Posted: April 11th, 2017 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Rehearsal | Tags: Alice Sheppard, Brewband, Graeme Smillie, Jill O'Sullivan, Marc Brew, Marta Masiero, Martyn Garside, Peter Kelly | 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.
Posted: March 7th, 2017 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Anton Lachky, Botis Seva, Dreamers, Scottish Dance Theatre, TuTuMucky | Comments Off on Scottish Dance Theatre, Dreamers & TuTuMucky, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Scottish Dance Theatre, Dreamers and TuTuMucky, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 3
Scottish Dance Theatre in Botis Seva’s TuTuMucky (photo: Brian Hartley)
“My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own.” – Ta-nehisi Coates
Welcome to Groundhog Day, fellow dreamers. This is my fourth sitting with Dreamers since it premiered in February 2015; Anton Lachky’s choreography has shared the stage with Jo Strømgren, Sharon Eyal/Gai Behar and now Botis Seva. The choreography has switched back to the original 29-minute iteration after being tweaked and extended last year. The last few months have seen a significant amount of change for Scottish Dance Theatre that has brought a different energy to the company: 7 out of 10 dancers are new and there’s a newly appointed rehearsal director, Naomi Murray (who was in the original Dreamers cast). The new dancers are stepping into choreography that was created for and with dancers who are no longer there; they’re inhabiting ghosts and it is difficult for me to un-imagine those who forged and imprinted themselves in their work with Lachky. Although Dreamers has been shaved by 5 or 6 minutes, the essence of taking control and taking back control (though that phrase has been used and coloured since the EU referendum) is the same; narratively it is tighter, but the bullet sharpness and anatomical prowess from the majority of the new dancers isn’t there and consequently the difference between the vignettes isn’t as pronounced.
However, new bodies fitting into old shapes can breathe something revelatory into those carcasses and James Southward (last seen in Janis Claxton Dance’s Pop Up Duets) is a fine example. An excellent addition to the company bringing an energy, presence and attitude to the movement, Southward dances everything with his whole body, hits his lines, responds and reacts to others and he draws the eye as he moves around the stage. Such is his ease with the choreography and in his relationships with the other dancers it feels as if he’s been in the company for years. However, the time it takes for a choreography to really settle on a dancer is different every time and the majority of the company has had only two months to revive Dreamers and create and learn a new work, TuTuMucky; this is evidently too little and the gel and magic isn’t quite settled yet.
“It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them.” – Henrik Ibsen
TuTuMucky is an invitation for the company to move differently. Scottish Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Fleur Darkin, saw Botis Seva’s company Far From The Norm perform at British Dance Edition 2016 (I too was in that audience) and commissioned Seva to make a new work on SDT. Seva established Far From The Norm, aged 18, in 2010 and he and its members have developed and refined a shared physicality, training rhythms and performance vocabulary that is unfamiliar to many UK theatre audiences. What makes Seva and his company unique is the trust and commitment to what they want to do; he has kept close control over who is and who isn’t in the company and consequently has developed a trust and communication system that enables his dancers to deliver exceptionally distilled performances. Forged ‘outside’ the subsidised dance sector, Far From The Norm is creating an alternative choreographic language that is attracting attention from London’s dance critics’ cabal, commissioners, festivals and venues across Europe. Darkin was canny to be the first to commission him for SDT and she won’t be the last.
TuTuMucky offers the programme note: ‘Botis Seva defies traditional classification to offer a distinctly new form of dance that blurs the boundaries between ballet, contemporary and hip hop technique.’ Opening in dusky par-can haze we’re aware of writhing backs isolated in pools of light; with these slithery articulations Seva is attempting to get the company to move differently and unlike anything I’ve seen in the previous seven SDT productions. Shifting their energies and dropping their gravitational centres, he’s trying to school them in the hunger, urgency and articulacy of krump. Dressed in dark mesh tutus, the dancers combine a ballet-backed and first-position stiffness with the unnerving Wheelers from Return To Oz — rigid dolls hovering across the stage, mechanical in body and face.
The narrative pace and emotional zoning doesn’t begin to emerge till over halfway through the 30-minute work; it feels like the dancers need to start dancing 15 minutes before they come on stage so the adrenalin is running and we are immediately dunked into their world. Until that point I saw classically-trained dancers attempting to recreate an alien, krump-inspired language. Harry Clark (trained at Rambert and previously dancing with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures) is particularly exposed in Seva’s choreography, needing to soften his spine and to give himself over to what is being asked. I think it would benefit the dancers if they were to experience and participate in a krump battle, to drink in and taste the emotional shower that spurts from those who krump when they are entirely in that other zone.
The duet between Amy Hollinshead and Southward pivots the energy of the entire work and we see Hollinshead take to krump like a cat giving birth to a fur ball, hissing and verbally banishing her ballet training to birth a new movement language on her body. The transformation of form is the root of the work: seeing bodies begin in one state, transformed to another and then resort back to their default setting. Southward revels in the intensity required and his face channels that intensity whilst his body matches the demands for articulation from his neck to his wrist. From here TuTuMucky begins to build and the electro, glitch noise soundtrack by Torben Lars Sylvest swirls the energy around the dancers and the audience; we begin to be pulled towards the rhythms, potency and urgency of the movement and I get a sense that the dancers finally start to believe; they’ve found Seva’s groove and in taking on his language transform themselves.
When some dancers are able to transform and execute a new language and some really can’t, the effect is a visual unevenness that leaves me unsettled; in a company like SDT I’m left with the question of where the responsibility lies for such unevenness? Is it with Seva who has not communicated or built the necessary trust with the dancers to convince them to give themselves over to his world? Is it the rehearsal director who isn’t noticing the stark differences in the stiffness and supple spines and taking steps to resolve them? Is it the dancers who are unable to execute what is being demanded of them or do not understand what they’re being asked to do? Or is it with Darkin in her choice of bringing a choreographer who is without doubt carving a name for himself but whose language creates an incompatibility with the current company of dancers?
