Dance Roads 2016

Posted: June 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Roads 2016

Dance Roads 2016, Seligman Theatre, Chapter, Cardiff, June 8

Lucie Augeai and David Gernez in Nœuds at Dance Roads

Lucie Augeai and David Gernez in Nœuds

Dance Roads is an international touring initiative that supports choreographic development and provides artists with international exposure and networking opportunities on a biennial basis. The network is made up of organisations from five countries: The Netherlands, Wales, France, Italy and Roumania and is jointly coordinated. This performance at Chapter marks the final leg of the touring program.

Jasper van Luijk’s Yonder, danced by Jefta Tanate, is the most formally crafted of the five works on the evening’s program, a play of chiaroscuro in which Tanate moves naked through a field of lights. The stage resembles a photographic studio in which van Luijk has set up lights at various heights and angles. The choreographer cedes his place behind the camera to the audience and allows us to watch as Tanate manipulates the lights during his performative journey. There are thus two sources of movement, human and mechanical, interacting at different rhythms through the action of a single entity. When he is not swinging lights or swinging on them, Tanate moves with an almost automated articulation, his facial expression belying no emotion, nor betraying any narrative for his actions. This existential quality relates to what the program note for Yonder describes as ‘a search for the beginning and the end of time with the lifecycle of one man.’ I’m not sure many in the audience would pick up that notion while watching — I certainly didn’t — but there is a sense of time passing on a journey from darkness to light, from frenzied turning to stillness, from a sublime moment of elevation to a jarring fall to earth. What links these episodes is van Luijk’s paean to the male body that Tanate, without any apparent strain or self-consciousness, dances on the edge of his senses.

The poet Dylan Thomas lived constantly on the edge of his senses; Gwyn Emberton takes on the imagery of his poem Fern Hill in a short solo called Of the Earth, where I came from, originally choreographed on his own body but here danced by Albert Garcia. Emberton chooses not to set movement to Thomas’s words but with composer Benjamin Talbott delves into the sense of exploration in the poet’s memories of spending youthful days on his aunt’s farm. It starts with an image reminiscent of a portrait by Rollie McKenna of Thomas entwined in the branches of a tree: Garcia is in a headstand in shadows cast by tied, gnarled brushwood. Both poem and choreography are suffused with regret for the process of ageing but by setting his choreography on a younger body, Emberton sets up a tension between youth and age. Like the poetry, Of the Earth, where I came from has no rest as one image of the body switches suddenly or slowly, unfolding, unfurling and upending with a muscular fluidity that is nevertheless ageless.

In Noeuds (knots), Lucie Augeai and David Gernez (Compagnie Adéquate) perform a playful take on family relations (they are married) in a bright gestural duet that has elements of theatre, circus, mime, and dance. Their use of baroque music (Marin Marais) gives lively accents to their dialogue that allows the gestural forms, which look at first like conducting, to become the principal channel of expression. Noeuds does not, as its name suggests, describe an easy relationship. Augeai holds her breath with bulging cheeks while Gernez bares his teeth; he holds her tightly while she tries to escape. The initial pleasure builds to confrontation but Augeai does not submit; she gives as much as she gets. She has a way of using her eyes with the tilt of her head that conveys clarity of intention; the register is as high as laughter and as low as aggression. Gernez is her foil, against whom Augeai plays to comic and dramatic effect. He is driven to a final solo of male frustration after which Augeai diffuses it with her weaving pattern. The knots are subtly disentangled and they walk off together.

Claudia Catarzi’s Qui, Ora (here, now) is a minimal work that comes at the end of the middle section after two other works, so not an ideal place for audience concentration, which it needs. Qui, Ora is a choreographic response to immediate physical factors: space, a costume, the audience and sound. It has the feeling of an improvisation, stark in form with playful elements. If you put on a stiff and raspy-sounding coat, then your movements will necessarily emphasise its qualities; Catarzi dances the coat with birdlike attention and a dry sense of humour, sloughing it off at the point it appears to be dancing her. She responds to the space around her (and to a Johnny Cash song) with movements that are angular and loosely anarchic; it is like a play by Samuel Beckett with moments of dry wit, an element of the absurd and moments of pure poetic flow.

Cristina Lilienfeld’s work, Layers, is a meditation on skin and what it reveals of our inner emotional life. She uses her own skin as a material on which to receive our thoughts and feelings, and with which she projects a sensorial appreciation of the unfettered body. Disarmingly generous, she nevertheless protects the intimacy of her personal space in the very act of sharing it, playing with the tension between looking and being looked at and never failing to meet our gaze head on. In the opening section she reinforces the skin’s opacity by rolling and slithering her almost naked body on a mix of sand and flour to the sounds of rain and thunder and masks her face in her long, thick hair. It is a state of emotional turbulence in which she appears to be testing our gaze. “You are under my skin. You are in my heart,” she tells us, and invites us to write whatever comes to mind on her skin with her eyeliner pencils: artist and audience sharing the same material. “Thank you,” she responds, peeling off layers of skin-like patches from her body as she retreats. She reappears carrying a bowl of water. If the first part of Layers is a ritual covering of her skin, the second is a ritual cleansing. In between these two states, where Lilienfeld is naturally expressive, there are moments of ‘dancing’ which immediately signal something inherited or taken for granted. But there are also moments when she creates something mesmerising out of her unadulterated presence. In being naked — a metaphor for both freedom and vulnerability — the removal of physical and psychological layers creates in her an exuberance that makes emotion visible.

