Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz in Session at LIFT

Posted: July 12th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz in Session at LIFT

Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz, Session, Bernie Grant Centre, June 23

Session

Session at Bernie Grant Centre

In the courtyard of Bernie Grant Centre we are seated on three sides of a square awaiting the start of Session, a presentation of LIFT 2018 and a collaboration between choreographer Dan Canham, the afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds and Tottenham’s own Steppaz Performing Arts Academy; on the fourth side is a tent covering the musicians’ instruments and equipment. This is like the front yard for Empire Sounds and Steppaz who both make their home at the Centre; the atmosphere is as much festive as it is familial.

Anyone who saw Canham’s Of Riders and Running Horses atop a chilly, multistorey car park in Farringdon as part of Dance Umbrella in 2015 will perhaps recognize the setting of a proscribed urban area that becomes the site of a choreographic metamorphosis. Canham’s role in the collaboration, then as now, is as a catalyst for the transformation of a recognizable dance style into an unfamiliar format. As he explains, “The Steppaz dancers come from a background of competitive hip hop but I’ve pushed them into territory they have never done before which is a bit slower and more spacious. I’ve also challenged them to do something more intimate to what they’ve been used to because the audience won’t be sitting in the dark — they will be right in their faces.”

When the musicians — Josh Donkor, Mike Akrofi, Desty Engele, Tim Pabifio and Aaron Donkor — begin to play it’s as if they are laying down tracks in the air to prepare for the dance performance; the Steppaz Elites rise up in twos from their seats among the audience and enter the arena with an energy and force that fills those tracks with an equally impeccable rhythm and drive. It’s a heady experience watching the confidence that exudes from these young women and that energizes the entire crowd in the courtyard; those who are standing behind the seats are instinctively pursuing their own rhythms. In the sense of a shared experience on common ground the performance of Session is one of community — it is publicized as ‘a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging’ — but as solos arise out of the group as naturally as riffs on a theme, or as one choreographic formation morphs seamlessly into another, there is a formal aspect that begins to show through. Canham is listed as choreographer along with Abena Noel from Steppaz and Odilia Egyiawan with whom he worked on Of Riders and Running Horses, but he is also listed as director. How exactly Session came together from these individual inputs is impossible to tell by watching, but Canham has a knack of framing his projects in a way that hides his individual authorship and promotes their autonomy; it is his subject that always comes to the fore.

The relationship between dancers and musicians is reciprocal; this kind of constant exchange between the two is at the heart of non-western dance traditions. When one of the dancers sets a beat with forceful gestures of her entire body, the drumbeat anticipates her every move; it’s as if the sound is part of her gesture. At other times the relentless energy of the music becomes a force the dancers enter with a frenzy that is intoxicating.

About halfway through the performance the stage area clears to reveal a young girl, one of the Steppaz mini-Elites, who seems quite fearless in her ‘circle of public solitude’. As she begins her dance the precision of her arm gestures is so musical that you can see the beat. A contingent of mini-Elites swarm the stage and prove the future in Tottenham is equally as bright and dynamic as the present. They perform their routines with the energy and conviction of their elders, supported by the latter’s vocal encouragement from their seats in an exemplary transference of confidence and support. When the elders join in they combine their own expertise with the younger ones, extending the choreography to two generations in one declaration of piggy-back unity.

Session is so much more than the sum of its parts. What Canham and his team have done is to frame a community dance form as something that moves not simply through a variety of individual bravura steps — though there are plenty of those to admire — but through a choreographic vision that raises the entire performance to a level of communal aspiration and hope. Session becomes a piece of theatre in its own right without changing its essential nature.


Company of Elders, Mixed Bill at Lilian Baylis Studio

Posted: July 7th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Company of Elders, Mixed Bill at Lilian Baylis Studio

Company of Elders, Mixed Bill, Lilian Baylis Studio, July 6

Company of Elders

Sadler’s Wells publicity photograph for Company of Elders (photo: Matt Austin)

