Jennifer Jackson, Making Room, GOLive Lab, Giant Olive Theatre, September 20
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf makes the controversial claim (for 1928 when she delivered the original series of lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges in Cambridge) that in order to write a young woman needs to have money and a room of her own. Jackson, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and subsequently danced in both Royal Ballet companies, acknowledges Woolf’s claim in her opening remarks of Making Room and in her subsequent demonstration suggests that a dancer’s room is none other than her own body.
Currently senior lecturer in dance at Surrey University, Jackson is well versed in feminist attitudes to ballet — she quotes Germaine Greer who famously described it as ‘cultural cancer’ — but at the same time she can’t dismiss the truth that her bones, ligaments, muscles and sinews are inalienably shaped by classical ballet training. In Making Room, Jackson doesn’t back away from her feminist values but confronts the rhetoric on ballet by parsing its core values from the more superficial aesthetics to arrive at a place within her own body where classical form finds contemporary relevance. She wittingly dispels the ballerina image by clomping on stage in thick-soled shoes, slacks and a loose grey top as if addressing her students at the beginning of a lecture. Indeed it is in her role as lecturer that she begins her defense of classical ballet, even though, as she wryly admits, ballet dancers aren’t supposed to speak.
Clearly bruised by Greer’s harsh attack, Jackson turns to the more sympathetic Martin Creed (as in Ballet Work No 1020) and to a great theorist of the moving body, Jacques LeCoq: ‘Vertical movement situates man between heaven and earth, between zenith and nadir…‘ Jackson is on more familiar territory now and it is a short step for her to reveal the essence of classical dance: the contrasting en dehors (outward) and en dedans (inward) movements that allow the verticality of the dancer to express the fullness of classical technique. By also using en dehors and en dedans as metaphors, Jackson now turns ballet inside out through a series of improvisations on four very different musical compositions — though she carefully discards her clunky shoes before she begins.
In the second movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, written almost 30 years before the period of romantic ballet began, Jackson establishes her classical movement language in a series of port de bras and spirals that are both grounded and free. ‘Now how might this feel to John Cage?’ she asks as Donald Hutera’s finger slides the dimmer button low. In improvising to Cage’s 4’33” of silence, Jackson continues to makes the movement speak but interestingly we are more keenly aware of the language (as anyone familiar with the work of Cage’s partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham will recognize). When Jackson’s language combines with the String Quartet No. 2 by South African composer Kevin Volans (which reminds her of her childhood in Rhodesia), she takes on — perhaps unconsciously — the gestures of a playful young girl, crawling on all fours at one moment and skipping the next. As the music comes to an end, she kneels, covers her face, and looks up as if contemplating maturity. György Kurtag’s piano miniature, Blumen die Menschen, brings her once more to her feet in a short, wistful epilogue.
Entirely at ease with herself in her body, Jackson shows eloquently that classical ballet technique is a somatic practice with an aesthetic that radiates out from within. In a 2006 research paper, My dance and the ideal body: looking at ballet practice from the inside out, Jackson committed her ideas to paper. Here in the Giant Olive Theatre she is giving those same ideas physical form, in a room within a room.
KnowBody, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, September 12
The image on the front of the program (above) is of Mats Ek and his wife Ana Laguna in a duet called Memory. It is a fitting image, not only because Ek and Laguna in that fleeting moment express all the joy and sensuality of their lived experience, but almost the entire evening — the opening salvo of Sadler’s Wells Elixir Festival — is about memory, the kind of memory that dancers call body, or muscle memory. Dancers don’t simply learn steps like facts to repeat them on stage; they embody them on both a physical and emotional level through the mechanism of repetition and the stimulus is often, but not always, music. The body and mind of a dancer thus constitute a treasury of memories that can, as the Elixir Festival proved convincingly, offer up their remarkable wealth or even be coaxed out of a state of voluntary hibernation.
Matteo Fargion and Jonathan Burrows do just that in The Elders Project, weaving remembered movement phrases of a select group of retired dancers into a droll, intelligent, touching collage of their dancing lives. Kenneth Tharp, Geraldine Morris, Linda Gibbs, Brian Bertscher, Anne Donnelly, Christopher Bannerman, Lizie Saunderson, Betsy Gregory and Namron provide a unique glimpse into what once was, but more interestingly, what still is and could be again. There is a palpable emotional response from the audience who are either reliving past memories or are simply drawn into the delightful euphoria of the work, or both.
Mats Ek is one of the early champions of mining the expressive quality of mature dancers, and with his extensive experience in theatre and dance he has developed a mastery for choreographing theatre. His first duet with Laguna, Potato, is a reminder that a simple idea — sharing a bag of potatoes — can be heightened into something universal by the corresponding depth of experience of the dancers performing it. Ek’s work is not overly concerned with technique, but more with ‘a lyrical approach which conveys through movement the underlying emotions and feelings rather than just the narrative detail.’ His pared-down and often idiosyncratic vocabulary draws in the spectator through its unpretentious, ludic sense of reality.
