at worst passes for sensuality. Colette might well be giggling in her grave.

One more ambush awaits Clarke. In Colette’s story, one of the causes of Chéri’s existential crisis is that Léa, his once beautiful courtesan, has grown plump. It is left to Charlotte to announce it to us (with unconcealed pleasure) but there is an immediate suspension of belief. We do not see Léa again on stage; we cannot. She appears to Chéri instead in a mirror as a romantic vision. Chéri’s downward spiral is thus based on an implausible abstraction and his end is reduced to little more than a dramatic artifice.

Chéri has too many contradictions to make it work as dance theatre, but in one important regard it is invaluable: it has allowed Ferri the confidence to emerge from retirement. She is at a remarkable stage in her career when the instrument of her body is working beautifully in its maturity as she searches for ways to express it. Chéri has given this great dramatic dancer a chance to find her feet once again.

The Royal Opera, Hofesh Schechter, Orphée et Eurydice

Posted: September 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Opera, Hofesh Schechter, Orphée et Eurydice

Orphée et Eurydice, The Royal Opera, Royal Opera House, September 17

Dancers from Hofesh Schechter Company as Furies in Orphée et Eurydice (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Dancers from Hofesh Schechter Company as Furies in Orphée et Eurydice (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Hofesh Shechter’s directorial role in the Royal Opera’s production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice is part of a month-long season of Schechter works under the modest moniker Hofest. The titles of choreographic works on the Hofest bill — Degeneration, Political Mother and Barbarians — seem worlds away from Orphée et Eurydice; what links them is Schechter’s ability to summon up tortured, angst-ridden furies, who in Gluck’s opera inhabit the second act underworld. But this leaves two acts in which his dancers are called on, along with the Monteverdi Choir, to be shepherds and nymphs lamenting with Orphée over the death of his wife, Eurydice, or celebrating the victory of love over death in Act 3. Neither pastoral lamentation nor joyous celebration are particularly Schechtian subjects. In the opening of Act 1 his dancers are on their best behaviour, however, sharing simple gestures of grief with the choir in harmony with Orphée’s first aria. There is a magical moment where the fluid bowing of the violinists above merges with the fluid gestures of the mourners below. As the first act develops, however, the dancers default to the familiar Schechtian mode of movement — Shechter has imported his own company and members of his junior company to fulfill his choreographic role — that distances them from the chorus to the point of creating two distinct artistic entities. From here the dance and the opera part ways; in the dance of the blessed spirits there is a sense of calm but the earthiness of the steps drags down the ethereal charm of the music, and when Eurydice appears in Elysium, her ‘cheerful home’, the dancers manage at best to look sullenly depressed with their heads down and shoulders hunched over. This unsettling imbalance is lost on the two directors of the opera, one of whom is the Associate Director of the The Royal Opera, John Fulljames and the other is Schechter himself.

He has not only imported his dancers but also his lighting designer, Lee Curran. After the pencil spot on Juan Diego Flórez as Orphée flashes three times in the dark like an errant cue after the curtain rises, the first impression of the set in full light is visually stunning; the orchestra floats above the middle of the stage as if on the private deck on a sumptuous liner and the three trombonists stand on a separate, spacious plane above them. Below the orchestra, among the columns of the hydraulic stage, wander the chorus and dancers. Curran is at his best in creating a dramatic sweep of light in productions in which movement is central. He gives this production a feel of calm suspension, but it is in his treatment of individual singers that he falters. Amanda Forsythe as Amour looking like a cabaret singer in a golden suit too often merges into the soft golden tones of the orchestra around her and the lone figure of Flórez on the forestage in Act 3 sings in shadow (he may simply have wandered too far forward on the extended apron) while the vast, empty upper planes of the stage above the orchestra are bathed in light. It is an odd inversion of focus that detracts from Flórez’ superb singing.

Conor Murphy’s stage concept is promises much on first view but is shot through with inconsistencies. It also places the production’s design at the service of the dance over the central role of the orchestra. Not only is the conductor placed in the middle of the stage where he cannot see his soloists or chorus for most of the time (nor they him), but any sense of cosmological order — where the floating orchestra might indicate the upper world and the sunken orchestra the underworld — is subverted for logistical reasons. When Orphée arrives in the underworld to meet Eurydice the orchestra is appropriately below the level of the stage, but it has to rise to let Orphée cross through the musicians from the back to the front of the stage to sing. At the end of Act 2 the orchestra is still level with the stage, but at the beginning of Act 3, which follows on scenically where Act 2 finishes, the orchestra has been buried in a bunker. What happened in the intermission?