The program of this mixed bill by Company of Elders is made up of three short works interspersed with three films, two from the Sadler’s Wells Learning and Engagement team about the company and one featuring the 2016 video portrait by Jonathan Burrows, Matteo Fargion and Hugo Glendinning, of Betsy Field and Mary O’Mahony, both dancers in the company. What emerge from the first two films are two major themes in Company of Elders, social and artistic. This mixed bill shows unequivocally the social underpinning of the group of seventeen dancers who Sadler’s Wells describe rather patronizingly as ‘demonstrating the power of lifelong creativity and proving it is never too late to start dancing.’ What the program affirms less convincingly is the artistic vision that comes with the creation of works by numerous choreographers over the past 29 years. This year Seeta Patel, Adrienne Hart and Dickson Mbi still only scratch the surface of the artistic capability in these dancers. Is Sadler’s Wells using these choreographers to advertise ‘the power of lifelong creativity’ in their flagship over-60’s company or does it wish to see the company develop its artistic potential? What parameters dictate that all seventeen dancers have to appear on stage in each work, for example? When Field and O’Mahony appear in their filmed portrait, they are given the freedom to establish their identity within a proscribed frame, sitting at a table, and with a minimum of gestural means. What comes across is an artistic endeavor that highlights the two performers in a way the three stage performances do not. Patel, Hart and Mbi introduce short solos and duets to differentiate dancers from the crowd and some highlighting is achieved, either through text or gesture, but the group as social entity is what each performance seems to endorse. It is a shame, as the group will always be limited in its physical reach by what the weaker performers can do, just as in a younger company. The general effect of this kind of choreography as social organization is a romantic, stereotypical vision of what being older means: waving arms in a tight group is one of the tropes that turn up again and again. And why (except for Patel’s work) keep these seventeen individuals in brightly coloured t-shirts like children at a summer camp? Is it not possible to allow each performer to suggest a costume they treasure and work it into a performance? The resemblance of one performance to another suggests a ceiling of artistic decisions that governs Company of Elders. In what strata of society will you find such conformity among seventeen individuals? Only where it is imposed from the outside.

There are attempts in this mixed bill to break up this conformity. Patel in her Fragments, Not Forgotten finds inspiration in potent individual memories and uses a variety of groupings and a differentiation of gesture to indicate a more organic approach. In her A Tentative Place of Holding Hart unites the goals of Company of Elders with the inspiration of Arakawa and Madeline Gins’ ‘reversible destiny’; she uses more intimate gestures, gets the dancers off the ground in partnering lifts and a hopping step, and finishes with a plucky group challenge to the audience. Mbi in his Abyss separates the men and has them popping in slow motion and stamping out rhythms while he coaxes the women to develop the power of their arms in a semi-circular gestural dance that borders on wild. You begin to see possibilities opening up. A newcomer to the company, Monica Duck, clearly has rhythm in her bones. Mbi knows it and let’s us enjoy her movement, but Duck too quickly withdraws into the surrounding group as if such natural ebullience is frowned upon.

The employment of choreographers to create work on Company of Elders and to present that work on stage shifts its purpose in a parallel direction to its social benefits. The current mixed bill pushes the envelope of community dance closer towards the goal of artistic expression. If Sadler’s Wells is proud of their flagship company — and they should be — it is time to withhold the empty rhetoric of its Learning and Engagement team, stop patting itself on the back for presenting Company of Elders as bodies in a social ageing experiment and work towards bringing out the expressiveness of age as an artistic virtue. They might even consider paying them as artists.


Nederlands Dans Theater 1 at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: July 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Nederlands Dans Theater 1 at Sadler’s Wells

Nederlands Dans Theatre 1, León & Lightfoot, Pite and Goecke, Sadler’s Wells, June 26

Nederlands Dans Theater

Jon Bond, Roger Van der Poel, Aram Hasler and Rena Narumi in The Statement (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulu)

The first work on Nederlands Dans Theatre 1’s season at Sadler’s Wells plays uncomfortably between entertainment and oppression. It’s as if house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot have abruptly interrupted the five dancers — Myrthe van Opstal, Chloé Albaret, Marne van Opstal, Roger Van der Poel and Jorge Nazal — in Shoot The Moon and leave us to observe the intensity of their unstable relationships on a revolving set of three rooms from which the only exit is through a door or window into the next one. The program note suggests each room contains its own love story, but the febrile gestural vocabulary, clinical partnering and the open mouths of despair suggest each individual is going through hell and has no psychological space for anyone else, while the pervasive trope of effortless high extensions suggest a compulsive narcissism. It is as if Ibsen’s dramas of domestic claustrophobia have met Virginia Woolf’s fragmented narratives without the nuanced psychology of the former and the acute formal tension of the latter. One might almost conclude that set, costumes and live, voyeuristic video of the dancers projected on the clerestory-level screen are all part of a hermetically sealed aesthetic of neurosis. León and Lightfoot choose Philip Glass’s Movement II from his Tirol Concerto for piano and orchestra to lend the work emotions that are absent from the choreography; it is not music on which the dancers rely for their musicality but rather a score to appease the audience.

If the elements of Shoot the Moon were limited to conjuring up the images it portrays it would make an interesting study in the power of the unconscious to affect a choreographic outcome, but seeing the company’s assistant choreographer Marco Goecke’s Woke up Blind suggests an NDT 1 house aesthetic. Again the subject is love, as expressed in two songs Jeff Buckley recorded, his own You and I and Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do. The first person we see from a cast of seven is Nozal who hasn’t yet recovered from the tension of Shoot the Moon, but Buckley’s voice is also in a register of despair. At least Goecke is trying to match the fevered pitch of his choreography to Buckley’s overwrought state of delivery, but given its gestural similarity to Shoot the Moon and its translation onto technically precise dancing bodies, the effect barely shifts NDT 1’s tormented aesthetic.