To watch Dominique Mercy in the solo, That Paper Boy, created on him by Pascal Merighi is to be transported to a state of physical and emotional weightlessness, nowhere more so than in the section he dances to the Reckoning Song by Asaf Avidan (‘one day baby we’ll be old, think about all the stories that we could have told…’). With fourty years of performing with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, he can elicit the same kind of attention whether he stands still (as he does at the beginning), dances, recites an existential text on silence and death, or scans himself with a neon light. As with Ek and Laguna, his every stance or gesture, however small or transitory, is filled with both genial abandon and infallible conviction; his physical and emotional intelligence leaves no room for half measures.
In an evening that celebrates the value of maturity, Hofesh Shechter chooses to restage part of an existing work, In Your Rooms, by replacing younger dancers with older ones (Sadler’s Wells own Company of Elders). According to the program notes, this is an adaptation ‘to suit the bodies and life stories of this older group of dancers’ but in the overpowering music and claustrophobic choreography there is more a sense of oppression than setting free. Perhaps that is what Shechter wants, but it sets his choreographic vision above the potential of his dancers.
Jane Hackett, the creative producer and guiding spirit behind the Elixir Festival, invited the Chilean company, Generación del Ayer, to perform at the Elixir Festival after seeing them in their hometown of Santiago. Unique on this evening’s roster, this is an artist’s collective founded in 1996 specifically to allow professional dancers to continue their artistic life cycle beyond what is culturally accepted. Lo Que Me Dio El Agua (what the water tells me) is choreographed by Sonia Uribe as a tribute to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and is inspired by her painting Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas). Both Uribe and Carmen Aros perform with a passion and pride commensurate with their inspiration, but the ritual stylization of the work sets it apart from the predominantly European aesthetic in which it is presented.
The evening finishes with another duet, Memory, from Ek and Laguna that reminds us yet again of the huge gap that exists in current dance repertoire where youthful athleticism trumps the art of age. Ek and Laguna dispel this myth with a poignant refusal to take leave, a gentle kicking against the dying of the light that is candid, playful and yes, timeless.
John Ross Dance, NACA showcase Triple Bill, Hackney Empire, September 17
It was at a Cloud Dance Sunday at the Giant Olive Theatre that I first saw John Ross in his Man Down, then Wolfpack later at a Cloud Dance Festival. Thanks to Matthew Bourne and his friends who provided the initial funds to start the New Adventures Choreographer Award, Ross has stepped up to another level by winning the 2014 NACA Showcase award. As a result his company, John Ross Dance, is presenting a triple bill at the grand Hackney Empire in a full stage production and a printed program to rival those at the Royal Opera House or Sadler’s Wells.
Man Down is a visceral solo about a commissioned officer killed in Afghanistan, while Wolfpack is a slice of contemporary youth culture. Both works make intelligent use of theatre and dance that have pathos, drama and in the case of Wolfpack, a dark sense of humour. Neither, however, prepare me for the first work on the NACA showcase, Eclipse, that Lee Smikle, artistic director of Shoreditch Youth Dance Company, commissioned Ross to create on his dancers earlier this year (Smikle is also Ross’s producer and a former dancer in Matthew Bourne’s various companies, so this is a close family affair).
Eclipse is pure dance with an inventiveness, excitement and musicality that is matched by the beauty and conviction of the Shoreditch dancers (Joey Barton, Kathy Collings, Hester Gill, Eimi Leggett, Joe Martin, Will Thompson, Elena Zube Perez and guest artist Jordan Ajadi) who take ownership of each detail of the dance. All the elements of the production come together seamlessly: the music is a blend of tracks by Greg Haines, If These Trees Could Talk and Ezio Bosso, while the costumes by Lez Brotherston (with original skirt design by Sara Rigden) serve the swirling rhythms of the dance to perfection. The work is based on the ancient Chinese notion that an eclipse is caused by a creature eating the sun and yes, there is a deep orange orb and a smaller black eclipse (both made by Amber Scarlett) that the dancers glide across each other to illustrate the tale. There are global echoes in an opening circle of dancers and a final tableau of arms like fiery tentacles appearing from behind the sun but in between Ross deploys a thrilling use of pattern, space and form in the choreography that to someone who has seen only Man Down and Wolfpack appears to arise out of nowhere, fully formed. Stunning.
How do you follow that? At this point it is perhaps just as well that Matthew Bourne makes an appearance in front of the curtain to introduce the NACA awards, like a palate cleanser in between courses. He ends by introducing Wolfpack, reworked for a new cast (Fionn Cox Davies, Stephen Moynihan, Erik Nyberg and Lewis Wilkins) that depicts four lads who start off a little the worse for wear and work backwards through the rambunctious, phantasmagoric events that got them there. Wolfpack started life as a piece called Occupied for six male dancers in a male bathroom. Ross has evidently kept one of the flushing toilets (offstage) but otherwise leaves the location of the action to our imagination. You get the picture quite quickly, but it is Ross’s wealth of imagery (complemented by Emma Robinson’s surreal masks) and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of camaraderie and self-destruction in his characterization that keeps the performance constantly on the edge. The music, an eclectic blend of tracks by Modeselektor, Moderat, Goran Bregovic, Brian Eno and Fennezs, weaves through the work, sometimes in front of the action and sometimes behind, so Ross keeps our attention moving in subtle and some not so subtle ways, juggling all the elements at his disposal.
