Rambert Dance Company, Theatre Royal Brighton, February 26
‘Twelve dancers trapped in a hell of their own making’ is how Barak Marshall describes his work for Rambert, The Castaways. They are certainly trapped, in an intriguing design by Jon Bausor that recreates a sub basement where refuse ends up after falling from a shoot that features prominently out of reach on one of the walls. At first sight the dancers lie on the floor as if they have just been emptied out. Jon Savage is the first to stir and introduces the cast like a compere in an underground cabaret. It is a catchy beginning, the archetypes expressed effectively in Bausor’s costumes and in the believable mix of characters among the dozen Rambert dancers. Then the first track of an eclectic playlist ‘taking in Balkan folk, Yiddish pop and Soviet pomp’ (arranged by Robert Millett and played live in the orchestra pit) starts and a dance begins, formed, shaped and cropped out of nowhere. From here to the end there is a sense of pastiche choreography, episodes of gratuitous violence and argument interspersed with group dances that resemble each other too closely with their flair for flamboyant despair. The only sparks fly from Estella Merlos and Miguel Altunaga who could be playing Anita and Bernardo in a Yiddish version of West Side Story. Intriguingly, there are similar character traits between The Castaways and Christopher Bruce’s Rooster: Vanessa Kang comes in for bullying in both, which is a bit worrying, and the men are unashamedly macho.
Richard Alston’s Dutiful Ducks, taken from the title of the sound score by Charles Amirkhanian, is a solo for Dane Hurst that begins in full flood and ends all too abruptly a few minutes later. Hurst is completely at home in this sinuous, fluid work and dances it to perfection, every little inflection and change of direction clearly and cleanly depicted. It may be short but the memory lingers.
There is a connection between Alston and Merce Cunningham that goes some way to introducing the latter’s Sounddance, though it is by no means a natural segue. Cunningham is an acquired taste and, I imagine, an acquired style that is uncompromisingly modern with a classical base. Sounddance is, according to Nancy Dalva, ‘a dance about dance, and about dancing.’ What marks it is the apparent lack of motivation, or linear construction, and there is an absence of any conceit or ego even if the presence of Cunningham the creator (with a wry sense of humour) is ever present. It is thus an opportunity to observe each dancer in the act of dancing, which is a treat (Adam Blyde and newcomer Carolyn Bolton stand out in this work). To a score by David Tudor (played with deafening enthusiasm by Robert Millett), Sounddance unfolds from a velvet-draped rococo screen through which Blyde swirls into being like the creator himself (this was a role Cunningham danced). His physical control and smooth dynamic contains the seed of the whole piece. The other dancers appear from the same velvet drapes one by one, increasing the complexity of the spatial and sexual interactions until the stage is close to controlled chaos before the dancers split off, one by one in a reversal of their entrances, passing back through the same curtained womb from which they had emerged. Blyde winds up the proceedings by whirling off at high speed.
There is one more work: Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, which has remained out of the company’s repertoire for thirteen years. The eight songs of the Rolling Stones to which Bruce created the work date it back even further to the 60s and 70s. Rooster is, Bruce writes, ‘a celebration of the music and of the times these tracks were recorded.’ It is also a celebration particularly of the men in the cast: Miguel Altunaga, Mbulelo Ndabeni, Adam Blyde, Dane Hurst and Stephen Wright who strut and soar with all the cockiness and virtuosity of the music, which is where Bruce uncovers the keys of his choreography, from the more obvious jutting thrust and pumping wings of the rooster that appear throughout as a leitmotif to the the more subtle courtly flourish suggested by the harpsichord in Lady Jane. You don’t see gratuitous steps in his work. The same sensitivity drives the choice of vivid costumes by Marian Bruce and the superb lighting by Tina McHugh. All these elements come together to create moments of pure magic: Altunaga as the prancing dandy in Little Red Rooster, light fading on Patricia Okenwa as Not Fade Away begins, Hurst’s non-stop twisted and contorted aerial solo in Paint it Black, and Merlos hurling herself into the arms of four men who throw her high into the air, long red dress flying, at the end of Ruby Tuesday. And while Wright has a fling with Kang in Play with Fire, a feather from her red boa lodges in his hair like a lick of flame or a devil’s horn for the start of Sympathy with the Devil. You couldn’t ask for better.
Bruce not only develops his own language and ideas, but he develops his dancers both technically and expressively. The excitement is palpable on both sides of the curtain.
The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria, Royal Opera House, February 7
Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. In the program notes Zoë Anderson relates a revealing anecdote about its creation. Baryshnikov was a guest artist of the Royal Ballet that summer and insisted on experiencing the Ashton style in a work created on him. Ashton, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to showcase a virtuoso dancer steeped in the Kirov tradition as a foil to his company. Baryshnikov later admitted to being disappointed: “I wanted English ballet and he wanted Russian ballet.” This evening it is Stephen McRae who takes on Baryshnikov’s role, standing at the centre of a large, sparsely decorated stage as the curtain rises. Clement Crisp’s effusive praise of McRae notwithstanding, his formidable technique is here in the service of somebody else’s distinctive style and steps. Ashton’s genius was to bring out the qualities of the person dancing, and in Baryshnikov he was evidently able to marry expression and technique to a high degree. Trying to recapture that undermines McRae’s ability to express himself in the technique and he is also at a stylistic disadvantage for he is very much English ballet, not Russian ballet. His partner in Rhapsody, Laura Morera, despite her Spanish origins, is very much English ballet, and she fits into Lesley Collier’s original quicksilver shoes and lovely sense of line with consummate ease (Collier was coaching the role). What she doesn’t have is the stylistic contrast in McRae to play against. With these misgivings and the six couples in pastel colours looking a little rough in their patterns and timings (especially the men), Rhapsody forms a rather under-cooked first course to an oddly assorted triple bill.