It only takes a pause to rectify this. In The Statement, Crystal Pite uses four dancers — Aram Hasler, Rena Narumi, Jon Bond and Roger Van der Poel — to recreate a boardroom scene in an international investment office that has just fomented an international conflict in order to profit financially. On an otherwise dark stage, Jay Gower Taylor places a long, shiny oval table that Tom Visser lights from a similarly dimensioned hood above it; the concentration of light on the figures assembled around the perimeter dressed neatly and expensively by Pite and Joke Visser is intense. Their preoccupation is how to make a statement that exonerates their superiors without taking the blame themselves. Using a recorded one-act play by Jonathon Young with the voices of Young, Meg Roe, Colleen Wheeler and Andrew Wheeler, Pite choreographs to the accents and inflections of its tightly woven and increasingly confrontational argument. In extending choreography into mime and mime into choreography, Pite puts the polished virtuosity of the dancers at the service of gesture; nothing is gratuitous. In its message and expressive power, The Statement can be seen as a contemporary successor to Kurt Joos’s The Green Table.

It’s hard to return to the house style of León and Lightfoot in the final work, Stop-Motion, where love is replaced by ‘a process of farewell and transformation’, the revolving rooms by an empty space and Philip Glass by a mournful Max Richter. The set by León and Lightfoot with its chalk dust is visually arresting under Tom Bevoort’s lighting and its effect is evocative of the ephemeral nature of life. The large-scale, close-up video work, directed by Rahi Rezvani, conceived by León and Lightfoot and featuring their daughter Saura, is reminiscent of choreographer Édouard Lock’s interest in and integration of film and performance for La La La Human Steps. However the visual gratification of Stop-Motion is no substitute for psychological insight and emotional strength and while the choreographic use of space has changed from Shoot the Moon, the vocabulary remains within a narrow band of imagination that fails to release the full potential of these dancers beyond their shapes and extensions.


2018 Ignition Dance Festival, Rose Theatre, Kingston

Posted: June 30th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 2018 Ignition Dance Festival, Rose Theatre, Kingston

Ignition Dance Festival, Rose Theatre, Kingston, June 15

Ignition

Tina Omotosho, Stafan A Addaie and Danal Guy in MAN UP (photo: Gigi Gianella)

Rosie Whitney-Fish has taken a vision for dance and made it manifest. In an environment of financial scarcity where dance makers spend an inordinate amount of time writing applications for support from various cultural institutions, Whitney-Fish has grown DanceWest in four years from a seed of £1,000 of her own money into an organization that carries out a raft of community programs and projects centred around Lyric Hammersmith and co-founded Ignition Dance Festival with Kathryn Woodvine of Kingston Council. For the fifth festival DanceWest has been able to co-commission five mid-career choreographers — two solos, one duet, one trio and a quartet — whose works were seen for the first time recently at Kingston’s Rose Theatre.

As its name suggests, the festival is about igniting individual opportunities; each choreographer’s work can be seen for itself and while there is a curatorial hand in creating a viable program the interest of the festival is in the five singular approaches to creative expression. One of the parameters is that the commissions can only realistically cover a creation period of three weeks and while this may seem disadvantageous (though not unusual) to the creative process, some of the works have been in gestation for much longer: in the case of Jennifer Irons, for 20 years or more. With this much mental preparation, it was perhaps no surprise that her work, Yukon Ho!, arrived fully formed and bursting with life. Irons distills her formative years spent in the Yukon Territory in Northern Canada into a performative solo that integrates colourful anecdotes that are (almost) all true with her experience of dancing the can-can in the bars of Whitehorse. With assistance from writer Robert Churchill, Irons’ performance is as rich in texture as her delivery is timed to perfection and while she maintains a high voltage of humour there is a darker side not far behind it that comes with the Territory. In its present succinct form Yukon Ho! is a theatrical gem that holds light and dark in an unfathomable equilibrium.

Another work that has been forming over time is Kloe Dean’s MAN UP, an ambitious trio that honours the memory of her father, Raymond, while addressing the issue of his depression and suicide. As Dean writes in the program, her work is ‘a chance to break the silence of a stigmatized subject which does not get enough attention…It’s time to MAN UP!’ Using texts her father left behind and working the dark duality of a rope as both a recreational cord and an instrument of self-destruction, Dean plays hope against despair in a series of intense tableaux between Stefano A. Addae and Danal Guy. Weaving her irrepressible way through these scenes is Tina Omotosho who remains unaware of the tragedy about to unfold but is the one left to mourn. While Dean’s imagery is powerful and eloquent, the construction of MAN UP needs only to find a theatrical and choreographic ‘way through’ to allow the whole to be far more than the sum of its parts.

Avatȃra Ayuso’s angel is inspired by both the invisible, vengeful presence in Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel and the sport of fencing, but in its translation to the stage it is the latter that overshadows the former. One would imagine an avenging angel, foil in hand, dispensing altogether with full fencing gear for something more alluring to her dark and erotic play; her powers, after all, need no protection as her adversaries cannot see her. Alas, we cannot see her either; the obstruction of her face by the mask removes a vital element of her mimetic drama. In the latter part of angel Ayuso begins to contort her fencing postures into images that are more devilishly menacing as if she is warming to her motif, but it is too late to offset her literal preoccupation with the sport.