Taken together, Eclipse and Wolfpack suggest Ross has the ability to create a full-scale West-End production, and that is almost what he provides with the second world premiere of the evening, Little Sheep. Inspired by the London riots of 2011, it is an outpouring of anger and frustration painted in large brush strokes that cover political incompetence and the impunity of social revolt. Lez Brotherston has moved the street on to the stage with crowd control barriers ready to be deployed where needed. Smoke hangs ominously over the set as does a large painted effigy of David Cameron with a blacked-out slogan that is revealed bit by ironic bit throughout the action (but only fully at the end). Given the cast is just seven strong (the four from Wolfpack plus Ana Mrdjanov, Maria Fonseca and Pauline Raineri) there is no possibility of massing police against rioters, but Ross appears to contradict the combined forces of Lucy Hansom’s ominous lighting, the foreboding set and the brooding complexity of the original score (by After They Left) with an uncharacteristic touch of caricature, first for the police (in full riot gear) and then the rioters. Strength in imagery returns with Maria Fonseca being dressed for action and with Fionn Cox-Davies reeling from a dose of tear gas, but it is only when Stephen Moynihan takes up the megaphone with an impassioned call to arms through to the final capitulaton of ideals that Ross’s conviction comes through. Little Sheep is his first large-scale creation but while the evidence of his past work indicates he is more than capable of handling the subject there are elements here that diminish its full expression and undermine his true talent.
BalletBoyz theTalent, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 16
The images in the program are familiar: semi-naked, muscular young men curving through the air or wound around each other like antiseptic ads for lycra. Last year this rather saccharine, homoerotic aesthetic permeated the stage work of the company as if choreographers Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett had been seduced into perpetuating the notion that a group of young men with fine physiques and plenty of testosterone think only of dressing down, playing war games and showing off to each other. This year’s trio of Royal Ballet choreographers — Alexander Whitely, Kristen McNally and Christopher Wheeldon — seems capable of breaking this spell, but what will the company look like if they are successful?
Whitely seems most susceptible to the company aesthetic in his The Murmuring. He projects a quote from Robert Burns on the backdrop that proves prescient for the evening, if not for the work itself: Look abroad thro’ Nature’s range, Nature’s mighty law is change. Ironically, his groupings of undulating bodies facing some unknown challenge in the downstage wing alternating with a cypher-like semicircle of young men watching one of their own writhing in the middle seems business as usual: dynamic shapes of muscular isolation and contortion in short athletic bursts of mock aggression that just as quickly wind down into ambulatory mode before starting up again. Like the lighting by Jackie Shemesh Whitely focuses on the bodies of the boyz and in so doing his choreographic idea is subsumed.
In Kristen McNally’s wittily titled Metheus it is her choreographic idea that begins to draw attention away from the dancers, as much by pattern as by humour (a much-needed ingredient for the company). With live music by Johnny Greenwood, comic lighting cues and some playful characterization, Metheus pries open some unused potential of the company. By the end of the evening Wheeldon has continued the process by putting the boyz through their dancing paces in Mesmerics, coaxing them through the complex rhythms of four Philip Glass compositions (played live) in some seriously classical choreography that tests their technique and stagecraft to the limit. But a funny thing happens: the boyz’ aesthetic has not prepared them to deal with this level of sophisticated choreography and although they manage to keep the energy going their manufactured personality drops away. Artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt make the mistake of projecting a gratuitous promotional film of the company between Metheus and Mesmerics as if to resuscitate their aesthetic, but it only serves to emphasize how much McNally has already challenged, and how much Wheeldon is about to challenge the status quo: mixed messages that brand the evening’s bill as neither one thing nor the other.
Another fortuitous confluence of ideas: driving home one morning last week I heard part of an interview with Sir Ken Robinson. I was captivated by his articulate and confident championing of creativity in education and, as an example, of dance as a subject with equal importance to mathematics. ‘We are not brains on a stick,’ he pointed out with characteristic wit. ‘We are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’ Robinson was once on the board of the Royal Ballet, but he is not promoting his special interest nor is he being merely controversial. He is making the point that any educational syllabus suffocates creativity because of the way it promotes certain subjects over others. In a TED talk in 2006 he said, ‘There isn’t an educational system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics…As children grown up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ He cites the example of Gillian Lynne who was not happy at regular school until her mother was encouraged to take her to dance school where she discovered people like her who couldn’t sit still, who had to move to think.
Robinson’s talk has been viewed over 28 million times unsurprisingly, but I began to wonder how Robinson’s vision for dance could be embodied in a syllabus without getting stymied by the insistence of this style over that, or this school of technique over another.
