Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 19

Posted: December 5th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 19

Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 15-19

Joe Garbett and Jessica Haener in No. Company at Emerge Festival

Joe Garbett and Jessica Haener in No. Company at Emerge Festival

The appeal, not to mention the importance, of a festival like Emerge that presents new and experimental work by new and experimental choreographers, is the possibility of a work appearing on the program that stands out, that leaves a palpable trace or sensation. It doesn’t mean the work is ready to tour nationally or internationally but simply that it ushers in the possibility of new developments in choreography. Such innovations don’t necessarily require lots of money but they do need to be seen.

On each week of its two-week run, Emerge’s curator, Adam Towndrow of C12 Dance Theatre, has produced a single program of five works that is performed five times, and there is no connection between the works apart from their intrinsic interest. The little miracle happened in the second week. Most of the works involve a single choreographer but Joe Garbett coordinated eight (Jacob Bray, Daisy Farris, Chloe Mead, Joel O’donoghue, Hannah Parsons, Hannah Rotchell, Thea Stanton and Cornelia Voglmayr) in the work he conceived and directed, No.Company. It’s all about collaboration that keeps the collaborators out of the room, a choreographic form like remote surgery with the haptic feedback coming from the performers. It’s an interesting creative paradigm; choreographic ideas sent by text message — anything from a suggestion, to word play, to a precise instruction — from each of the choreographers and translated by the two interpreters, Garbett and Jessica Haener, into formal phrases. Garbett says the process of interpreting the texts and directing the finished work took three studio days.

‘Finished work’ might be an overstatement; with its fluid, interpretative basis, No.Company has the quality of an improvisation — albeit within restrictions — with the refreshing continuity of a spontaneous conversation replete with asides, pauses, connecting gestures and phrases. I saw it twice and the second time it had matured but not substantively changed. Garbett and Haener are relaxed together, freely and informally engaged in the moment without any indication they know what’s coming up next. Neither do we; the nature of the collaboration is eight unrelated subjects with eight unrelated soundtracks joined together to form a single discursive performance. But because Garbett and Haener are so engaging and the work so full of suggestion, we as an audience can draw our own conclusions like a directorial line. Paul Klee once described his doodles as taking his pencil for a walk; No. Company takes the body for a walk, and in its expressive articulation — even the pastel colours of their clothes help legibility — I have a sense of reading the choreography as it is written in space. Garbett’s governing idea is about the process of creation, but the result is that the eight creators and two translators, through some special alchemy, have created an intriguingly coherent work.

Also on the program is a reworking of Pomodoro by Alice Weber. It is a more powerful work than when I first saw it at Blue Cloud Scratch but Weber understandably skirts round the full horror of the experience that prompted it. It is a dark meditation on the vulnerability of the human body to trauma. Using the fragility of tomatoes as a metaphor is a stroke of genius but the potential menace of her conception is susceptible to psychological escape valves that leave the audience unsuspecting and the work unfulfilled. Weber shared the solo with Merritt Millman but even by detaching herself from the work through another interpreter, she maintains a safe distance from the subject.

The last time I saw a work by Rhiannon Brace (Baby), she was celebrating the birth of her son, Dylan; in The Last Dance On Earth she has jumped to the other end of the spectrum with the depiction a family living out its final day. Drawn from a reading of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, we meet the three generations of family sitting listening to the radio announcing the end of the world. Jay Jeyakumar has changed from a teddy-bear father in Baby to a stunned and confused one, but Mary Cox is still the smiling grandmother whose memories transform her movements into optimism. Brace herself is the mother, and Marta Polak the daughter who takes with her all the longing and pluck in her body. It’s a finely drawn characterisation that lifts the miniature work to a level of poignant urgency.

Paola Napolitano’s work on mental health, SELphOBiA, has far-reaching ideas that have not yet developed a coherent choreographic language to convey them, nor a setting in which to frame them. How do you convey emotional fragility through a body and mind that are strong and healthy? Napolitano’s imagery stays too much on the surface to convey the psychological depths she wants to explore. A straight jacket can point to a condition but does not in itself convey it, and Napolitano’s use of a broken mirror as a metaphor is similarly too literal; we should be looking through it rather than at it. I am reminded of those harrowing photographs by Richard Avedon of his sister and other inmates in a mental asylum: we see them through his lens and at the same time we feel the his emotional connection. In the theatre we are in effect behind the lens and it is only the physical language of the performer that can create that connection. No easy task, but there is more to unlock here.

