Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

Posted: August 9th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi (AΦE), WHIST

AΦE, WHIST, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, July 31

WHIST, by AΦE (photo: Paul Plews)

Good stories are like those noble wild animals that make their home in hidden spots, and you must often settle down at the entrance of the caves and woods and lie in wait for them a long time.” – Herman Hesse

WHIST is the first major work for Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi who formed the company AΦE in 2013. Inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, it invites us on a journey exploring the fears, desires and unconscious minds of a fictional family. Wearing a Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headset and headphones this is a solo experience (for a maximum of 20 people at a time) in the carpeted third-floor foyer of the Festival Theatre. After a pre-show briefing and orientation by the FOH staff we are invited to put on the headset and headphones and to follow the early instructions for triggering scenes by lining up our gaze with a small blue dot.
It’s made clear that there are 76 different perspectives and that who/what/where we look at when we’re ‘inside’ WHIST determines the next scene we watch; it’s a classic branching narrative device that is very prominent in non-linear video game design. Imagine a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book where the agency rests entirely with you; you map out your own path and are responsible for your next 45 minutes.

At times we’ll want to escape our polluted reality…not augment it with digital debris.”- Clyde DeSouza

The fantasy dream space of lust and Oedipal urges that Freud explored is ripe territory for a theatrical VR response; alongside their technology partner, Happy Finish, AΦE has created 20+ filmed scenes set variously in a dilapidated cottage, photographic studios and warehouses where you are introduced to the family gnawing on human hearts, waltzing with bird cages and evaporating into ping pong balls. With the headset on you’re limited in your ‘real’ movement and aren’t able to move through the VR space; you’re a static witness to the three- or four-minute filmed scenes from a single fixed camera perspective not of your choosing. I’m invited into this world though I’m unsure of my role. Am I an invisible voyeur? An additional family member? Something/one else? Without the clarity of who I am and my relationship to those around me it’s difficult to emotionally invest or empathise. The perspective changes across the scenes; sometimes we assume the head of the father, sometimes the camera is at knee height, sometimes on a silver platter and other times we’re inside a CCTV camera. Our virtual scale oscillates regularly but I’m unsure for what purpose.

Nakamura and Fourmi have created a number of other shorter screen, interactive and stage works before WHIST and are also members of the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Vardimon is the creative mentor for WHIST). The visually rich spectacle that has become Vardimon’s signature is laced throughout the work; be it a performer emerging from a wicker basket frantically scrawling indecipherable chalk symbols on the floor or an eerie motionless accordion player barely pressing the keys yet the sounds make it into your ear, the images stay with you.

It is a predisposition of human nature to consider an unpleasant idea untrue, and then it is easy to find arguments against it.” – Sigmund Freud

WHIST (named after Whist House in Kent where the work was filmed) defines itself as a ‘one-hour experience merging physical theatre, interactive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and an art installation, in an environment that blurs the boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and fiction, the physical and the virtual’. I find this language hugely alienating; in a cultural landscape of marketing hyperbole this description signals to a niche crowd and does little to provide clear and plain English entry points to the 92% of non-arts attenders.

An audience will predominantly experience a work only once and I found my first experience of WHIST quite unsatisfying; it’s physically limiting, generates a huge sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) as there are 75 other possible scenarios that I’ve not seen, and the technological fidelity and finish isn’t as crisp as it could be (you can often see the glitches where the 360 degree cameras meet and bodies warp momentarily). However, I went in for a second time — now familiar with the rules, the technology and the characters I had the chance to play with the interactivity of the work and it was richly rewarding. I found some of those alternative branching narratives (unlocking 3 new scenes along the way) and whereas in the first experience I didn’t feel in control and had a real sense of time rushing past me, during the second time there was a chance for greater depth, focus and the ability to find some of the triggers and nuances that are artfully hidden in the work. There’s a suite of scientific research from eye tracking studies that reveals hot spots and how our eyes are often drawn to movement that emerges from stillness on a screen/stage; I made a commitment to focus on one character in my second experience, tracking their journey and watching their reaction and interactions with others even though at times I knew there were other things happening outside my 80-degree viewing angle and that the other 280 degrees would have to go unwatched.