Paying tribute, by way of Federico Garcia Lorca’s elegy, to the dancer Antonia Mercé, ‘La Argentina’, Sam Quy’s La Lengua Flamenca points to the distinctly Spanish notion of duende, which, in Lorca’s words, ‘sears the blood like powdered glass, exhausts, rejects all sweet learned geometry, breaks with styles and relies on human suffering without solace…’ Perhaps Quy has erred on the side of historical appreciation rather than re-creation, for while the legacy of flamenco she and guitarist El Fernan de Tottenham bring to La Lengua Flamenca is rich, her performance is lacking the essential agonistic quality on which it depends for its conviction.

Cameron McMillan’s The Chimera Construct is a quartet for Jonathon Baker, George Baan, Nicholas Tredrea and Jade Brider that uses the Chimera of Greek mythology — ‘a multi-faceted beast, composed of parts of different wild creatures’ — as a construct of contemporary identity. Initially using animal masks to suggest differentiation, McMillan’s subsequent concern with the shapes and extensions of his hyper-flexible and hyper-extended dancers invokes instead a tame homogeneity. Perhaps applying a concept to a form can impart a meaning but The Chimera Construct needs to explore its physical vocabulary more convincingly to approach its notional concept.


Semperoper Ballett, All Forsythe at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: June 25th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Semperoper Ballett, All Forsythe at Sadler’s Wells

Semperoper Ballett, All Forsythe Program, Sadler’s Wells, June 21

Forsythe

Jiri Bubenicek in Enemy in the Figure (photo: Costin Radu)

William Forsythe’s name is synonymous with a vision of classical dance that is on the advanced edge of contemporary ballet and the opportunity to see an evening of his work in London is rare. The three works on Semperoper Ballett’s London première at Sadler’s Wells — In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, Neue Suite and Enemy in the Figure — are all vintage Forsythe from his time at the helm of Ballet Frankfurt. This is both the draw and the challenge for the company’s artistic director, Aaron Watkin, and his 18 dancers. Watkin has strong connections to Forsythe both as a dancer and as one of those responsible for staging his work around the world, but here he stands at the helm of his own company that the Forsythe brand has put on the international map.

Despite the close lineage of Forsythe, there is an impression in watching Semperoper Ballett that — with some exceptions — the dancers are doing the choreography rather than letting it happen. In the creation of In The Middle Somewhat Elevated Forsythe was fascinated with the ability of dance to arise autonomously from a state of pedestrian languor; it was as much the formal extensions to which he took ballet as how a dancer got there that interested him. The constant play within In The Middle Somewhat Elevated between doing nothing and pulling off a sequence that takes the breath away is what maintains a sense of excitement and risk in the work, qualities that the score by Thom Willems unequivocally reinforces. What we are missing on the Sadler’s Wells stage is that space for what isn’t happening before a step, the coolness of non-anticipation; what we are seeing is the premeditated preparation. This extra effort takes away from the élan of the steps themselves — not to mention the sense of risk — and alters their precise musicality. Some technical lapses on this first night performance contribute to the general lack of brilliance of the dancing, though the rapturous applause recognizes the continuing allure of the work.

Neue Suite premiered with Semperoper Ballett in 2012 but it’s sequence of eight duets derives from three previous works Forsythe made for his own company: Invisible Film (1995) to Handel’s Concerti Grossi op. 6, Workwithinwork (1998) to Berio’s Duett für 2 Violinen and Kammer/Kammer (2000) to the Allemande of Partita No. 1 by Bach. Roslyn Sulcas writes in the program, ‘Forsythe may not be interested in emotional contents in the narrative sense but he is definitely interested in the relationships and emotions that are created through physical interaction.’ It’s a wonderful insight into how to read these duets and the inclusion of Neue Suite is a welcome addition to the program by presenting Forsythe’s choreographic intelligence — as well as the dancers — in intimate detail. As relationships go there’s as much tension as there is emotion in the partnering but individually it’s the women who come off more relaxed and self-assured, especially Alice Mariani, Jenny Laudadio and Sanguen Lee. It is only in the final duet that Zarina Stahnke and Houston Thomas find common ground and a shared exhilaration.

