An Interview with Wang Ramirez

Posted: October 11th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on An Interview with Wang Ramirez

An interview with Wang Ramirez

Wang Ramirez (photo: Filine Fink)

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez (photo: Filine Fink)

Sadler’s Wells is continuing to expand its remit, for the first time co-producing an event at The Royal Albert Hall on November 2: musician Nitin Sawhney, an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells, is performing takes from his most recent album, Dystopian Dream accompanied by singer Joss Stone and other guests. Already known in dance circles for his compositions for Akram Khan (Vertical Road, Zero Degrees, ITMOi and Bahok), Sawhney’s event will feature dance by the Wang Ramirez duo in their first appearance at The Royal Albert Hall. Honji Wang has already danced with Khan — so many roads lead to and from Khan, another Sadler’s Wells associate artist — but in her partnership with Sébastien Ramirez she has performed with flamenco dancer Rocío Molina, in hip hop, and for the Rebel Heart Tour with Madonna for which Ramirez provided choreography.

Wang was born of Korean parents in Germany. She studied gymnastics, classical ballet and hip hop with a flavour of martial arts. Ramirez is a French b-boy of Spanish origin who shares with Wang a start in gymnastics and a love of martial arts, with further interests in capoeira, boxing and Brazilian jujitsu. His career was already under way when he met Wang in 2004 at a freestyle event in Berlin. With their cultural identities and complementary dance forms already intermixed, the duo has openly searched for ways to cross-fertilize with other styles and traditions. Performing to the music of Sawhney is a continuation of that path.

“We are always experimenting with our way of dancing, moving, and creating together,” says Ramirez in conversation. “What it means to do certain moves with a certain intention, how this will be seen and understood by the audience…So we constantly search to develop the techniques we have mastered into a new growth that becomes our own form. It’s a life of exploring and it keeps us constantly moving…”

Wang uses an imaginative image to describe her approach to artists working in different styles: “I’m extremely nosy to experience their cocoon; I want to enter like a little mouse and see what they see.” Perhaps it is this willingness to see through the eyes of others that makes Wang Ramirez collaborations so seamless. When I saw her dance with Khan last year Wang remained faithful to her own dance but complemented Khan in her power and fluidity.

When she first heard Sawhney’s song, Homelands, Wang remembers, “I loved that sound, but for me he was an artist who was far away from where I was; I was just 16 and didn’t know what the hell was going to happen with my life. Later on when I heard his music again in performances of Akram Khan I was always thinking the music is such a great mix of something ethnic with massive beats and rhythms. So when we got a call from Sadler’s Wells to ask if the collaboration with Nitin would interest us, we thought, yes, of course.”

Ramirez describes the process of creation: “We always want to get as close as possible to strong emotions by using body movement, dance, visuals, and technology…having met Nitin in his studio and after listening to the music, we enjoyed exchanging ideas and concepts right away; it came very naturally and a it’s project we are excited to work on. The way we will prepare is a spontaneous process between each of us around lots of discussion and emotional statements that we will relate to our choreography and graphics.”

Whatever the outcome on November 2, Wang Ramirez will not simply accompany Sawhney’s music; they are catalysts who will transform it through their own alchemy while letting the music transform them. That’s after all the true nature of an artistic collaboration.

Wednesday 2 November 2016 at 7.30pm
Royal Albert Hall, SW7
Tickets: £25 – £60
Ticket Office: 020 7589 8212 or / 020 7863 8000 or

Natalia Osipova, Three Commissions

Posted: October 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Natalia Osipova, Three Commissions

Natalia Osipova, Three commissions, Sadler’s Wells, October 1

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Arthur Pita's Run Mary Run (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Arthur Pita’s Run Mary Run (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Natalia Osipova is a dancer I could happily watch in any performance. Brought up in the Russian classical tradition, a supreme technician and dramatic presence, she is at home in the classical repertoire but itching to broaden her scope as an artist. Without retracting that opening statement, this evening of contemporary work for Osipova at Sadler’s Wells falls somewhere short of my anticipation. The issue is who commissioned this triple bill — first seen here in June — and why. Sadler’s Wells’ chief executive and artistic director, Alistair Spalding, suggests in the program’s welcome note that Sadler’s Wells commissioned the works, which happen to include two by Sadler’s Wells associate artists: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant. In Sarah Crompton’s overview of the evening in the same program she makes it appear that Osipova commissioned the works. But if she did, why so early in her drive to broaden her horizons would she commission new works from choreographers she has already worked with (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Arthur Pita) so recently? And is Russell Maliphant’s choreographic process likely to expand Osipova’s artistic range? I don’t think so. No, it is unlikely Osipova commissioned these works but has instead lent her name and talent — along with those of her partner Sergei Polunin — to the evening in return for the creation of three works brokered for her by Sadler’s Wells. It’s a compromise in which neither party comes off particularly well artistically; Osipova is not challenged enough because the works fall short of providing her with a vehicle for her scope. Cherkaoui’s Qutb thinks about it in philosophical terms but delivers a trio in which Osipova’s desire for flight is constantly grounded and smothered by the overpowering physique of Jason Kittelberger and in which the only (rather uninteresting) solo is given to James O’Hara. Qutb is Arabic for ‘axis’ but the axis of the work is Kittelberger not Osipova. Some commission.

Maliphant’s Silent Echo without the lighting would be like watching Osipova and Polunin consummately messing around in the studio. Maliphant’s choreography is so totally dependent on the lighting of Michael Hulls (a dependence that has become derivative) that any artistic development for the dancers is merely subordinate to the Maliphant/Hulls formula; the greatest hurdle for them is to dance on the edges of darkness.