This kind of three-course menu in which a new work is sandwiched between two staples of the repertoire (82 performances each) is predominantly the responsibility of the chef and the chef at The Royal Ballet is not only the director but the one who provides the new work, in this case Wayne (‘dance doesn’t have to be the priority’) McGregor. It is his latest offering, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, that sits rather uncomfortably between the two classically-based works by his predecessors. McGregor stretches everything but the classical technique, and expressiveness in his dances takes a back seat to his latest intellectual construct. Seeing the work after reading the program notes about Bach’s Art of Fugue (here orchestrated by Michael Berkeley), its signs, symbols, mystical tetractys and association with the Pythagorean theory of numbers, overlaid by set designer Tauba Auerbach’s geometry of glyphs, and you feel heartened by the example of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The cast is stellar but even stars implode: the feline Natalia Osipova, whose first appearance with Edward Watson is pure sorcery, soon fades into the miasma of over-extended limbs and onerous partnering. Eric Underwood suffers temporary eclipse as he passes through the darker sections of the McGregor/Auerbach dark universe, leaving only the ghostly trace of his phosphorescent unitard, and the luminous qualities of Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson are wholly consumed. McRae, dressed in green but still radiating sparks from Rhapsody, appears out of place and Federico Bonelli is clearly suffering some kind of meltdown (he was unwell enough the following evening for the work to be cancelled, though Osipova’s concussion was an additional factor).
McGregor sums up in the program notes the link between Bach’s Art of Fugue (without the definite article) and Tetractys – The Art of Fugue: ‘I am thinking of this piece as a fugue in terms of my own structure: I have the Bach, I have the design, I have my choreography and I have Michael Berkeley’s version of the score. So there are four elements, each with a different logic, but which absolutely speak to each other.’ Speaking has never been a problem for McGregor, but finding a formal framework for his onstage dialogues and an expressive vehicle for his dancers has. It was all the spirits of Ashton and MacMillan could do to pull the evening out of its black hole.
Sir Kenneth Macmillan had been contemplating a ballet about the First World War for some time as his father had served in the trenches and like so many survivors had been unable to talk about the horror. The catalyst was a 1979 BBC dramatization of Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, describing the devastating impact of that war on an entire generation. Commissioned to create a new one-act work for the Royal Ballet in 1980 (the same year as Rhapsody), MacMillan brought his project to fruition, using Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G Major — a hymn to the glory of God — as a counterbalance to his vision of the devastation of war. He discovered Andy Klunder’s sculptural work ‘accidentally’ at the Slade School of Art and felt immediately a connection to what he wanted to express in Gloria. He asked Klunder to design the set — a stylised battlefield with the dancers appearing out of and disappearing into an unseen trench at the back — and the costumes: a decaying flesh unitard for the men with the familiar Brodie helmet and a fragile silver unitard for the women with wisps of fabric hanging from the waist and ‘close-fitting caps with coiled ear-muffs’ that give them, in Jann Parry’s poignant description, the semblance of ‘wraiths of young women cheated of their wedding day’.
This is a work in which all the elements do speak to each other eloquently and the superimposition of ideas and juxtapositions create a powerful formal unity. John B. Read’s lighting maintains the dreamlike timelessness of the set while creating with the dancers deep shadows on the floor that resemble dark craters. The mood alternates between hope and pity in a subtly understated choreography that recalls Wilfred Owen’s line that ‘the Poetry is in the pity’. MacMillan casts four principal characters (Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares as brothers-in-arms and Sarah Lamb and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the two aspects — grieving and lighthearted — of their female companions) against a chorus of women and soldiers. After the first section of the Gloria in which the chorus slowly peoples the desolate stage, a lively quartet erupts with Hinkis being tossed freely among three men (on her own feet she dances with edgy abandon, a joy to watch). Acosta enters as if holding a rifle, a tragic figure who displays a powerful sense of weariness and despair; his turns gradually pull him down to the ground to sleep. Lamb and Soares perform the central duet to the Domine Deus sung by soprano Dušica Bijelic whose lovely voice is itself tinged with grief. Lamb is transformed here by the form MacMillan gives to the duet, her gorgeous lines complementing those of Soares in a spare choreography that fills the stage with redemptive pathos. In Domine Fili, the quartet returns with Hingis flying in over the trench followed by a trio of Lamb, Acosta and Soares. MacMillan creates masterly groupings of women like a protective fence or battlements to honour perhaps the lives of nurses like Vera Brittain herself who devoted themselves to the dying and wounded throughout the war. As Bijelic sings Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, the dancers make their inexorable way back to the trench of their death or mourning, while the trio remains as a vestige of the living. Soares and Lamb finally leave by the same path leaving Acosta circling the stage in a series of gallant leaps before coming to a halt by the trench to listen to the final strains of in gloria dei. On the uplifting Amen he drops suddenly from view to his own death and resurrection in the depths of the earth.