At the end of the week I attended a showing, through the initiative of Independent Dance, of Becky Edmunds’ documentary Turn Your Fucking Head at Siobhan Davies Studio. Edmunds’ film documents the final Solo Performance Commissioning Solo taught by Deborah Hay to a group of twenty dancers at the Findhorn Community Foundation in which Hay’s frequent incitement to ‘turn your fucking head’ is her more mischievous version of ‘think outside the box’. Hay was present and following the film gave a talk on the process of her research. Hay does not associate herself with any style; she comes from the American dance revolution that bubbled to the surface at Judson Church in New York in the 60s and she subsequently worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom influenced her thought processes. By the end of the talk, which spanned the last ten years of her research diary suffused with a lifetime experience, I felt confident Hay’s approach is what Robinson may have had in mind when suggesting dance could be taught at the same level as mathematics. One caveat: at the beginning Hay discloses with a wry smile that her research is ‘impossible’. She doesn’t teach, she questions. ‘Questions are made to expand the way we perceive; they are not questions to be answered.’ The material for her syllabus consists of the number of cells in the body. In the 1970s it was thought there were five million cells, which was more manageable than the zillion or so now, but dance, in Hay’s universe, is the interaction of these cells with time and space. ‘I replace movement with my understanding of time and space.’ What our mind (wherever it is) can bring to this interaction is responsible for the individuality of our responses. If there is a pitfall in Hay’s approach, it is that students may feel drawn to imitate the kind of dance Hay herself embodied, as if the form belongs to the process. This would be anathema to Hay; turn your fucking head, after all, is a militant call to focus on our own bodies, not someone else’s. ‘Focusing on my own body is dance; focusing is bound by time and space. Noticing is not.’ She talks with self-deprecating humour, not suggesting for a moment that she has any answers at all, but what she wants to instill is the freedom of the body to express itself in movement without worrying about getting it wrong. ‘Dance is how I learn without thinking.’
Sign me up.
Hillel Kogan, We Love Arabs, Teatro Enrico Cecchetti, Civitanova Marche, August 9
I was very kindly invited to attend one of the two weekends of Civitanova Danza by its director, Gilberto Santini. After an afternoon panel discussion on Dance and Audience, there were three evening performances in three different theatres.
There is a police presence in the theatre this evening which is unusual for a dance festival but not surprising given the subject and timing of the performance: We Love Arabs treats in choreographic form coexistence between an Israeli and an Arab. What better moment for this carefully modulated, sardonic work by Hillel Kogan in which the only casualties are our preconceptions.
The stage is small and Kogan is alone in the light, looking down, balancing on one leg while the other hovers in counterbalance. It is a stance that reflects perfectly the precarious nature of Kogan’s proposal. He breaks off abruptly to share his thoughts with the audience, talking slowly with long, hesitant pauses. This is cerebral choreography and the very tortuousness of the argument is a vehicle for an ironic — to the point of absurdity — exposé of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He speaks in English with a translation into Italian projected on to the backdrop (which perhaps makes Kogan’s delivery even slower to accommodate the delayed reactions of the audience). ‘Where we stand in space defines the way we move,’ he suggests. The problem is there are some parts of the space that ‘I feel are rejecting me. They are not me…it is not a pleasant feeling at all.’ His introverted movement phrases explore the stage while reflecting his internal thought process until he distills it in a startling conclusion: ‘The space that is not me belongs to an Arab…It frightens me…What can I do with that as an element?’ Adi Boutros answers the question with his entrance, thus initiating the choreographic resolution.
After introductions, Kogan, who asks all the questions and answers most of them — he is the only one with a microphone — carries on his banter, unaware (in his stage persona) that he is constantly tying himself up in irony. Boutros answers when required, more with his eyes than with his voice, his willingness to participate leading Kogan further towards crossing the barriers he tries to impose. ‘We have to identify one another,’ says Kogan, getting Boutros to draw a Star of David on his t-shirt. ‘That’s funny that you start with the downward triangle,’ he balks. In return he draws a crescent shape on Boutros’ forehead. ‘What did you draw on me? Boutros asks. ‘It’s like a brioche on top of a minaret. ‘But I’m a Christian.’ Next Kogan divides the stage with an ‘imaginary big wall’ so that each will have his own space: ‘You are on one side and I am on the other but we are equal facing the wall. You understand?’ Kogan gives Boutros the directive to mirror his movements that he then delivers at breakneck speed. ‘Good, good,’ concedes Kogan. ‘Let’s try some improvisation. What kind of improvisation have you done?’ ‘Contact improvisation’ replies Boutros. ‘No… no contact’ responds Kogan quickly. ‘No, show me who you are. It’s like an identity card in movement…very nice, but don’t show me what dancer you are but what person you are. You understand the difference?’