Just before the credits roll you’re given a number on screen which if you enter into AΦE’s website will translate into a loose interpretation/analysis of the route you’ve taken through WHIST. Using some faux Freudian language it’s desired aim is ‘to inspire questions, reflections and insights into the unique meaning the performance may have for you.’ However it comes across more like the end-of-the-pier Zoltar fortune telling machine from Big dishing out the same message to anyone who’s gullible enough to feed it some money (there was a LOT of repetition when I entered my two separate numbers).

Although there is little visible dancing in WHIST, but there is a definite choreographic consideration and execution in how our solo bodies experience those that are presented to us and the world they inhabit. WHIST rewards the audience and encourages multiple viewings as it unlocks more scenes, greater depth, hidden easter eggs and more of that luscious branching narrative.


Ian Abbott previews Mamoru Iriguchi’s Eaten

Posted: August 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Preview | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott previews Mamoru Iriguchi’s Eaten

Mamoru Gets Eaten…By A Narrator, Dance Base, November 25, 2016

Mamoru Iriguchi as Lionel in Eaten (photo: Ian Abbott)

Ian Abbott saw Mamoru Iriguchi’s Eaten as a sharing in November last year. He has since added to his preview in advance of Iriguchi’s performance of Eaten at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

What I offer here is an outsider’s inside perspective on Mamoru Iriguchi’s continued research and development of Eaten, his work for families. Eaten explores what eating and being eaten mean in nature as well as on our tables; its particular focus is on the offering of one’s body (wholly or partially) for consumption by others.

Continuing to work with long-term collaborators Nikki Tomlinson and Selina Papoutseli, Iriguchi’s Eaten is a series of observations and reflections on the wider context, culture and debate around what we eat. Until now Iriguchi has taken on multiple roles that include the eater, the eaten and many others in between. However, with Tomlinson and Papoutseli he is looking to introduce an additional presence of narrator to see how it might shift the dynamic and reading of the work.

Narrators usually adopt one of two roles: the omniscient and the limited. In the former, the narrator does not participate in the story but knowing everything that has ever happened or will happen views it from outside, supplying comments and evaluations often directly to the audience with such techniques as flashback and anticipation to convey understanding and to heighten any necessary tension. In the latter, the narrator is a protagonist embedded inside the story and is thus restricted to interactions that do not transcend the chronology of the work; we can’t know anything of which the narrator is unaware.

Iriguchi often presents solo work that challenge ideas of duality. In 4D Cinema he played with time, bent perceptions of what is live and what is recorded whilst playing versions of himself and Marlene Dietrich. In Eaten he is again skewering two-ness through his choice of language, illustrative examples and performance persona. There is a charm and a total believability when in the first half of the 25-minute sharing he plays Lionel (the Mamoru-eating lion) and Mamoru (Lionel’s main course). With a slight shift of vocal range and anatomical straightening the oscillation between the two roles is clear and what we get is a philosophically and morally complex conversation delivered in simple and precise detail about who should eat and/or be eaten.

After a delightful section where the joy of unbridled movement takes over as Mamoru teaches Lionel to waltz, there is a short section that exemplifies the relationship between narrator and other:

Mamoru:        “I feel strange Lionel, I’m melting”
Lionel:             “We’re melting together”

With stillness in play and Lionel pushing raspberries out through his lips like an almighty poop, we see emerging from Lionel’s bottom a black morph-suited Professor Poo of Pooniversity. Eaten’s idea of melting between time, bodies, and first and third persons has an absurd and workable logic that constantly reveals itself like a matryoshka doll. Our identities are not fixed, our food is not fixed, our life is not fixed: why should our narration and performances be fixed?