When a choreographer like Seva is invited to make a work on full-time, salaried dancers who exist in a place of comfort and privilege it is impossible for him to recreate the conditions and terrain which he and his company have encountered and which make them so rare. The reality and experience gap is too large and consequently I feel like the two worlds haven’t come together; trust hasn’t been established and they’re still eyeing each other across the choreographic divide. If those who encounter TuTuMucky love what they see, they should seek out the work of Seva’s own company that is offering a choreographic palette, emotional intensity and insight as to where the next wave of British choreography could be going.
“I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform—or perhaps distort—yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.” – Haruki Murakami
Posted: December 20th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Angharad Davies, Grant Anderson, Kirsty Arnold, Laura Dannequin, Morrighan MacGillivray, MYSTERYSKIN, Roberta Jean, Tramway | Comments Off on MYSTERYSKIN, Brocade
MYSTERYSKIN, Brocade, Tramway, Glasgow, December 2, 2016
MYSTERYSKIN’s Brocade (photo: Emli Bendixen)
“They say you start weaving clearer, sharper memories after you’ve been to a place at least twice. Because then the reflection is more of validation. Let the rush come to you and let your senses be flushed the first time. There will be time for reflection after you’ve had your fill.” – Psyche Roxas-Mendoza
Brocade is an adventure in minting time, maintaining rhythm and weaving space with four dancers (Kirsty Arnold, Laura Dannequin, Morrighan MacGillivray and Roberta Jean), and one musician (Angharad Davies). With two rows of chairs facing another on the opposite side of a 3-metre x 18-metre runway, we are all lines.
Greeted by four female backs that slowly begin to rotate we are introduced to a family of movement that exists somewhere between a hop and a stationary skip (very rarely a jump); it feels like a close cousin of a folk dance with knees raised high, always bouncing on the toes, arms neutral at the sides and landing with a satisfying flat-soled slap on the floor.
Grant Anderson’s lighting design uses a series of lamps with exposed filaments to mark the centre line of their territory with the arches of Tramway 4 lit up drawing attention to the industrial history of this former tram shed. There is a neat historical fit in this presentation as the trams used to replay the same journey and trace the same lines across Glasgow — here the scale is shifted and the performers wear away the floor through their repeated solo and group parades and promenades up and down, embossing their own histories upon the venue.
“I have learned that each and every piece of cloth embodies the spirit, skill, and personal history of an individual weaver…it ties together with an endless thread the emotional life of my people.” – Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez
As each dancer runs, shuttles, dashes, scuttles and stretches into awkward metronomic steps they invite other dancers to join or dissolve with them; we see and hear combinations of rhythms from 1, 2, 3 or 4 dancers like machines beating out their own time stamps. I’m aware of the rhythm and multi-rhythmic step patterns in play, building, shifting and alternating for the first 30 minutes of this 50-minute encounter. Feeling the waft of the wind as the performers sweep in front and behind at alternative paces alerts you to the labour that is being invested and to the reality of glistening backs and flushed brows as the endurance becomes apparent.
There is a delicious intimacy in a single stop when two of the dancers raised on tip toes, two other performers joined them, tessellated in behind and put their own toes under the raised heels; as they cradled their arms under the arms of the other using their whole palms and fingers took the head of their partner as breath and rest took over. I wanted time to pull out even more, I wanted hours of these parades and space weaving — there is joy to be found in losing and re-finding yourself amongst their rhythms.
“Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity… there is only the dance.” – George Leonard
Brocade describes itself as ‘a sound and movement piece which celebrates energetic alliances between unique female dancers and musicians.’ What I struggled to find was a connection or a thread towards the dancers — they rarely present their face or acknowledge the audience as they’re consistently moving and concentrating on step patterns and wider rhythms. There are plenty of alliances on show between the performers, but I felt little was offered to me as audience; if we were invited in to share their rhythm and territory then we could join them and retreat into their glorious oscillations.
Towards the end and still leading from the shoulders with ulna nerves and palms out Jean stepped out and began layering vocal cries and breaths via a loop station switching the sonic from warp to weft. Previously we had intermittently heard Davies plucking the violin with asymmetric sounds and pulses adding textures to the foot-tapping polyrhythms from the dancers. The three dancers embarked on a spin, folded from their centre with waves of sound playing through their spines. This focal shift from the parading (which asked us to follow, to choose where and who and what to follow as it was impossible to drink them all in in one set of eyes) was welcome as my visual rhythm had been consistently disturbed as I kept turning my head left and right attempting to hold them all in my eyes.
Brocade is a work where it pays to notice and if you do there is plenty to mine; as the performers weave the space with invisible geometries the only physical residue they leave is that which we choose to carry in our own memories.
Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Dance Umbrella, i ride in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere, Jackie Shemesh, Jamila Johnson-Small, Rich Mix | Comments Off on Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere
Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere, Rich Mix, October 9
Jamila Johnson-Small in i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)
“We need limitations and temptations to open our inner selves, dispel our ignorance, tear off disguises, throw down old idols, and destroy false standards.” – Helen Keller
What happens when an edge is invited to the centre?
Jamila Johnson-Small premiered her new solo work i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere at this year’s Dance Umbrella. Prior to the festival she was the subject of an in-depth portrait by Lyndsey Winship where Johnson-Small said: “I guess I still have my fantasies about not selling out.” Having encountered some of her other collaborative performance guises (Project O and immigrants and animals) I was curious to see the distillation of a solo voice and how it would manifest.
