Akram Khan Company, Kaash

Posted: April 30th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan Company, Kaash

Akram Khan Company, Kaash, Lighthouse Poole, April 13

Akram Khan Company in the revival of Kaash (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Akram Khan Company in the revival of Kaash (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

I had been invited by Libby Battaglia to give a writer’s workshop for young reviewers at Lighthouse Poole and the performance we were going to review was Akram Khan’s Kaash, his company’s first full-length work created in 2002. Presently on tour 14 years later, Kaash is an early and compelling vision of what the fusion between Khan’s classical kathak training and contemporary dance might look like. The result has the sophistication of the classical with the raw power of the contemporary that remains as thrillingly visceral as it evidently did in 2002 when it won the Critics Circle National Dance award for Best Modern Choreography. Performed by a typically international cast of five — then as now — the choreography has a universal quality unattached to any particular nationality or genre, but Kaash displays a unity of influence through the collaborations with artist Anish Kapoor and musician Nitin Sawhney. In their respective mediums both Kapoor and Sawhney had already established a synergy between their Indian roots and western culture so by the time of their collaboration with Khan his choreographic forms could be framed in an aural and visual environment that complemented and enriched them.

There is no linear narrative in Kaash but rather a series of ideas explored in movement, what the program note describes as ‘Hindu gods, black holes, Indian time cycles, tablas, creation and destruction.’ These are elements of Indian cosmology and dance familiar to Khan who was exploring the affects of his cultural identity without resorting to their traditional cultural signifiers. Images are woven into the fabric of the work, as in the form of the god Shiva glimpsed in a line of dancers, one behind the other, displaying the multiple arms of a single body, or the mudras (hand gestures) that carry their own meaning but here give shape to and refine the movements of the arms and hands. Indian time cycles or signatures are the kathak rhythmical counts that are chanted by the accompanying singer. When Khan himself was dancing in the original he would chant these time signatures himself, but here it is his voice we hear (recorded by Bernhard Schimpelsberger); it becomes part of the score rather than a live element of the dance.

Kapoor’s large black rectangle painted on the backdrop represents the black hole that in Indian cosmology was the centre of the world and the seat of Lord Vishnu, creator of the universe. A black hole is also a region of space-time with such strong gravitational effects that nothing can escape from inside it. The stage becomes a dynamic energy field, lit from smouldering to fire by Aideen Malone, inside which Khan’s choreography creates a powerful sense of gravity acting on the bodies of his dancers. One common characteristic of kathak and contemporary dance is the repudiation of vertical space; movement remains intensely horizontal and grounded. The dancers in Kaash cross from one side of the stage to the other like particles in close proximity. Even solos, especially by the (English) twins Kristina and Sadé Alleyne, have this remarkable vitality that cannot be extinguished. The figure of Sung Hoon Kim, bare-chested in a long black skirt (all costumes by Kimie Nakano), provides a soothing spiritual dimension — an exploration of Lord Shiva, agent of destruction and change. In Hindu cosmology the end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva’s dance is also the beginning of the next cycle. For some time in the opening section Kim remains still, absorbing the energy around him until he starts to move with extraordinary speed and precision, which in turn affects the other dancers; the cycle of creation and destruction continues unabated. Khan’s original role is danced by Nicola Monaco, and the fifth dancer is Sarah Cerneaux. The reconstruction of Kaash under the eye of rehearsal director Yen-Ching Lin has been guided by some of the original cast, though because the techniques of contemporary dance have changed in the last 14 years Kahn encouraged the present dancers to refresh the choreography without losing its overall form. This is perhaps why the work still seems so alive.

Sawhney’s score supports and gives life to the cyclical energy of Kaash, acting on our ears in the same way Kahn’s choreography immerses our visual and kinetic senses. Sawnhey makes use of drumming that belongs as much to the Japanese kodo as to the Indian tabla: powerful, percussive rhythms that emphasise the earthy quality of the dance pervading the first section with its repeated patterns of dynamic lunges and powerful, heavily sweeping arms. At one point the addition of John Oswald’s Spectre played by the Kronos Quartet, seeps into the score like a memory, and similarly there are whispered fragments of recorded speech that tease the notion of ‘kaash’ (Hindi for ‘if only’) into aural puzzles: “If only I’d bought one instead of two” or, more pertinently to Khan’s identity, “If I tell you the truth about who I really am.”

Kaash in 2002 was uniquely situated in the British cultural and social zeitgeist that sought links and bridges to its multicultural communities. Khan responded with a work that seemed to go far beyond that remit, turning it almost inside out. As the dramaturg, Guy Cools, has suggested, Khan’s artistic universe (along with that of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) is largely built around ‘his identity in-between dance cultures,’ and in this early work he effectively subsumes his two identities by fusing them into a seamless whole.