At this moment Tomlinson (previously acting as a temporary, seated narrator in the first half) steps into the dormant Lionel costume; it is now the turn of Professor Poo to drive the narrative forward in the second half as Lionel/narrator takes a fixed position, barely moving for the remainder of the sharing. Professor Poo asks children and grown-ups what we should and shouldn’t eat whilst delivering the telling line: “You aren’t just what you eat; you are what you eat eats.

Eaten posits different beliefs and it is left open for the audience to interpret what is right for them. The narrator lightly frames the landscape so Mamoru/Lionel/Professor Poo is able to riff between the bowels of logic and absurdism.

With Tomlinson, Papoutseli and Iriguchi there are already three narrative stomachs that Eaten has to pass through before anything emerges on stage. It’s clear that as a solo performer Iriguchi doesn’t like to make work alone and the presence of Tomlinson and Papoutseli over the past decade in the studio has created a structure of challenge, nurture and support which ensures there’s no mixing up of the I, your and you with who’s who and who’s poo.

As post-truth politics and fake news cycles continue to grow, the melting narrative of Eaten can help us ask from whom do we want to receive our food narrative: a poo, a lion, the media or the government? There are plenty of unreliable narrators in the global food narrative, but what Iriguchi is offering for consumption through Eaten is a considered, open and downright hilarious perspective on the impact of food and human choices on our planet.


Ian Abbott at Greenwich Fair

Posted: July 7th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Greenwich Fair

Greenwich Fair, Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, June 24 and 25

Far From The Norm’s Da Native in front of the statue of General Wolfe (photo: Ian Abbott)

Greenwich Fair is the opening weekend blitz of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (a 15-day celebration of street arts) featuring circus, theatre, games, live art and a suite of new dance works. GDIF has ‘a particular focus on the commissioning and development of outdoor work led by deaf and disabled artists and artists from diverse backgrounds’ and there was new small-scale outdoor work on show from Deaf Men Dancing, Far From The Norm and Avant Garde Dance.

Etta Ermini’s Culinary Duel sees two male dancers in chefs’ whites goofing around in tune with the fading relevance of TV cookery shows. In an under-rehearsed work where legs and limbs collide in contact and lift work, movements are not fully executed and lines are certainly not clean. However, none of this mattered to the 300+ audience who attended the Sunday afternoon because the underused star of the show was a remote controlled cooker which trundled around bumping into the chefs, approaching the audience and flapping its oven door like a hungry mouth. In amongst the frenzied whisking and flinging of Angel Delight there is a hunger for light entertainment, an amusing photo to post on social media and something to hold your attention for 20 minutes; by these standards Culinary Duel delivers in spades. Younger audiences were in raptures, screaming in delight at seeing a domestic appliance transformed into a living, dancing machine that succeeded in upstaging the humans.

On a similarly unpalatable menu, the premiere of Avant Garde Dance’s new outdoor work Table Manners, commissioned by Without Walls, describes itself as ‘a choreographic feast exploring human relationships through our cultural connections with food and dining, with a thought-provoking social subtext.’ The reality is somewhat different: an undercooked and disjointed collection of scenes that reheat tired food clichés that have little cultural relevance today. At 40 minutes, Table Manners sags dramatically between scenes as the three dancers tinker with fiddly adjustments needed to switch and extend the table surfaces, drawing our focus away from any choreography. Sasha Shadid proves particularly irksome as an over-officious, fake-dacting waiter, while Duwane Taylor and Julie Minaai are presented as 2D characters and struggle to exhibit any technique or musicality, with any subtlety being left in the pantry. Tony Adigun has choreographed a number of excellent outdoor works for Avant Garde (Taxi, Romeo & Juliet, Silver Tree) which have delivered greater complexity, signature choreography and an attention to musicality; with a severe edit there is potential in Table Manners but the audible sighs around me left my choreographic stomach rumbling.