By contrast, in Amy Foskett’s Through The Cottongrass the choreographic language dominates the narrative. Inspired by the beloved Swedish fairy tale, Princess Cottongrass, Foskett has created an episodic duet with Katherine Whale that picks up on the companionship of the princess and the elk in their magical journey through the forest. Of course in a theatre you can’t go very far, so the various stages of the duet rely for their effect on the quality of physical connection between the two dancers. Their duets create an ever more urgent but always precise and eloquent dynamic that is a pleasure to watch but the narrative basis of the work is only crudely tacked on to either end. The tale is certainly suitable for translation into dance but that, perhaps, is another project.

Just a final word to signal the heroic efforts of Edmund Sutton on the lighting desk and of Charlotte Tuckwood for her cameo performances in preparing the stage for each work.


Cloud Gate 2, Triple Bill

Posted: December 2nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cloud Gate 2, Triple Bill

Cloud Gate 2, Triple Bill, Sadler’s Wells, November 21

Cloud Gate 2 in Wicked Fish (photo: Liu Chen-hsiang)

Cloud Gate 2 in Wicked Fish (photo: Liu Chen-hsiang)

Part of Sadler’s Wells’ Out of Asia 2 platform showcasing dance in Asia, the appearance of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate 2 poses an enigma. Not to be confused with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, an internationally renowned company in its own right and synonymous with its founder, Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate 2, founded by Lin in 1999, might well be seen as the junior company. Yet despite its parentage and the similarity in training for the dancers — a mix of ballet, contemporary, Tai chi and martial arts — Cloud Gate 2 evidently has a different destiny. For now the separation of the two companies is predicated on the younger one developing promising Taiwanese choreographers under the guidance of artistic director, Cheng Tsung-lung, and on laying the grassroots foundations of dance in Taiwan as broadly as possible in local communities, towns and cities. Appearing in London for the first time may not appear to fulfil that national function but Cloud Gate 2, by virtue of the quality of its dancers and its choreography, has the stature of an international company, as is evident from its performance at Sadler’s Wells on Monday.

The company’s international aspect is reflected in all three works on the program, but while Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish and Cheng’s The Wall touch on themes of human contact and isolation that are universal, Cheng’s more recent Beckoning is imbued with a more parochial element of native religious beliefs and ceremonies that turn our view inwards towards Taiwanese traditions.

Yi’s Wicked Fish begins with a buzzing, frenetic wave of dancers flitting in and out of darkness; Lee Chien-chang’s choreographic lighting dapples the dancers’ faces, arms and feet like sunlight on the surface of a shaded stream. It is not hard to see fish swimming just under the surface, yet there is also a continuous exchange of energy at play between pairs of dancers as well as between the group and the individual, an abstract microcosm of society in movement. It is as if the stage is the visible part of a much broader, continuous flow across it while Iannis Xenakis’ complex score, Shaar, sets up the changing and often turbulent currents. Both the lighting and the black and white setting of Wicked Fish shows off the dancers beautifully in their strength, their flow of movement, and the clarity of their lines.

In The Wall, Cheng sublimates his childhood memories of hawking his family’s brand of slippers on the streets into a spatial arrangement of walking figures that convey the notion of the individual facing social and psychological walls and barriers. It’s deeply personal, delving into Cheng’s sense of isolation at the time of its creation in 2009, and created with a masterful hand, maintaining a dynamic tension of tidal movements throughout. The groupings follow closely the orchestration of Michael Gordon’s Weather One so that Lee’s intense lighting seems to illuminate both the dancers and the music.

The third work of the evening, Cheng’s Beckoning, stands out for its bright costumes by Lin Bin-hao and in its wash of light by Shen Po-hung. But it also differentiates itself from the previous works by its subject matter. Cheng spent a lot of his childhood with his mother attending religious ceremonies; as he wrote in a written interview, “On the birthdays of the deities, religious parades like carnivals would be held, usually with an amazing line-up of people. Gigantic puppets, representing various gods in the heavens or in the underworld, would swing and walk along streets. In the old days when the plague struck, people believed it was caused by ghosts and bad spirits. When that happened, the street-dancing rituals of Ba Jia Jiang, the “Eight Infernal Generals,” would be responsible for casting out the evils.” There are no puppets here, however, but lots of swing; Cheng has subsumed the festivities into bright colours and an exquisite gestural language. The meditative opening solo by Chan Hing-chung represents, perhaps, the matured Cheng as subject; it has no overt choreographic religious connotations but as Beckoning progresses it becomes more objective, approaching Ba Jia Jiang through the external eye of tradition. This is heightened by composers Chung Cheng-da and Quiet Quartet’s use of traditional instrumentation (arranged by Blaire Ko) that incorporates bells and street sounds. Cheng insists, however, that the dance itself is not about religion. “I recall a story in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth where a western sociologist asked a Shinto priest: “I don’t get your ideology. I don’t get your theology.” The Shinto priest gave deep thought and answered politely: “We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.”