English National Ballet’s She Said

Posted: April 19th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s She Said

English National Ballet, She Said, Sadler’s Wells, April 16

Grayson Perry's front cloth for She Said

Grayson Perry’s front cloth for She Said

“Dance in its purest form is without gender.” – Ohad Naharin

On message, English National Ballet has fashioned an evening of dance celebrating the female choreographer. She Said brings together Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Aszure Barton from North America and Yabin Wang from China to each create a work for the company. She Said does not set out to compare their works with the male-dominated canon (reflected in its many iconographic forms in Grayson Perry’s delightful mandala-like front cloth) but to respond to the current criticism that we don’t hear enough of the female choreographic voice in contemporary classical work. One can’t argue with that, and even if the qualities of that voice resist clear identification, the experience of watching the three works in She Said is decidedly refreshing. Along with news that English National Ballet has been granted permission by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch to perform Bausch’s Rite of Spring, it seems the initiatives of artistic director Tamara Rojo have an uncanny ability to fill unwarranted gaps in the repertoire while keeping an astute eye on public relations. The profile of the company keeps growing.

Given She Said invokes the gender question, it is perhaps worth noting not all the creative input is female. Lopez Ochoa and Barton both use scores by male composers (Peter Salem and Mason Bates respectively) and Wang seems to have been handed an entire Akram Khan creative toolkit that includes music by Jocelyn Pook, costume design by Kimie Nakano, lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli and video projection by Matt Deely. Given the role of Farooq Chaudhry — co-founder and producer of Akram Khan Company — as creative producer at ENB one can trace a male influence in the choice of Wang’s collaborative team. This might have gone unnoticed but for an overwhelming sense that Pook’s score drowns Wang’s version of the Greek tragedy of Medea, M-Dao. Wang’s approach to Medea is not so much by way of the western notion of fate as through a particularly Eastern sensibility of emotional detachment. Pook misses this subtlety, so M-Dao relies for its effectiveness on its visual construction. Erina Takahashi as Medea is an ideal interpreter for Wang and her articulate, fragile opening solo, one foot in a pale blue pointe shoe the other bare, suggests the enigma of Medea’s character. Because the gestural appearance of James Streeter as Jason and Lauretta Summerscales as his new wife Glauce lack this sense of detachment, their narrative separates naturally from Medea’s and leaves the focus on her. Wang’s understated choreography signifies the drama without getting involved in its outward emotion and she is helped in this by Nakane’s sensibility in set design and Piccioli’s lighting. Deely’s video tends to state rather too much, as if he is afraid Wang’s imagery is not enough, but it is Pook’s fleshy, middle-eastern mix of a score that simply overrides the quiet articulation of Wang’s choreography; we can barely see for hearing.

The opening work, Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, is based on the life and love of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Lopez Ochoa remembers Rojo giving her a list of female figures in history and literature from which to choose a subject, but she kept coming back to Kahlo. Spanish culture is a bond between choreographer and director/interpreter, and Kahlo provides Rojo with a role for which she has an affinity. She is most effective at the beginning as a young, spirited girl playing with the Day of the Dead skeletons; her sense of fun and self-confidence is palpable. Kahlo’s adolescent life was brutally interrupted by a tram accident that left her an invalid but Lopez Ochoa gives Rojo’s transformation a soft balletic treatment — a turned-in, shaking leg that she clutches but which can nevertheless reach 190 degrees behind her when called for — without the tormented, emotional dimension that gave rise to Kahlo’s creativity. Lopez Ochoa uses the visual symbolism of Dieuweke van Reij’s set design to suggest Kahlo’s flights of imagination as well as a corps of male dancers (a lovely inversion) dressed and brilliantly painted (by Dominic Skinner) as Kahlo’s feminine spirits. Broken Wings also provides a wonderful role for Irek Mukhamedov as the painter Diego Rivera. His passionate on-again-off-again relationship with Kahlo is the stuff of legend, and Mukhamedov fills those legendary shoes with weighty, captivating flair.

Mukhamedov is also the company’s principal ballet master, and some of the credit must go to him for the outstanding level of technique evident in the last work, Barton’s Fantastic Beings. Of all the voices this evening, Barton’s is the one I hear most clearly: someone who is confident of what she can coax from the dancers, skilled in putting it together with subtle and witty imagery (enhanced by Burke Brown’s lighting and Michelle Jank’s costumes), and assured in making the music an equal partner to the choreography. This latter aspect is perhaps the only weakness: the length of Fantastic Beings is dictated by Bates’ existing score, which draws out Barton’s wealth of invention beyond its choreographic endpoint. Nevertheless, the technical demands Barton brings out of the dancers are inspired and in turn the dancers — particularly Isaac Hernandez — respond with a precision, clarity and imagination that is thrilling to see. Fantastic beings indeed.


Jodie Cole, I am not in love

Posted: April 11th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jodie Cole, I am not in love