Dance Roads, as its name suggests, is a network of roads that is funded by the EU to convey choreographic expression from one country to another. While it is a pleasure to watch works that originate elsewhere, at the performative level the model offers neither integration nor differentiation between cultures, for the audience or for the dancers. What makes van Luijk’s work so different from that of Compagnie Adéquate, for example? What would happen if Catarzi were to create a work on Lilienfeld, or Lilienfeld on Tanate? It might be interesting to explore such questions in future collaborations so that the creative spirit finds new roads to follow.

 

It is ironic that this article on Dance Roads should be published on the eve of the EU referendum in which a majority of UK voters decided to leave the EU. The result may well mean Wales will no longer be eligible for the Dance Roads network. 


Until the Lions: Akram Khan Company at The Brighton Festival

Posted: June 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Until the Lions: Akram Khan Company at The Brighton Festival

Akram Khan Company, Until The Lions, Brighton Dome, May 27

Ching-Ying Chien in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Ching-Ying Chien in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Earlier this year I saw Peter Brook’s Battlefield at the Young Vic; it was his adaptation of five books from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Akram Khan made his debut at the age of 13 in Brook’s original nine-hour production of the Mahabharata. What a coincidence then, that Khan should present in the same year as Battlefield another story from the same saga, one of love, betrayal and revenge in an original reworking by Karthika Naïr that has become Until the Lions.

The title comes from an African proverb: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ The lion in Naïr’s poem is Amba, the daughter of the King of Kashi who is abducted on her public swayamvara (betrothal) ceremony by Bheeshma, the son of the Kuru king. Vowing revenge on Bheeshma, Amba immolates herself and is reincarnated as the male warrior Shikhandi by whose hand Bheeshma meets his end on the battlefield. The dual role of Amba/Shikhandi is danced respectively by Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter; the role of Bheeshma is danced by Khan himself.

Until the Lions has Kahn’s signature symbolism and spirituality dressed in white and covered in haze, with arresting stagecraft and musical accompaniment (by Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Vincenzo Lamagna). The dancing of Chien and Ritter is what we have come to expect in Kahn’s international casts of exceptional artists whereas Kahn’s own performance, even if his presence is strong, lacks the flow and attack he once had. It is something he acknowledges, but it begs the question of why he didn’t find a younger dancer on whom to create the role. The result is a performance that has all the appearance of significance yet lacks its bite. There is a feeling that Nair’s poetry has not gained in the dancing, but is simply the starting point of something else, something defined more in the production values than in the content.

Brook’s space for Battlefield is spare, a vast stretched stage cloth with very few stage elements. This environment stands in stark contrast to the subject of the dialogue and enhances the production’s focus on the clarity of thought. Khan and his producer, Farook Chaudry, have taken a different path. The narrative involving three characters has been treated with a monumental production by conceiving it for the 360° Network of round artistic venues across the world. Created in the round, with Tim Yip’s vast slice of fissured tree trunk for a stage and with Michael Hulls’ lighting, the setting is to dance what the rock concert is to music. Michael Billington commented on Battlefield that ‘at a time when theatre is giddy with technology, you are struck by the way economical means are used to maximum effect.’ By contrast Hulls seems to be vying with the choreography for primacy.

The work premiered at The Roundhouse (a founding member of the 360° Network) in January. I didn’t see it there but at the Brighton Festival, which is not only one of 16 co-producers but also a co-commissioner of the work. The outside of the Brighton Dome is, like The Roundhouse, circular, but its concert hall is not configured for theatre in the round. It is at best an elongated semi-circle cut off by the stage, so fitting Until the Lions into this space required some spectacular fudging. The first thing you notice is the massive lighting rig to carry Hulls’ circular lighting conception and the second thing is the stage underneath it, a circular platform on top of the Dome’s regular stage.

So why did the Brighton Festival co-commission and co-produce a work that, as conceived, does not fit into its venue? Why co-commission it at all? How much of the Festival’s dance budget was taken up with this co-commission and what did it get from it? The questions are relevant because the dance programming of England’s prestigious festival in its 50th year is much thinner than the quality of English dance would suggest; the Festival has an opportunity if not a responsibility to present a challenging and varied dance program, rather than go for the prestigious names like Khan, or hook up with what happens to be touring with Dance Consortium (as it happened, NDT2). It’s ‘lazy’ programming and it has a deleterious effect on the country’s dance ecology.

Arts Council England, which funds both Akram Khan Company and the Brighton Festival, has a motto, ‘Great Art For All’. The motto has two elements: ‘great art’ and ‘for all’. Even if Khan is a well-known brand, great art does not necessarily equate with well-known names. And ‘for all’ implies that access to the great art is within the financial reach of a broad audience. An expensive work by a prestigious name means ticket prices are going to be high rather than broadly affordable and I can’t help feeling that with 16 co-producers and a co-commission, Until the Lions is roaring its way to the bank while the Festival is left strapped to build a dance program that does justice to the high quality of work that exists in the country (not to mention locally) with the public funds at its disposal. Perhaps a good starting point would be to appoint a dance producer; there is currently no mention of one listed under the Artistic Staff of the festival. There’s a music producer, a theatre producer, a classic music producer, and a family and children’s producer. For a festival that prides itself on its mandate to take ‘a new look at the arts’ and to have ‘the opportunity to assess developments in the field of culture…’ that’s a stunning omission.


Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle

Posted: June 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle

Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle, Brighton Concert Hall, May 20

Liz Aggiss in Slap & Tickle (photo: Holly Revell)

Liz Aggiss in Slap & Tickle (photo: Holly Revell)

When I read Ian Abbott’s review of Liz Aggiss’s Slap & Tickle and took in the publicity image of a lascivious Aggiss astride a lit fluorescent tube on a red leather armchair, the two together confirmed an image of the show: irreverent, funny, and ripe with sexual innuendo. ‘Slap and tickle’, after all, is a British euphemism for foreplay. However, when I saw the show at the Brighton Festival soon after, these elements were framed in something altogether darker than I had imagined, with more bite.