Pita’s Run Mary Run is the only work in which Osipova and Polunin have roles to explore; Pita puts them centre stage in a musical narrative of love, sex, drugs and death to the songs of the 60’s girl group, The Shangri-Las. Known for their ‘splatter platters’ with lyrics about failed teenage relationships, Pita invests Run Mary Run with a theme of love from beyond the grave that he can’t resist associating — in the opening scene of two arms intertwining as they emerge from a grave — with Giselle. But Osipova’s persona is closer to Amy Winehouse (whose album Back to Black was inspired by The Shangri-Las and whose life Pita cites as the major influence for the work), and Polunin in his jeans, white tee shirt, black leather jacket and dark glasses is more like bad-boy Marlon Brando than a remorseful duke. While Pita’s narrative mirrors the destructive relationships in Winehouse’s life, the romantic elements of raunchy duets, flirtatious advances and feral solos feed off the partnership of the two dancers. Pita is pulling out of them elements of their own lives and putting the audience in the privileged position of voyeurs; we are living their emotions in the moment. This gives the work its edge and inevitable attraction. The colourful lightness of Run Mary Run — thanks to costumes and sets by Luis F. Carvalho and lighting by Jackie Shemesh — thus reveals a genuine heart that saves the work from its dark parody. But such is the nature of the heart that Run Mary Run may only succeed with these two protagonists.

Pita’s work is a step in the right direction for Osipova, as is the idea of her performing works outside her comfort zone. But if she really wants to find works that allow her more than an opportunity to dance a different vocabulary, she needs to find choreographers able and sensitive enough to fulfill her full potential by creating enduring works that are irrevocably stamped with her technical ability and personality.

Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Posted: September 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Peter Wright, Wrights and Wrongs, Oberon Press         

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

There is not, nor can there ever be, a definitive history of ballet. Made up of so many personalities with their diffuse interactions and influences such a history will always grow richer but will never reach maturity. Sir Peter Wright’s memoirs, Wrights and Wrongs, subtitled My Life in Dance, is a case in point. In Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, subtitled A History of Ballet, published in 2010, there is no mention of Wright, yet for the last 70 years he has been involved in so many ways in the key stages of the development of classical ballet in this country. Perhaps Wright by his own admission has blended so tenaciously into the fabric of those years that it is difficult to see the man for the material; he wistfully recalls being described as the best director The Royal Ballet never had. At the same time these memoirs do not set out to shine a spotlight on Wright himself; even with his own proviso that ‘this is primarily an account of my working life…I do not detail much about my family or personal life’, he reveals little about the man whose working life he describes. Nor was he ever especially in the spotlight, preferring to support in his long career key figures like Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko in a range of roles as dancer, teacher, ballet master, administrator, director and, most significantly, as producer of the classical narrative ballets of which his versions continue to serve the repertoires of ballet companies around the world.

What is fascinating is how Wright knew early on that he wanted to dance without having any connection to ballet. His early years were consumed in an effort to discover the door to the world he had sensed; he read about ballet in the school library and improvised movements to music on a gramophone in the gym. He was closer than he at first realised: the wife of his biology teacher had been in Pavlova’s company and offered classes to some of the girls and his music teacher had been a rehearsal pianist for Kurt Joos at Dartington. But it was at the age of 16, after seeing a performance of Les Sylphides by Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet, that he ran away from school to protest his father’s lack of understanding about his chosen calling. Impressed at his determination, his father acquiesced but refused to pay for his training. As Wright states, ‘…the more I am prevented from doing something the more determined I am to achieve it.’ Having failed to win a scholarship to the Sadler’s Wells ballet school, he apprenticed to Joos’s company, learning from him his sense of theatre and that ‘choreography is just as much about ideas as it is about steps.’ Realising two years later he needed more classical training, Wright left Joos to devote himself to classes with Vera Volkova in London before a spell in Victor Gsovsky’s Metropolitan Ballet, musicals, revues and the short-lived St James’s Ballet. It was here he met John Cranko who organized an introduction to Ninette de Valois that led to his entry into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet which has remained, through its many manifestations and names, his home ever since. ‘Looking back over the training that I mustered for myself during my early years…I do not think I did too badly for a late starter with no money and certain major setbacks — injuries, parental disapproval and military service.’ He must indeed be very fulfilled to have set out with only the light of intuition on a path with so many obstacles that led finally to his goal. It is perhaps not surprising that he is drawn to fairy tales.

What is frustrating is how difficult these memoirs are to read. Co-authored with Paul Arrowsmith, the book’s contents are more easily grasped through its extensive index than through its chapter organization. The editing alternates uneasily between discursive conversations and Wright’s own considered texts while the timeline winds forwards, backwards and sideways with a persistent sense of déjà vu. Sentence structure is sometimes awkward and poor proofreading — ‘Marot Fonteyn’ is unforgivable — adds to the level of frustration. Nevertheless, the value of Wright’s memoirs is to substantiate and add to the complex history of ballet and his comments on the classics, garnered over the last 50 years, form a vital and perceptive account of how to stage them. These in themselves have the makings of a separate book. Wright is humble enough to admit his own failures and his caveats about designers and technical staff are salutary.

Despite his close association with The Royal Ballet, Wright’s relationship with Sir Frederick Ashton seems surprisingly bleak and he has little to say about Rudolph Nureyev as a dancer; I sense a lot of the memoirs exist in between the lines but he is harsh on Sylvie Guillem and disagrees on many counts with the treatment of MacMillan’s legacy by his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan. Given his experience with the classics and his narrative sensibility, his lack of enthusiasm for the work of Wayne McGregor comes as no surprise, neither is his strong support for David Bintley and Christopher Wheeldon as choreographers with the ability to carry forward the tradition of the classics and of classical dance that is at the heart of the Royal Ballet’s two companies.

So what are the wrongs? One of Wright’s admitted weaknesses is in forgetting, while making a speech, to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of a key player. He preempts a recurrence of this by devoting an entire chapter to a roll call of appreciation for those past and present whose devotion to their own art has helped and inspired him throughout his career. If the memoirs read as program notes to his life work, this is the cast list.