Up until now Kogan keeps his distance from Boutros, but the distance is diminishing, the façade is dropping. ‘We are now going to explore objects from daily life.’ He takes a knife and fork, gives Boutros the knife and keeps the fork. They improvise around each other and end up in a ballroom pose, forehead against forehead, hand on the other’s waist, Boutros’ knife raised behind Kogan’s back, the fork at Boutros’ waist. Kogan defuses the image by taking the knife in his mouth and puts the fork in Boutros’ mouth. ‘Now we are going to explore something else…It’s about responsibility….I want to work with hummus, because that for me is the symbol of being Israeli… but (on reflection) it comes from you.’ Kogan pastes hummus on his own face before doing the same for Boutros. You sense they are beginning to enjoy each other’s company. ‘The last part is a dream,’ explains Kogan. The Andante to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 starts up and smoke is fired on to the stage. Irony gives way to allegory. The two engage in a slow-motion homoerotic battle in which Boutros ends up at the top end of a press-up while Kogan niftily inserts his body under him and turns over to face him. They roll over and Kogan pulls Boutros down to him. There is another fluff of smoke and they run around the stage lifting each other with a contagious sense of exhilaration. Boutros upturns Kogan, holding him round the waist as he looks at us through his legs. ‘Put me down on the edge of the stage,’ directs Kogan. They descend into the audience, holding hands and joining with members of the front row. Kogan asks the soundman to crank up the Mozart to emotional dream level while Boutros fetches the bowl of hummus and Kogan fetches some pita. It’s as over-the-top in its emotion as the earlier irony was over-the-top in its starkness. They break bread, share the hummus with each other then offer pieces to the audience, a simple communion with a Jew and an Arab and the public. Now that’s a dream.
Martin del Amo, Paul White, Anatomy of an Afternoon, Purcell Room, July 11
While other dancers have portrayed Vaslav Nijinsky or danced his roles, Paul White is perhaps the only one whose expressive palette can approach that androgynous, feral quality that haunts the extraordinary images of ‘the god of the dance.’ Last year White appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, a work inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky had first choreographed one hundred years before. Tankard’s treatment and White’s performance were as much an exploration of the music as they were of the ‘conflicting forces of nature and man, masculinity and femininity, violence and nurturing, strength and vulnerability’ in Nijinsky himself.
This year White returned to the Southbank with Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon, loosely based on Nijinsky’s first choreographic work, the 1912 L’Après-midi d’un Faune in which he himself danced the faun. By divorcing his work from Claude Debussy’s original music Del Amo focuses on the nature of Nijinsky’s role, leading White that much closer to a portrayal of the man himself. In this sense, for those who were fortunate enough to see it, Tankard’s treatment of Nijinsky in the person of White prepares us for Del Amo’s treatment of White as Nijinsky and it is the interpretive qualities of White make both works not only rich but deeply moving.
In Nijinsky’s original work, an indolent faun is aroused by the sight of nymphs; one in particular becomes the object of his desire. In Anatomy of an Afternoon Del Amo takes away the object of the faun’s desire and directs it inward; the object of desire becomes White himself, who, while acknowledging the presence of the audience, maintains a cat-like aloofness from our attention (an attention heightened perhaps by an update email from the customer relations officer at Southbank Centre advising that the performance ‘contains some nudity’). Del Amo and White thus lead us on our own reverie, and it is not the performer that is unclothed in the process but the audience.
The score for Anatomy of an Afternoon is composed by Mark Bradshaw for a trio of musicians: Ivan Cheng on clarinet, Nic de Jong on laptop (for the field recordings and sound collage) and Adam Dickson on celeste. It makes for a rather other-worldly soundscape that fits the subject, ’that mysterious in-between-time, that lengthy period during the day which continues what the morning has set in motion and the evening hasn’t yet concluded – a time full of possibility and promise’ in which Nijinsky/White has ample room to reveal his enigmatic nature.
The choreography has already begun by the time we enter the auditorium. White in a pale green t-shirt and beige jeans is dreamily looking up into a spotlight like the Little Prince looking at a star. The three musicians are also at rest, grouped around the celeste just to his side. White’s movement is minimal, more studied animal than human, with time to concentrate or simply gaze. Part of the research for the work involved two visits to the zoo and White is clearly the focus of our attention like the prize leopard that fails at first to move in the way we expect. White’s head and eyes change focus but his body remains still as the audience fidgets and shuffles to their seats. As stillness and silence finally descend, the door opens to let a latecomer in despite the warnings that latecomers will not be admitted. Who would want to miss this performance?
The celeste player seems poised to begin but White waits a little longer for the audience to resettle. He looks away over his left shoulder, to the front, frowning, peering forward, head back, impassive, his left hand feeling the space to his side, his eyes and head following. The arms rest, the head returns to neutral and his feet still haven’t moved. As he sees White’s hand coming through his field of vision Dickson plays the first notes on the celeste. As White begins to move we see his animal posture and gestures but can’t help interpret them as human. Del Amo and White play this parallel ambiguity beautifully and it is enhanced by White’s prodigious strength and control. His feline quality is broken only once when he pounces on an invisible foe with an uncharacteristically heavy landing; he licks his thumb then balances on his haunches transmitting weight from one foot to the other without the least apparent effort. There are quotes from the Nijinsky faun, turned in and sideways both upside down and on his feet, in a lazy yawn and in his unselfconscious sexual arousal that leads from his undressing (to his underwear) to lying down on his own t-shirt in a consummation of desire. It is soon after this, towards the end of the work, that White sheds the duality of his role unequivocally; we have been watching him behind imaginary bars but the animal now becomes all too human as the sweat glistens on his back and the exertion of the performance begins to tell. He returns to his initial movements, a weary but still clearly articulated, introspective act in a public space. As the lights go down he stands frowning at the audience as if he is waking from a dream and is uncomfortable at being observed.