There’s a tension when an edge meets a centre. Nearly a month after I left Johnson-Small’s performance at Rich Mix I’m still carrying it, unable to shift it; there’s something inside this work that will not settle. It’s a work of resistance. One thing that tingles is the still image of Johnson-Small’s back as she is lying on the floor, head nestled in her arms, facing the same way as the projected images we’re watching. Her choice to stay on the stage, to be still and not remove herself from our gaze stays with me. This is her domain and we are guests who are fleetingly present and then disappear; she will remain. The projected film is full of deconstructed limbs twitching, rotating and removed from the baby-pink hooded torso of the architect of our experience. The edge and centre are in play again.
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the centre of my mind.” – Maya Angelou
The lighting design by Jackie Shemesh tightly frames Johnson-Small for the first 25 minutes, isolating her body and framing legs and torso with hands bobbing amongst the shards of sidelight. Existing in a one-metre radius of space Johnson-Small is a groove finder and beat rider with a muted knee bounce despite encouragement from the score emanating from the towering sound system like a stage left shadow. With an 8-foot space rock fixed and glinting stage right the scenography and performance slowly suffocate the space.
What do you do when you meet a wall? How do you navigate it? This is what I’ve been wrestling with and I’m left in a void of emotion; I’m unsure which way my response faces. A resistance and tension were present and there’s the smell of a bristling Beckett character who is here yet not here, who acknowledges us but doesn’t necessarily want us to be here. However, something keeps whirring. i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere is hard to define. It’s not full of virtuosic or pre-supposed ideas of beautiful dancing; it’s numbed, reflecting different emotional states and different ways of being in this world.
“The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps.” – Bob Black
Although it may feel like a stand-off with neither of us yielding attention, I think what I’ve encountered is an archive of the self. How does Johnson-Small not let her edge be pulled to the centre but still accept the offer and associated profile that comes with a premiere at Dance Umbrella? How do I let i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere enter my own archive? It’s currently resisting the established classification, so maybe I need to build a new space for it — closer to the edge.
Posted: November 11th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Garden of Orgonon, Impermanence Dance Theatre, Jan Jelinek, Pam Tait, SEXBOX, Ugly Duck, Ursula Bogner, Wilhelm Reich | Comments Off on Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX
Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX (The Garden of Orgonon), October 15, Ugly Duck, London
Members of Impermanence Dance Theatre in SEXBOX (photo: Jeremy Reider)
“Pleasure cannot be shared; like pain, it can only be experienced or inflicted, and when we give pleasure to our lovers or bestow charity upon the needy, we do so, not to gratify the object of our benevolence, but only ourselves.” – Aldous Huxley
Bristol-based Impermanence Dance Theatre is a controlling mistress; in their dungeon loft your eyes are softly spanked for 60 minutes with a series of carefully crafted and choreographed episodes of pleasure. Played in the round at the top of Ugly Duck, SEXBOX is a feast of punctuated movements and sticky visual images from seven dancers with exceptional musicality.
SEXBOX is inspired by the pioneering but little-known German electronic musician, Ursula Bogner and her fascination with the writings of Wilhelm Reich, a controversial feminist psychoanalyst for whom a healthy discharge of sexual energy was the crux of humanity’s salvation. (There is rumour a-plenty about the existence of Bogner and whether or not she is the construction of veteran electronic music producer Jan Jelinek; it is at the edges of bliss and untruth that SEXBOX exists.)
“We live in a community of people not so that we can suppress and dominate each other or make each other miserable but so that we can better and more reliably satisfy all life’s healthy needs.” – Wilhelm Reich
The seven dancers met at the Rambert School 10 years ago and are now exploring new models of non-hierarchical collaboration; with SEXBOX they achieve an impressive visual cohesion and choreographic consistency. The costumes and characters could have stepped out of Reich’s Orgone Accumulator with their 60s sci-fi futurism from the palette of costume designer Pam Tait: unitards, reflective white plastic, and silver cheek-heightening makeup are tailored for ease of movement and for the accentuation of the body. Each of the fragments of pleasure (this would make an interesting response work to Pop-Up-Duets by Janis Claxton Dance) features duets, trios or the entire company and their pacing is exquisite; when interest almost begins to wane or is in danger of repetition, extra bodies are injected into the scene to shift focus, add texture and intelligently puncture (sometimes for just a few seconds) our visual rhythm.
With lingering hands and crotches itching to play with each other, six pairs of gnashing teeth hungry for the sex box of the carcass of another, and all manner of exposed and freshly-squeezed cheeks on display, there’s a controlled depravity across the dozen-plus episodes without a full-on BDSM experience. I left not sullied by SEXBOX but in state of visual buzz having witnessed seven accomplished performers in complete control of their material and their audience.
“Sex without love is as hollow and ridiculous as love without sex.” – Hunter S. Thompson
The memory of pleasure and the pleasure of memory is something I’ve been wrestling with; part of the reason for the delay in publishing is my endeavour to see how SEXBOX fits into my own internal reward memory system. I have memories of mirth and appreciation on the night yet it is difficult to re-create those same feelings on the page. Did it stimulate the eye? Yes. The images were sharp, transitions were electric and the lip-syncing film recreation was a hoot. Did it stimulate the heart? I don’t think so but I don’t think that was its intention. What SEXBOX has done is reinforce my belief in Impermanence as a company that creates work that is impressive, controlled and quite unique in the dance/theatre ecology of the UK. Wilhelm Reich was once denounced as the orchestrator of a cult of sex and anarchy; with SEXBOX, Impermanence takes on that mantle and becomes a throbbing cult of pleasure, anarchy and dance.
Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Alva Noe, Chris Copland, Claire Cunningham, Jess Curtis, Luke Pell, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight | Comments Off on Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight
Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Tramway, September 16
Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight (photo: Sven Hagolani)
“You will walk differently alone, dear, through a thicker atmosphere, forcing your way through the shadows of chairs, through the dripping smoke of the funnels. You will feel your own reflection sliding along the eyes of those who look at you. You are no longer insulated; but I suppose you must touch life in order to spring from it.” – F Scott Fitzgerald
It was Jess Curtis who introduced Claire Cunningham to contact improvisation and in The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight we see their invisible histories fizzing across 90 minutes of physical trust and emotional exchange as they build and share with the audience a rare magic that is not only a choreography of bodies, crutches and people but a symphony of intimacy, tenderness and generosity.
Cunningham and Curtis offer a directors’ note: ‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is a social sculpture — a sensory journey for two performers and audience. Dancing, singing, telling stories…and asking important questions about our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world.’ We are welcomed with a quality of eye contact by both performers and invited to sit either on one of the chairs or cushions on the stage (‘where we may come into physical contact with the performers’) or in the seating bank. I choose a small cushion, centre stage, from where I can see the entire journey unfold.
Cunningham and Curtis walk and weave in and out of the bodies on stage demonstrating an ease and familiarity with each other whilst sharing encounters of how people have looked at them in the past. Cunningham cites Bill Shannon’s (aka Crutch Master) theory of peripheral fluctuation where, as a disabled person in public, you feel people staring at you in the periphery of your vision but when you turn to meet their gaze their eyes vanish and they won’t look you in the eye. Curtis shares: “In my position of white, male, 6-foot-plus privilege I would confidently meet the gaze of women in the street who would often avert their eyes. However, after I had an accident and used crutches for a few weeks those gazes would now be met and maybe even with an exchange of ‘hi’. Was I less of a sexual predator? Less of a man when I was using crutches?”
“Looking from afar — from present to past, from exile to homeland, from island back to mainland, mountain-top to lowland — results not in vision’s diffusion but in its sharpening; not in memory’s dispersal but in it’s plenishment.” Robert Macfarlane
In the theatre sometimes we watch, sometimes we witness and sometimes we participate. In asking us to look at them and listen to their lived experiences of being looked at, Cunningham and Curtis are also asking us to reflect and consider our own eyes and the power they hold. What assumptions do we make about how people look? These verbal exchanges are peppered throughout the performance with screened appearances by the philosopher, Alva Nöe, who extrapolates on philosophy, love, Socrates and accessibility in remarkable depth without using inaccessible language. There are words — and plenty of them — constantly nourishing the ears yet it is the physical exchanges between the performers that are delivered with searing depth.
Tenderness abounds and we see moments of genuine exchange as Fred and Ginger’s Dancing Cheek to Cheek fires up to signal the start of a glacial floor-based duet: two bodies lying down upside down, eyes closed, their cheeks kissing and heads nestling in each other’s collar bone. Using the cheek as the point of connection, Curtis and Cunningham slowly, delicately revolve, shifting weight, balance and power; what could have been an indulgent studio-based exercise lands with emotional power. The structure of the evening is deftly woven as scenes melt in and out, inviting different scales, a shift of focus and ample opportunity for reflection. These shifts of mood create a balance that is enhanced by both Luke Pell’s dramaturgy and Chris Copland’s lighting design that ensure a sensitivity and meshing with not only with the artistic intention but how the audience receives the work.
Cunningham also delivers a parkour/contact hybrid on and over the body of Curtis, eating up the floor at speed and negotiating the human nodes around the stage. As Curtis is flat backed on all fours, Claire plants her crutches and skids over him; her four points of contact with the floor (two legs and two crutches) enable her ultimate control. Coming towards me at speed she places her crutches either side of my crossed legs, lifts herself and gently places her foot on my knee. She is airborne – no bodily contact with the floor; our eyes meet for a second before she reverses out of it.
“It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.” Adrienne Rich
Cunningham and Curtis share so much about looking, yet I see something else in the peripheries of The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight; I see the real human cost of judging, staring and objectifying: loneliness and a vacuum of love that slowly breaks your heart. With Cunningham perched silent atop a 12-foot ladder with Curtis gazing at her from below, a series of pre-recorded statements emerge in her voice: “This body has never…carried a television…run on the beach… been in love.” In a moment towards the end Cunningham extends her crutches one last time and launches herself so she and Curtis are equal; no longer cheek to cheek, they are now face to face and here they stay for three or four minutes as she balances with magnetic eyes and bears her weight on her arms. From my position less than 5 feet from this intimate encounter I see all of her face, the flickers of her mouth, the subtle adjustments of her body; but the emotional epicentre is in her eyes.
Posted: September 27th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Habibat Ajayi, Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah, The Head Wrap Diaries, Uchenna Dance, Vicki Igbokwe | Comments Off on Uchenna Dance, The Head Wrap Diaries
Uchenna Dance, The Head Wrap Diaries, The Place, September 19
Habibat Ajayi, Shelia Attah & Shanelle Clemenson in Uchenna Dance’s The Head Wrap Diaries (photo © Foteini Christofilopoulou)
“I want to talk about natural black hair, and how it’s not just hair. I mean, I’m interested in hair in sort of a very aesthetic way, just the beauty of hair, but also in a political way: what it says, what it means.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In a lingering opening the three Uchenna Dance (UD) performers, Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Habibat Ajayi, emerge slowly on their knees into a silvery light with foreheads kissing the floor. They each tie around their heads part of a 10m x 3m patchwork of patterned and printed material and as their undulating backs glacially retreat stage left they use their heads to unfurl a giant head wrap. The relative stillness of the image draws the audience towards the bodies and the head wrap as sombre echoes of history, women and colour are united by hair. With over a dozen self-contained chapters exploring female beauty, empowerment and relationships across generations, The Head Wrap Diaries is sprinkled with humour, lightness and empathy. Clemenson, Attah and Ajayi adopt multiple personalities that melt choreographically between the vocabularies of waacking, house, contemporary and African people’s dance set by UD’s artistic director, Vicki Igbokwe. (If you want to know more about the motivation and some of the insights for The Head Wrap Diaries see my companion piece which I wrote as the work was being created).