Probe Project, Running on Empty, Soho Theatre, February 5
The good news is that Running on Empty is now running on full. In its second major iteration it has become what it first set out to be, a study in a relationship running on emotional and physical empty (with the gauge trending towards dreams and the hereafter). The narrative elements that sidelined this focus in its first outing have given way to a more abstract core that is expressed uniquely through dance. Both Antonia Grove and Greig Cooke have honed their partnership to its raw essentials and it is riveting to watch, especially in the intimate space at Soho Theatre. They push their performances to the limits both in their respective solos and in their duets, and the reward is a partnership that is as alive as it is ruthlessly honest. Grove’s voice finds its form in the opening song, setting the poignant tone of the work, and after all her exertions at the very end her voice emerges from the depths of her breathless being as if rising again from the dead. Fabrice Serafino has pared down the set and improved the balance of colours in the costumes, while Beky Stoddart has sculpted the lighting beautifully around the two performers. Scott Smith is still a kind of doleful, one-man chorus but has a reduced role as counselor to Grove and can devote himself to what he does best: playing the musical score on guitar, clarinet, thumb harp and a range of electronic instruments. When all the elements of a production fall into their rightful place there is a sense of truth that pervades the work, and that sense of truth reinforces the directional line around which the performers can give their all. Twelve performances to go.
Resolution! 2014, The Place, January 29
Culture Device Dance Project: I can’t explain and I won’t even try
An arm extends from the wings, a waking arm stretching out in the morning light, followed by the rest of John Livingston. He seems to be in close and intimate conversation with the light around him (provided by Maria Klochkova), his gestures close and passionate, catching the air in his fist and pulling it down, unrolling his arm and slowly revealing his face in his ‘circle of public solitude’. He revels in being upside down, his head as anchor and his leg pointing up in the air like an exclamation mark. As he gets up, Sarah Gordy enters with an altogether more dynamic phrase, gyrating like a gentle hoola-hoop. Livingston searches, pushes back, grasps at questions and twists his body as if squeezing out the answers. Gordy is already grounded, her legs bent deeply to the floor and her body freely laid out above, her arms circling as if to test the limits of her senses, making a wide sweep around Livingston. He expresses each gesture with timeless concentration, acting and reacting in a moving dialogue. When something doesn’t quite succeed, one can sense his determination to follow it through to its logical conclusion, like one straining to express his words and meaning clearly. At the end of this first section he falls and rises again while Gordy continues to orbit like a planet circling the internal combustion of its star.
The dreamlike drone of Stars of the Lid changes to a slow-drilling techno pulse by Emptyset. Both Livingston and Gordy are rooted to the ground, their gestures becoming more forceful. Livingston throws off his t-shirt while Gordy pushes and pulls at an imaginary boundary. The drama in Livingston’s dialogue notches up in intensity as if he’s turning the screw tighter; Gordy watches him with concern as she continues to orbit, picking up on the repetitive, mechanical nature of the music. There are magical moments when their two independent worlds unite for an instant in a complementary movement that jumps out of the soundscape like a spark but finally the symbiosis fails, their energy is depleted and they both collapse to the ground — only, one imagines, for the time it takes to gather up the resources to start again.
Culture Device Dance Project is a professional company for dancers with Down’s Syndrome using improvisation techniques and experimental electronic sounds to push boundaries. I can’t explain and I won’t even try was developed by artistic director Daniel Vais in collaboration with the dancers.
Rachel Burn, Threshold
I first saw Rachel Burn’s work at a Cloud Dance Sunday. It was Pull Through, Flick, which had a monastic, spiritual underpinning that is still present in Threshold but here Burn is inspired by Walt Whitman’s free-ranging lines in Leaves of Grass — particularly Song of Myself. When you travel from Pull Through, Flick to Threshold you realise how much the ‘self’ that Whitman writes about has imbued Burn’s ‘self’ to create a more confident and poetic universe as if she had developed his ‘loosen’d tongue’. Given that she created the work on the same three dancers — Lauren Bridle, Laura Erwin and Anna Pearce — the work also reflects their emotional and physical stretching. (Only three days before the Resolution! performance, Erwin broke three bones in her foot during rehearsal and was unable to perform, so we saw a stunningly composed — and sleepless — Burn herself as both muse and interpreter. Whitman’s line of the poem that is chalked on the floor could have been dedicated to Erwin: ‘Be of good cheer, we will not desert you’).
The work is episodic in the same way Whitman weaves one image or story into another, each linked to the others by his understanding of the essential unity of person and environment. Renu Hossain’s lovely score seems to be inspired by the same humanist spirituality, supporting the key elements of the sea, the earth and the air. In each of her performers, Burn brings out individual strengths to match: Pearce turns herself inside out in her solo, arriving at a oneness with her material that is timeless and it is lovely once again to watch Bridle whose ability to transcend form is ever present; she is like water to Pearce’s earth. As for Burn herself, when not joining in the trios she seems quite at home as the statuesque, white-robed goddess with the delicately supplicating arms.
There is so much to enjoy in this sculptural work that it deserves a more sensitive treatment in terms of light and shade. Verse is read while choreography is essentially a visual art and paintings may be an appropriate inspiration for this further refinement. Perhaps by the time Erwin’s foot is healed there will be time (and funding) to explore.
Rag Days: Scratch
Choreographer Timothy Clark and designer Emma Robinson close the evening with Scratch, a burlesque loosely fashioned on the antics of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their companion April O’Neil. In the opening scene, the four comrades (Ben Jones, Hannah Rotchell, Henry Curtis and João Cidade) are drilled by O’Neil (Patricia Zafra) as overbearing, over-the-top martial arts instructor. They have names that sound like The Whip, Morphine, Blue Mix and Red Lance and together they form the intrepid band of Dance Rangers battling evil — in the form of a manic, radio-controlled model car in satanic colours that races around the stage causing havoc — for the good of humanity. Off duty, they tend to talk all at once, or riff a cappella on their names. Clark is never at a loss for comic invention and keeps the audience entertained (i.e. laughing) throughout. According to Rag Days’ facebook page, Clark formed his company with the noble purpose of ‘making accessible dance works for the purpose of entertainment’, so Scratch certainly succeeds even if there is very little dance — accessible or otherwise — in it. Dramatic confrontation with Evil is finally averted by an enterprising Dance Ranger switching off the car to a rousing round of congratulations and a lot of energetic posing and fists in the air. The audience can’t help but respond in kind.