Louise Lecavalier, So Blue, Queen Elizabeth Hall, July 2
Louise Lecavalier is perhaps best known as the muse of Édouard Lock in the formative years of LALALA Human Steps. She has danced with David Bowie and Frank Zappa and many choreographers — including the late Nigel Charnock —have created works for her, but I have never until this evening seen her in work she has created on herself. After a lifetime of assimilating the vocabulary of other choreographers she is now free to explore her own movement. As she writes in the program notes, ‘I wanted to allow the body to say everything it wants to say or can surprise itself by revealing, without censoring it, so that out of this profusion of spontaneous movements, something true and beyond our control emerges, something that exposes some of the meanderings, states of confusion, excesses and contradictions we’re made of — both the darkness that inhabits us and the unbearable lightness of being and of the soul.’
While there are inevitably traits of previous choreographers in her movement (as she candidly says in her post show talk, she worked so hard to master the details of everything anyone asked her to do that the movement became as much hers as anyone else’s), it is refreshing to see her in her own right as if she has returned after fourty years of performing to say with all humility, this is the real me. With her blond hair cut short on one side, a touch of Bowie in her elegant, sharp features, she comes across as someone who has both demons to exorcise and serenity to enjoy.
There are three stages in So Blue, and it is hard not to associate these stages with those in Lecavalier’s own life. The first section — the longest of the three — is Lecavalier alone on stage, her gestures expressive in all dimensions, frenetic at times and at peace at others, doing exactly what she sets out to do in a blend of trance-like sorcery and sheer physical prowess. There is an electric fan on one side of the stage to cool her down and blow her out again into this intricate writing of her images. A partner (Frédéric Tavernini) appears in the second section and prematurely disappears — because of the wing setup at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he seems to climb down into the ground — and there are sounds of children in the score (Lecavalier’s twin girls are in the audience) that bring out the gamine in her. In the third section the partner re-emerges from the ground and remains till the end. Tavernini is a perfect foil for Lecavalier, a gruff bear of a man with his own scars but with the gentleness of one who cares intensely about his partner. He moves smoothly and with arms like broad wings he can wrap Lecavalier within his body — for her a haven as much as a battle ground, a solid base to which she can cling for safety and from which she can launch herself with her voracious appetite for corporeal expression. Tavernini exhausts himself in trying to restrain her, to manipulate her into submission but Lecavalier is not one to submit: having shed her former selves to reveal her true self in So Blue she has found a new freedom in all its stunning fragility and strength. By the time the darkness consumes the stage there is no sense of ending and when Lecavalier returns for the post show talk there is a seamless continuity between herself and her onstage persona.
Mercan Dede’s score, culled from his CD Breath, and Alain Lortie’s lighting both underpin and frame Lecavalier’s choreography beautifully, giving rise to a sense that So Blue is a process of imprinting one interpretive layer upon another to produce not just a colour, but an intense colour.
Dance is often characterized as an ephemeral art; it communicates on a non-verbal level, its images are fleeting and cannot be recalled in the same way as a piece of music. It is a medium that can all too easily elude fixity in the senses after the end of a performance, even though the memory has scanned it all. So what happens to our memory of dance? It is beyond the scope of this article (and of my knowledge) to answer this question, but there are irrefutably moments of dance performances that sear themselves – through the eyeballs as it were – into memory and never leave, so we can infer there is an accessible cerebral repository somewhere. If this ability to remember moments of a dance could be expanded into an ability to ‘read’ dance — it is interesting in this connection that the French talk of choreographic writing (écriture) — would audiences be drawn more readily to dance?
I remember a performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t Nureyev or Fonteyn who caught my attention as much as a gesture of a corps dancer revealing one of the groups of Capulets or Montagues who had been fatally wounded in a sword fight. Pina Bausch’s works are memorable for their play on memory: choreographic images that derive from that very place, perhaps, where they are stored.
Bausch came to mind when I saw a performance at Interplay, a street dance festival in Turin. It was a trio of women choreographed by Sara Marasso in a piece called No strings attached #3, and it was arresting principally because of the expressive power of Marasso herself, an intense, beautiful head supported on a spare but ruggedly articulate frame. She dances with a silent mimic quality and her long arms seem to be able to create meaning out of space. But what struck me most was her face for it did not register any emotional control over the rest of her body but responded to impulses in the same way as her torso, arms and legs.
A few days later I came across a passage in Laurence Louppe’s Poetics of Contemporary Dance (in translation) where she discusses the fundamental change in expression that was part of the contemporary dance evolution: ‘Firstly, (the contemporary dance body) had to allow the body to take the expressive role that facial expression had hitherto monopolized.’ Then Louppe quotes from Hanya Holm: The face is of course the mirror of all that goes on, but it should not be more prominent than is intended and must not substitute for all that which isn’t going on in the body.