“If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.” – Bell Hooks
The tone and pacing across the evening is well crafted as the chapters shift between solo characters, fierce dancing and clear movement direction. Attah’s detailed portrait of Auntie Florence in her hairdresser’s chair, (wo)manspreading, hutching up the hem of her dress and delivering a perm monologue in a booming Nigerian voice with oodles of inflexions and pitches, has the crowd in howls of laughter. From a single arm and face raised high echoing, “We give thanks, we give thanks” to “How old am I? How old are you?” the front row of the audience almost erupts.
Clemenson’s wide eyed death stare and swift head shake as she commands a reluctant Ajayi to sit between her legs and prepare for the mother of all hair brushings is a parody born of experience. Ajayi’s quivering legs, splayed toes and tensed fingertips create memory triggers and bodily reactions in the audience. I’m surrounded by the voices of mothers who share with their neighbours: “Too true, too true,” and “Perhaps I shouldn’t do that to my daughter.” These stories, communities and histories are culturally rooted across decades, continents and politics; it is testament to Igbokwe’s authentic and humorous portrayal of black, female experience that the crowd responds with such vocal relish.
Scenographically there are two fixed hairdressing chairs, three wig stands and a large screen positioned upstage on which a number of black female hairstyles and portraits are projected. The screen feels unnecessary, not only because the images are often partially bleached out by the lighting but the screen content can draw attention away from the dancers. This material might sit better as an accompaniment to the pre- and post-show foyer installation that includes head wraps for sale, newly commissioned art work, organic tea, photography and dolls, all of which aided the understanding and engagement of the work, framed the performance and ensured the audience had a hands-on (and heads-on) experience.
Apart from the two hairdressing chairs there are seven others placed stage left; at the beginning of the performance two audience members are invited to sit on the chairs to have an alternative perspective of the performance. When Attah, in the role of a travelling saleswoman, demonstrates step by step the art of putting on the head wrap, Clemenson and Ajayi follow her instructions but the two unsuspecting audience members need a lot of encouragement to try; after calls from the audience to “tuck, tuck,” they too are crowned. This is one of the few hands-on moments of interaction between the cast and audience; it is an element that has the potential to grow, to bring more people on stage and to create the melee and buzz of a hairdressing salon: an ideal opportunity for UD to work with an extended cast.
“Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.” – Patricia Hill Collins
The Head Wrap Diaries is a hair piece but it is also a dance piece and when the choreographed sections arrive they land with ferocity. Attah, Ajayi and Clemenson’s head-snapping faux self-importance, all fill the stage with swag. Together they cat walk, strut, waack and are constantly up on their toes with lean calves giving elasticity to their steps. This strut bouncing embellishes their characters, accentuates their rhythm and pays homage to the Queen of the New Jack Swing, Janet Jackson.
With only two English venues on the tour, the increasingly conservative and monochromatic choices by UK dance venues is a real concern. Here is a work that is engaging, authentic, culturally rooted and beautifully danced with an intelligent installation and (head)wrap-around programme. With a society crying out for cultural understanding, it is no longer acceptable for programmers to think they already have their one ‘black/disabled/trans’ artist for the season and can’t programme another. Never mind Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, The Head Wrap Diaries is great dance for all.
Posted: September 5th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: Habibat Ajayi, Ingrid MacKinnon, Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah, The Head Wrap Diaries, Uchenna Dance, Vicki Igbokwe | Comments Off on Herstory, Hairstory, History: A portrait of Uchenna Dance
Herstory Hairstory History: A Portrait of Uchenna Dance
Vicki Igbokwe, Habibat Ajayi and Shanelle Clemenson of Uchenna Dance (photo: Ian Abbott)
What I offer here is an outsider’s inside perspective; as Uchenna Dance (UD) prepare to premiere The Head Wrap Diaries on September 19 at The Place, here is a series of observations on the company from within the dance studio peppered with reflections on the wider context of the history and debate around black female hair.
Led by Vicki Igbokwe, UD has three clear values that drive the company and its work: empowerment, education and entertainment. The intention behind The Head Wrap Diaries is to tell the stories of three female characters who explore community, heritage, womanhood and friendship. The temperature, tone and mood of the studio is inclusive, generous and nurturing, feelings Igbokwe has spent time honing since she realised as a dancer that her best work would come when she was being fed as an individual and not having a choreographer “put the fear of god into you; rather than doing my best work, I was just thinking don’t fuck up.” With Ingrid MacKinnon as rehearsal director and a cast of Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Habibat Ajayi as performers/creative collaborators, Igbokwe has brought four women who are not only fine individual dancers, but are also her ‘hair crushes’. Each has a depth and connection to dance and hair as well as a clear idea of self and each is engaged in a wider conversation. This provocative debate hinges on whether those who decide to wear their hair straightened are less ‘Black’ or ‘proud’ of their heritage than those who decide to wear their hair naturally.
Attah offers an elegant opening frame: “It’s like our hair stands up towards the sun rather than falling. Black women should judge beauty and be judged by our own goalposts rather than by others’ prescribed ideals. I’ve graduated in life to my sistalocks (a fine type of dreadlocks) and they represent a cumulation of my experience.” She has also created Hair The Beat with her sistas, Jodie-Simone and Denise, to challenge the feminist beauty ideals that are perpetuated by the western media. There’s a real street savvy and popping snap to Attah’s physicality (she’s danced with Birdgang in the past) mixed with articulate passion and an awareness of the politics of black female hair.