And they do.


Politics, Performance and Ethics

Posted: November 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Politics, Performance and Ethics

Politics, Performance and Ethics, Aberystwyth, November 7, 2014

Pablo Picasso's Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937

In the latter part of 2014 I was performing in a production by Darshan Singh Bhuller and Lindsay Butcher called Rites of War. Before a show in Aberystwyth I was invited to participate in a presentation around themes of war and performance, to which I contributed this text that I re-discovered recently. 

As Remembrance Day approaches I am conscious we commemorate not those politicians who sleepwalked us into the war (to use a phrase from the title of Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the first world war) but those who suffered as a result. It is the lives of individuals caught up in conflicts over which they have no control (even in a democracy) that suffer most the devastating consequences of warfare. This is why Rites of War, in which I am presently performing, is based on the story of two soldiers in wars one hundred years apart: the last soldier to die in the so-called Great War and a British casualty in the recent Afghan War. War correspondent, David Loyn, who contributed to the shaping of the work, has written a book about a country he knows well. It is called Butcher & Bolt, and is subtitled Two hundred years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. 200 years is a long time, and the butchering and bolting that has gone on in those 200 years is unthinkable. Why is it still going on? To my mind it is not because of the soldiers and fighters who are there but because of the politicians who sent them there. War and politics, from time immemorial, are indelibly linked: I’m sure Carl von Clausewitz was not the first to understand that “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”

The frustration of powerlessness in the face of political machinations has inspired many a creator/performer to shake up the status quo. How do you get there? Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who on August 7, 1984 set up a tension wire and walked between the Twin Towers just before they were completed, has written, ‘The creator must be an outlaw. Not a criminal outlaw, but rather a poet who cultivates intellectual rebellion. The difference between a bank job and an illegal high-wire walk is paramount: the aerial crossing does not steal anything; it offers an ephemeral gift, one that delights and inspires.’ There is a lot in this short quote: intellectual rebellion, ephemeral gift, delight and inspiration. This is what performance is all about. It is a catalyst at best, mere entertainment at least. All great artists use their art to sublimate their material, however distressing the subject. Bob Dylan’s protest songs, Wilfred Owen’s poetry, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Don McCullin’s war photography, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage, Kurt Joos’ The Green Table, all deal with the consequences of man’s catastrophic inhumanity to man, but they are all upgraded by the public (who gratefully receive the gift) from protest to high art. It is as if the art form, by removing itself from the immediacy of the unimaginable context, has neutralized it. (Photography may be the one art/performance that retains the immediate horror of its subject because the photographer behind the lens is present).

The story of a WW1 chaplain, Geoffrey Stoddert Kennedy, otherwise known as Woodbine Willie for the cigarettes he would give out to those he helped in the trenches, is telling. He was loved and highly respected among the troops for his doggerel poetry, humour and compassion. But after the war when he applied his ideas to the political (socialist) arena, he was reviled. Employing ethics as a shining sword, he had crossed the line between performance and politics.

Have you noticed how bad politicians are at acting? They can’t bridge the gap between politics and performance. What one expects of actors in performance is conviction in what they say and do and a correspondence between word and gesture (mime is the most revealing). Politicians want to convince you with their words, but their eyes and gestures so often betray their insincerity. You can even hear it on the radio. They are hiding. A performance that hides is a failure. A politician uses hiding as a necessary ingredient of success. In a highly mediatized era, lying (or dissembling or prevarication or misinformation) is a means of survival. We want to see justice in the world but it is rarely in the political sphere we see it; we go to the theatre for that, not for the justice itself but as a mirror of what we want to see.

The situation between Israelis and Palestinians (in the political sphere) is intolerable. I saw recently a performance in Italy by Hillel Kogan, an Israeli choreographer, who made a piece called We Love Arabs. It is a duet with himself and an Arab dancer, Adi Boutros. It is satirical, funny and touching and it ends with them offering a hummus sacrament to the audience. It makes you feel that with a change of heart, a change of perspective, peace between Israel and Palestine is possible. It is an inspiration, a poetic act of rebellion. In the lead up to the festival Italian police were calling the organisers each day to find out where Kogan and Boutros were staying, their airline schedule and when they would arrive at the theatre. At the theatre police checked our bags. This is real life politics crossing the line into performance.