Akademi, Staycation/Vacation

Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akademi, Staycation/Vacation

Akademi, Staycation/Vacation, Rich Mix, July 15

Kesha Raithatha in Traces (photo: Simon Richardson)

Kesha Raithatha in Traces (photo: Simon Richardson)

 This article was first published on Kadam’s website and appears here with kind permission. 

It is an evening of two separate performances and many contrasts: between student and professional dancers, classical Indian dance and contemporary dance, narrative and abstract forms, and context and style.

Staycation is a performance devised by Akademi for two schools in the Tower Hamlets area. Choreographed by Kamala Devam and Honey Kalaria for George Greens School and by Elena Catalano (assisted by Maryam Shakiba) for Langdon Park School, it is a project in which the performance reveals the value of the steps taken to achieve it. These are the kinds of projects that can change a life, and as such are vital to the development of the arts and education. One of the girls reveals a natural grasp of performing, while one of the boys is clearly thrilled at the opportunity to pursue his sense of self.

On the professional side the contrasts constantly illumine the transformation of classical Indian dance within contemporary society. Kesha Raithatha presents the traditional form of Indian dance in a narrative work, Lalita Lavang, in kathak style with the delight and precision of her gesture, posture, rhythm and her storytelling eyes. Yet in the final work of the evening, Traces, Raithatha sets aside tradition to reveal a quite different dramatic presence, one that evolves out of a contemporary existential philosophy that demands its own expression. Traces is the result of a 2015 Choreogata commission from Akademi which allowed Raithatha to choose a choreographic mentor (Eva Recacha). Launching bravely into unfamiliar territory with no narrative and an aural environment of powerful prayer chant, a lot of silence, and some recorded sounds, Traces is a journey in which Raithatha’s body becomes her eyes as she searches for expression within a fortress of her imagination. There are moments of great beauty and force where her classical technique sustains her, but it is her choreographic approach and her innate sense of drama that takes her and Traces into exciting, unchartered territory.

Archana Ballal does not entirely leave behind her classical Indian training in As Small as a World and as Large as Alone, but she changes the context to a contemporary narrative on agoraphobia affecting a young woman planning to go on holiday. Using text and a contemporary musical context — including a sultry Pharaoh’s Dance by Miles Davis — Ballal represents herself as she is: a contemporary woman in a contemporary environment. She is dressed as she might be in her own flat, surrounded by a table with flowers in a vase, a couple of chairs, a suitcase and a wastepaper basket full of crumpled plans. She translates her text into gestures that avoid any literal relationship; they are a parallel physical expression with which she builds her dance. She spends a little too much time with the single idea of unpacking and repacking, losing the careful construction of the opening, but she finishes strongly where she began, with her indecision only delayed.

In Two by Two choreographer Hari Krishnan casts aside both the classical movement and the context. I am perhaps the only person not to have seen Vidya Patel win the South Asian category of the 2015 BBC Young Dancer of the Year Award, so when I see her natural ability in Krishnan’s work alongside Jaina Modasia I wonder who this extraordinary young woman is. First you notice the commanding eyes, and then she begins to move. Krishnan’s use of the thrust and parry gestures of a boxing match is a beautiful example of Patel’s flow extruded through a lyrical body, though it is also apparent in her effortless opening jumps. Krishnan’s vehicle is a witty and rhythmical abstraction of episodes that seem to wander in an out of classical dance with a sly and knowing grin. Modasia is a perfect foil for Patel, creating a harmony between the two that makes them and the choreography look as refreshing as a choreographic… vacation.

Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Self Revealed

Posted: August 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Self Revealed

Hannah Nicklin, Equations For A Moving Body, Summerhall, August 9; Rosana Cade, Walking:Holding, Forest Fringe, August 17, and Skye Reynolds, Pitch, Dance Base, August 17.

Skye Reynolds in Pitch (photo: Lucas Kao)

Skye Reynolds in Pitch (photo: Lucas Kao)

A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.” – Madeline L’Engle

The self is firmly on show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival (as it is every year). There’s a constant examination and excavation of the self; performers offering a sliver of their lives to the audience in exchange for attention and time. How much can we see and are we allowed to see? When does dance, performance and live art really reveal itself (or the self’)?

Pitch is Skye Reynolds’ 30-minute solo, made in collaboration with Jo Fong, which she describes as ‘…a realisation: how are we living our lives? The act of selling oneself, selling an idea.’ This is a constant in the life of the independent, self-produced choreographer; selling themselves to venues, festivals and programmers to try and make what they’re offering appeal to the dance taste makers of the UK. Although there’s little choreographed dancing, there’s oodles of giddy movement interspersed with text which Reynolds delivers with aplomb; through her ebullience and constant refraction of her self and her history we see how a self can become centred — she offers us constant crumbs of personal milestones: playing the good wife and the whore; dreaming about David Bowie, playing the virgin in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, truth bending about working with Kylie Minogue and the time she was in China pretending to be an animal in a perspex box. She leaves us no time to dwell on how these moments impacted her (or how they affect our impression of her) as she skittishly flits from one revelation to the next. She’s selling herself, her story and her experience to us. Are we buying? I think we are.

In the second half, Reynolds begins to pull out from her big black box pre-scripted texts about things that perhaps she and we could care a little more for: Brexit, Belgium, Syria, Calais and dozens more, macro issues that feel an infinity away from the first half. Beginning with a micro focus on the self and then scaling up and shifting onto the world stage is an intelligent way to anchor and shift our thoughts to global issues we are collectively facing that should warrant greater attention. Mid-way through the work Reynolds blends life and art even further as we hear an overly long home recording of her daughter Tallulah playing piano and practising her Misty Copeland; it’s a fine rendition but the impact is made within the first verse and chorus and we don’t need to hear the rest. After a short recitation of REM’s Losing My Religion Reynolds abruptly leaves the stage along with the spotlight that has been chasing her around for the entire show. Just as we think it’s an ending Tallulah herself emerges to sing an original song whilst pinning up a hand-written note that invites the audience to donate to Plan UK, an education scheme for girls in Africa (after three performances nearly £100 has been donated). The impact would have been heightened if Reynolds had stayed and watched her daughter sing so we could see that familial connection; it would have amplified all the different selves that she and we present to the world.