There is no record in the program as to what John Eliot Gardiner thinks of his placement on the stage or of the merciless rising and lowering of his orchestra in this production. Fulljames insists he and Schechter ‘have understood John Eliot’s thoughts about the structure of the music and borne those in mind as the production has evolved.’ This eloquently suggests the production was designed with the orchestra, the chorus and their conductor but not necessarily to their advantage.

The inconsistencies of the production values, however, are nothing compared to the effect of Schechter’s choreography in the extended dancing scenes of Act 3. The divide between opera and dance is at its nadir; all hell lets loose as if the furies have been set free as well. In its overwrought self-indulgence the celebratory atmosphere is pulled down to the stamping, grunting level of the underworld from which not even the elegant forces of Gluck’s music can pull it back. I left the auditorium with a sinking feeling that all the efforts of Orphée and his victory of love and music over death had been in vain.

Holly Blakey: Some Greater Class

Posted: September 18th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Holly Blakey: Some Greater Class

Holly Blakey, Some Greater Class, Hales Gallery, August 21

Holly Blakey's Some Greater Class at Hales Gallery (photo © Hales Gallery London)

Holly Blakey’s Some Greater Class at Hales Gallery (photo © Hales Gallery London)

The convergence of art gallery and dance performance is an interesting one, especially when the dance is presented as an exhibit. At the invitation of Hales Gallery, choreographer and director Holly Blakey brings her experience of performance art and music videos to the gallery space in the form of Some Greater Class. Dance in this kind of setting is not new but Blakey’s presence here goes beyond the performance itself. One of the preoccupations of Some Greater Class focuses on the relationship between High Art and pop culture, or rather on the perceived value systems and expectations of the two. By transposing on to a formal gallery setting a popular commercial dance form based on the pop music video and with DJs Gwilym Gold and Darkstar on hand to provide the music, Blakey invites our attention to shift from subjective association to objective appreciation.

Against a wall of Hales Gallery the narrow temporary stage with potted plants at either end acts as a frame for the dance, more like the frame of a painting than a theatrical proscenium. Blakey’s dance is contained mostly within the frame using the columns of the gallery as additional props. She nevertheless plays with this formal display, having one of the dancers step off the stage at one point to continue his dance among the galleried throng and occasionally sitting her dancers on the front of the stage, observing members of the audience observing them. The fourth wall is thus perforated but not entirely removed; the onlooker, by close proximity to the action, also participates. The audience is seated close to the stage as at a fashion show and the six dancers (Luke Crook, Chester Hayes, Grace Jabbari, Naomi Weijand, Busola Peters and Ted Rogers) take their places at the beginning like models on a catwalk. The costumes by Blakey and Hannah Hopkins are a layered patchwork of skin-coloured trappings over bare skin or body tights, a commercially sensual image that hides as much as it purports to reveal.

Blakey’s mediation between pop culture and High Art is a provocative blurring of the edges of both art form and perception but it comes with its own artistic risk. Some Greater Class does not simply place a pop music video in a highbrow establishment to test perceptions; Blakey has distilled elements of commercial dance into an expressive choreographic form that points to but does not mimic the original. It is as if she has gone some way to bridging the perceived gap in values before presenting her thesis. But on reflection it is the interplay of ideas that comes across more compellingly than the performance. Some Greater Class delivers a quality of movement that is intimate bordering on narcissistic with a heady mixture of gestures from bodybuilding, martial arts, yoga as well as stylized sexual play. At the end the six characters take stock of their exertions with a blank stare that speaks of euphoria or exhaustion or both; Some Greater Class functions according to its own hedonistic rules and fades out, presumably to start again at the next opportunity. In bringing the characters and the movement (and the DJs) to a gallery, Blakey succeeds in framing Some Greater Class as an artifact but does not translate it fully to the stage; it thus sits ambivalently between the two. It reminds me of the ubiquitous selfie: a camera (and a universe) turned on itself in which the viewer and the viewed are one and the same. It is a picture with significance for the participants and for those related to them but it lacks the detachment that marks a work of art.