A performance can juxtapose elements that in real life may be far apart in order to make a point. Theatre can condense time to bring the beginning and the end closer together. Rites of War compresses 100 years of war. Theatre that lasts 100 years becomes politics.

Humour in all its forms is a trenchant weapon in performance. From the court jester to the circus clown to the stand-up comic to Private Eye, humour is used to tell the truth in such a way as to be palatable, even to the authorities targeted, because it is a pressure valve that lets off steam through laughter.

I would like to finish with mention of dance, not only because I am a dancer but because dance, being a non-verbal form of performance conveys imagery that is full of emotional power because it is the human body that is the instrument. As Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in a 2006 TED talk, “As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ But, he points out with characteristic wit, “We are not brains on a stick; we are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’

I think goes some way to explain the power of performance. Performance can reconnect an audience with their sense of self, create a dialogue, inspire, perhaps to intellectual rebellion. It may also explain why politicians are not keen to support dance in our educational curriculum.


Gracefool Collective, This Really Is Too Much

Posted: November 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gracefool Collective, This Really Is Too Much

Gracefool Collective, This Really Is Too Much, Blue Elephant, November 11

Kate Cox, Sofia Rebecca Holmberg and Rachel Fullegar in This Really Is Too Much (photo: Lidia Crisafulli)

Kate Cox, Sofia Edstrand, Rachel Fullegar and Rebecca Holmberg of Gracefool Collective in This Really Is Too Much (photo: Lidia Crisafulli)

It’s interesting to look at the four women of Gracefool Collective — Kate Cox, Sofia Edstrand, Rachel Fullegar and Rebecca Holmberg — as they sit facing us in matching black outfits at the beginning of their collectively created This Really Is Too Much: four faces, four pairs of eyes each with a different focus and inflection expressing a range of moods from amusement to dead serious. They recite in tight unison the phrase ‘I’m telling you something…(long pause)…something important…I have the answer…’ Reminiscent of Victor Borge’s vocal punctuation, they vocalise their gestures within their text: ‘I am the answer (exhale-gain-their-trust)’ or ‘Look (point), you’ve never had it so good.’ It’s a carefully crafted opening gambit in a game the four women play knowingly with the audience. By the end of the performance the synchronous opening has given way to a colourful disarray on a floor littered with the detritus of what the program note calls ‘the downright absurd realities of what it means to be a 3-dimensional, high definition, water-drinking, salad-eating, moisturizing WO-man in modern society.’

The Collective performed a shorter pilot version of This Really Is Too Much at Resolution earlier this year; the desire to expand it into a full evening work has led to this first performance at Blue Elephant Theatre. The work as it now stands contrasts some tightly choreographed sequences (like the opening) with more flaccid sections that suggest the hyperbole and capital letters of the program note may have been an agent of expansion. There is a sense that having chosen to focus their intelligence and humour on resisting stereotypical boxes, the four women scupper their desire to emerge as individuals with their mirth in demonstrating the stereotypes. Do they need to undress repeatedly to their underwear — apart from Fullegar as the beauty queen — to prove a point, or are they merely reinforcing a stereotype for the purpose of laughs?

Gracefool Collective undressed in This Really Is Too Much (photo: Lidia Crisafulli)

Gracefool Collective undressed in This Really Is Too Much (photo: Lidia Crisafulli)

It is not for nothing that the Collective has ‘fool’ in its name:

…let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)

William Shakespeare’s early fools provided laughter as a distraction for the crowds but later his fools took on the more powerful role of speaking truth to power through their wit. The seeds of the latter can be seen in This Really Is Too Much but the former strategy dominates.

Fullegar is cast as an intelligent beauty queen, the only one to express a coherent point of view on government, economics, politics and the state of women, but each time she makes a statement she either qualifies it with a self-deprecatory joke (‘We can combine radical feminism…and Downton Abbey’) or is overwhelmed by her raucous mates. Statements are thus given weight and then the weight is taken away.

Exceptions occur not in the text but in physical form: Fullegar’s dogged running round and round the stage in bikini and oversized heels is gutsy physical satire and the destabilization by two viciously smiling cronies of the chair Holmberg stands on as she tries to talk is a disturbingly dark image. Less dramatic but equally effective is the ironic way Edstrand expresses her gratitude while reclining on the shoulders and back of Cox and Holmberg. These moments show how close Gracefool Collective is to defining a physical language to deal with the subject of their work without having to resort to gags.