Corazón a Corazón, performed by Deaf Men Dancing and Leo Hedman, was commissioned by GDIF, Without Walls, Brighton Festival and Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. It is a 25-minute work inspired by Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and was conceived, choreographed and directed by Mark Smith. Charlie Hembrow and Shane Pearson are Puig’s prisoners who form an intimate bond in their cell whilst suffering the brutality of Hedman’s baton-wielding guard. With a tango-inspired soundtrack and simple contemporary partner work, two beds provide the main set pieces, upended to represent bars, flipped in displays of dominance and skittled as Hembrow and Pearson seek solace under Hedman’s watchful eye. After seeing Smith’s previous work, Let Us Tell You A Story, his theatricality and overtly dramatic performance style is at home in the outdoor environment and his subtle integration of BSL rewards a close reading. However, an inexplicable and wild narrative shift 10 minutes out sees Hedman’s guard scampering up into the crows nest scaffold structure and transform the show into a burlesque-inspired rope aerial act lasting the remainder of the show. Hedman displays fine skill and technique but this shoehorned metamorphosis attempts to bring two entirely different worlds together with little subtlety or consideration for an audience.

The majority of work programmed for outdoor/street arts festivals is work that isn’t emotionally or politically resonant and chooses not to deal with alternative forms; this signalling that programmers believe audiences want the primary colour splat of Britain’s-Got-Talent-lite spectacles and don’t want to engage with complexity is misplaced. With the recent large-scale outpouring of support for alternative narratives and our ability to deal with complexity that have emerged in the wake of the London and Manchester terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire signifies we are able to talk, debate and dialogue about things of scale.

It is refreshing to see Botis Seva’s Far From The Norm’s Da Native, a work that actively refuses to locate itself and embraces multiple narrative readings, set against a geodesic dome decorated with three-sided patterned textiles that echo the cultural significance attached to weaving and cloth that exists in different non-Western cultures. Set in the shadow of Greenwich Park’s statue of Major-General James Wolfe (the 18th century British army officer posthumously dubbed ‘The Conqueror of Quebec’ for capturing Quebec City from the French), the territorial and colonial frame in which Da Native operates offers extra resonance; with nomads arriving from east/west and finding respite in the dome Da Native offers a series of tight choreographic rituals that look at community, home and departure. With a consistency of intense physical detonation and attack, Far From The Norm delivers a water-tight performance balancing moments of stillness atop the dome with searing choreographic ensemble work; images of drenched cloths being pulled from the dancers’ mouths like a magician’s mouth coil conjure up arid landscapes and dusty travels and leave an indelible mark on the audience. With a slight tweaking by shifting and extending the visual focus of the work to three sides (not just front on), Da Native has a great chance of being a work that offers alternative perspectives while rejecting the simplistic narrative of other outdoor festival works.

Greenwich Fair was 97% free (A View from the Bridge being the exception) and accessible to people who encountered the 40+ works around the Old Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark Gardens and Greenwich Park; however by spreading out to the park there was a dissipation of energy and a dispersal of audience over the opening weekend. In previous iterations I’ve attended the densely packed programme focused on a tight geographical location which builds an energy, buzz and ferocity of people – shows programmed back to back so that as soon as one finishes, an audience swarms from one to another and is swept along in the rhythm and waves of performance. Greenwich Fair sits amongst the larger GDIF which has multiple themed programs including Dancing City, finales and mass street events, but if the opening weekend is meant to build momentum for what follows and if the commentary and discussions on the quality of programmed work amongst the dozens of Xtrax delegates are anything to go by, then the omens are not good.


Charlotte Spencer Projects, Is This A Waste Land?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ian Abbott on Marc Brew: Building His Brewband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Scottish Dance Theatre, Dreamers & TuTuMucky, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Posted: March 7th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | 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


MYSTERYSKIN, Brocade

Posted: December 20th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | 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.


Jamila Johnson-Small, i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | 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, no longer anywhere (photo:

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.


Impermanence Dance Theatre, SEXBOX

Posted: November 11th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | 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)

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.


Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | 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)

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.