Abigail Reynolds, Double Fold, Rambert Studio, Upper Ground, December 9
Abigail Reynolds is the current artist-in-residence at the Rambert Dance Company and to celebrate the company’s move to their new home on Upper Ground, she conceived Double Fold as a choreographic work in response to an installation of suspended acoustic panels that were cut out from the walls of the company’s old rehearsal space in Chiswick. In their recycled form they hang in the centre of the magnificent new Rambert Studio like an exploded axonometric view of soft interlocking planes. What attracted Reynolds to these panels was their symbolism: they contain — if only we could decode their stored experience — the voices, breath, sweat (and smoke) of thirty years of rehearsals: a material history of the company that provides a somatic link between old and new.
Chairs for the audience arranged around the installation define the performing area. The panels and Malcolm Glanville’s clean lighting create a sense of architectural design reminiscent of the intersecting planes in Gerrit Reitveld’s work, which was in turn influenced by the ideas of Piet Mondrian and the de Stijl movement. The positive and negative spaces create a small theatre within this expansive studio, focusing our attention from architecture to dance.
Hannah Rudd is the first of the five dancers to ‘enter’ the installation, bowing deferentially in front of a horizontal plane before crawling under it and following a maze-like path through the panels, mirroring the material shapes with her own. The fabric panels are hung to the scale of the dancers’ anatomy and the other four (Kym Alexander, Carolyn Bolton, Patricia Okenwa and Simone Damberg Würtz), loosely costumed in earthy colours by Rosalind Keep, likewise respond to the shapes with their bodies: placing their arms either side of a panel, kneeling or back-bending to fit neatly into an open space, the delicate planes broken or enhanced by sculptural movement. How you see the dancers in relation to the panels is a question of perspective, so after the fifteen-minute work is performed once, the audience is asked to move seats to see it again from another angle. It is an idea drawn from the art gallery, where the public has the freedom to wander around an object instead of contemplating it from a fixed point. It also derives from the cubist construct of seeing a single subject simultaneously from different angles. The gesture is reciprocal: while Reynolds is feeding the dancers with the richness of her visual training, the dancers define the visual elements with the quality of their dynamics.
The movement for Double Fold was conceived by Reynolds in close collaboration with Kirill Burlov, a Rambert company dancer and choreographer, whose role was to bridge whatever gap existed between visual and movement vocabulary. The unity of the dance and its environment is evidence of the clarity of Reynolds’ vision and of the subtlety of Burlov’s contribution: the panels interlock in the same way the dancers interlock; body images are formed in and through the cutout spaces, like photographs; a torso here, a foot there, endlessly rich in visual imagery. The five dancers move through the spaces as if through a piazza on a sunny day, alone, in duets or trios, framing and being framed by the light and shade, never separated from their architectural environment. Boundaries were challenged in the creative process: Reynolds had not initially conceived the panels as being part of the dance, but Burlov instinctively suggested the dancers wind themselves up in them like coats or scarves (Rudd, under the watchful eye of Okenwa, for a moment seems to revisit the fate of Isadora Duncan).
‘Double fold’ is a librarian’s term for testing the brittleness of paper by folding it one way and folding it back again. Seeing the dance from a different angle, we are in a sense folding the dance back on itself, but its resilience is enhanced. Dancers that had been in shadow are now in the light and choreographic processes are revealed afresh, countering the ephemeral nature of dance. No live performance is the same as another, and even here, back to back, Double Fold reveals new qualities and images, and the score by Emika, which begins in dense electro-acoustic sound and softens to a solo piano, filters more clearly into our consciousness as yet another overlapping, interlocking element.
After the performance there is a panel discussion hosted by Rambert’s artistic director, Mark Baldwin, on art and dance with Reynolds, Michael Craig-Martin and Catherine Yass. The discussion both derives from what we have seen and suggests a basis for continued exploration, something Rambert does so well.
On the way out, in the light-filled lobby, are two portraits of Madame Rambert, one more formal, the other quite free in the style of Isadora Duncan. Reynolds created the distinctive frames, and seems to have framed her dance within these very parameters of Madame Rambert’s image.
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Strange Blooms & Configurations, Queen Elizabeth Hall, December 3
This review was commissioned by Pulse Magazine and first appeared online at www.pulseconnects.com. It was subsequently published in the Winter issue of the magazine. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.
It is no coincidence that Shobana Jeyasingh chose the biology of plants to underpin the twenty-fifth anniversary of her choreographic debut and the birth of her company. The program at Queen Elizabeth Hall included her first work, Configurations, as well as the world première of Strange Blooms. If the latter is the flowering of her artistic development, her bold collaboration with Michael Nyman in 1988 that became Configurations illustrates the clarity of the process by which she achieved it. Dylan Thomas used the metaphor of a ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, and there is a very real sense in both works of Jeyasingh’s rich, fertile imagination driving the creative process towards fulfillment. Her initial use of the traditional bharatanatyam dance form has broadened – she spoke candidly in the question and answer session following the performance about feeling ‘over-defined at the beginning by race and culture’ – but she remains focused on generating meaning in dance without recourse to stories. Her materials are space, time and the bodies of her dancers; her process is one of consummate design.