Scattered amongst Pitch there are echoes of the way Wendy Houstoun (Reynold’s has been a performer in Houstoun’s Stupid Women) presents her work, from the witty and rambling (though actually carefully constructed) word association to the visible control of the soundtrack through an mp3 player and making social commentary on the dance world, too. Pitch and Reynolds happily flirt on the artifice-to-reality spectrum with an intelligent construction, humourous delivery and buckets of vitality. We are introduced to what Reynolds was, is and could be; it offers an intriguing possibility of how Pitch could sit with a companion piece (authored by Reynolds or somebody else) that might allow us to dwell on, get under her skin of and make us feel a little more uncomfortable with ourselves.

So you might say, ‘Why do you end up making theatre in a world in which there is already too much of that? Creating layer upon layer of artifice?’ Perhaps the function is to pierce through that cloud and show reality — so the function of art is to make things — to show: ‘Hang on, this is real.‘” – Simon McBurney

In the act of opening up on stage, does the level of virtuosic performance equate to the scale of trauma and of personal revelation from an artist? Does the fact that the more we hear about the tapestry of their life mean we should connect and empathise more?

Hannah Nicklin’s Equations for a Moving Body is an elegy to endurance and she describes it as ‘A story about the physiology of endurance — when our brains tell our bodies to stop — and the psychology of continuing.’ The psychology of extreme athletes is a rich research field; there are always people fitter and faster than you. However there is a set of traits which such athletes often share: curiosity, persistence, lack of fear and sense of boldness. This is a performance about prowess, mastery and the pursuit of betterment, yet it’s delivered with a precision and a sparse physical palette in which the emotional effect is arresting.

For over 80 minutes Nicklin guides the audience through her attempt to complete the Outlaw Triathlon (a 2.4m swim, 112m bike ride and 26.2m run) in July 2015 in her 30th year. The current narrative around Team GB’s success in Rio is that the public is seeing the rewards for the investment, sports science and the marginal gains that can be delivered through detailed preparation. It’s in this preparation and detail that Equations for a Moving Body shines brightest.

With a laptop, projector screen, some index cards on the floor and a water bottle, Nicklin talks to us from her chair or directly front on. Through her adept mix of live internetting and her nuanced vocal and physical delivery, we see flashes of her through the way she curates her online self in her profiles on Facebook, Flickr, and Bandcamp. As she scrolls, surfs and finds the URL’s to accompany her story we see her visual bibliography; there’s something satisfying in her sharing this intimacy. As she delivers stories of how she endured, trained and delivered we listen to Nicklin’s body as she slowly rock’s gently on her heels, the minute finger twitches and rubs on the palm; there’s all sorts of almost imperceptible physical signals at play here and although she clearly acknowledges us and is present in the room, I can’t help but sense she’s performing it for someone else, someone who’s not here.

How a work settles in a body changes the delivery and intonation; I saw this performance in the first week of the fringe (when some works are still trying to find their natural rhythm) but Nicklin had a comfort with these stories and with the science behind them. She understood the rhythm of her story and how to tell it; how to build, when to rest and let us recover. The stories and training are her embodied experience and there was an ease with which it flowed out. Nicklin met with a number of scientists in the construction of the work and there’s a strand of research from Dr Sarah Partington on the idea of the Storied Self which Nicklin paraphrases on her Ironman blog. ‘She explained that we are creatures of narrative — that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling — we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts.’

Equations for a Moving Body is an intimate portrayal of the self, layered with emotion, tragedy and curiosity, from which Nicklin constructs a compelling narrative and delivers with a vocal charge that ensures her storied self is one that is worth listening to.

 . . .sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?”
“Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.
” – Carlos Ruis Zafon

“Everything you see after you open your eyes is part of the performance.” That was the final instruction as I walked in silence from the Out of the Blue Drill Hall to the beginning of Walking:Holding, a work by Rosana Cade that turns Leith into a theatre. But the question is who are the performers? Hidden in the simple act of holding the hand of a stranger whilst walking together in public offers a number of self-examinations and surprises that I had not anticipated.

It was a blue, unclouded afternoon as I held the right hand of the first stranger; I denoted a tension in her arm as we paraded down Leith Walk. After a short exchange of questions and answers (we were free to be silent or to talk), she stopped and turned us to face the glass of a shop window: “What do you think people would say if they looked at us?” This one question knocks at the heart of Walking:Holding. Assumptions are often made based on how we dress, the age we look and our presumptive sex. I am guided over a zebra crossing and we are stopped by a man who asks, “Do you have a light?” “No,” I reply. “Well can I hold your hand instead?” At that moment, like a baton relay, I am handed over to my second companion and I discover an alternative physicality: he is taller than I am and so I need to raise my left arm higher to find his natural gait and we constantly adjust in an attempt to find a mutually comfortable proximity. As two people we are in an equally unstable position — we don’t know each other’s backgrounds, fears or curiosities — yet there is so much stimulation; I’m alive to new people, places and exchanges. The public are entirely unaware they are witnessing an intimate duet that has only just begun. Were we real in those 5 or 6 minutes together with each walker:holder? Were we performing a version of ourselves? What did we reveal to each other? I found out that one of the walker:holder’s identified as asexual and had never held a man’s hand in public in the daytime before.

There is a large amount of research in the field of walking psychology. Studies have shown that walking improves cognitive performance, aids problem-solving and creative thinking as well as enhancing our working memory. I remember so much of my emotional response in this 40-minute experience; more so than in many theatre-based performances: the sound of the loose change in the right yellow trouser pocket of walker:holder number six and the olfactory lingerings as I ambled past a number of oily garages with walker:holder number five. Your body is alert to everything: who’s thumb is on top; is it palms together or fingers entwined? Holding the hand of a child is loaded with safety and protection and it’s within that frame that I think Walking:Holding exists: we protect each other in public through this remarkable part of our body with which we can communicate so much. Without Cade being present she has constructed a frame and set in motion a number of carefully considered complexities that ensure this would resonate differently in parts of the world where human touch is either welcomed or frowned upon. For me, I left a little bit of myself with each of the six walker:holders and shared an equality of intimacy that has only been rivalled by Verity Standen’s Hug. Walking:Holding is a hugely intelligent work that left all sorts of residues on me: intellectually, physically and emotionally.