Enemy in the Figure is a wild beast of a work that gives the company a chance to revel in the rich theatrical complexity that Forsythe can bring to the stage not only as choreographer but as designer of the set, costumes and lighting. An undulating plywood wall divides the stage diagonally and the lighting is provided by an industrial-sized lamp that is wheeled round the stage by the dancers with the excitement and precision of explorers in a cave. Enemy in the Figure is as much about what moves in front of the light as what might be happening in its shadows or invisibly behind the wall. The stage becomes a dream-like phantasmagoria peopled with energy where Forsythe, reunited with a score by Willems, enjoys breaking free of old theatrical conventions and creating new ones, splitting the stage into zones of cerebral activity connected by a pulsing cortex of rope. It’s immediately apparent this is a work that suits the company’s men in particular, allowing their range of physicality and imagination to let loose. There’s a duet for two men where legs fly like helicopter blades against the partition, memorable interventions by Jón Vallejo and a wildly articulated solo by Christian Bauch where his black, fringed outfit makes him look like the devil incarnate. If light brought this work to life it is its withdrawal that brings it slowly and silently to a close with only the sound of someone knocking on the plywood partition.


Alexandra Waierstall, And here we meet, Lilian Baylis Studio

Posted: June 19th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alexandra Waierstall, And here we meet, Lilian Baylis Studio

Alexandra Waierstall, And here we meet, Lilan Baylis Studio, June 14

Waierstall

Evangelia Randou in Alexandra Waierstall’s And here we meet (photo: Katja Illner)

After recently seeing so many works commemorating events in the First World War it was a relief to be able to contemplate Alexandra Waierstall’s UK première of And here we meet at the Lilian Baylis Studio. A quiet, poetic and thoughtful meditation on our evolution, the form of the work is inspired, it would seem, by the enigmatic stories that Laurie Anderson delivers so beautifully, one of which (The beginning of memory) prefaces the performance. For And here we meet, Waierstall and dancer Dani Brown have revised a text found online about the mess we have made of the 200,000 years of our Anthropocene period, a startling list of factual observations on our current ecology and environment that will be familiar to many. It is as much the wryly impeccable logic of Anderson’s stories as the way in which they are related that make them so arresting: the dry tone of voice, the lilting accents, the artful timing and the flattening out of the ends of sentences that leave the words hanging in the air. Brown, who is also American, does this admirably while employing her body as an additional referent; the poetic nature of the words and sentences floats on the shapes she makes while Waierstall and Ansgar Kluge have together shaped the space with light — a small number of Christmas lights suspended close to the ground — that further modulate the body’s motion and its emotional effect.

Entering the stage in loose workout clothes, Brown is so in the moment and matter-of-fact that the poise of her voice comes as a surprise. She begins her story by indicating she will start with the end but then almost inconsequentially discards her clothes. We soon discover the end of the story is set in the future, 100 million years from now, when a group of post-Anthropocene explorers discovers our planet and finds its geology worth investigating. And here we meet is thus a vision of dystopia in which the naked human body serves as our archaeological guide to the present. In a metaphorical sense Waierstall has laid bare the current state of our environment but as the story proceeds, the simplicity of the body’s contours in the simplicity of the theatrical space raise it from the didactic to the poetic, from an apoplectic rant to an apocalyptic ode on the fate of mankind. In a constant alignment between words and movement, Brown’s voice seems to affect the articulation of her body and her gestures in turn add layers of meaning to the text. Every now and then her accent drops into a Southern drawl as a form of mordant exaggeration that continues into her body, as when from a crouched position with her tensed hands and fingers splayed over her head like a blind exotic oracle she describes the future discovery of our cities ‘empty from lack of food or drought’.

Waierstall’s visual depluming of the story to set it free of current contextual detail continues in the soundscape of her collaborator Volker Bertelmann, aka HAUSCHKA, in a composition that provides a perfect counterpart to her exploration through an other-worldly rhythmic evocation of a timeless past that defies a solid musical footprint. Waierstall had met Bertelmann after hearing about one of his projects inspired by abandoned cities and it is not hard to sense the similarity of their emotional approach to disappearance in And here we meet.

Whereas Laurie Anderson’s story is very much in the past, Brown’s is very much in the future. She ends her story with the kind of questions archaeologists might ask about the possible causes of their findings before slowly counting down from 10 to 4, where she breaks off. This is the point at which that vast span of horizontal time between past and future meet somewhere in the present with the appearance of Evangelia Randou. She is equally vulnerable in her lack of clothing, perhaps more so because she doesn’t speak; it’s as if she and Brown recognize each other but can’t remember where they met. Randou’s articulated avian gestures return to the birds of Anderson’s prologue, and for a moment she carries within her a hope that the future cannot comprehend. Brown retreats into the dark but it is not long before Randou, in a subdued gesture of disbelief, follows her. We have lost them both, but the poetry remains.


Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Posted: June 16th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Barbican Centre, June 12

Smack That

The cast in Rhiannon Faith’s Smack That (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulu)

The Pit at the Barbican is decked in balloons and pink folding chairs around its perimeter and as we enter a sextet of similarly dressed and wigged hostesses welcomes us with a drink (cider or water) and a snack (popcorn) before we take our seats. All the hostesses are called Bev and once seated we are each given a name tag that carries the same (m)atronymic with a descriptive forename; I am Specs Bev and Caterina is Pearl Bev. In the centre of the floor is a circular arrangement of identical boxes tied with pink bows from which the hostesses hand out one each with instructions not to open it before we are told. It’s like the setting of a giggly sixth form annual dance.