The members of the Benyounes Quartet sit patiently in the shadows before the start of Configurations. They will be playing Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 which itself is based on a rhythmic score in six sections that Jeyasingh had prepared as a brief for the composer. Such close artistic collaboration is key to the unity of purpose in each work. Lucy Carter’s lighting design projects a series of rectangles on to the floor that change pattern in rhythm with the music and create pathways for the four arching, spiraling dancers whose steps are so precisely choreographed to the music that they are as much human instruments as they are indefatigable interpreters. Two years ago Jeyasingh reworked the choreography. ‘I wanted to say the same thing but find a simpler way to say it.’ It is this economy of means and her painterly use of space that give the music such a rich visual quality that is further enhanced by Ursula Bombshell’s costumes in reds and orange. The dancers never falter as they carry the lyrical forms, beauty, patterns and colour – even a moment of deadpan humour – through to the work’s conclusion.
A similar organic line is at work in Strange Blooms, not only as the basis of its design but in the subject matter itself. It is organized in four sections based on different aspects of plant biology: the first on the way tendrils curl and swirl in their frenzied search for support; the second on the algorithms of branching; the third on cellular instabilities within plants that help them to move, and the fourth about hybridity or cross breeding. From the very first moment these eight strange blooms unfold before our eyes as if we are looking through a microscope or at a time-lapse film, with Guy Hoare’s patterns of light reminiscent of Rothko in fauve colours suffusing the choreographic development. Graphic projections are not easy to get right in a dance context, but Jan Urbanowski’s laser-like etchings of plant forms play beautifully on the dancers’ bodies while Fabrice Serafino’s costumes subtly harmonise gender and reveal the dance. One can still see the low plié of bharatanatyam but the dance vocabulary belongs more with the urgency of natural forms than with any particular style.
If Strange Blooms reveals the hidden life of plants, Gabriel Prokofiev’s score simulates the process in music. By dissecting a recording by Jane Chapman of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord piece, Chaconne la Complaignante, Prokofiev lays bare its mysterious internal processes before putting it all back together again in pristine form. Like the design of Strange Blooms, it is a remarkable journey that reminds us of the richness hidden in the depths of life. As Jeyasingh says, ‘Choreography is a way of revealing what is already there.’
Wayne McGregor⎪ Random Dance, Atomos, Brighton Dome, November 8
I wonder — and this is just a hunch — if choreographers who are elevated to a position of high visibility very soon in their careers have a problem managing expectation; if, in the absence of anything new to say, they tend to fall back on what was initially successful. By ‘anything new to say’ I mean anything new to say through the work rather than about it. Wayne McGregor is certainly not short of words when it comes to talking about his work, but I feel he falls into the category of having little new to say through his work, and thus the impact of his most recent choreography has much the same effect as his last, whether you love it or are bored by it.
What you can expect in a work of McGregor is first and foremost a packaging that is lit beautifully (usually by Lucy Carter), is dressed by someone on the cutting edge of fashion, has state of the art projections, presents a voguish contemporary score and is performed by beautifully edgy dancers with plastic (one might say elastic) qualities — whether McGregor is dipping into the willing side of The Royal Ballet (where he is resident choreographer) or into his own company. Apart from the physical aspect, one is inevitably caught up in the intellectual side of his work; the printed program tends to read like a parallel universe of research in cognitive science that reveals McGregor’s curiosity as well as his intelligence and seems designed to link these qualities to the choreography — which is an illusion, for the link is only to the research. I think what we see in a McGregor work is the result of his absorption in his research rather than the fruit of his imagination, which explains perhaps the lack of empathy — communication with an audience. McGregor might well say he never intended it to be there.
His latest research-laden work, Atomos, continues the trend. The essay in the printed program by social anthropologist James Leach, under the heading What is a body? makes you wonder if you will understand anything at all, but on a closer reading the text runs alongside the work without ever touching. “We feel bodies. They have presence. Their stance, position, intention, emotion, desire, reach, shame, passion, expansion and contraction are recognisable and compelling because this movement, this life, is already part of the common shared space. The only way the self is known and experienced is with others, as presences or absences. The material that the company creates has this quality.” But doesn’t all dance have this quality? He finishes with, “McGregor insists the body is fascinating. He insists it is intelligent. It thinks, solves, makes and creates. He strives to recognize and organise this intelligence — an intelligence that is in and between the dancers, emergent from the relation not the individual. His work both reveals and challenges our sense of what it is to be a human with others, a body that is always there in its concern with, constitution by, and presence among our own and other kinds. Thinking is also movement.” You read that, you see the show and you say to yourself, that was really intelligent. Or you say, with much trepidation, what was all that about? I once heard an audience member ask McGregor in a post-show talk following Far what the work was about. “What do you think the work is about?” came the immediate retort.
Atomos is a fairly typical McGregor thoroughbred: choreographed on his own dancers, lit by Carter, costumed by the fashion and technology duo Studio XO, scored by A Winged Victory For The Sullen and with projections by Ravi Deepres, it has a sexy array of techno packaging, including the option of 3D viewing. It turns out the glasses are needed only for the projections, not for the dancers. So when the five screens eventually slot into place, we don the glasses to see a pink square traveling through the dark auditorium towards us. Is this a distraction to the choreography? Not according to McGregor, who apparently responded to one of his dancers that it is only a distraction if you think the dance is the only thing. Is McGregor having so much fun with his collaborative team that he has turned his back on his audience? At a Hay Festival event this year, the ‘legendary’ McGregor was scheduled to be interviewed by Sarah Crompton with Audrey Niffenegger, author of Raven Girl that McGregor had just adapted for the Royal Ballet. He didn’t show up. Dance is of small but growing interest in the world of literary festivals and his presence would have helped the momentum. Crompton made no comment on his absence but a Royal Ballet aficionado in the audience had come to hear McGregor and wondered out loud where he was. The two women looked at each other sheepishly, apologised and Niffenegger added, “To the best of my knowledge Wayne is madly at work.”