Jodie Cole, I am not in love, Salisbury Arts Centre, March 30

Jodie Cole in I am not in love (photo © Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Jodie Cole in I am not in love (photo © Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Jodie Cole’s I am not in love uses the stage as a means to communicate an intensely personal reflection on life and love; it has no pretensions to theatre or dance and yet it belongs to both. Such is the intimate quality of the work it could have been a poem on a page or a song on a musical stave, but Cole is clearly in her element on the stage, becoming both the subject and the object of her reflection. She arrives wearing a cycling helmet and a wind jacket as if she has just left her bicycle in the lobby, except that her feet are bare and under the jacket she wears a black, backless dress. While her initial appearance lacks any artifice, it hides the dual nature of I am not in love: within an exploration of the language of performance is a confessional narrative about libido — eros veering off into the erotic. The transformation happens quickly before Cole has even introduced herself: in helmet and jacket she turns her back to the audience and embraces herself to a clip of the song I’m not in love over which we hear her mounting cries of pleasure. It is a shorthand communication of the qualities that will drive the work: frankness, humour and sensuality. She vibrates and shakes as if giving birth to her thoughts and she choreographs short songs with a fluidity that softens the hard-hitting nature of the narrative. The message of I am not in love is built from the interconnected levels of anecdote, analogy and action: a memory of her mother telling her not to wander round the house naked in front of her father; talking of cycling as both a favourite mode of transport and a deep sensation in her stomach; and using the bicycle pump on stage as a comic demonstration of deflation, either from rejection in love or the rejection of a foetus. She is not sure if she wants children, but her relationships lead her to that door even if she never goes through it; she dances her states of desire but ends each episode with a broken relationship told with a matter-of-fact delivery that belies the emotional turmoil she has experienced. We are thus taken on a journey of sensation in constant flux in which for a few delightful minutes our own vulnerabilities and longing are mirrored, celebrated and assuaged. What she comes to understand at the end, which she shares through a recording of a self-help talk, is that love and forgiveness of oneself are a vital component of love and forgiveness of the other. It is not Cole’s voice, however, but a note for herself, one that reminds us of the confessional aspect of her work but leaves her without her own conclusion. Cole has introduced herself with such candour that we can sympathise with her, laugh with her and support her, but having bared her soul, we are not sure where she wants to go from here, nor where she wants to take us.

I am not in love is part of an evening of short works-in-progress called Practice at Salisbury Arts Centre. The purpose is to give artists a ‘platform for testing new and innovative contemporary performance in front of a live audience.’ It’s a varied program in two different spaces within the Centre. Jim Read’s Want to Dance is an engaging, brave monologue about the unexpected effects of his successful participation in a Parkinson’s Dance group; Tam Gilbert’s Sensing Helen is a sensorial exploration of Victorian life in Dorset for the deaf and blind that parallels the story of Helen Keller; and Broken Spectacles’ At Sea fashions stories of mythological selkies through the clever use of cardboard boxes, voices, puppets and magic. All four works are in development and a thoughtful session following the performances, led by director Paula Redway, encouraged the artists to present their creative processes and audience members to respond or ask questions. For those in the audience who could not stay there was a feedback form on which the final question was along the lines of, ‘Which of the four works would you like to see developed?’ To a large extent I am not in love has already been developed and seems, if not quite fulfilled, to stand on its own. The question for Cole is not how to develop the work so much as how to develop her choreographic voice.


The Royal Ballet, Giselle

Posted: April 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, Giselle

The Royal Ballet, Giselle, Royal Opera House, March 29

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

There is something soothing about seeing a classical ballet like Giselle. You don’t have to wonder what it’s about, the characters are defined in the narrative, the music and the rhythmic structure are familiar, the sequences haven’t changed and the form is known. What is exciting is the anticipation of a great interpretation, not just of the principal character Giselle but of Albrecht, Hilarion. Berthe and Bathilde, and in the second act the Queen of the Wilis. Apart from these major roles (on whom the clarity of the story depends), there are set pieces for the corps de ballet, most notably in the second act but also in the pas de six in the first. That is not to say the lesser characters — dukes and squires, leaders of the hunt and the villagers in the first act — are less important. There are no small roles; everyone has something to do in a narrative ballet and the success or failure of a performance is made up as much of all these small gestures and actions as it is of the interpretation of the principal dancers.

This evening the role of Giselle is danced by Natalia Osipova. I bought a ticket to see her interpretation because she is one of those rare talents with technique and dramatic sensibility who can bring a classical role to a new height of definition. Margot Fonteyn insisted technique is subservient to the ability of a dancer to tell the story. Osipova has both and she does not disappoint; from the moment she steps out of her cottage she is Giselle with all her charm, vitality and naivety expressed in her steps, her posture, gestures, and mime. She is evidently in love and allows that feeling of excitement to infuse her performance. Peter Wright, whose production this is, suggests the possibility that Giselle is of royal birth but illegitimate, a result of the droit de seigneur custom of the time. It would explain why she is different from the other village girls and why her mother wants to protect her from a similar fate to her own. Albrecht is a seigneur himself, son of a noble family that is used to hunting on the lands around the village. He has caught the attention of Giselle and even though he is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of a local duke, he is drawn to her in spite of himself. This is the delicate balance facing Matthew Golding’s characterisation. Albrecht hasn’t really thought it all through so he has to dissimulate. Golding hasn’t thought it through either and doesn’t. He goes through the noble motions without letting us know what he is thinking or feeling and he fails to differentiate between his feelings for Giselle and those for Bathilde. He talks to them both with the same slow, vapid gestures. This is a major flaw in the production because Osipova has nobody to play off; she appears to fly out of the frame as she did (with the same partner) in Onegin because she is very much on her own; there is only half a conversation. Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe is the only character to use her mime to consummate effect; after Giselle’s death the way she brushes Albrecht off her daughter is chilling. Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion also expresses his intentions in mime but, as Wright points out, he is destined to be the baddie and there are few redemptive aspects of his characterisation. Knowing the story, we tend to fill in the colours we don’t see, but it would be heartening to have characters who behave with a full palette and shake us out of our familiarity.