Natural afro-textured hair was transformed in the 1960s from an expression of style to a political statement. Prior to this, the idealised black person (especially women) had many Eurocentric features, including hairstyles. Black activists in the USA infused straightened hair with political significance: some came to associate the straightening of one’s hair in an attempt to simulate ‘whiteness’, whether chemically or with the use of heat, with an act of self-hatred and a sign of internalised oppression imposed by white mainstream culture.
Each of the dancers has their own hair story to tell. “I’ve had two sets of dreads in my life and when I had my first set I was asked if I would cut them off as it was making it difficult to fit the hairpiece I was supposed to be wearing,” relates McKinnon. Her role is a crucial one in the company. She is the sifter, the detail merchant, the one who shines the grand images that emerge from Igbokwe’s mind to reveal their lustre; often making quiet but incisive interjections when a dancer is feeling stuck on a particular task. Together they try to unlock personal histories to connect the dancers to their own lived experience which will result in a deeper emotional connection to their choreographic material.
Igbokwe conceived The Head Wrap Diaries in 2014 as a response to her own personal hair journey and a desire to celebrate women and hair. It is currently being refined, shown and will add to a live debate that is currently taking place via news outlets and social media. A number of South African teenage girls at Pretoria Girls High School have been told this week that their natural hair is ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ prompting major international outcry and online campaigns (visit #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh to follow the discussion) forcing the school in question to suspend the code of conduct clause that deals with hairstyles. It has even reached government level with the Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthetwha, offering this response: “Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African Identity.” I would love to see the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, make it to The Head Wrap Diaries and engage with not only the performance but the pre-show multi-sensory installation in the bar that Igbokwe has curated in collaboration with students from Central St Martins.
Ajayi, who grew up in a Muslim country, wore a hijab for the first years of her life and it was her mother who took more pride in her hair than she did. Having relaxed her hair until she was 25, once at university she began spending £130 of her student loan every fortnight on her hair; her mother would have to pre-load a cash card to make sure she had enough for her education. Ajayi struggled with confidence in her technical ability as she embarked on a performing arts degree at university rather than at a conservatoire. Igbokwe and MacKinnon provide consistent reassurance: “You have technique for days,” they told her, and it shows. She has a natural facility (she danced for Clod Ensemble recently) and a performance magnetism that emanates when she’s comfortable with the material and how she presents it.
There is a rich history of black female hair over the last two centuries that has rarely been recorded from a black female perspective; historically, sub-Saharan Africans (as in every culture) developed hairstyles that defined status in regards to age, wealth, social rank, marital status, fertility, adulthood, and death. The social implications of hair grooming were a significant part of life and dense, thick, clean, and neatly groomed hair was something sought after by slave traders. Helen Bradley Griebel has written a comprehensive history, The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols, which traces the potency and symbolism of a piece of cloth that has had many names over the years: head rag, head tie, head handkerchief, turban and head wrap. I read the essay before I stepped into the studio with Uchenna as I hadn’t had a personal connection with head wraps before; after reading it I had a clearer understanding of the social, political and historical power behind this crucial piece of clothing which is so central to The Head Wrap Diaries.
Clemenson also has a rich hairstory to tell: “My mum had a friend who would do my canerows, so as a teenager growing up in the 90s I had the right hook up and all my friends were asking where I got it from; I also went through my emo phase and died it black and purple too.” However something changed when she went to the USA in 2008. “I was with a friend and had phoned my mum to say that I was going to have a short cut (I didn’t tell her when) and she said I shouldn’t. My friend said I might as well do it, you’re here and back home in the UK other voices would try and dissuade me from doing it. 31st May 2008. I’ve been short ever since and I feel it is me.” Clemenson has a formidable technique in waacking and voguing; in some of the hip hop choreography set by Igbokwe, Clemenson adds lashings of personal style, performance swag and attitude; if you look up the word fierce in the dictionary don’t be surprised to find a picture of her.
In many traditional cultures communal grooming was a social event when a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds with other women and their families. UD provides a similar social fabric that supports each of the women in the creative team; they’ve been together for a while having all played a part in the last UD production Our Mighty Groove (also touring this Autumn). The inclusivity practiced by UD extends to welcoming MacKinnon’s 7-month-old son who joined us in the studio each day. He has a particular penchant for the melodic and lyrical flow of several Brandy tracks and his presence adds a positive familial energy as the dancers lavish him with attention throughout breaks and lunch times.
During the first period of R&D for The Head Wrap Diaries last summer, UD shared about 20 minutes of material with an audience. Afterwards Igbokwe was asked a question: ‘How can I relate to the work if I do not have black female hair?’ I wondered if anyone would complain to James Wilton they couldn’t relate to the work of Herman Melville, sailors and a giant whale, or to Alexander Whitley about the difficulty of relating to a series of dancing lasers and motion-responsive technology without the relevant experience. There is something much more than the question of black female hair in UD’s work: The Head Wrap Diaries is a set of interwoven stories — sometimes humorous and light, at other times serious — that ask us to consider ourselves, our hair and our own communities. There is plenty of cold, esoteric and indulgent contemporary dance and theatre being produced in the UK but from what I’ve seen in the studio, UD is delivering in spades on their values; hair and community will resonate with many different people and will attract a wider audience to performance who will not only see themselves in the stories but, as anyone who has experienced the indignity of outrageous school hairstyles or home-cut fringes, may want to actively share parts of their own journey too.
Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: Adrienne O'Leary, Carlos J Martinez, Christina Liddell, James Southward, Janis Claxton, National Museum of Scotland, Popup Duets | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets
Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets (fragments of love), National Museum of Scotland, August 17
James Southward & Christina Liddell in one of Janis Claxton’s Popup Duets (photo: Ian Abbott)
“Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.” – Anais Nin
With Pop Up Duets Janis Claxton has made photographic dance catnip; four lithe, athletic bodies, dripping with clean and dramatic lines, set against the backdrop of the National Museum of Scotland. Choreographically it’s a canny decision and demonstrates a genuine understanding of how audiences engage with work in public space. They will often stay with a work for four to six minutes, invest a little of themselves, take a photo and carry on with their day. But Pop Up Duets has been all over social media and the company has also been interviewed by BBC Loop to create a short video that racked up over 32,000 views — by far the biggest audience for contemporary dance at the Fringe.
With a company of exceptional dancers (Adrienne O’Leary, James Southward, Christina Liddell and Carlos J Martinez), nine duets lasting four to five minutes each are performed within the gallery spaces; the choreography and musicality are akin to rain droplets on the window of a speeding train: a swooshing arrival as they land, bodies slowly unfurling, leaving a water tail as they make their horizontal journey across the floor and then ramping up again as they gather momentum to join with other miniature streams as they run against the wind. There’s oodles of fevered contact, silky bodily meshing and recognisable tropes of physical intimacy delivering a choreographic vocabulary that is recognisable and accessible for all who encounter it.
“I did not want to be a tree, a flower or a wave. In a dancer’s body, we as audience must see ourselves, not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.” – Martha Graham.
As the duets popped up around the museum an accidental audience would gather temporarily for a duet or two but when I attended the majority of the crowd were ready for a performance and stayed for the entire 45 minutes; they naturally formed a ring, hugged the safety of the edge and framed a circular stage area for the dancers to perform in. The space was never crossed or intruded upon once a performance began, demonstrating an understanding and familiarity with performance in public places. The audience was guided from the site of one duet to another by the introduction of the next piece of music issuing from two smartly designed vintage suitcases that acted as portable speakers. As the crowds gathered again the dancers emerged from within the crowd. The main gallery in National Museum of Scotland is like a three-tier ivory budgie cage with natural light beaming down from the roof; it was levels one and two that offered a birds-eye view and it was here that those a little less familiar with performance encountered the work from a safe distance with the ability to capture the results on their smart phone.
“That hunger of the flesh, that longing for ease, that terror of incarceration, that insistence on tribal honour being obeyed: all of that exists, and it exists everywhere.” – Ben Kingsley
However, as I stayed with Pop Up Duets, my interest began to wane. Because the individual fragments exist in isolation and don’t talk to each other, there is a similarity in pacing and a lack of visible development in the wider narrative, and although the setting is majestic the context of the venue (a museum of inanimate history placed on plinths or stuck behind glass) offers little in terms of framing. Love and intimacy are rarely treated well choreographically in contemporary dance; convincing the audience that two people are longing to be together is difficult (and not all the dancers in the company manage it) but James Southward absolutely nails it — his body amplifies the feeling that exists in his hungry eyes as he falls into the orbit of all those he dances with — he’s absolutely magnetic and melts in and out of the eyes of all who watch him.
Presenting accessible contemporary dance in public has a fruitful history across the UK with the likes of Casson and Friends, Protein Dance and Tilted actively embracing the richness that comes from this level of engagement. There is a lot to love in Pop Up Duets, including Kathryn Joseph on the soundtrack, the technical facility of the dancers and blending of museum/dance audiences together, but I didn’t fall in love with all of it; we brushed cheeks, flirted together and enjoyed a little fringe holiday romance.
Posted: August 19th, 2016 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: 201 Dance Company, Andrea Walker, Bang! To The Heart, Dance Base, Edinburgh Fringe, Lin Dylin, NUE Dance Company, Olov Ylinenpää, Pontus Linder, Skal, Smother, Zoo | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: hip hop culture
Smother by 201 Dance Company, Skal by Lin Dylin and Bang! To The Heart by NUE Dance Company, Edinburgh Fringe, August 8 & 9
Smother by 201 Dance Company (photo: Cody Choi)
“Our historical experience teaches us that men imitate one another, that their attitudes are statistically calculable, their opinions manipulable, and that man is therefore less an individual than an element in a mass.” – Milan Kundera
How do you translate a culture? West Side Story was a concept musical based on Romeo and Juliet that Jerome Robbins proposed to Leonard Bernstein in January 1949. It took another six years before playwright Arthur Laurents came up with the idea of two teenage gangs as the warring factions, one of them Puerto Rican, the other self-styled Americans. In November of the same year Stephen Sondheim joined the project as a lyricist and in August 1957 the stage version of West Side Story premiered in Washington D.C., with the film version released in October 1961. Successful translations take time to gestate, brew, fade and re-shape.
Feuding rivalries and gang culture are older than Shakespeare and it is within the embrace of West Side Story via the 90’s Sega Megadrive video game Streets of Rage that NUE Dance Company’s Bang! To The Heart resides. Heralding from Italy and presenting in the main space at Zoo, Bang! To The Heart offers the audience a large-scale, 60-minute work with 10 dancers, a complex set, multiple projections and an original soundtrack. The narrative premise is an exact replica of West Side Story – we have the Angels (Sharks) vs Zombies (Jets) fighting for supremacy; a gang member falls for a girl, loses the respect of his allies and has to make a decision whether to follow his heart or go back to his brothers. However, it is here that the similarities end as Bang! To The Heart is a graffiti cartoon fuelled with parkour bounding, a late night riot of outrageous bboy skills and facial exaggeration. With a number of distracting side panel screens projecting fluorescent animations of bodies glitching through an urban cityscape, the main focus lands on two large, reversible, wheeled walls that offer retractable ledges, staircases and scaffolding that allow the dancers to climb, bounce and launch themselves with consistent frequency. Rattling from scene to scene, face-off to face-off, the bboying is some of the best I’ve seen; extreme flexibility and strength sees crazy hollow backs, air flares and a whole suitcase of other power moves that wouldn’t be out of place at the bboy championships. It is physically impressive and the stamina is unrelenting; even in the last ten minutes with glistening brows none of the moves lose their edge. However, it isn’t all macho posturing. There are three female dancers who’s role is little more than moving wallpaper and street dance sirens calling to the bboys with their bodies; they are lifted and thrown around with brute force; without safe practice, damage to their bodies looks likely. Just because the bboys are at ease pushing the limits of their own physicality they should not jeopardise the safety of others within the company. With so much technical skill in the cast and heavy investment in production values, the company would benefit from a dramaturgical hand, otherwise Bang! To The Heart will fill its 22:20 kitsch slot and remain a slavish West Side Story imitation with lashings of bboy talent.