This clarified what I had seen in Marasso and which she conveyed so convincingly; there is an integrity to the physical expression when this occurs. Too often the face resorts to displaying its emotional leadership and distracts by its overemphasis. The two women with Marasso (Teresa Noronha Feio and Maura Dessi) tended to fall into this mode, which gave Marasso’s dancing by comparison a clarity of gesture in which each element of the body had its place. Interestingly a colleague found Marasso’s performance lacking in emotion because the face was not emoting. For me, the entire body was expressive and in harmony. The emotion came through the body’s gestures.
The Integrated Dance Summit, presented by Pavilion Dance South West and Foundation for Community Dance at Pavilion Dance, May 16-17
Integrated Dance — loosely defined in this context as the participation of able-bodied and less able-bodied dancers in a single performance (think of the analogy with Charles Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra performing with Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics Closing Ceremony) — is a genre that runs the gamut from fully integrated to polarized with subtle gradations in between. A lot of discussion at the Summit devolved, not unsurprisingly, around the contribution of integrated dance to the efforts to improve health and social services, its potential to engage audiences, and its ability to raise awareness of the phenomenal contribution of the disabled in society — aspects I came to appreciate more fully over the course of the forums. But when it came to looking at the performances with a critical eye, I looked beyond these aspects to the visual, psychological and emotional levels that lead me into a work or out of it. After all, these are not works about disability but about the ability of each performer to surmount their restrictions to create something that inspires. The performances that achieved this were those that effectively dissolved the barriers between able and disabled.
Both Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and The Point At Which It Last Made Sense by Robin Dingemans and Nick Bryson fall into this category. If the former is fully integrated, the latter goes one stage further by using James O’Shea’s powerful upper body (he is a Paralympic swimmer) and handsome beachcomber head to extrapolate the satire on marketing to a surreal level. Rosa Vreeling is O’Shea’s sensuous companion basking in self-adulation, while Nick Bryson’s dry humour as political commentator keeps the whole structure hanging irreverently in the air. Add understated costumes by Louise Bennetts, a clarity of vision from Guy Hoare’s lighting, marketing photos by Chris Nash that eloquently describe the work without need of words, and the package is irresistible. There’s a score, too, by Alessandro Bosetti but my eyes were so busy my ears couldn’t keep up.
Bowditch’s approach is more personal; she projects her life on to an alter ego that is Frida Kahlo; she does not try to be Frida but chooses her to channel her own history and aspirations and from whom she derives inspiration and encouragement. Kahlo was handicapped by a traffic accident at the age of 18, and Bowditch has suffered a genetic bone disorder since birth but both women have transformed their obstacles into their respective arts. In the emotional and openly erotic layering of the work we learn about both Bowditch and Kahlo, and about the unbounded force with which both women approach life. Katherina Radeva’s set and costumes are as vibrant as Bowditch herself in red skirt and blue blouse lying supine on a yellow table surrounded by yellow chairs in front of two green neon cacti against blue and white hangings. The music you hear as you arrive (the program notes tell us) is the music that played in Frida’s house, the music she lay down to. Bowditch lies on the table dreamily looking at herself in a hand mirror when the motherly figure of Yvonne Strain enters in indigenous Mexican dress to join her; she is the wholly integrated BSL interpreter whose grasp of the erotic texts provides some well-earned respect and laughter. There are two other members of the cast, Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino, whose youthful beauty and movement enhance the sensual quality of the action, laughing with arms and tongues and sharing lascivious glances. The generosity of spirit in the work includes a shot of Tequila for all members of the audience, some unforgettable lines (‘You drank to drown your sorrows but the damned things learned to swim’) and an all-too-human questioning of the marks or traces our lives might leave. It’s all about falling in love with Frida, but it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Caroline Bowditch.
StopGap Dance Company’s The Awakening, choreographed by Chris Pavia, is performed on the West Terrace in glorious sunshine. The four dancers (Amy Butler, Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Tomos Young) rope off a square with thick black ribbon inside which all the action takes place. The creative line of the work is not easy to fathom, though the common gestures of awakening to the sun and sky are clear; I feel on the outside of Pavia’s thought process but the work has an integrity that draws me in, especially to Poan’s physical expressiveness in his wheelchair. Legs can be expressive but when a dancer has no control over them, the focus of expression is in the torso, arms and face. The Awakening is one of the works in which the dancers with disability are more interesting by comparison than the dancers without; perhaps because their physical and emotional process comes from a deeper source. What this Integrated Dance Summit reveals is that able-bodied dancers have to go that much further in all senses to be on a similar footing when performing with less able-bodied dancers. The Awakening thus creates a juxtaposition rather than an integration of abilities. It is the same with Pavia’s lovely, tentative solo of spirals for Sampson in which her arms are like rays of light. What could possibly correspond in the able-bodied to this, or to Poan’s freeing himself from his chair? He is suddenly in another unfamiliar element and it is an emotionally significant moment. At one point Poan takes Sampson’s arm like a guide or teacher, laying on his hands: a powerful metaphor for dance as a healing art. The work accelerates with Poan’s chair off balance, animated arms once more raised in a ritual of sun and air worship until all the performers slowly remove the bindings from their wrists, drop the material on the ground and promenade slowly around the square, discarding that which binds for a sense of freedom.