It is not only characterisation that is lacking this evening. Though generally of a high standard — this is after all The Royal Ballet — the level of technical excellence can be unexpectedly weak. In the prelude to tragedy in Act 1, the stage is filled with a joyous harvest festival celebration. The traditional peasant pas de deux becomes in Wright’s production a pas de six, an opportunity for junior talents to shine. But the men must have had a hard day in the fields because their dancing is ragged; they can’t land their double tours cleanly which sets off an uncertainty in subsequent steps. Osipova quickly dispels any uneasiness as she takes control of the stage as Giselle becomes unhinged by the shock of Albrecht’s duplicity. Golding could have hidden behind a tree (of which there are many) for all the emotional heft he brings to his unmasking. It is like watching a cinematic version of the ballet in which the camera is focused exclusively on the inner emotions and outer distress of the leading character.

As the first act sets up the basis for the second, any emotional weakness in the former will affect the redemptive quality of the latter. Since the cathartic effect of Giselle cannot be fully expressed by one character alone, we are left to watch Osipova from the edges of our seat as she dances on the edge of hers. In such an ethereal setting, the ability to fly is essential and one of Osipova’s qualities is her ability to suspend her shapes in the air, an extension of her musicality. Marianela Nuñez as Queen of the Wilis has an ethereal elegance of line on the ground but, like her band of fellow spirits, appears less free in the air; the flying exit of Wilis is marked more by propulsion than elevation. And while the corps is exquisite in its unity of design and intent, it is a shame that such a ghostly scene — pale moonlit woods in a milky haze — should be interrupted in the moving arabesque section by the earthy reminder of clunky pointe shoes.

All these detractions don’t seem to count much. There are endless curtain calls in front of the full house, cheers, applause (for Osipova and Nunez in particular) but I wonder what is being celebrated. Yes, it is a privilege to see Osipova in the role of Giselle, but in this 575th performance by The Royal Ballet one would hope for a more complete experience. The Royal Ballet may make money with its production of Giselle but it is short-changing the audience with this kind of unfulfilled performance.


PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

Posted: March 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake, The Albany, Deptford, March 9

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

It began with a question choreographer Joseph Mercier was asked by a correspondent on the gay social network app, Grindr: Are you masculine? Not sure how to answer, and then getting blocked, he was left to ponder the question with long-time collaborator Lennie. But Lennie likes to wear his girlfriend’s clothes, paints his fingernails occasionally, wears his hair long and was kicked off his school football team after missing a game for a dress rehearsal of Billy Elliott. Mercier himself grew up in a cowboy environment at the foot of the Canadian Rockies and went to ballet school. If these two researchers were going to explore the question of masculinity they felt they would have to adopt some masculine stereotypes like drinking beer, crushing cans, spitting, watching football games, wearing sports shirts, and going to the gym. They even checked up on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur for inspiration.

In Theseus Beefcake Mercier tells the story of an evening in a local Alberta town. He had started ballet school and was on his way with friends to a bar called Outlaws when he was stopped by four rednecks in a pickup truck. ‘Are you gay?’, they asked. On replying ‘Yes’, he was immediately surrounded but escaped to the bar only to see the same rednecks arrive later. He fled. “I know that leaving the bar that night was the right solution,” Mercier says, “but part of me wishes I had stayed to fight for my right to be there.” Theseus Beefcake sets out to put the record straight: a beefcake in a labyrinthian struggle to defeat gender stereotypes.

Written and created by the trio of Mercier, Lennie, and Canadian playwright, Jordan Tannahill, the set is a bullring concocted by the ever-resourceful Rachel Good and lit by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn: The Albany (who co-commissioned the work with Homotopia) is transformed into an arena in which we are seated around the circular balcony looking down on the action. In the centre is a raised boxing ring with red floor lights but no ropes, attached on opposite sides to a platform where Mercier and Lennie establish their respective camps. Two helmets sit in the ring to remind us of the mythical analogy: a black bull’s head for the Minotaur and one plumed helmet for Theseus. In the opening the two helmeted men raise the stakes of male antagonism by trading threats across the ring about what each will do with the other’s balls. They strip down to their trunks, chug down a can of beer, crush it in one hand, discard it in manly fashion and get down to an all-out wrestle, a homosocial form of sport with sexual undertones that are often disguised.

Mercier first experienced wrestling at school when he and fellow student Joseph were in gym class; sparing together they each discovered a sexual attraction. Being in Alberta, this leads to a Brokeback Mountain moment when Mercier and Lennie camp out to Dinah Mullen’s sounds of a crackling camp fire (Lennie in cowboy outfit with two desultory wieners on a stick), embrace, sing a duet, pass out a shot of Jack Daniels to the audience and dance to the song Cadillac Ranch. They get into a scrap and from the dense haze that permeates the ring, Lennie’s Theseus emerges on the shoulders of Mercier’s Minotaur. This succession of anecdotes, songs, dancing, wrestling and boxing excavates the layers of masculinity in a seamless and often hilarious blend of bulls, balls, beer and ballet. The only flat notes of the evening are the one or two sung by Mercier, but his delivery wins over.