Aggiss grew up ‘in a repressive era’ in a post-war Essex suburb, but she uses dance imagery that belongs to the 1930s Expressionism of the Weimar Republic and its satire of bourgeois values. We hear signature tunes from family BBC radio programs of the 50s whose naivety is cut through by the sexual politics of a later generation. ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’, she croons the beginning of Listen With Mother. ‘Well, it’s going to get worse.’ She strips back the dark underbelly of social mores and then rescues us from her gleeful dissection with her bawdy humour. Get Aggiss on a bad day, however, and Slap & Tickle would be murderously toxic.

But this evening she’s on her irreverent best behaviour. She even treats us to party games in the brief interludes between acts; the lucky winners of pass-the-parcel unwrap a yellow scarf with the printed black outline of a cock on it. There’s much penis envy among the losers. While playing pass-the-balloon the recorded voice of Emma Kilbey encourages us to rub them on our legs, or stuff them up our jumpers. ‘Let’s have a party’, insists Aggiss, and we do.

According to Aggiss’s trenchant text in the beautiful program booklet designed by Nerea Martinez de Lecea, ‘Slap & Tickle is a solo performance in three acts that decodes, in a disorientating display of contradictions, interpretations and propaganda: girls, ladies, women, mothers, pensioners and senior citizens.’ Pointing obliquely to the fact that when you get to be a pensioner or senior citizen your gender is considered superfluous, Aggiss, at the age of 63, is proof of the lie. She leads her female audience to revolt: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Well, you shouldn’t be.’ And she means it.

The three acts of Slap & Tickle roughly follow three stages of sexual emancipation, from the ‘world of child’ in which ‘answers…are merely guidelines’ through the dismemberment of ‘romanticism, dominant narratives and social codification’ of adolescence, to the exhilarating realm where ‘puritan ethics and codes are banished’ and ‘wearing a tail, a red hat and no knickers is de rigeur.’ Aggiss has spent her life preparing this work and it is in the editing of her material that she manages to concentrate that experience in such a rich, seamless format. Like the collage work of Hannah Hoch (whom Aggiss cites as an influence), her consummate skill in choosing which element to superimpose on, or juxtapose with another makes her allusions and metaphors subversively and disturbingly entertaining. At the beginning of the first act she enters regally in a voluminous golden dress, her head hidden under a Vogue-ish gourd. She opens a fold of the dress to reveal a cloth doll that she drops repeatedly and dispassionately on the floor before discarding it. She raises the hem of her skirt to reveal one glass slipper and performs an expressive arm dance to Mrs Mills on the piano and professes shyness as she raises the hem of her dress further to reveal bare white legs with a whiff of permissiveness. Then she huffs and she puffs and sings the line about the old lady who swallowed a fly as she slips out of her dress to reveal ample knickers from which she retrieves bits of padding, coins and a number of ping pong balls. If she’s not slapping us out of our social servility she’s tickling our desire for moral clarity. ‘All instincts that do not find a vent without’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘turn inwards…’ Aggiss spent a childhood turning inwards; now is the time to ‘vent without’, challenging ‘expectations of what a mature female dancing body should be doing, why she should be doing it, and where it should be done.’ Just as she uses her subversive brand of vaudeville to articulate suppressed instincts, her dance takes inner movements and turns them into outward form — the Ausdruckstänz, or expressionist dance of Mary Wigman. Her rendition of Klaus Nomi singing The Cold Song in a black and white costume reminiscent of Nomi’s own signature suit, is not only beautifully crafted but is consistent with her theme of bringing the body into line with the unfettered mind: ‘…the body and voice are tethered by an invisible umbilical vocal cord that swings abruptly through buried truths and nasty realities, whilst simultaneously and repeatedly slamming against the on/off button.’ It’s a battle, ‘push and pull’, and if it gets too much, ‘Let’s all go down the Strand – Have a banana!’ Foreplay has turned into punishment and reward.

Slap & Tickle engages fully with the audience in the music hall tradition so that however dark the material Aggiss finds a way into our minds with her irreverent humour and makes us laugh at our own wobbly moral compass. She has travelled a resolute path for the last 40 years and has emerged with ‘the determination to maintain female visibility, to snatch the dance performance space from the clutches of youth, and to contextualize the stage with a content driven world that speaks to and for other generations…’ ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Well it’s going to get a lot better.’

 

Liz Aggiss will be performing Slap & Tickle at The Place on June 17 and 18 at 8pm.  


Helen Cox, de/construct

Posted: May 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Helen Cox, de/construct

Helen Cox, de/construct, Footprint Dance Festival, Michaelis Theatre, May 14

Helen Cox in de/construct (photo: Lawrence Choi)

Helen Cox in de/construct (photo: Lawrence Choi)