McGregor’s research into the nature of movement may well be useful, even groundbreaking, but for whom? Atomos was created with the help of an ‘artificiallly intelligent, life size, digitally rendered “body”’ in the studio, in effect another dancer provoking new movement creation through technology. It begs the question of what is feeding into the system. What if it responds in kind to a poverty of choreographic input?
With much contemporary choreography in which ideas are pulled from observation or study of the natural world, it is illuminating to glimpse the processes the choreographer uses to arrive at the final product we see on stage. But interesting research does not in itself equate to stimulating choreographic work. In the pushing of boundaries originality can be lost.
Probe Project, Running on Empty, The Place, November 5
The printed program doesn’t give much away about the nature of the piece, but it’s immediately apparent that Running on Empty has a full tank of collaborators: apart from the three performers (Antonia Grove, Scott Smith and Greig Cooke) there is a director (Jo McInnes), writer (Brad Birch), choreographer (Charlie Morrissey), songwriter (Lee Ross), composer (Smith), set and costume designer (Fabrice Serafino) and lighting designer (Beky Stoddart) — an array of creative inputs that begs the question of who exactly has a handle on the direction. The marketing material features an enigmatic image of Cooke and Grove running together across a landscape as if escaping from a party: intense, focused, out of breath. That snapshot is replaced on stage by another indeterminate place but without a specific flight path. The set suggests a no man’s land where paths meet, an intriguing dreamland with a detrital heap of old furniture on one side with a tree of lights behind and a low wall delineating the unknown beyond. The set and lighting together create a sense of expectation as Smith takes his place behind a keyboard amongst the furniture as if sitting at a bar. He plays some doleful minor chords on the guitar as a prelude to a song remembering a relationship that Grove sings in a voice that is out on a husky limb, aching and velvety especially in its higher register: “Are we too close or too far apart?” with a bluesy harmonica accompaniment from Smith.
Cooke can just be made out lounging on the wall at the back, listening to Grove’s words: “I’d dive into the abyss if I thought I’d save your life”, she continues, glancing at Smith. Cooke stands, his hands and face caught in the narrow pane of light, and responds in dance, swishing and swirling in an intense solo in which he manifests his force and self-doubt in equal measure. Grove looks over at him for the first time. Smith, who plays both confidant and analyst to Grove, asks her: “What do you remember?” She shines a light underneath her chin, then at something unknown beyond her. Death? “What colour are its eyes?” asks Cooke. Grove is bathed in a subtle, fragile light, her arms raised and slightly behind her as if she had just been shot, and launches into a solo that is based on that arching back, wild and abandoned. With tenderness in his eyes Cooke comes to her rescue. “What are you doing?” “Bang, bang, arms, fuck,” is what I hear. The diction is rather muffled, perhaps a function of the portable mikes. “I’m building a boat,” she adds, kneeling, “to get you out of here. Just trying to build you a boat.” Evidently the running idea has been subsumed by metaphors of the sea, of boats and rafts.
The sound of breakers colours the clashing duet that follows, both Groves and Cooke forcing their limits (running towards empty) yet never touching; blowing each other away, shouting and screaming over the sound of sea. Smith pulls out a wooden pallet that serves as a raft on to which Groves and Cooke clamber. They look at each other. Is it over? Cooke leans out over the edge of the raft, hanging from Grove; she pulls him in; he takes her head as they fit into each other’s forms, but are they strangling or comforting? The Stevie Smith poem comes to mind,
‘…I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.’
The danger games persist. Who will fall off first? They kneel on the front of the raft and step with their hands and knees into the water. Smith reels in the raft, casting them away on the beach. Cooke and Grove embrace roughly then he chases her round the island, catching her, lifting and releasing her in a fury of entanglement and abandon. The sound of a storm whips up the action until it finally abates in an attempt at reconciliation: “Please forgive me” and “Where are we going?” but it’s impossible for Cooke to brake and he ends up — as I noted detachedly in my notebook — ripping her head off. It happens quickly, and its violence is unexpected. Grove crawls away; Smith brings her a glass of water and returns with the raft, dropping it with a bang as if offering a means of exit. “It’s not your fault,” he says, adding something about chance. She is in no mood for philosophical argument, so Smith goes back to his microphone and begins a song about an otter and a trout. It begins in surreal fashion with a pinwheel blast on his mechanical whistle, and prompts a series of surreal crustacean images: Cooke conjures up a lobster on its back as he crawls upside down towards Grove who scuttles in sympathy, or perhaps in fear. He crawls on to the raft, blowing out his cheeks like a conch shell, eyes popping, sounding like an angry elephant. Their duet develops into a tour de force of fragments of dialogue and screeching fitting into behavioural tics: snorting, itching, scratching, spitting, leaping, At the end, Smith as analyst or agony uncle, brings Grove a beer: “You’re having problems.” She denies it. “Maybe that’s your first problem.” She counters: “Do you understand what it is to be me?” He mimics her itching, tentacle-like fingers that he then extrudes into the shape of a gun, the trigger caught in the light. Cooke is back on the sea wall. There’s text about illness and disease, the problems and insecurities of old age — all highly relevant but I’m not sure how it fits in here. “Will I recover, is it too late?” asks Grove. Smith smiles. It’s clearly too late for rhetorical questions. He rubs his hands and pushes away the microphone with his hip.