In the Greek myth it is Ariadne, daughter of the Minotaur’s master, who gives her lover Theseus a lifeline in the form of a thread he lets out behind him as he enters the labyrinth so he will find his way back after killing the beast. Mercier’s willingness to enter the labyrinth of gender politics and to slay the monster at its heart is complemented by Lennie as both the Minotaur taunting Mercier in and as Ariadne leading him out. It is part of a complex relationship in which Mercier, with an aversion to aggression, likes to play out his power fantasies while Lennie, with an equal aversion to aggression, likes to play the submissive role that enables it. They discuss this gender identity role-playing in a talk-show format that ties together the Grindr experience and the rednecks at Outlaws. “I don’t want to privilege binary gender mouth,” quips Mercier as he prepares to lay his demons to rest. In anticipation they brawl on a beer-soaked stage, exulting in the physical intimacy. While Mercier as Theseus mops up, Lennie in a parallel universe sings Electricity from Billy Elliott. ‘I really can’t explain it, I haven’t got the words…’

Mercier invites the audience down to the ringside as clients of Outlaws, but the contest is not what we are expecting. Mercier does not appear as Theseus the hero slaying the redneck Minotaur (which would be to perpetuate the myth of gender stereotypes). Instead he enters wearing the Minotaur mask, a Chicago Bulls vest and boxing gloves: “Welcome to the labyrinth, Motherfucker,” he snarls at the defenceless Lennie. They trade insults about the size of each other’s dick then Mercier begins to lay into Lennie, knocking him down repeatedly with hard punches to the chest and head. Lennie takes it all without putting up any resistance, getting up for more until he has finally had enough. We are left wondering who is fighting whom and if anyone has won. But that is exactly what Theseus Beefcake sets out to answer. In the complex fight against straightforward assumptions of what it is to be masculine and the ways in which it might be expressed, Mercier and Lennie have in effect slain the myth of binary opposition in gender stereotypes, and in doing so they have both earned their right to be themselves without fully conforming to any particular stereotype. Recovering, the two men find just enough breath to trade threats about what each will do with the other’s balls.


Marc Brew, For Now I Am

Posted: March 18th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Marc Brew, For Now I Am

Marc Brew, For Now I Am, Lilian Baylis Studio, March 10

Marc Brew in For Now I Am (photo: Susan Hay)

Marc Brew in For Now I Am (photo: Susan Hay)

There is not a wheelchair in sight. The setting of Marc Brew’s For Now I Am is prior to any suggestion of a wheelchair, when the idea of a wheelchair was just too optimistic. This is the morning Brew woke up in hospital following a car crash that left two of his friends dead and one still struggling for life in a ward above him. His body is draped in a white sheet and doctors are still analyzing his injuries. We see projected an image of clouds scudding across the sheet that become ominously darker until they are replaced by a white grid. A glaring scan runs from bottom to top and top to bottom; an X-ray of Brew’s spine is projected on to his supine form. The clinical tests and the body’s stillness are eerie; under the giant sheet on the Lilian Baylis stage is not an actor but the person who underwent that unimaginable experience. In the nineteen years since then Brew has travelled further than he ever expected as a dancer and along the way has sublimated those memories and experiences into a performance. This evening is the second part of a proposed trilogy that began with Remember When in 2008. The figure ‘eight’ in Chinese characters signifies ‘open’, so both the first and the second parts of the trilogy eight years later fall at propitious moments when Brew evidently feels open enough to talk about life before and after the accident. For Now I Am occupies the time immediately after, a time when the promise of the future was not clear, when his damaged and broken body was a battlefield of conflicting emotions. It is not hard to feel that the work is as much a memorial to his three fellow passengers as it is a memory for him. He points upwards not towards heaven but to the ward above where the only other survivor of the crash eventually succumbed to her injuries.

The production of For Now I Am constitutes an elaborate and rather beautiful metaphor for healing — ripples of water in both Jamie Wardrop’s projections and Claire McCue’s score — which Brew fills with an almost Butoh-like range of slow, precise and considered movements — part visualization and part exploration of his physical boundaries. The result of his spinal cord injury at C6/C7 was a paralysis from the chest down, and at first even the mobility of his hands and arms was affected. Such a simple task as placing each finger against the thumb was a mark of progress. The achievement of the staging is to draw us into this minute scale of attention that Brew experienced in the early days of rehabilitation. The silk sheet is pulled back to reveal first his head and shoulders; from underneath he brings out one arm and in Andy Hamer’s careful lighting we watch the smallest of movements, one finger at a time, take on a poignant significance. One can sense the achievement of clasping an elbow and raising it above his head or the frustration of beating his chest with his fists. The range of upper body movement grows; in lighter moments his arms and shoulders are eloquent as they converse with one another like the necks of two swans and in darker ones he transforms a symbol of prayer into a gun and grabs his head in despair. Gradually his body emerges like a chrysalis from its cocoon, a metaphor Brew understands only too well. His fingers walk up his vertebrae with the clinical calculation of a surgeon; we are watching the process of rebirth and regeneration after the operations to repair his spine. His shaven head atop his spare, muscular upper body seated on a sheet of white silk has connotations of a meditative practice, or simply of the willpower to overcome and ultimately to find the opportunity in his disability.