I had seen Helen Cox at Resolution! in February 2014 in a piece called Lapse, co-created with Heather Stewart. Both Stewart and Cox seemed like pawns in a complex game of text and movement, so it was interesting to see Cox performing in her own right at Roehampton University’s Footprint Dance Festival. According to the program note, de/construct traces the patterns of growth found in natural landscapes; though the title has rational connotations, both the imagery and the music by Alog are decidedly organic. As the lights come up we see a small island of sinewy hemp rope and sacking (designed and made by Cherrie Lau) that envelops the kneeling Cox, fitted to her waist and trailing around her like a network of roots. It is not a heart that beats but hands that quiver as she grows slowly out of this material; her body takes on its distinctness, its edges clearly defined. She sloughs off the skin to revel in the space around her but Cox does not take this separation for granted; she looks back at it in breathless moments of stillness, drawn up to her full and immaculate balance. When she begins to move, the agency of her movement is neither inside nor outside her; she simply elongates and stretches her sinuous, smooth gestures around herself in circular patterns that have no end. Watching her is like hearing fragments of speech in the wind, but they are fragments of speech in another language, eerily incomprehensible yet fully formed and complete. She lowers herself to the ground, silently. More quivering hands and smooth, sweeping diagonal gestures across her body, like a conversation with the air, her face intently listening, her body somewhere between birth and independence in the natural world. de/construct is but a fragment but for a moment all social constructs, all structures of human life, dissolve.

de/construct was the last of eight varied works on the final evening at Roehampton’s Footprint Dance Festival, about which more later.


Costa Contemporánea 2015, Day 2

Posted: May 26th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Costa Contemporánea 2015, Day 2

Costa Contemporánea, Day 2, Anfiteatro Rodalquilar, September 3

Irene de Paz in Madejda (photo: Carlos de Paz)

This is the second instalment of a set of reviews from last year’s Costa Contemporánea. I had started it but never got around to finishing it. Re-reading my notes I feel I am back in the amphitheatre at Rodalquilar…

After the opening night, the three subsequent days of performances at Costa Contemporánea have a strong theme of physical theatre. Each performance is a unique take on the body as both image and instrument with an ecstatic fluid line that permeates the body mass. Irene de Paz is a circus artist, a tightrope walker with strong features and a bright smile that remains from beginning to end like an optimist who never gives up. The gusts of wind blowing through the amphitheatre would be enough to put off any funambulist but the smile persists and the performance of La Madeja proceeds, involving yards of red yarn in which de Paz ties and unties herself while walking back and forth or on the rope. The link between the tightrope and the yarn is not accidental; equating the knotting of woven cloth to the vital knots of her profession, De Paz dedicates La Madeja to those women weavers who saw their days pass while knotting threads. Furthermore, the funambulist and the weaver become metaphors for life: finding balance, taking steps back in order to move forward and resolving intricate problems. Her first step on the wire is entangled in yarn and by her last one she is free of obstructions. But during the performance De Paz seems to be fighting the elemental force of nature that is far more unpredictable; lightness and poise are at risk, even though the smile never fails.

I had seen Elias Aguirre dance a duet in Turin that took inspiration from the characteristics of insects. Aguirre’s control over his articulate body is prodigious and he turned it into a fascinating play of volume, line and space. He finds unusual states of being to portray — neither conceptual nor exaggerated — that lend themselves to his form of expression. In Longfade he inhabits a body that has been poisoned but is in the process of resisting the poison until it runs its course: the long fade to extinction. Facing his crisis in spatial terms, Aguirre is eloquent in movement: short phrases, silences, internal questioning, and hasty decisions connected in an overall arc of meaning. He takes his imbalance to extremes but always finds his equilibrium quietly and seductively. His face is intimately involved in his actions, giving an impression of carrying on a dialogue with the audience, or reading us a story in movement. Longfade is not a work with a beginning or end, but like a fragment it emerges into the light and disappears enigmatically leaving behind an extraordinary sensory trail.

Because of the rising wind outside, Nicolas Rambaud moves his production of ¡Valgo? to a spacious hall behind the amphitheatre where we sit on the floor. The work, whose title translates as What am I worth?, is a polemic about the value and self-worth of artists. It is a duet for Rambaud and a filmed alter-ego who is projected onto a fragile, tent-like screen and with whom Rambaud pursues a contentious dialogue. Rambaud is no wallflower and enjoys the role of demagogue; he also enjoys being outrageous. Since I don’t understand Spanish I have an hour to watch him rant in speech and dance, stripping down from blue overalls to his essentials and high heels and spraying sarcasm from an industrial crop sprayer strapped to his back. If Rambaud wants to draw attention to the value of the artist, he succeeds more successfully — from a purely physical perspective — to draw attention to himself: L’artiste, c’est moi. What is interesting, too, is that in the context of the contemporary Spanish dance at Costa Contemporanea there is a didactic quality in Rambaud’s work: an intellectual concept dressed in the physical. By contrast, and in simplistic terms, the Spanish contemporary dance I have seen is primarily physical with an inherent intelligence.


Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison

Posted: May 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison

Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Unison, Lilian Baylis, May 7

Eveline Van Bauwel, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Michael Helland and Manon Santkin in Unison (photo:

Eveline Van Bauwel, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Michael Helland and Manon Santkin in Unison (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

“The frontier between the social and the political is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents.” – Chantal Mouffe, On the Political

There is something mischievous in the way Cecilia Lisa Eliceche meets the gaze of the audience around her in the Lilian Baylis studio; it’s a cross between intense and ludic and it informs the way she choreographs. Set on four dancers (Eliceche, Michael Helland, Manon Santkin, and Eveline Van Bauwel), her most recent work, Unison, distils the attraction of dance into its component elements of movement, pattern and rhythm in search of the nature of unison. Eliceche costumes her dancers in flesh-coloured unitards to emphasize their bodies as instruments of her choreographic exploration without signifying any particular genre.