The mix between the four women, who met at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, is evident; their personalities hold well together though they have talents that remain unexplored. For four graduates of a prestigious dance school, there is little to suggest their training (though in the trailer for Resolution both Holmberg and Cox had well-defined gestural portraits) and Holmberg is a musician who could well provide a welcome ingredient to the Collective’s brand of theatre. Choosing, as they have done here, a track list as sophisticated and diverse as Steely Dan (Only A Fool Would Say That), Moondog, Barry White, Handel, Lars Hollmer, Cissy & Whitney Houston and Vivaldi does not serve the home-grown identity of the Collective as their own musical input (or silence) might. Nevertheless it is the infectious enthusiasm of the four women that drives This Really Is Too Much and that gives it cohesion despite the sense of manic dissipation with which the work comes to an end.


Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted

Posted: November 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Inter-rupted, Barbican, October 22

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter-rupted

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter-rupted (photo: NCPA)

When we look at the body in finer and finer detail, can we find what we’re protecting? If we visualise searching right down amid the very marrow for the thingness of our body, can we find it? Attachment to one’s physical form is based on the body being a reliable, continuous entity. But can we pinpoint what we’re clinging to when we probe its depths?” – Pema Chödrön.

The quote from Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, is printed in the program for Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company’s Inter-rupted, part of this year’s Dance Umbrella. It is a text about attachment, the subject Mangaldas explores choreographically in 75 minutes of uninterrupted choreography. She and her six dancers appear and disappear, gather and disperse, disintegrate and reform, interlock and unlock, yet all these contrasts form a series of scenes without borders, one merging into the next, each with a symbolism of its own that is carried in the movement. While Mangaldas set out to counter the temporal nature of life by resisting the notion of attachment, in the course of making the work she had to face the very nature of attachment she had set out to explore. Woven into the cloth of the work is thus the solitary thread of its imperfection. Mangaldas herself embodies this dynamic contradiction as she brings us into the fragile moment, ‘like any we might strive to hold on to…even if all is transient, all is flowing, and all is Inter-rupted.’ Her dancers — Karan Gangani, Minhaz, Aamrapali Bhandari, Anjana Singh, Sunny Shishodiya and Manoj Kumar — move like a chorus that flows with and around her with virtuosic, fire-cracker footwork, vertiginous turning and a wonderfully lyrical use of gesture and voice. In addition to a recorded sound score by Sajid Akbar, the company is joined on stage by three gifted musicians — Mohit Gangani on tabla and padhant, Ashish Gangani on pakhawaj and padhant, and Faraz Ahmed on vocals — who punctuate the choreographic flow with, respectively, virtuosic rhythms and plaintive song.

In some ways Inter-rupted is familiar territory; it is a journey of ‘exploring the past (of kathak) with a modern mind’ that Akram Khan has been forging in this country for the last 16 years. Khan, however, was born in England and has been working with an international cast of performers in a country that welcomes cross-cultural fertilisation as an expression of its identity; Mangaldas and her dancers have had to challenge the established norms of kathak from within its own cultural context. As she wrote in response to a question I asked her, this process ‘does raise debates in India but that makes the entire conversation alive and relevant. There is a growing appreciation of looking at our classical traditions in contemporary contexts and a huge appreciative viewership that encourages change. So the environment is quite vibrant with debate and interesting new directions.’ Inter-rupted thus resists tradition while remaining very much within it, a very different proposition to that of Khan; Mangaldas’s work looks refreshingly like the real thing.

What makes the aesthetic of Inter-rupted familiar, perhaps, is that the production team includes some of Khan’s key figures he had introduced to Mangaldas nearly seven years ago, since when they have been working together on various productions: Farooq Chaudhry is listed as dramaturg, Fabiana Piccioli as lighting designer and Kimie Nakano designed the costumes. The confluence of Piccioli and set designer Manish Kansara — a sculptor based in Delhi — is visually stunning: an airy, three-sided space in shades of ochre that acts, depending on the lighting, as much like a large interior room as it does an undefined exterior space. The very opening shows a solitary man short of breath shaking uncontrollably in his room as he stares out at the audience, his body disintegrating until he recedes into the dark. Out of the dark we see the figure of Mangaldas slithering diagonally backwards through a shadowy, open space dragging a cloth that unwinds into a broad stream of material before she gathers it in slowly and purposefully as six figures enter the space that becomes a room once again.