The title of the work is itself an indication of Brew’s acceptance of his condition and as a performer he is revealing his body for the first time to the gaze of the public as he once did involuntarily to the doctors and surgeons in hospital. For Now I Am is a performance of his acceptance. From his seated position he moves around the stage and around himself in a series of spirals, gathering in the silk sheet like a coiled throne until he arrives at a point of composure and self-control. What Brew does next is a transference in the dark of his seated body to one that is suspended upside down by his ankles and raised above the ground. It is a dramatic inversion, not only physically but conceptually. It may well be a clinical view of the broken body, an unsentimental acceptance of his material condition, but at the same time it is the one movement in the performance Brew has not had to fight with his extraordinary patience and courage to control.

 

For a recent interview with Marc Brew, click here


Hubert Essakow, Terra

Posted: March 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hubert Essakow, Terra

Hubert Essakow, Terra, The Print Room at The Coronet, March 12

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Terra is the final part of Hubert Essakow’s trilogy based on the three elements of water, fire and earth. First came Flow, then Ignis and now Terra. I didn’t see Flow but in Ignis Essakow used the analogy of human passion to explore the element, and fire also made a dramatic appearance on stage. In Terra the analogy with earth is that of the human footprint but the element of earth does not appear on stage. In the handsome program for Terra are three performance photographs by Zadoc Nava of Estela Merlos, Luke Crook and Benjamin Warbis dancing on sand; the link with earth is immediate, but for some reason the concept has not been carried into the production.

After a stunning opening solo by Merlos as the romantic, half-naked spirit of Mother Earth, four chalky white dancers climb onto the cramped white stage with their white rhomboid suitcases, to begin Earth’s population. They look as if they are artists from a travelling mime circus who have lost their way. The contrast with Mother Earth couldn’t be greater, but paradoxically it is she who is out of place in Terra. The set, by Sofie Lachaert & Luc D’Hanis, is a paper cliff at the foot of which furniture thrown down from the top has come to rest: chairs, a table, a wardrobe, a lamp, a broken mirror. Everything is whitewashed, abstracted and drained of any hint of earth. The set instead belongs to an artistic concept for which Terra seems ill adapted. Lachaert and D’Hanis are designers who have ‘built together an intriguing oeuvre of objects, furniture and site-specific installations, in which they interrogate the boundaries between fine art, craft and design.’ That might work well in the Hayward Gallery but not here. Martina Trottman’s costumes are clearly influenced by Lachaert and D’Hanis so two of the principle theatrical elements in Terra take it in a different direction, one suspects, from that conceived by the choreographer. Militating against the shift is a poem by Ben Okri who was commissioned to write it for Terra. It is rich in allusions and allegories of Earth and we hear the sonorous voice of Okri reading passages from it through the work. Introduced initially over Merlos’s solo with sound designer Gareth Mitchell’s soft rumbling of falling rocks, Terra thus begins in harmony before the seismic conceptual shift takes over.

…Our beginning who knows it,
Except the silent mother
Who was the womb
For all this history.
From her we grow, we die,
We rise…

The four dancers (Crook, Warbis, Rob Bridger and Monique Jonas) gather cautiously on the shore, a confluence of strangers despite their similar appearance and identical suitcases. There is a little mistrust in their exploration of each other, a testing of boundaries and balance, as Merlos, now costumed similarly, tries to make them feel at home. Jean-Michel Bernard’s score is redolent of Debussy, airy and playful, while Mitchell’s growling sounds suggest weight and danger.

All these faces,
All these masks and dreams
And dances,
All these leaps into the unknown,
All these eyes
That gaze into the mysteries,
All these feet

That turn and leap and glide
Across continents
In the curving dance
Of time.

Essakow’s choreography keeps close to Okri’s poetry, finding in it both the keys to the non-narrative nature of his elemental drama and personal traits for his dancers; Jonas’s solo, like Merlos’s earlier, arises out of the verse, embodying it and enriched by it. The human footprint is extended by the appearance of Constance Booth whose maturity allows her to hold her own with the adults, as much a child of the family as she is an individual in her own right. Essakow now condenses the action to a series of short tableaux separated by blackouts: the family; broadening horizons; risk-taking and exploration on the paper mountain with a pulsing score. You get the idea, but in such a cramped space with a restrictive set that waters down the elemental force of Okri’s poem, the human footprint slows to a melodramatic plod with predictable symbolism; we hear a recording of different languages while the performers stare at the audience as if looking at the future. The three women dance to Okri’s lines:

Mother of culture
And all the magic
We can conceive,
She is the greatest
Magic of them all.

When the men rejoin, the stage is swirling in movement but without a clear idea of where it is going until it resolves in a line at the front of the stage. The cast leaves except for Merlos and Booth, the ‘spirit made flesh’ and the promise of a future. There is the rumbling sound again, and Merlos looks at the girl, performs a kind of benediction and retreats.