The performance starts with a bare stage and the sound of a riotous celebration from one corner, beyond the wings. The celebration moves in silence to another corner where we hear it again, like an early display of stereo. Eliceche studied at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels and the influence of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s uncompromising stagecraft and intellectual rigour is evident. A curtain parts and the performers step through in their body suits with strings of South American folkloric chas chas (lamb hooves sewn on to fabric strips) stuck on various parts of their anatomy. They arrange themselves haphazardly in different areas of the space facing different ways and begin the first exercise in unison. Since they cannot see each other and the movements are silent, there is a contradiction between the intent of the choreography and its realisation; while aspiring to unison, the dancers never quite achieve it. This contradiction will remain at the heart of Eliceche’s exploration and define its choreographic form.

When Helland takes off his chas chas and begins a classical port de bras sequence in the centre of the space, the three others watch. It is a four-phrase moving sequence that he performs to all four directions of the audience, but as the other dancers join in, repeating the sequence in opposing and complementary directions, the classical idea of unison is, despite the form, elusive. In its place is a sinuous weaving of patterns that requires a sophisticated spatial awareness, but even this breaks down when the quartet becomes so interlocked it gets stuck in a corner; there’s no room to manoeuvre so the dancers regroup to set off again. It all seems part of the game as they check with each other which course to set. Unison starts to look more like a choreographic argument than an exposition of a concept even if choreography does not have the same clarity as thought. Nevertheless dance has its own intelligence and Eliceche is experimenting to find out how she can employ it.

A third section sees the quartet moving through a similar set of phrases but to a faster tempo with an accumulation of new material. The voice, like a child’s rendering of a steam engine, is brought into the equation as accompaniment and when the movement stops it is the breath that continues in unison. Here is the first statement by Eliceche of what unison might be rather than what it might not be. A fourth section reimagines unison by introducing contact improvisation. It is the first time the dancers connect with each other, fitting like puzzles within and around each other in dynamic sculptural forms that can at any time fall apart and be refashioned. The quartet takes their sculptural improvisation up the railing of the staircase like naughty children in a playground, but never abandon their choreographic task. A brief pause to drink some water suggests another sense of being together. The quartet put on their chas chas again to start a rhythmic sequence of phrases based on the initial sequence, using clapping and voice to further enhance the folk rhythm. They regroup, standing on one leg like herons, bending their upper body lower until they succumb to gravity and slowly unravel to the floor, redefining once more the boundaries of how they relate to each other. A final sequence takes up the opening phrases like a musical recapitulation: the turning bodies with outstretched arms that continue into the darkness.

There is clearly a lot more to Cecilia Lisa Eliceche’s Unison than meets the eye. It is a refreshing observation on dance, connecting many sources into one manifestation. It is messy in the way life refuses to conform to intellectual concepts but it’s also a social construct if you can unravel watching dance from socio-political theory. The above quote from Chantal Mouffe appears in the extensive program notes to the performance and it is not difficult to see a metaphor for Mouffe’s assertion in the way the dancers negotiate spatially. There is also a long essay by Belgian socio-theorist Rudi Laermans titled, ‘Being in Unison: Being in Common.’ Laermans references Eliceche’s work by answering the question, ‘What does the idea of unison actually suggest or imply, not only as a choreographic tool but also from a wider cultural or socio-political point of view?’ The essay provides an insight into the broad-ranging mind of Eliceche, into her choreographic processes and deconstructs the work itself. Laermans’ writing and Eliceche’s choreography form a powerful package, even if the former is not immediately evident in the latter. Tired of seeing the glossy productions of new work that serve to reinforce the singular idea of dance as sophisticated technique in the service of pre-conceptual amusement, Unison is a salutary and gutsy reminder of just how intelligent dance can be.


Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night at the Theatre

Posted: May 20th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night at the Theatre

Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night At The Theatre, Rich Mix, April 24

Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Connor Quill in Night at the Theatre (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Connor Quill in Night at the Theatre (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Rather than contain his work within the confines of a theatre Tim Casson usually brings theatre into places that are essentially porous: think hotel, office, pub, or the street. This goes hand in hand with his method of gathering material: anonymous anecdotes from the hotel industry (Selling Secrets Part 1), public houses (Selling Secrets Part 2), office culture (Selling Secrets Part 3) and stories directed through the Royal Mail (Choreospondance). He has also worked directly with the public in outdoor spaces (Dances We Made). So finding Casson making work in a theatre is a new experience on unfamiliar ground. Night at the Theatre is aimed at children of all ages; gone are the adult themes and sardonic humour of the Selling Secrets trilogy and in their place is a complex plot within a plot within a plot that retains elements of Dances We Made. Casson has created a hybrid story that has the wit of the physical and the playfulness of the imagination, a brand of theatre that comes from the heart as well as the head. There is no gearing down for a young audience and the three protagonists — Connor Quill (just up from the mine in COAL) and Stopgap Dance Company’s Nadenh Poan and Hannah Sampson — know exactly how to stir up creative trouble.

‘When three characters discover a theatre, little do they know that they will soon become the stars of their own show.’ Although it takes place in Venue 1 at Rich Mix, Helen Scarlett-O’Neill transforms the stage into a backstage prop room. The three intruders are seen peering through a gauze window next to a high brick wall at the back and it is not long before Casson has his Pina Bausch moment and the wall comes tumbling down with Sampson leading Quill over the cardboard rubble. Clearing the way for Poan’s wheelchair, the trio explores the dusty props: boxes of dresses (all costumes by Valentina Golfieri), masks, and assorted theatrical paraphernalia. Quill finds a megaphone and interrupts Sampson’s reverie over a yellow dress; she is not amused. He then messes around with Poan until they find a pair of partially covered legs. A dead body? Sampson approaches cautiously and in the suspense Poan sneezes. Unfazed, Sampson uncovers the rest of a doll but in the process reveals a horse’s head than neighs loudly. She faints.