Choreographer and social activist Rhiannon Faith has a knack of wrapping up serious social concerns in settings that belie the nature of their subject. She and Maddy Morgan did it with Scary Shit, which dealt with their phobias and insecurities, and she follows up with a show about domestic abuse that starts with a party. But although the party is the way into Smack That, it is also a form of festive affirmation for the performers who have all been through abusive relationships and have come out of them stronger and wiser. In this sense Smack That is both a celebration of resilience over adversity and a call to action, for what Faith also does is to tap into solutions. In Scary Shit she introduced audiences to cognitive behavioural therapy and in Smack That she works with a domestic abuse charity, Safer Places, and introduces the J9 Domestic Abuse Initiative named in memory of Janine Mundy who was killed by her estranged husband in June 2003 while he was on police bail. Faith is responsible for making Harlow Playhouse the first J9 Venue in the UK, and the Barbican is now signed up and accredited, which means it has a safe place where victims of abuse can use a phone line to access information and a full support system. Look out for the pink J9 heart.

Presented by the Barbican as part of its 2018 season, Art of Change, Smack That takes the experiences of seven women (Rebekah Dunn, Valerie Ebuwa, Yukiko Masui, Maddy Morgan, Kim Quillen, Hollie Stevenson-Phipps and Casey Tohill) as a starting point for a conversation with the audience about domestic abuse. Six of those women — Quillen is on maternity leave — happen to be our hostesses, so this is not verbatim but autobiographical theatre (as Scary Shit had been), a fact that makes the setting disarmingly ambivalent. Just as the pervasiveness of domestic abuse (according to statistics, one in four women will experience it in their lifetime) far exceeds the social recognition, it is difficult to fully comprehend the reality behind Smack That in the performances of these six women. It is only half way through a light-hearted confessional party game when Stevenson-Phipps completes the statement, ‘Never have I ever…’ with ‘been grabbed by the throat’ that the atmosphere suddenly freezes; this is the moment in Smack That when we become aware of how domestic abuse can so easily go undetected until the victim has a chance to speak up. The somber atmosphere is soon relieved by the permission to open of our presents: party crackers and streamers (for immediate usage) along with information from the National Centre for Domestic Violence.

The theatrical form of Smack That cannot be dissociated from its social content; it is a reflection of the need to spread awareness of a pervasive but private violence and to offer help. As part of this engagement, Faith’s audition process was firstly to select women who had first-hand experience of domestic abuse who were willing to work together on stage; only three of the Bevs have formal dance training but the six women work so intimately together that it is solidarity that triumphs over individual qualities. Faith unites the Bevs through an egalitarian vocabulary of movement that extends beyond formal dance training, but at the same time she uses the expressive potential of Ebuwa, Masui and Morgan to add layers of gestural imagery to verbatim text as well as to portray physical and psychological states that are beyond words. It is here that Faith’s work as choreographer rather than director finds its emotional eloquence.

In its concern with social issues, Smack That follows naturally from Scary Shit, but in its loosening of choreographic imagery for theatrical articulation Faith has subtly changed the relationship of the audience to her work and of her work to society. The effects are already apparent.


ANU / CoisCéim Dance Theatre, These Rooms at Shoreditch Town Hall

Posted: June 14th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on ANU / CoisCéim Dance Theatre, These Rooms at Shoreditch Town Hall

ANU / CoisCéim Dance Theatre, These Rooms, Shoreditch Town Hall, June 8

These Rooms

Justine Cooper in These Rooms (photo: Pat Redmond)

In the pantheon of dance commemorations commissioned by 14-18 NOW, These Rooms, which remembers an incident in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, is not a lavish spectacle like Akram Khan’s XENOS, nor a staged narrative with a literary source like Gary Clarke’s The Troth, but a theatrical rendering based on archival material and witness accounts that takes history’s many facets into account. A collaboration between ANU and CoisCéim Dance Theatre and presented as part of this year’s LIFT, These Rooms doesn’t try to glorify the dead but to bring them back to life, to give them a chance to explain what happened. In the North King Street Massacre there were casualties on both sides; the voices of victims and survivors are heard amid the rush and adrenalin of the promenade performance created in the maze of spaces in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. While Owen Boss’s meticulous designs that Ciaran Bagnall has lit suggest the rooms in which the original action took place, the costumes of Niamh Lunny, the hair and make-up of Lucy Browne and Chloe Bourke and the musical indications of Dennis Clohessy and Carl Kennedy place the events on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre in 1966, making These Rooms a commemoration within a commemoration. Tragedy in the face of loss never descends to the level of melodrama but is rendered in profound states of danced gesture, while grief and despair are matched with bleak humour and resilience. All eight performers are note perfect in their emotional involvement: Justine Cooper, Damian Gildea, Úna Kavanagh, Niamh McCann, Jonathan Mitchell, Robbie O’Connor, Emma O’Kane and Matthew Williamson.