At a post-show talk with Marc Brew at the Lilian Baylis just two days before, Dame Evelyn Glennie had spoken of the nature of collaborations as being intrinically unstable; you just don’t know if it’s going to work until the collaboration is complete. With Terra Essakow staked his success on a raft of collaborators, some of whom understood his concept and others who just supplied their own. Perhaps that is, after all, an apt, if unintended comment on the current state of the Earth.


Marco Flores & Olga Pericet, Flamenco Festival London

Posted: March 11th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Marco Flores & Olga Pericet, Flamenco Festival London

Marco Flores & Olga Pericet, Paso a Dos, Flamenco Festival London, Sadler’s Wells, February 27

Marco Flores and Olga Pericet in Paso a Dos (photo: Paco Villata)

Marco Flores and Olga Pericet in Paso a Dos (photo: Paco Villalta)

Marco Flores & Olga Pericet’s Paso a Dos is part of London’s Flamenco Festival, a mighty river of Spanish culture merging with the mineral springs of Sadler’s Wells. Now in its 13th edition, the festival is a two-week immersion in what Alistair Spalding calls ‘the best flamenco dance and music performed today.’

The origins of flamenco lie deep within the history of Spain. Its four elements are voice (cante), dance (baile), guitar (toque), and hand clapping, foot beating and shouts of encouragement (jaleo) all connected through what is called duende (soul). Although dance is just one element of flamenco it is the most readily recognisable: the arched back and arms, sharp, steely lines, shapely costumes, florid gestures of the wrists and hands are all signifiers of its long tradition. What we see tonight is flamenco in a contemporary theatrical setting in which tradition and commercial development are combined.

What is apparent in Paso a Dos is an interesting contrast: while the musical element still evokes the rough depths of emotion, of pain and suffering from which flamenco arose, the dance is refined and polished. When the singers in Paso a Dos draw up such rich and visceral sounds from their depths it is as if they are coming from another time and place, sometimes uncomfortably so. There is nothing uncomfortable about the dance, however, which is rich in its smoothness and litheness without any visible reminders of the suffering in its musical accompaniment.

This is immediately apparent in the opening section where the six musicians are seated next to each other. When Ismael El Bola begins to sing his voice gives form to a contorted dance of its own; his facial and corporal gestures seem to come directly from the passion of the song. When Flores and Pericet enter they strut through the music in a line of elegant stretch that winds up like a spring ready to release. And release it does, in flashes of mercurial posture and riveting beaten foot rhythms while the arms sing like a melody. The two forms together suggest that the voice is the rough earth from which the elegant flower of the dance emerges in its beauty and sensuality. These levels of expression are what make flamenco so complete.

And yet there is something in Paso a Dos that is less than compelling as a theatrical performance. Interestingly, it ‘originated from an idea by poet and flamencologist José Maria Velázquez-Gaztélu’ as an illustrated conference on the art of duo dancing in which the poet’s words alternated with Pericet’s and Flores’ dance. The two dancers subsequently ‘developed Paso a Dos, turning it into a dance show.’ So the idea of the dance developing out of the music is here turned on its head and the integrated experience in which all the elements of flamenco arise from the same source is reduced to the piecing together of elements under a single idea: the show. The bland entrances of the dancers are the unfortunate vestige of the lecture demonstration.

There is no lack of virtuosity, however. Pericet and Flores can hammer out the fastest beats and turns, and their partnering is a passionate display of precise attention. When Flores places his hand on Pericet’s waist or shoulder, he is not simply holding her but communicating with her through his fingers that continue a dance of their own. Pericet’s solo simmers with suppressed energy until she lets fly with her feet and swirls her long dress like an ornate and very lively fishtail. She expresses a range of emotions in her dances, while Flores, ardent as he is, tends to maintain a similar register throughout. The same cannot be said of the musicians: the two guitarists (Antonia Jiménez and Victor ‘El Tomate’) strum and pick their way through Spain with melancholy beauty and fire, while the four singers (El Bola, Miguel Lavi, Mercedes Cortés and Inma Rivero) each wrench from their bodies the most exciting vocal shades and rhythms; Rivero seems to exorcise her words with her fists. Each song, each instrumental solo or duet is rich in expressive power.

So while all four elements of flamenco are present in Paso a Dos, each performed by artists at the height of their powers, it is the form of the show itself that disappoints; its overall effect falls short of being any more than the sum of its parts.