Marc Brew’s (i)land also lends itself to the terrace outside, this time overlooking the beach. There is an irony of bringing six tons of sand to build an island on a terrace within sight of the beach but there are technical reasons for it. On this tiny desert island topped by a mast and a vestige of rigging there are buried some seemingly unrelated objects that the Robinson Crusoe figure (Rob Heaslip) begins to uncover. What may be evident to us is not evident to Heaslip who builds with them a makeshift deck chair and settles down in the sun to rest. Up pops the head of Marc Brew from within the sand, a wonderful image like Christ rising from the dead. A third character (Rebecca Evans), dressed as The Lady of the Sea, wanders on to the island to complete the trio. The narrative follows the development of an escape plan with the limited resources available but it is Marc’s struggle from being buried to becoming mobile that holds my attention because his movements constantly express both fragility and determination. There are overtones of Lord of the Flies in Heaslip’s attempt to stop Brew from assembling his means of escape but the relationship between Heaslip and Evans and between Evans and Brew are barely defined by comparison. Once Brew’s means of escape is constructed (an antediluvian contraption with wheels and sails, somewhat like Da Vinci’s sketch of a helicopter), we want him to take off into the blue sky, but this alas is not within the production’s means. Evans returns to the sea, Heaslip remains on the lookout atop the mast, but Brew can only wheel away his contraption. Perhaps it is an allegory of dependence and independence, of freedom and restraint, of mobility and immobility but the contradictions within the work preclude a real sense of integration and appropriate resolution.
Arc Dance presents two works choreographed by Suzie Birchfield, a dancer who early on in her training developed Dystonia that has left her in a wheelchair. She has worked tirelessly over the last twelve years since establishing ActOne ArtsBase as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and advocate for accessible dance, which is the inclusion of people with disabilities in dance-related classes, workshops and performances. In Conversations with Dystonia Birchfield dances with Peter Baldwin and Tyrone Herlihy and in A Sense of Beauty Rosie Leak expands the trio into a quartet. In both works composer Nao Masuda provides a dexterous live accompaniment. Birchfield is both choreographer and central character in each work, a difficult balance to pull off at the best of times, but with the weight of her experience and advocacy it is almost impossible to avoid a polarization of disability: we are drawn in to her affliction so closely that the contrast with the athletic prowess of Baldwin and Herlihy is uncomfortable to watch. Yet there is a moment in Conversations with Dystonia — when Birchfield is supported on the equipment designed by Alex Harvey of Ockham’s Razor and slowly descends in a classical plié as she looks out with those lucid eyes — that is pure magic. The powerful metaphor of support is contrasted with the fragility of the body and force of mind; it is perhaps in itself a pure form of integration.
One final performance element of the Integrated Dance Summit is the Integrated Choreolab, ‘a partnership between South East Dance, Pavilion Dance South West and GDance to respond to the lack of development and choreographic opportunities for artists working in integrated dance.’ The three artists chosen (Noëmi Lakmaier, Kate Marsh and Mark Smith) were asked to choose their own collaborators. Lakmaier choose Rachel Gomme to perform a durational piece that took place over four hours outside on the South Terrace, of which I saw very little as it coincided with work going on inside. Marsh chose Welly O’Brien whom she has known since their days in Candoco Dance Company and Smith chose two dancers who suffer like him from deafness: Anthony Snowden and Kevin Jewell. Anyone thinking they had a good grasp of integrated dance before this Choreolab had yet another aspect to consider: the integration of artists with complementary or similar disabilities. Marsh has two arms, one hand, and two legs, while O’Brien has two arms, two hands and one leg (though I never noticed in Falling in Love with Frida), making a collective total of four arms, three hands and three legs. Marsh and O’Brien use their respective limbs as a composer might use a key signature: an intricately inventive composition both constrained and enriched by the imposition of a set of rules. Marsh and O’Brien know each other well and have a similar clarity and consistency in their collaboration tinged with a sense of humour that develops from an opening motif to a ratcheting up of cattiness in competitive gestures.
Mark Smith is, amongst other things, the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing, so his collaboration with Snowden and Jewell sidesteps the Summit’s notion of integrated dance for an integration of dance with gesture and sign language. The music is by creative signer Pete Waller, aka Deafboyone, and it is Jewell’s pinpoint timing in his hand gestures to the first song that communicate extraordinary power. Smith explains in the subsequent Q&A that one of the causes of deafness is the scrambling of hair nerves in the ear that impede the incoming sound waves. As with other performances over the weekend, it is the transformation of these kinds of disabilities into a clear communication of overriding truth that makes integrated dance — in all its manifestations — not only a vital element within the broader dance field but a universally valid art form in itself. Two other writers were invited to comment on the Summit: Dave Young and Rebecca Nice. Their reviews can be read on the Pavilion Dance South West site.