These Rooms does not aim to trace the entire scope of the Easter Rising, but takes one of the key skirmishes — where Irish rebels had occupied numerous small buildings and had barricaded the streets — as a simulacrum of the bold attempt to establish an Irish Republic. One of the controversial aspects of the North King Street Massacre was the indiscriminate nature of the killings; whoever lived in the houses was considered a rebel and the British troops were given the order to take no prisoners. Yet one of the transformative elements of the production is the portrayal of death, however violent, as a moment of release. The image of Williamson’s filigree hands and wide-eyed, slow-motion tumbling down the stairs after being shot is memorable.

The violence in the street is constantly suggested by the tensions between the men and women inside. Threads of stories are started then interrupted by our urgent relocation to another ‘safer’ room or corridor only to be reprised and resolved later; one cohort might see the representation of a story the other will hear recounted, but by the end we have all taken in the full picture. The audience both observes and participates for the direction of David Bolger and Louise Lowe invites us to join in the action — whether it’s sitting around in the pub, blowing up balloons, playing darts, dancing with the women, responding to questions or eating bread and jam.

Before the performance starts, the audience is divided into two cohorts that follow two separate narrative paths, one nuanced by the perspective of the Irish rebels and the other of the British troops. I start in the pub while Caterina starts in the barracks of the South Staffordshire Regiment. The sheer complexity of the logistics for the eight performers to make these two threads coherent for the audience is breathtaking for neither cohort is aware of the other until we meet in the pub to watch the 1966 tickertape parade on the bar’s television screen. Having witnessed a view of the events from the inside — particularly through the experiences of the women who in their support for the rebels had to bear the brunt of the violence and its consequences — this solemn filmed memorial appears to smooth out all the pain of history. And the story of a British soldier who thought he was being sent to France and was unprepared to kill civilians reminds us how much ‘official history’, no matter from which side, is heavy with silences.

Honouring the dead is itself a minefield of codified ritual pitting the political power and authority of the state over the privations and losses of those directly affected. These Rooms brings these two aspects into stark and uneasy cohabitation. After watching the televised parade we are ushered out the door with a solicitous word of encouragement. There is no place for applause.


Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: June 7th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells, May 30

Xenos

Akram Khan in XENOS (photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the First World War centenary, XENOS is billed as a commemoration of an Indian soldier in the trenches representing the more than a million mobilized from what was then a colony of the British Empire. But it is also billed as the final full-length solo Akram Khan will choreograph on himself. So what, or who, is XENOS actually commemorating? Sarah Crompton titles her program article, ‘A new myth’ in which she discusses with Khan the making of XENOS, its creative components and the summation of his career. She concludes that the new myth is ‘to help everyone remember.’ Remember what? Both Khan’s role and the production itself are equivocal in their response.

Even though Khan was born in a south London borough to Bangladeshi parents, his dancing roots are in his classical kathak training, which makes his portrayal of ‘X’ — who dramaturg Ruth Little describes as ‘no man and everyman, the unknown and the eternal soldier, alone in a foreign land…’ — unquestionably poignant. The opening of XENOS (meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’) is a masterful depiction of ‘X’ at the convergence of dance and conflict. As we arrive in the auditorium of Sadler’s Wells, vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist BC Manjunath are seated on stage performing a classical concert unperturbed by our lack of attention. Mirella Weingarten’s set is a study in absence: empty, dusty chairs, an abandoned swing and a low table covered in a fine layer of earth below a string of bare light bulbs and an array of ropes leading up an incline towards the back. It is a deserted interior scene that anticipates the passing of the present into a bleak future. It is only with an amplified electrical short circuit and a temporary blackout that the audience becomes attentive and subsides into silence; the concert continues and Khan enters as if discharged violently from a traumatic past. The music serves to revive him and he begins a haltingly remembered kathak dance; at times Manjunath has to prompt him with the chanted rhythms and the three men build up a haunting image of life interrupted and changed forever. Khan is in a sense playing himself, remembering past glories from a conflicted present, his mature body reliving what it could once do so effortlessly. More electrical short circuits and an extended black out lead us to a plangent space and time where the snake-like ropes draw Khan and all the furniture inexorably up the slope as if by an outside force — the original tug of war — and over the top.

The parapet remains throughout XENOS as the locus of the trenches and of Khan’s place in this desolate world; he connects a rope like a field cable to what appears to be a gramophone to hear a crackly recording of the names of fallen Indian soldiers, one of whom died laying cables in the mud. The horn of the gramophone later becomes a searchlight, but with these surreal allusions the connection to the First World War begins to veer off into the discursive themes of myth and evolution. Khan invokes Prometheus, the Greek Titan who is credited with the creation of man from clay and who stole fire from Zeus to facilitate the development of civilization — and its unintended consequence, war. Khan’s depiction of evolution seems to cover the period from Mowgli to the Mahabharata, subtly shifting the focus of XENOS from the representation of colonial ‘X’ into the current myth of Khan himself. It’s as if ‘X’ has offloaded his ‘otherness’ and has returned home, which is now in Wimbledon.