I came away from all three works thinking about the spectrum of artifice-to-reality and how other people can act as our mirrors. Skye had Jo Fong assembling, collaborating and refining herself as she went along; Hannah did the same through the people she encountered to build her story and the science behind it and Rosanna through her choice of walker:holders. All of them encouraged a self-reflection and if you combine the four titles (moving, holding, pitch(ing) and walking) they offer an instruction on how to approach the self and the people in your life; sometimes you dial up one or the other depending on the situation or who you’re with, but as a guide for the self you can’t go far wrong.

Blue Cloud Scratch, Blue Elephant Theatre

Posted: August 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Blue Cloud Scratch, Blue Elephant Theatre

Blue Cloud Scratch, Blue Elephant Theatre, July 28

A Positive Life_1

Michael Kelland, Katie Albon, Jerome Wilks and Becca Thomas in Johnny Autin’s A Positive Life

Blue Cloud Scratch is a partnership between Cloud Dance Festival and Blue Elephant Theatre, providing valuable opportunities for small-scale new work.

Lewys Holt doesn’t look like he’s going to dance his Phrases at all as he languishes on the stage watching the audience shuffling in watching him. It’s a standoff but he wins by moving first, walking to a microphone near the exit so it’s not clear if he’s leaving or staying. Then he talks about the link between apples and doctors but what he really wants is the doctor not the apple. He’s not really sick; he just needs to move a little, which he does. He thinks on his feet like all dancers do, except the thoughts are a long way from his feet because Holt is long and lanky. But he’s well connected so he moves well, really well. His phrases start with the same jump, like a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, and accumulate eloquently. And he’s got a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, so after his mouth fixation, when the slideshow of postcard towns ending in ‘–mouth’ doesn’t start when it should, we all laugh with him. He’s engaging like that, a natural performer. It’s all pulled out of the air, or his brain, in the moment. And he keeps us in the moment until it ends.

Out of the wings comes a man with a chair (Craig Bennett of Indefinite Article Dance Theatre); gravity is present and a heavy game. Belinda Grantham follows with another chair. She and Bennett exchange seats but it’s territorial and not in the least genteel. If they used their voices they would growl, but they don’t; they use their bodies like words, their eyes like daggers and move in surly sentences on a game board. It’s a dislocated conversation without resolution. Fern Maia lightens up the equation, leaving space for a solution. But the two women climbing on Bennett is no solution because he’s strong enough to move both their objections aside. That’s Momentum. It’s a momentum that can’t be stopped, an accident about to happen.

There’s a deliberate irony in using A Positive Life as the title of a work about sex, love and relationships in an HIV world, especially for teenage audiences for whom choreographer Johnny Autin is preparing this work. It’s really engaging, so he will have no difficulty in getting his message across. But what is the message? When Becca Thomas dances her story of being raped at a party in which she drinks herself out of control, she does it so powerfully it’s beautiful. When Michael Kelland dances his overhung distress on one side of the stage while the others watch he does it so well we sympathise. Perhaps the full work (of which this is only a part) will balance the equation. Ken Loach finds a way in his films to make socio-political comment while we can still feel sympathy for the characters: he shows the rude consequences. Autin doesn’t, at least not yet. He needs to make his socio-political stance clear in the choreography, otherwise he might end up giving mixed messages.

I love ballet. I really do. But it’s hard to get excited about a company called Point(e) Taken Dance Theatre; it’s just too self-referential and cute and Ian Parsons’ Dual Deviation has a similar quality. Arabesques and pirouettes are such immediately recognizable signs of ballet that without the right framing they can lose their appeal and their meaning all at once. Dual Deviation desperately needs framing; it could borrow the guile of Phrases, the weight of Momentum, or the engagement of A Positive Life but without these kinds of qualities it is too blandly abstract and the chosen tracks of Ezio Bosso don’t provide any contrast. Something else stands out: the lines of the dancers are long and clean but their technique seems to stop at the neck. Nami Furukawa is the only one of the four women to make a gesture of her head. That is worth watching. Point(e) taken?

Thank goodness for Dickson Mbi’s ShowTime in which he creeps out from the darkness crouched on his toes, beetling around the stage like an ominous caryatid broken loose from a gothic cathedral. His dark, brooding figure breathes cool, quiet strength. There is no program note because the performance is what it is: Mbi using his impressive technique in the service of his choreographic imagination. He dances to a track by Jocelyn Pook from Akram Khan’s Desh in which he contrasts twisted lyrical violence to the innocence in the music: just him and the music; nothing else is needed.

You wouldn’t think the angelic, smiling Rachel Elderkin could murder a tomato, but she does. Perhaps she is simply the accomplice of choreographer Alice Weber, just doing what she’s told. But she’s so calculating, spending the first few minutes of Pomodoro picking from a crackling plastic supermarket container a selection of tomatoes that she presets precisely on the stage. There are plump ones and little ones that roll like red marbles. The way Elderkin does it gives the tomatoes  human qualities: adults and children in a park, perhaps. Once the tomatoes are set the game begins, which is when Elderkin steps slowly, coquettishly across the stage like fate in disguise and knowingly crushes a tomato under her bare foot, splattering its seeds and juice. Weber juxtaposes the action with a blues song of Bessie Smith dreaming of being dead. The contrast between Smith’s dark, stirring voice and Elderkin’s indiscriminate act is striking and suggests there is something more here. Weber’s imagination has grasped a powerful allegorical image that needs pushing further. How many more tomatoes will have to perish before she finds it?