Grove and Cooke in smiling mood embrace and explore each other. After they have been through so much, the question arises of where this is going. The mood is playful, producing a natural, infectious laugh from Grove before she appears to confront her present. “Do you drink?” asks Cooke, followed by a question about dreams. “This is where my dreams are set,” she responds. Her final words to Cooke are, “Can you do me a favour? Stay away from the cliffs.” It is the first time the cliffs are mentioned, the landscape described beyond the rear wall, and in this place above the sea she starts to dance, scooping, twisting and turning to Smith’s guitar accompaniment that is somewhere between flamenco and hillbilly banjo. She throws herself into her moves, repeating phrases with a mix of courage, abandon and hopelessness and finishes by running around the stage, running out of steam. She prompts Smith into a last song (which repeats the melody of the opening song), dragging the microphone to centre stage, pouring all her emotional exhaustion into the lyrics: “So slowly now you bow into eternity… How long can you keep running?” with that gutsy, velvety voice running full on empty.
At the close, we are left elevated by the visual and aural imagery but there’s a disconcerting sense of gaps in the narrative cohesion. We learn later that Cooke has fallen off the cliffs to his death, but this loss fails to register. Does it matter? Death offstage seems a uniquely theatrical concept that dance can’t do by itself, which leads me to think that the narrative and the dance in Running on Empty are like oil and water; they are not blending. Grove suggests in the program that the work moves ‘from the dark and surreal world of dreams to the intricate and sometimes absurd nature of our daily human interactions.’ This is something that dance can do really well, and Grove is particularly adept at drawing the drama out of dance. Perhaps Running on Empty simply suffers from too many creative inputs; dreams inevitably have a consistency because all their fragmented elements can be traced back to the individual psyche. Running on Empty needs to forge a unity of its own creative psyche before its dream will ring true.
Angela Woodhouse, Between, Studio Theatre, Central Saint Martins, November 7
There are two kinds of perception in Angela Woodhouse’s Between: that of events at our own human scale and that of an intimate aural, visual and sensual kind. These broadly reflect the respective artistic disciplines of the two collaborators; Woodhouse in dance and Caroline Broadhead in textiles and jewellery. The challenge of creating a work based on these different ways of seeing is the space in which it is performed: theatre is designed to enlarge the small into something heroic whereas a gallery space is conceived around our relationship with what is small and can be observed up close. Between, which has been performed in both kinds of environment, requires elements of each but I suspect the Studio Theatre — a rather cavernous black box with black hangings that have been drawn in to reduce its scale — is not entirely comfortable in its intimacy.
Lying on the floor as we enter the dimmed space is a body under a coat; our small group gathers round, not knowing quite what to expect. Darkness descends and a small light picks out a pair of feet traveling upright under the coat into invisibility and silence. From the same direction comes the sound of a rustling material that manifests under an intense halogen beam as an animated coat isolated against the blackness, a magical image that attunes our senses to a disembodied human scale. Between is a series of such sensory adventures creating an intimate relationship between the three dancers (Stine Nilsen, David McCormick and Martina Conti) and the standing or ambulatory audience that is both observer and participant. The role of the dancers with their pared-down gestures and calm, controlled movement slows down time and increases our powers of perception, leaving us somewhere in between theatrical experience and the intimacy of our own space, between the known and the unknown, light and dark, comfort and discomfort, clarity and obfuscation.
Nilsen in a diaphanous black gown moves silently into an arena of light. Conti sidles up to her, puts her arm in Nilsen’s sleeve, then the other, slipping the garment deftly off Nilsen’s shoulders onto her self; we are voyeurs in an intimate act. The two women take turns removing and replacing the gown, accelerating the seamless transference like a dynamic sculpture. Nilsen takes a hand to her necklace and pulls it hard. It breaks and the pearls scuttle on the floor. Our aural concentration kicks in with the sudden stillness of the moment. McCormick gives Conti a similar necklace but holds on to it as they pull away from each other, stretching it to the limits of its elasticity; the sense of expectation in the space is palpable. Conti finally reclaims the necklace as she approaches McCormick with a smile and puts it on the floor while McCormick moves towards a square of light projected on to someone’s pocket. He puts his hand in the beam of light to reveal a filigree pattern of gold leaf on the inside of his hand like a decoration or a mark, shining and glinting as he turns his hand slowly, following the light’s moving path until it is extinguished.
Conti and Nilsen embrace without quite touching, like a form within a form. They select a member of the audience to include within their enfolding arms and choose my daughter. It is an arbitrary choice, but the confluence of time and place in this encounter is profoundly moving for me, highlighting one of the key elements in the work: pinpointing a privileged relationship between the lives of the performers and the lives of those attending.
McCormick stands among us with his arms raised, walking forward with space as his partner and returning to repeat the same meditation three times, without conclusion. Conti approaches a man to touch hands. McCormick circles Conti in slow motion, drawing her into a gentle, spiraling dance, chest to chest, arms to head, like two docile stags with locked horns. Conti circles away but moves back to McCormick whose hand is behind him like an angel’s wing. She pushes on his outstretched arm as if on a turnstile, but it is he who spins off. Nilsen leaves, leaving Conti in place withdrawing her arm from one sleeve of her sweater, then the other, her fingers slowly disappearing in the light. It appears she is turning her sweater back to front but then she takes out her slip from underneath, offers it to the woman in front of her and leaves. Nilsen returns to reveal a pattern of gold on her forearm. She takes the arm of a young woman and by gently rubbing their two arms together attempts to transfer the gold as a ritual gift. After Nilsen leaves, the young woman shakes her arm as if waking from a dream.