In the Crompton interview, Khan acknowledges an Indian academic who had thought remembrance was ‘a white thing’. This notion had spurred Khan to delve into the archives of Indian involvement in the First World War, which in turn imbued his empathetic memorialization of ‘X’ at the beginning of XENOS. However, any further attempt at excavating the memory of these forgotten soldiers from oblivion is lost in the meandering rhetoric and the ‘whiteness’ of this lavish monument of a production.

By the time lighting designer Michael Hulls, composer Vincenzo Lamagna and sound engineer Julien Deloison introduce that glorious go-to expression of sorrowful beauty, Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem mass, blasted from a Schechtian gallery of musicians suspended in light above the stage, the commemoration has turned fully on Kahn: the end of the war has become conflated with the end of his solo career.


Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Posted: May 18th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth, Queen Elizabeth Hall, May 5

The Troth

Subhash Viman Gorania and Vidya Patel in The Troth (photo: Simon Richardson)

The original review was published online in pulseconnects and appears here by kind permission of its editor, Sanjeevini Dutta. 

Gary Clarke’s choreographic adaptation of The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Alchemy is based on a love story (Usne Kaha Tha in its original Hindi) written in 1915 by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri that is set against the background of India’s involvement as part of the British Empire in the First World War.

As a youth Lehna Singh (Subhash Viman Gorania) meets Leela (Vidya Patel), like Romeo meeting Juliet, at a market festival and falls in love with her. When he bumps into her some years later, he learns she is betrothed. He answers a recruitment call to join the British Army and begins training. Eighteen years into the story, on the outbreak of the First World War, he discovers that his Captain (Songhay Toldon) is Leela’s husband and father of their son, Bodha (Dom Coffey), who is also leaving for the front. On their departure Leela takes Lehna aside and makes him promise to protect her family at all costs. Driven by his love for Leela and his sense of duty, Lehna fulfills his promise at the cost of his own life.

There is in the relationship between Lehna and Leela a metaphor for the ties between India and the British Raj, whether Guleri meant it or not. The British Army’s inducements to Indians like Lehna to protect the Empire were more calculatingly material — a contemporary recruitment poster offers shoes and food in return for the sacrifice of their lives — but the honourable relationship between country and beloved motherland had the same tragic consequences.

Despite its historical context, there is no horror in the re-telling of this story; dance can’t do horror very well and even the projected archival film footage of Indian soldiers on the front is quite sanitized, filmed from a safe distance behind the lines and suffused with subtle propaganda. One photograph of a pair of disintegrating legs attached to their boots in the mud is the only graphic image, a reminder of the fate of 60,000 Indian soldiers in the conflict. Shri Sriram’s percussive sound score rattles with bullets and explosions at high intensity and the dancers run at full tilt and fly to the ground in the chaos of battle but the reiteration of such physical exertion becomes a choreographic trope unless Clarke is suggesting the naivety of gymnastic preparations for modern warfare. The staged vigour of the soldiers on the battlefield is not far removed from the earlier men’s dances in the market, but how can one possibly approach on stage the conditions under which these soldiers had to exist in the trenches?

Neither did Guleri intend to write an anti-war tract; he was more concerned with the qualities of the heart. Hence, while Clarke’s treatment of The Troth can only approximate the war experiences, he shows more convincingly — because we can relate more easily with it and because dance can do it so well — the romance of Guleri’s story.

Clarke, as choreographer and director, takes the story at face value, and in Patel he has a convincing heroine for whom Gorania is quite understandably willing to sacrifice himself. But in framing the story on the troth between Lehna and Leela Clarke and producer, Akademi, risk subsuming the broader political picture into a romantic evocation of the past. This year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and The Troth is part of a cultural outpouring marking its remembrance. Next month, for example, Akram Khan’s full-scale solo Xenos ‘conjures the shell-shocked dream of a colonial soldier in the context of the First World War’ while English National Ballet will reprise its Lest We Forget program in September. The tendency of such works, and of the commemorative purposes underlying them, is to focus on the effects of war rather than on its causes; hence the stories of loss, love, loyalty, heroism and pity (‘The poetry is in the pity’, as Wilfred Owen wrote in a preface to his war poems). And yet in using these emotional stories as a means of memorialization, are we not in danger of forgetting the political forces that engendered them, those same political forces that continue to preside over the act of remembrance?

In Clarke’s previous work, Coal, about the 1984/85 coal miner’s strike, he contextualizes political force by juxtaposing the lives of the miners and their families with an appearance by a belligerent Mrs. Thatcher. It is this tension that holds the work together but in The Troththe use of archival film as historical context is little more than background and barely offsets the lack of narrative tension in the story. Perhaps Clarke could have found a way to use the political metaphor in the story but that would have run the risk of a post-colonial reading at odds with the commemorative intention of the work.