An introduction to Groundwork Pro in Cardiff

Posted: August 22nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on An introduction to Groundwork Pro in Cardiff

A multi-modal introduction to Groundwork Pro, Chapter, June 8

Groundwork Pro, working from the group up (photo: James Merryweather)

Groundwork Pro, working from the ground up (photo: James Merryweather)

When a young Gillian Lynn was taken by her mother to see a psychiatrist to assess her ability to learn, the wise man observed to her mother there was nothing wrong with her: she just needed to dance. Fortunately her mother followed his advice and Lynn found to her amazement that at dance school there were other kids who could not sit still; they had to dance in order to think.

Joanna Young and Deborah Light took this notion on board in their inaugural session of Groundwork Pro, a new Cardiff-based, artist-led collective, on the final day of Dance Roads at Chapter in Cardiff. The confluence of this workshop with Dance Roads, featuring dancers from five EU countries, was not coincidental. Referencing the cultural state of affairs the EU referendum threatened to affect, Young and Light titled it, Are We Independent or Interdependent Artists?

By definition ‘independent’ means free from outside control, not depending on another’s authority. In purely artistic terms each artist in the room is independent. But when training, performing opportunities and funding structures are taken into account, the notion of independence is no longer sufficient. A dance infrastructure in which artists can grow and thrive together in a relation of interdependence is necessary. The EU itself is an interdependent infrastructure in the political sphere and the result of the UK referendum has underlined just how fragile and volatile such a structure can be. There is nothing natural about any social structure; it is constructed according to the wishes and the constraints of the people it sets out to serve. It has to remain relevant. This in itself creates interdependence not as a requirement but as an effect of careful, continued planning. When the structure no longer serves the needs of its community, its effectiveness is diminished. By inviting artists in Wales to meet with their international peers from France, Holland, Italy and Roumania in a physical workshop, Young and Light wanted to provide an opportunity for open exchange, provocative questions and play, through which they hoped to clarify a basis on which to build a thriving dance community in Wales.

Because dancers use their bodies to think, Young and Light devised ways to articulate ideas in movement. Walking around the room is one way, loosening up our interactions with people we may not know; or by choosing three objects in the room and placing them somewhere inside the circle we have made, stating why that particular object and why that particular place. Humour arises from this kind of interaction and humour is a potent means of breaking down barriers. Closing our eyes and walking slowly from one end of the room to the other involves trust and group coordination. No strategies were formed during these exercises but we were becoming a unified group and when we were asked questions by Young or Light the responses and the freedom with which they were expressed were revelatory. We wrote phrases on long pieces of paper, or we called out an idea that someone else noted down. Discussing together whilst sitting on the floor was another strategy (this is groundwork after all). The process was like performing a guided improvisation. Actually it was a guided improvisation in which our moves and expressions formed the content of the work.

Groundwork Pro is an experiment, currently running a 6-month pilot. Its aim is to create a hub of activities in Cardiff that allow dancers and choreographers to develop their art as a community while connecting with developments in the UK and internationally. Activities include classes — teaching will be shared between Wales-based artists and their UK and international counterparts — and performances. Groundwork Pro also wants to highlight the work of practitioners in Wales and to provide artists with paid work that sustains and nourishes their practice. Supported by Coreo Cymru and Chapter in terms of studio space, reduced ticket prices and other support in kind, Groundwork Pro is funded by Arts Council Wales which allows assistance to Wales-based artists for travel, accommodation, access needs and childcare, as needed. Artists from outside Wales are welcome to attend events but the access fund is limited to Wales-based artists.

Groundwork Pro is now creating the opportunities that fulfill what the participants in the room felt were important. Such a structure is fragile, and in a sense needs to remain fragile to be able to respond to new demands, new directions, to keep alive the interdependence. It is equally vital that the participants, or members, of Groundwork Pro, support it actively and creatively so it doesn’t become a co-dependence. There will be ups and downs, but this is groundbreaking, as in laying the foundations for a new structure. What is built on this new structure will be the fruit of not just the initial meeting but of all the interactions and activities created for the purpose of nurturing the dance community in Cardiff and in all of Wales.

The Groundwork Pro team is Joanna Young, Chloe Loftus, Jessie Brett, Beth Powlesland and Deborah Light. For more information on activities and schedules, visit

Lost Dog, Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

Posted: July 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Lost Dog, Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

Lost Dog, Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), Wilton’s Music Hall, July 19

Ben Duke as God in Paradise Lost (photo: Zoe Manders)

Ben Duke as God in Paradise Lost (photo: Zoe Manders)

The architecture of Wilton’s Music Hall is a performance in itself; without anything happening on stage the drama of the place is palpable and those responsible for its restoration are allowing the impression that all those conversations and performances of the past 150 years can still be heard within the texture of its walls. What Wilton’s perhaps never heard was a reading of the 10,000 lines of blank verse comprising John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the way Ben Duke displays his dog-eared copy of the poem at the beginning of his performance, hoping nobody in the audience will have read it, only confirms what we already know: we won’t be hearing it tonight either. Once he has found his place, however, he reads the last few lines so we know the ending, in case, he smiles dryly, he fails to reach that point in his performance. Like the Cambridge Buskers playing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in under four minutes, Duke prepares us for the impossible: one man playing the story of Creation from Day One to the present in an hour and a quarter.

He runs nimbly through the contents of Milton’s epic — God’s creation of the world, the faltering friendship with Lucifer, Adam and Eve, the temptation, and the banishment from the Garden of Eden — with a parallel interpretation derived from his own experiences of fatherhood and creative endeavour. The empty white stage (reminiscent of the circus ring in Duke’s It Needs Horses) seamlessly reconciles the building site for the creation of the world, the locus of the Garden of Eden, and his own living room where Duke plays God as a father of rambunctious children and as a choreographer who is not averse to reworking scenes that don’t work or if the cast takes too much liberty with his ideas. In other words, he plays God in his own image.