This is just the preamble before the plot unfolds in earnest. Casson has a mischievous sense of humour (as do his collaborators) that blends in well with the wide-eyed expectations of the children in the audience. Quill asks a young girl in the front row how she is and then innocently, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘To see a show,’ she replies. Brilliant idea. Quill suggests to Poan and Sampson that they do the same. They sit and watch the audience watching them and match their tics and gestures. Giggles of laughter. Then a phone rings; Quill finds it among the props and answers. It’s the voice of the theatre’s director (Tim Van Eyken); he has only a moment to explain his concept for the show he wants to make and before Quill can demur, the director clicks off. It’s fight or flight and the desire to create a show wins out over scuttling back over the rubble and escaping. The director wants a prince, a princess and a wizard. Dougie Evan’s choice of Prokofiev’s scores for Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf create an appropriate score of romance and headstrong ingenuity as the three set about deciding their roles and what to choreograph. Inspired by the infectious make-believe of the props they battle with paintbrushes and dusters, cross dress, and perform a trio of arms and torsos. Poan does wheelie pirouettes, Sampson and Quill dance a duet in which she perches on his feet, Sampson starts to seriously groove in a dance of her own, and Poan acts as a DJ on a turntable suitcase. The three are choreographing up a storm and in their enthusiasm miss another call from the director, who leaves a message: he wants a grand finale with 100 extras on stage. That’s 97 additional performers. Quill counts the audience. You know what’s coming. The grand finale becomes Casson’s trademark use of choreographic transmission in which we are all encouraged to make movement phrases that we perform in our seats.

Casson is essentially a choreographic provocateur in the way he blurs the distinction between audience and performer by combining or inverting the two. Night at the Theatre works on both levels, giving young audiences a chance to enter into the ludic nature of theatre with the courage to indulge their natural predilection for combining movement and words. And Poan, Quill and Sampson are ideal kindred spirits.


Company Chordelia, Nijinsky’s Last Jump

Posted: May 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Company Chordelia, Nijinsky’s Last Jump

Company Chordelia Dance Theatre, Nijinsky’s Last Jump, The North Wall, Oxford, May 4

Darren Brownlie, Petrushka and James Bryce in Nijinsky's Last Jump (photo: Maria Falconer)

Darren Brownlie, Petrushka and James Bryce in Nijinsky’s Last Jump (photo: Maria Falconer)

Vaslav Nijinsky’s jump was legendary. Asked to describe how he managed to jump so high he is reported to have said, ‘It’s easy. You go up and then pause a little up there.’ The only known visual evidence of Nijinsky’s dancing is contained in some extraordinary photographs taken at the height of his dancing career between 1909 and 1913 which dance critic Edwin Denby wrote, ‘in their stillness…have more vitality than the dances they remind us of…’ They also speak of a quality the artist Alexandre Benois evinces in his memoirs: having described Nijinsky as ‘of uninteresting appearance, rather short of stature with a thick neck and a large head’, he went on to write that ‘having put on the costume, he gradually began to change into another being, the one he saw in the mirror. He became reincarnated and actually entered into his new existence, as an exceptionally attractive and poetical personality.’ Evidently these photographs, and the personality portrayed in them, hold a powerful fascination for Company Chordelia’s artistic director, Kally Lloyd-Jones; Nijinsky’s Last Jump is her response.

Much has been written about and much edited out of Nijinsky’s stage life and his relations with others — notably with Serge Diaghilev and with his wife Romola — but Lloyd-Jones has set out to reveal Nijinsky in his own right. In 1919, at the age of 29, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and in the same year he wrote a diary over a six-week period that has become the only window into his inner life at the time. It was first published in 1936 in his wife’s carefully edited version, but in 1999 the original unexpurgated text was translated by Kyril FitzLyon. It is this version that informs Michael Daviot’s text for Nijinsky’s Last Jump which Lloyd-Jones has directed and choreographed. Following his diagnosis, Nijinsky lived another 30 years in the shadow of his fame, never again dancing in public and at the mercy of early 20th-century understanding and treatment of his disorder. Lloyd-Jones can’t resist the temptation to wonder what might have happened if schizophrenia had been better understood in 1919. Nijinsky’s Last Jump imagines a lucid dialogue between Old Nijinsky (James Bryce) and Young Nijinsky (Darren Brownlie) in which the two halves of a life divided by illness are reunited.

The only occasion in the south of England to see this work is at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford. Given that Judith Mackrell ranked it fifth in her top ten dance works of 2015, it’s a mystery why Nijinsky’s Last Jump has not been invited to London (8 of her 10 choices were seen there). Kudos to North Wall. It’s a lovely theatre, too, with a seating capacity of 200 and its stage tonight has, thanks to set designer Janis Hart and lighting designer Laura Hawkins, become Nijinsky’s dressing room with a table loaded with bouquets of flowers and a mirror that together suggest a shrine. A screen in one corner is the changing area (rather improbably with Nijinsky’s name stencilled on it) and in the opposite corner is another screen reminiscent of a hospital bay. A Petrushka puppet (courtesy of Janis Hart) is draped on a chair. Seated next to the puppet Bryce, in a convincingly Slavic accent, introduces an anecdote about the origins of his famous jump while we hear the latter part of a performance of Le Spectre de la Rose taking place beyond the wings. All we see of the famous final jump is Brownlie landing in a heap on his dressing room floor, breathing heavily. Bryce becomes the regisseur, getting the younger dancer wiped down with a towel and returning him to the stage to acknowledge the rapturous applause (recorded as part of the sound design by Jesse Godolphin). Seated once again, Bryce talks dispassionately of his early preoccupation with masturbation. This is one of the details Romola had excised from the original diary, but its inclusion here not only allows Nijinsky to unashamedly confess his former sexual proclivities but alludes directly to the suggestive final pose of his first choreography, L’Après-midi d’un Faune (‘The Faun,’ he wrote, ‘is me.’). This clever cross-referencing in text and details is key to the richness of Nijinsky’s Last Jump and while Lloyd-Jones mines the roles of Nijinsky to find the person, she wisely avoids any attempt to find the dancer: Brownlie warms up in the dressing room but Nijinsky’s stage performances remain beyond the wings in our imagination.