“If you’re not messing up every now and then at practice, you’re not doing anything above your ability to progress.” – Crazy Legs
How do you adapt a culture? Baz Luhrmann, the director of Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge, Australia and Romeo and Juliet has just released The Get Down for Netflix, a glossy technicolour and romanticised fable on the birth of hip hop in the summer of 1977 in the Bronx. 12 episodes made for $120 million. The first six episodes are woven around a pair of young lovers who through music try to better themselves and move away from the culture and people that forged their personalities and life experience to date. With all four elements of hip hop — mc’ing, b-boying, graffiti, dj’ing — and plenty of Puma on show, Luhrmann integrates shots of original news footage in an attempt to transport us back to the Bronx, but at it’s heart, it’s a pond skimmer: dancing on top, unwilling to break the surface and burrow beneath a rich, politicised and complex culture.
Skal is a twenty-five minute work exploring macho culture within hip hop by the Swedish duo of Pontus Linder and Olov Ylinenpää (aka Lin Dylin). Dance Base presented Skal as part of Nord Dance, its festival of Scandinavian work, in November 2015 which is where I first saw it. After a second viewing I notice the visibility of child-like play and a depth of nostalgia that permeates the work. Linder and Ylinenpää start upstage seated on a picnic rug decorated with plants, records, soft furnishings and a slide projector. They oscillate between this quiet reflective space (which leaves the audience with little spectacle but the mundane re-arrangement of records or the watering of a plant) and the stage — the place where they play. Choreographically they’re reconfiguring windmills, belly swipes and air flares, slowing them down so we’re able to dissect them: we see battle tricks in duet and solo form broken down to reveal when momentum gathers and where delicate weight shifts take place. In a form that rewards either dizzying speed or precision freezes, Skal attempts to adapt the original into an alternative choreographic language; imagine bboys in treacle.
As two performers who are still active on the battle scene, Linder and Ylinenpää represent different sides of the bboy coin; Linder holds his footwork in high esteem, stylishly tinkering at the edges of the melodies whilst Ylinenpää is all power moves and physical prowess. There’s a comfort and unspoken solitude between them on stage and this settles in between the gaps of performance. When they return to the rug and strike up the slide projector we see a series of kaleidoscopic amorphous shapes oozing and lolling around. Silence and space are a rare presence in the hip hop world and consequently these 25 minutes feel unusual, which I appreciate; Skal is a quiet study of the bboy and Lin Dylin happily inverts the tropes that are usually associated with it to create a balanced and playful simplicity.
“Our pleasures are not material pleasures, but symbols of pleasure — attractively packaged but inferior in content.” – Alan W Watts
In the UK there are a number of artists who frame themselves as making dance/theatre that uses hip hop as their primary movement language whilst mixing other styles and influences; Vicki Igbokwe, Botis Seva, Tony Adigun, Emma Jayne Park, Benji Reid and Robby Graham — a by no means an exhaustive list — are artists who are sensitive to the origins of hip hop, offer ambitious narratives for their audiences to engage with and have been pursuing theatrical presentations of their work for the last decade or more.
How do you dilute a culture? Smother by 201 Dance Company returns to the Fringe after a successful run last year that saw the company hoovering up a number of 4-star and 5-star reviews from EdFest Magazine, Broadway Baby and Scotsgay. Housed on the main stage at Zoo, the company of seven dancers explores the story of two men’s broken encounter whilst touching on the themes of addiction, obsession and commitment. 201 presents homosexual relationships in hip hop as sensitive territory but if you consider the history of hip hop and the funk styles of waacking, voguing and the balls that emerged in the late 70s and continue today there has been consistent and active communities within hip hop that are not defined by their sexuality. These communities kept themselves underground because of the intolerance of others to accept different types of bodies and beliefs; inside and outside hip hop the prejudices they encountered are still alive today, and I’m unsure whether attitudes are thawing or not.
Artistic director, choreographer and dancer Andrea Walker is to be applauded for attempting to explore this area as few in the UK have done so to date. However, for over 55 minutes we are presented with a number of low-quality commercial street dance routines — truncated to match the length of a pre-existing musical tracks — interspersed with faux, angsty dacting (dance acting). The routines are loose, unsymmetrical and there is an inconsistency across the dancers in terms of who is and is not able to hit the beat or understand the musical texture and nuance required. The dacting sections bear no relationship to the routines (which repeat motifs and material multiple times) and the physical encounters offer a uni-dimensional representation of relationships that are angry, promiscuous and unsubtle. Walker is noticeably the weakest dancer; he gives himself a lead role, often front and centre of the arrow formation, yet his execution has little attack and is always a beat behind. Smother lacks emotional subtlety, historical awareness and presents a series of shallow sub-standard choreographies that could be found in an improvers street dance class at Pineapple. You have to know where hip hop has been to know where it can go.
“Hip-hop artists, especially the older ones, are the ones who knew hip-hop was a worldwide phenomenon before the mainstream caught on, so hip-hop artists are forward thinkers. We want to stay with the new.” – Nas