Nakano’s evident understanding of, and sensibility to kathak rhythms allow her costumes to breathe and flow with the movement while maintaining an ascetic, spiritual quality in which the work is painted.

But while Mangaldas’s collaborators give Inter-rupted its aesthetic cohesion, it is the richness of the material — Pema Chödrön’s ‘thingness’ — and its interpretation that make this body-and-mind struggle to face its true nature a cause for celebration.

 

This review was commissioned by Pulse Asian Dance and Music and appears here with the very kind permission of its editors. 


Nitin Sawhney with Wang Ramirez

Posted: November 8th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Nitin Sawhney with Wang Ramirez

 Nitin Sawhney with Wang Ramirez, Royal Albert Hall, November 2

Nitin Sawhney at Royal Albert Hall (photo: Morah Geist)

Nitin Sawhney at Royal Albert Hall (photo: Morah Geist)

Being an Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells means Nitin Sawhney has privileged access to dance; he is, after all, known to dance enthusiasts for his collaborations with Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. This evening, Royal Albert Hall and Sadler’s Wells have got together for the first time to co-produce a dance element by inviting the duo Wang Ramirez — Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez — to perform with Sawnhey and his guests. It’s a revelation not only on a musical level but choreographically.

In front of a series of vertical panels on which is projected the artwork from his 2015 Dystopian Dream, Sawhney plays a number of tracks from the album and from his wide-ranging catalogue. His music is based on an elaborate layering of sounds and textures led by Sawnhey himself on guitar or piano. Occasionally a single instrument or voice from the ensemble will rise above the orchestration to sing its own song, as with tabla player Aref Durvesh, flautist and vocalist Ashwin Srinivasan, and cellist Ian Burdge. Despite their individual quality, other instrumentalists fare less well on the balance of sounds in the cavernous Albert Hall. Sawhney’s use of the voice as an integral part of his instrumentation leads to some fine performances, particularly from J’Danah and Tina Grace whose voices have what Roland Barthes called ‘le grain de la voix’, or a rich textural quality that carries the sound.

Wang and Ramirez dance two consecutive pieces in each half of the program. Sound quality is not something that concerns them yet in their first track, Time Trap, they perform like two additional instruments in the band, so totally inside the music that we see it as they dance. Like an inspired riff on the music, it’s infectious; if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had had the disciplinary makeup of Ramirez and Wang — gymnastics, b-boying and martial arts, to name a few — this is how they might have moved. In addition to the rhythmic speed and precision — there are as many articulations in their bodies as there are notes in the music — there is a clarity of line and a mercurial virtuosity in the duo’s performance that takes the breath away. For the second piece, Silence, with Eva Stone on vocals, the balance of dance to music is less effective; the choreographic language is similar but it stands outside the framework of the song. I find myself watching the dance while the music continues in the background. In the second half, in which Sawhney introduces his Latin side, Wang and Ramirez dance to Redshift with lead vocals by J’Danah and to a recorded track, Dimensions. In both the fluid complicity with the music is back. The body is once again both instrument and musician, silently creating images like a skillful mime while building its vocabulary by effortlessly adopting and playing with such kathak idioms as the rippling arms. This is the alchemy of artistic collaboration, a process of contributing to and being transformed by the other. As artists working both inside and outside their cultural identities, Wang and Ramirez have built their reputation on this kind of sensitivity just as Sawhney has done in his fusion of musical influences. The three have a lot in common and it shows.

In a written interview I conducted with Wang and Ramirez, Wang remembers first hearing Sawhney’s Homelands when she was 16. ‘I loved that sound, but for me he was an artist who was far away from where I was…’ Before going on stage in the second half, she would have heard the same track with Srinivasan and Grace on lead vocals. Whatever distance there might have been has evidently shrunk to a proximity we can all enjoy.


An Interview with Wang Ramirez

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

An interview with Wang Ramirez

Wang Ramirez (photo: Filine Fink)

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez (photo: Filine Fink)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Natalia Osipova, Three Commissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

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

Peter Wright, Wrights and Wrongs, Oberon Press         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Akademi, Staycation/Vacation

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

Akademi, Staycation/Vacation, Rich Mix, July 15

Kesha Raithatha in Traces (photo: Simon Richardson)

Kesha Raithatha in Traces (photo: Simon Richardson)

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

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

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

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

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

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