Bryce and Brownlie form an affecting partnership. Bryce is like a saint who has suffered much, who has arrived at a level of philosophical resignation 30 years ahead of Brownlie; he is thus in a position to comfort him, to encourage him on the journey he is about to take: that long, lonely final jump from worldly fame to enduring myth. The historical and psychological details in Nijinsky’s Last Jump are extensive and interlinked, but while forming an intelligent matrix of meaning, they rely perhaps too much on prior knowledge of the subject to be fully appreciated. A little more in the way of program notes may help to identify the context and some aspects of Nijinsky for those who don’t know a lot about him; without them the detailed cross-references may lose their significance, seem abstruse or simply mystifying. Without a knowledge of the respective ballets, what to make of Brownlie’s landing from the wings, or of Bryce placing Brownlie’s body in the sideways, two-dimensional forms of Faune that were so revolutionary at the time? Or of the re-enactment of Nijinsky’s role as the hapless doll in Petrushka by dancing the puppet in front of a hospital screen? And if the story of the opening night of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring is unknown, how would Brownlie’s screaming of the musical counts from the wings relate to Bryce’s reading of the reviews afterwards? I am not sure. Nijinsky has been an inspiration for many years and I have read enough to enjoy the density of Nijinsky’s Last Jump, but I was not aware of the extent of Nijinsky’s shock therapy. When Lloyd-Jones has Bryce list the concoction of medications Nijinsky was administered for his schizophrenia — it is long and ends with 228 insulin-induced comas — with the horrendous effects, she takes on the additional role of advocate. At the same time old Nijinsky is in a position to gently guide his younger self to a calm acceptance of his fate in the conviction that their inner life remains intact. So for me it is poignant to see a play about Nijinsky that makes his own voice its subject and, as Lloyd-Jones writes, ‘honours a human being who clearly continues to touch the hearts of many.’


Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Songs of the Wanderers

Posted: May 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Songs of the Wanderers

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Songs of the Wanderers, Sadler’s Wells, May 7

The final pattern of Songs of the Wanderers (photo: Yu-Hui-hung)

The final pattern of Songs of the Wanderers (photo: Yu-Hui-hung)

A monk in white robes standing motionless on stage for seventy minutes under a steady stream of falling rice is a powerful image of stoicism, concentration, and meditative self-control. Wang Rong-ji’s presence in Cloud Gate’s Songs of the Wanderers is an indication not only of the spiritual nature of the work but counterintuitively of the quality of its movement. We don’t see him move until he re-enters the stage to take his bow but his modest gesture of outstretched arms to acknowledge the applause gives the impression of pure spirit, of a body that has no apparent weight or strength. It is a gesture that defines movement by its absence of physical intent and, in diverting attention away from the body, focuses on the spiritual aspect of being. This is central to Lin Hwai-min’s conception of Songs of the Wanderers, which he created following a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya in India where Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. As Lin Hwai-min describes, “I sat quietly under the bodhi tree, shoulder to shoulder with the monks. I opened my eyes, and saw sunlight coming from the top of the stupa through the branches to land directly on my forehead. My heart became full of joy; I felt a quietude that I had never experienced.”

Songs of the Wanderers is also inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a novel set in India about a young man who leaves home in search of enlightenment; the meandering river of golden rice we see on stage at the beginning of Songs of Wanderers suggests the river that both physically and metaphorically led Siddhartha from illusion to enlightenment.

The wanderers of Lin Hwai-min’s Songs emerge from behind the dark backcloth and drift towards the river with tall staffs cut from forest branches. The monk is on the opposite shore under the cascading rice: set designer Austin M.C. Wang has thus created two rivers, one vertical and one horizontal. In Hesse’s novel Siddhartha annihilates the contradictions in words and thoughts, seeing the oneness in the reality in and around him. In the same way, Cloud Gate’s community of wanderers gradually removes the obstacle of the river by dissolving its banks: they pick up the rice to let it slip through their fingers, spread it with the force of their bodies in a series of tableaux and release handfuls high into the air. Rice also rains in intervals like a monsoon until the entire stage is covered, merging the two rivers into one. Songs of Wanderers is thus not so much a narrative as a journey in which the seeking spirit of the wanderers aspires to the spiritual influence of the monk. The opening section, called Holy River, sets the character of this journey beautifully; accompanied by a Georgian folk song recorded by Rustavi Choir, the dancers move with calm control, quietly advancing to the river, the uprights of their staffs contrasting with the smoothness of their slow, meandering paths. Out of this meditative prelude that blurs time and space, Lin Hwai-min’s choreography takes a more structured form, weaving ensemble and soloists (Ko Wan-chun and Wang Wei-min) in formal sections with theatrical effects that remind us of space and time. The two deluges of rice are visually stunning, but the first is a device to mask the entrance of Wang Wei-ming at the beginning of his solo and the second seems to have no other function but to replenish the rice on stage. In a work where the material aspect of life slowly erodes into the immaterial, these devices jar and leave me feeling I am watching from the outside rather than participating in the journey.