Like a heavenly broadcast of Desert Island Discs, Duke selects tracks from God’s record collection — from early influences of religious plainsong, through Bach and Handel to Richard Strauss, Nick Cave and Janis Joplin — to accompany the emotional highlights of his story. Indeed, there are moments when the tracks are the emotional highlights as Duke valiantly battles on with his narration behind a wall of sound. No music, however, can equal Duke’s own voice box as he conjures up the bubbling, molten plasma from which he fashions heaven and earth in his workmanlike hands and with which he later orchestrates the surgical removal of Adam’s rib to create Eve.

As the work’s full title — Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) — suggests, Milton’s poem is both inspiration and pretext; Duke is constantly blurring time and place to embellish Milton’s story with anecdotal material of his own. God and Lucifer meet in a bar, exchange telephone numbers and eventually share a flat together but Lucifer’s jealousy arises from God’s desire for a child; Lucifer is not ready and leaves God to pursue his career. He shares his grievances with a group of angels who get drunk together and cause a violent disturbance, falling into the state of hell. God feels he has to start again and creates Adam (Duke in flesh-coloured tights with a fig leaf whose appearance in his living room traumatises one of his daughter’s friends). Adam is the contemporary male pondering questions of identity and masculinity and whose predilection for masturbation gives God the idea of creating Eve. Adam and Eve meet in a dance studio and fall in love, thinking they can make a living in contemporary dance. The relationship breaks down and Eve walks out into the garden. The snake (a talking sock on Duke’s hand) is a shrink who suggests Eve takes a therapeutic bite of the apple; feeling refreshed she returns to Adam and persuades him to take a bite. God is waiting to push the stop button but as Adam bites into the apple Jesus mistakenly head-butts his father in the balls while playing a game of tunnel. Creation can have its ups and downs. God grits his teeth: “What’s wrong with my fucking children?” Cooling off under a shower of water, he projects a bleak outlook for the world: bodies falling from a burning tower; the Ark; slaughtered lambs; a room full of childrens’ shoes; the nativity in straw and horse shit; Jesus preaching, his betrayal by Judas and his crucifixion. “There’s been a mistake,” cries God, seeing his son on the cross. “That’s my son. Can you take him down? Do you know who I am?” The shower stops. “Can I hold him?” asks Duke in the birthing room. “He looks limp; is he alright?” God and the new father share their vulnerability but while Milton’s God rues the outcome of his creation, Duke is in heaven with his.

God’s final track? The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s a rousing and suitably conflicted finale to a richly textured and finely crafted re-telling of the Creation.

London Contemporary Dance School, Postgraduate to Professional

Posted: July 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on London Contemporary Dance School, Postgraduate to Professional

London Contemporary Dance School, Postgraduate to Professional, The Place, June 21

From London Contemporary Dance School's Postgraduate to Professional

Eleanor Sikorski in Comebacks I thought of later (photo: Marta Barina)

The London Contemporary Dance School’s evening of Postgraduate to Professional dance, now in its third year, offers choreography from a current postgraduate student (Marcus Foo), alumni (Feet off the Ground Dance, Helen Cox, and Eleanor Sikorski) and faculty (Mickael Marso Riviere). As an evening of dance it falls somewhere between a showcase for the school and a choreographic platform, but its predictably uneven quality makes it an unwieldy concept.

The first work, Éter, by Feet off the Ground Dance, an all-female group who describe their mission as ‘contact improvisation and partnering for performance’ is just that: contact improvisation and partnering for performance. But where is the performance? Beginnings, as Ben Duke (another graduate of London Contemporary Dance School) quips at the beginning of Paradise Lost as he searches for his place in the text, are vital for capturing the attention of the audience. But the opening minutes of Éter, in which two women inch slowly sideways, on hands and knees, forehead to forehead, along either side of a diagonal shaft of light has little to recommend it but the contact. The lighting is dim and pulsating and the live score is a low-level wash of sound that makes the sensory compass unable to find its bearings. Most significantly the performance appears to extend class-based contact improvisation exercises on to the stage without any spatial framework. The action of Éter develops with two other women, but without the objectivity that an audience brings, the whole never takes on a performative quality. It is significant that the program note lacks any identifying feature of the work.

Foo’s Automaton Animalia is another piece of choreography that starts in the mist and gets lost. The program note is telling: ‘If I look hard enough, if I could will my mind to look beyond the arch, I might still see it. Maybe it’s still there, just not really here anymore.’ There is an archway of crates we can see through a backlit haze, and five performers moving slowly, mysteriously as they dismantle it and reconfigure it. At least there is a visual focus, but the choreographic concept has no legs; it turns on itself with a score that fails to inspire it. Inspire is to ‘breathe in’ and education is to ‘lead out’, but here the breathing is restricted and the exit is obscured. Creation is the victim.

I wrote about Cox’s de/construct after I saw it at Roehampton University’s Footprint Dance Festival earlier this year. Interestingly her program note has changed focus. ‘Reflect on a time in your life when you were in a period of transition. It is sometimes said that this space in between is the most creative, but also the most vulnerable. Using the dancing body, I move through this space, deconstructing routines and listening to the infinite possibilities of what lies between.’ But this version doesn’t take into account the organic, tree-like hemp dress she wears at the beginning, which ties her to the landscape of her original conception. Once she sloughs it off she is wearing everyday clothes that are closer to the idea of a dancing body exploring the creative space. Somewhere in between the two is the true nature of Cox’s work.

Sikorski’s Comebacks I thought of later substitutes a quote from Shelley for a program note: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” The register is slightly off, for Sikorski’s ‘songs’ are not so much sweet as bitingly funny and the sadness is in her derisive tales of sexual misadventure. Comebacks consists of spoken texts about grunting male chauvinism, minimal musical accompaniment on a portable keyboard, to Sikorski’s vitriolic physical responses to her tales. The poignancy of the performance is as much in the wit of Sikorski’s ribaldry as in her self-deprecatory realization of her inability to think up the comebacks at the moment they were needed. The great strength of Comebacks is in its mastery of the anecdotal form and its scathing celebration of male failings.