Sadhana Dance, Under My Skin, The Place, October 18
What we wish for sometimes manifests in ways that are as unpredictable as they are inexorable. Choreographer Subathra Subramaniam wanted first to be a doctor but found her expression in the classical Indian dance tradition of Bharatanatyam. Her latest work, Under My Skin, returns to her first love, which gives the title a certain ambiguity: it refers not only to what happens to a patient undergoing surgery but also to an emotional attachment that is hard to shake off, as in the Cole Porter song, I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Subramaniam’s involvement is both: undoubtedly passionate in transforming surgery into choreographic form, she also demonstrates a vicarious curiosity in the operating theatre through a program of simulations, craft demonstrations and haptics that precedes the performance.
Enter Dr. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, whose mission to disseminate a greater understanding of surgical procedures dovetailed seamlessly with Subramaniam’s research into Under My Skin and gives it a rich context. There is evidently no pain in Subramaniam’s work, nor the emotion of dealing with the balance of life and death — something that even the surgical simulations bring affectingly to the surface. Her skill is in extracting the beauty of the movement from the operating theatre and in interpreting the essential trust that is a perquisite for any surgical procedure. In doing so, she not only expands the boundaries of Bharatanatyam but provides Professor Kneebone with an expressive medium to further his own research.
Through the surgical simulations (staged at The Place as part of the Bloomsbury Festival) we begin to understand the critical importance of close and accurate communication within a team of specialists providing an acute level of care for a patient undergoing surgery. This will involve the surgeon, at least one assistant surgeon, a scrub nurse, an anaesthetist, and an OTP (operating theatre practitioner). Sometimes the team will meet each other for the first time around the operating table, but they must work meticulously and intimately on matters of vital importance to the patient. In the course of her research for Under My Skin, Subramaniam witnessed this teamwork as an observer, and although there are only three dancers in her work, their relationship to one another is as tightly choreographed as that of the operating theatre team.
As in other works of Subramaniam there is text, here a poem about the nature of blood by Allen Fisher, whom Professor Kneebone commissioned. Its clinically precise language takes on a sense of mystery in the recording of Chris Fogg’s sonorous voice emanating from the dark. The reading of the opening lines is superimposed on a single red light like a drop of blood under a microscope to the sound of baffles, plungers and artificial breathing apparatus, the beginning of a parallel collaboration between lighting designer Aideen Malone and sound artists Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden.
Malone also observed the operating theatre environment (and as a consequence has been asked to propose improvements to the lighting system). Her three rectangular corridors of light form distinct environments for the three medical personnel (Gemma Bass-Williams, Archana Ballal and Carl Pattrick) in blue surgical scrubs (assimilated by Kate Rigby) who adjust imaginary controls and instruments with minute accuracy and concentration: three routines that develop freely and beautifully into extended dance movement. Ballal is clearly at home with the flow of Bharatanatyam that underlies the choreography — especially in her solo to the violin of Preetha Narayanan — and adapts the gestures of the operating theatre as if putting on a pair of latex gloves. Bass-Williams and Pattrick, while clearly immersed in the style, work towards the flow of Bharatanatyam from the task-based material. What unites the three dancers is the clarity and precision of their gestures.
As the trio merges into the central corridor of light, Malone expands it into one large theatre in which the trio breathes with the breath of an imaginary patient preparing for an operation. Taking the weight of, supporting and balancing each other’s body are all metaphors for the mutual dependency of the team.
Bass-Williams and Pattrick abstract the meticulous washing of hands and the precise order of gowning into a ritual dance. Malone’s lighting moves like a film from one scene to another; in the light at one moment is Ballal in a dynamic dance while in the semi-darkness the surgeons continue their preparation, a solo of life superimposed on a duet of support. The dance vocabulary immerses itself increasingly in the current of Bharatanatyam; Bass-Williams and Pattrick join Ballal in a trio of rhythmic turning steps accented with the deep plié and completed by the rich arm and hand mudras.
The focus is narrowed to a circle of yellow light in which we see — as if we are in the team — just the hands the colour of latex taking and placing instruments, sharing actions, cutting, stitching, checking, swabbing, and cleaning in a silent, concentrated rhythm. Subramaniam once again transforms these gestures away from the operating theatre into the performing theatre, adapting the ability of Bharatanatyam to tell stories through gesture and dance. One aspect that is less developed here is the traditional use of the face as an expressive instrument, especially the eyes. The dancers look at each other, but their eyes are not always eloquent.
An acceleration in the music returns us to Bharatanatyam’s rapid, rhythmic footwork; the influence of Indian classical dance is strongest here and the dancers are stripped down to their essential natures. This is the pleasure of movement where flow is everything; it feels like a coda of growing complexity and technical achievement, but Subramaniam returns us once again to the routine operating theatre where poetry is supplanted by the sounds of the machines, the broad wash of light by a circle of yellow light and dancing by a silent concentration on gestures of intimacy and healing. Pattrick finishes his task and leaves. Bass-Williams and Ballal stay on to accompany the patient’s recovery, then Bass-Williams hands over to Ballal whose head is bathed in the opening blood-red circle of light. She withdraws her head as Fogg’s voice intones the final lines, ending neatly with, “This is blood clotting that will help to save your life.”