Which brings me back to Wang Rong-ji. It is only when I see him move that I realise to what extent the physical body can represent the spiritual. Hesse uses the dialectic of words to point the way towards a reality that encompasses their opposition; in the physical realm, Wang-Rong-ji finds a corresponding unity between gravity and weightlessness and points to a qualitative development of movement. By contrast, the physical language of the wanderers does not develop beyond the earthy opening, suggesting a substantive divide between the physical and the spiritual; the transformative effect of their journey remains unfulfilled. Wang Rong-ji has been in the production from the beginning twenty-two years ago — Lin Hwai-min hired him specifically for the role — but the dancers in this production, apart from Wang Wei-min, are relatively new. Perhaps they are just trying too hard, like Siddhartha before he renounced his ascetic practices.

The final phase of Song of the Wanderers is the lone figure of Lin Hsin-fang meticulously raking the rice into a perfect series of concentric circles. He begins as the company takes their bows, when the concentration of the audience has already started to dissipate, and it must seem a strange ritual for those in the stalls who cannot see the pattern he is making. But in Lin Hsin-fang’s solemn, meditative gesture there is the signification of intent and, for those who can see it, the pattern he defines suggests the harmonious goal of all spiritual wandering.


Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Posted: May 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Gary Clarke Company, COAL, The Place, April 15

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

“She defined and overcame the great challenges of her age…” – David Cameron in his tribute to Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

“Thatcherism…reeked the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage on this country…” – Glenda Jackson in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

It is an uncanny coincidence that the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike should occur at a time the current Conservative government is trying to dismantle another longstanding institution, the National Health Service. Gary Clarke’s COAL, commemorating the 1984/85 miners’ strike in choreographic form, comes as a salutary reminder of how politicians who capitalise on the self-aggrandizing belief they are ‘overcoming the challenges of (the) age’ can ruin the lives of entire communities. Clarke understands this firsthand, having been brought up in Grimethorpe, a mining town in South Yorkshire. ‘It’s deeply, deeply personal, and I just wanted to share how it felt to live through these times. How it felt then, and how it feels now as the pain, loss and division linger on in our stranded communities.’ It is memory that drives the work forward.

COAL is divided into three acts: the first is a slice of early-morning ritual in a single home that suggests the foundation of social life in a mining community. The wife (TC Howard) peels spuds in a bucket while the husband (Alistair Goldsmith) sleeps under a blanket; she is cook and feisty timekeeper, long-time lover and loyal supporter. Costume and set designer Ryan Dawson Laight takes delight in the details (Howard is reading a newspaper with the headline ‘Tory Cuts’) and Clarke fashions the spirit of comradeship in an earthy dance among the assembled miners (Goldsmith, Nicolas Vendange, James Finnemore, Joss Carter and Connor Quill) on their way to work. The second act is set underground (the pit cage and tunnels beautifully delineated in light by Charles Webber); it is a long section and full of tension. The qualities of their movement are a reflection of both the physical effort and their underground minds, a brutal existence spurred on by chalked targets, punctuated by bells and constantly threatened by hazards to limbs and lungs. It is perhaps the first time the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony has been used at the coalface and Daniel Thomas’ soundscape exaggerates the sense of pressure and confinement until we can’t take any more. Act three takes us up again into the air to the relative freedom of a social gathering, a chance to party and to relax, which is the moment Clarke introduces the figure of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (Eleanor Perry with the voice of Steve Nallon). This is the dramatic fulcrum of the work, the moment that defines the beginning of the end. From the intimately complex social solidarity of the first two acts, Thatcher’s intervention turns the community into a toxic, socially divisive battleground with Perry prowling like a bird of prey on one side of a picket line that bears a chilling resemblance to a gallows rope.

Clarke maintains COAL is not a political work but the politics are inextricable from the story and he plays the political aspect directly to the audience. If Perry doesn’t get booed during a performance she feels she hasn’t wrung a sufficiently derisive charge from her role. This raises questions as to the exact nature of COAL. In choosing to interpret this story through the medium of dance — particularly using his five muscular, handsome dancers as interpreters — Clarke mixes a social and political polemic with a soft image; he has us bathe in the action until we are as helpless in the face of fate as the miners with whom he is siding. The form of COAL thus straddles the tragedy of a community and an epic story of resistance, but in pointing the finger at Thatcher we collectively miss the opportunity to challenge our readiness to fight such injustices in the future. As Ernst Fischer wrote in The Necessity of Art when discussing Berthold Brecht’s use of emotional detachment to appeal to audiences’ reason and critical action, ‘The work of art must grip the audience not through passive identification but through an appeal to reason which demands action and decision.’

What Clarke has achieved is an intimate, nostalgic memoir in which the material is still full of pain and anger. The work is rooted in the communities he is honouring: apart from the permanent cast of Perry, Howard and the five male dancers, the supporting characters come from local mining communities or have a relationship to them and he uses songs played by colliery bands from areas of the country in which he is performing. This close-knit network of performers strengthens the cohesion of the work, but it is the lack of artistic detachment that weakens the dramatic impact. It implodes rather than explodes, draws us in rather than spits us out on a path to change. It is designed to rouse the emotions of the audience — and is more or less successful depending on where it is performed — to reaffirm the sense of betrayal that continues today.

We want COAL to succeed because what it depicts is vital to an understanding of these blighted communities and of our collective history but it falls short primarily because of its desire to entertain. The reality was and is far worse than COAL can ever admit but commemoration can also be a call to action; the struggle for the survival of the NHS is history repeating itself.