Riviere brings the evening to a close with his Éteins Pas, a reworked version of a 2009 piece he made at The Place during Choreodrome. It is inspired ‘by the idea of life after death, with many ideas coming from reading stories about out-of-body experiences.’ Riviere is bold at the beginning to remain supine and motionless for some time; all we hear is the air conditioning. Then he adds the smallest gestures of fingers and hands, ripples through his back to rise on to his knees and to stand, looking slightly sheepish as he looks at us for the first time as if saying, ‘I am not really supposed to be here.’ But having traced his revival with such sensibility, Riviere then subverts it with a display of breaking technique to a driving track by Armand Amar. It comes all too soon and all too easily; Éteins Pas in effect bridges two languages without acknowledging the bridge.

Marie Chouinard: Double Bill

Posted: July 22nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Marie Chouinard: Double Bill

Marie Chouinard, Double Bill, Sadler’s Wells, June 20

The company in HenriMichaux: Mouvements (photo: Sylvie-Ann Paré)

Marie Chouinard’s company in Henri Michaux: Mouvements (photo: Sylvie-Ann Paré)

There is something remarkable about the theatrical output of Québec. A province of Canada, large in surface area but small in population, it has produced artists of startling originality in the theatre (Robert Lepage), circus (Cirque du Soleil, Les Septs doigts de la Main, Cirque Éloise), and above all in dance (Carbone 14, Louise Lecavalier, LaLaLa Human Steps, O Vertigo, Cas Public, Fortier Danse Création, Daniel Leveillé, Montréal Danse, Dave St-Pierre, Le Patin Libre, Virginie Brunelle, and Marie Chouinard, to name but a few). Nearly all these companies have their origins in Montreal, an island city one third of the size of London with one fifth of its population. Rebellious roots have become smoother over the years but there are everywhere vestiges of independent thinking that refuse to retire. You don’t invite someone like Marie Chouinard to London, as Sadler’s Wells has done, without expecting a little discomfort. Chouinard’s double bill is uncompromisingly original, even startlingly eccentric, but her conviction in carrying through her idiosyncratic vision means her works unerringly challenge conceptions about dance. She doesn’t appear to build on the ideas of others, nor even to borrow from her own works, but resolutely enters into a new universe suggested by the nature of each new project. Her London program contains two works, the first of which, Soft virtuosity, still humid, on the edge, wipes clean the choreographic (and aural) palette and prepares for the extraordinary Henri Michaux: Mouvements that follows.

Soft virtuosity ‘explores different time schemes…through various forms of perambulation…’ which borrow heavily from forms of disability; the dancers, dressed in black against a white backdrop, start their perambulations with a series of crippled walks across the stage, extricating the shape from the condition with impassive clarity. They may be difficult to watch at first but Chouinard makes us see them in terms of their shape and rhythm, not in terms of their pathology. They are no more ‘silly walks’ than the turned-out gait of the ballet dancer or of dancing on pointe.

A couple sits turning in tantric embrace on a turntable near the front of the stage. Chouinard uses live projection to multiply their image on the entire backdrop like a phantasmagoric vision focusing on their faces as they turn, from joy to despair. Behind them the dancers cross in ever more complex rhythms and shapes, using their own voices like wild calls; they meet and part, embrace without touching, chillingly disconnected; there is a feral quality that pushes any residual discomfort into atavistic confrontation. Chouinard is evidently coming from a darker place, from what appears to be a disordered universe that is nevertheless more real that we might wish to admit. Composer Louis Duffort is more understanding; his score, reminiscent of the more experimental tracks on Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, is a collage of organ, guitar, rumbling percussion, the descending arc of a siren and other found or manufactured sounds; where Chouinard provokes, Duffort soothes.

Chouinard pushes the limits of slow-motion movement (butoh is one of her inspirations), borrowing the technology of film to inspire and enhance the movement of her dancers. They move from one side of the stage to the other like a shackled Rodin frieze, their faces and torsos projected on to the backdrop above them. It is a double reality on two scales, like looking at a specimen under a magnifying glass then looking away. For those reviewers ready with an editing pencil, it is worth remembering John Cage’s quoted zen aphorism: ‘if something is boring after only two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.’ It is its very duration that makes this scene so effective and engraves it into the imagination.

Chouinard designs the lighting, sets, costumes and props. Her palette in these two works is monochrome and she gives maximum emphasis to the shape and movement of her creation with an intellectual rigour that cuts through any half measures to lay bare the raw physical and erotic material of dance.

In Henri Michaux: Mouvements Chouinard delves so completely into the work of Belgian artist Henri Michaux that the 64 India ink sketches that make up his book Mouvements take on three dimensions and a life of their own through the energy and artistry of the dancers embodying their hallucinatory, anthropomorphic qualities. Chouinard uses the drawings as a score, and like the marks of a painter, she makes marks that coalesce into brief dances of rich invention and seering force. Each image or page of images is projected on to the white backdrop and a dancer, dressed in black like the ink, sketches it in movement. All the images remain on the screen so we can follow Chouinard’s interpretation. The process develops in complexity as groups of dancers take on the more challenging images — or when several miniature images appear on a single page. At one point Carol Prieur with a microphone lies down under a trap of the floor where she recites Michaux’s accompanying poem in its original French (translated in the program notes), bringing its surreal imagery surging to life. Dufort as composer enters Chouinard’s universe with equal power without dividing our attention from the movement language; his rhythms correspond with Chouinard’s choreography and provide her with the musical trajectory for her steps. And all ten dancers, from the elongated Valeria Galluccio to the explosive Prieur, never let up. The integraton of text, movement, music and setting builds into a complete theatrical experience that etches itself on the imagination long after the lights go out.

In the afterword to his poem, Michaux wrote of his belief his images would be ‘finally expressed far from words.’ Chouinard has done him proud.