An interview with Marc Brew

Posted: March 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on An interview with Marc Brew

An interview with Marc Brew

Marc Brew (photo: Andy Ross)

Marc Brew (photo: Andy Ross)

How does a dancer in the formative stages of his performing career deal with an accident that leaves him paralysed from the chest down? Marc Brew had trained at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School in Melbourne, then at the Australian Ballet School where he performed as an extra in Australian Ballet productions. His first professional engagement at the age of 18 was with P.A.C.T. Ballet in South Africa but it was there that he was involved in a car accident in which three of his friends were killed. Waking up in hospital with a white sheet over his body he learned that his spinal chord injury at C6/C7 meant he would never again have the use of his legs. “At first I was in denial. I thought, just get me back to Australia and into the gym again and I will be fine,” he laughs. Initially he was not able to move his hands but a lot of muscle strength came back to his shoulders and arms. Rehabilitation proved to be a whole identity shift. “I had to reassess what a dancer was. For me a dancer had to be on his legs, turned out in the hips. I had to stop looking in the mirror.” Brew had a lot of friends who wanted to get him back into a studio. In class one day a couple of dancers in New York came across a young woman who rolled into the studio in her wheelchair. “They jumped on her,” laughs Brew, “and told her all about me.” This was Kitty Lunn, whose career had been similarly interrupted after breaking her back in a fall. As she later wrote, “What I learned was that the dancer inside me didn’t know or care that I was using a wheelchair, she just wanted to keep dancing.” This was the kind of encouragement Brew needed and he travelled to New York to work with her and the company she founded, Infinity Dance. “I had to find a way to translate and adapt my former technique to my present body,” he recalls. “A year after the accident I was still thinking what my legs and feet would be doing.” However, the chair work, floor work and contact improvisation he worked on led him down the path of contemporary dance. Since then Brew has been dancing, choreographing, teaching and speaking around the world.

Brew had always been encouraged to choreograph since his school days. Within two years of his accident he was back in a studio creating and teaching and he hasn’t stopped. “I feel I have come full circle in regard to my practice. Before my accident I set work from my own body but after it my work was more task based. Now I am going back to generating my own material. I teach it to dancers and see what they do with it; then I direct it to bring it all together…My disability has helped inform the way I work…It was strange to work recently with Scottish Ballet. Instead of giving directions for the legs, I would give them upper body directions and let them sort out what they would have to do with their feet… All my ballet training is still there. It’s in my arms. Line, placement and shapes are still there. I just have to find new ways of exploring movement.”

In 2008 Brew created Remember When, the first work of a planned trilogy and at Sadler’s Wells in March he will present the second part, For Now, I Am. Introducing the personal pronoun into the latter title suggests a change in his attitude towards his disability. “I have reached a point of acceptance, which for me means being whole. I love my body as it is now. This is the first time in 18 years that I am showing my body, allowing people to explore it as if it were being examined on the hospital table. I am giving permission to everyone to explore.” Brew started the creative process wanting to explore the notion of being broken. He analysed his body by looking once again in the mirror, coming to terms with being both broken and becoming whole. Through Jamie Wardrop’s video projections, Andy Hamer’s lighting design and Claire McCue’s musical score he uses the analogy of water as an element of ritual cleansing. He also uses X-rays and scans to map his accident, finding a new freedom in working through those painful memories. “With rehearsal director Ruth Mills, I am able to talk about it now. I feel I am moving through it, like a chrysalis being born…Acquiring a disability is different from being born with a disability. Before the accident I was Marc and I still am. I am comfortable with having a disability; I claim ownership over it… Disability creates different possibilities. I hope other people see it in the same way. That’s what I find difficult, how other people view disability…It’s great that Sadler’s Wells is supporting my work and finding ways of communicating the human condition to the audience.”

What about the third part of the trilogy? Brew smiles. “I have some ideas. Maybe the last performance will be my funeral.” More laughs. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour.”

For Now, I Am is at Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 March before embarking on a national tour. The evening is a dual presentation of movement and words, illuminating distinctive artistic practice, entitled Dance & Dialogue. On Thursday 10 March, renowned percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and Marc Brew compare creating, performing, and collaborating in their respective art forms. On Friday 11 March, Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells’ Artistic Director and Chief Executive, will be in conversation with Marc Brew on creating dance that reflects life experience.


Tara D’Arquian, Quests

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Tara D’Arquian, Quests

Tara D’Arquian, Quests, Borough Hall, Greenwich Dance, February 18

Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and Marc Stevenson in Tara D'Arquian's Quests (photo: Alicia Clarke)

Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and Marc Stevenson in Tara D’Arquian’s Quests (photo: Alicia Clarke)

One can’t help but admire the scale of Tara D’Arquian’s Quests, not only its physical embrace (taking over most of The Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance) and its musical scope (thanks to Bruno Humberto and Philippe Lenzini), but its philosophical sweep. The second part of a trilogy which began with In Situ and is yet to be completed, Quests ‘explores the conflict of identity in contemporary society’ though D’Arquian immediately qualifies this by adding, ‘The conflict…opposes humans’ longing to define themselves to the indefinable character of the self.’ It’s a philosophical argument that borrows from Nietzche’s Three Metamorphoses as a filter through which to approach the issue of identity, but if it structures the thinking behind Quests, it is the ambition and imagination of D’Arquian’s dance theatre that clothes it.

The narrative is a ‘fictitious story of a stage director slowly falling into madness after the loss of his wife whilst creating the first piece of the In Situ trilogy.’ This reference to the previous work is where Quests begins in Greenwich Dance’s Minor Hall that Yann Seabra has refurbished as a rose-coloured lounge of an ocean liner. When the audience wanders in to take a seat the performers are already in place, fixed in time, caught in mid-movement at their tables or sitting in their chairs. A bar serves drinks, the noise of chatter and laughter rises around these transfixed characters and a curious little boy walks over to each one to see if they are real. It’s an intriguing start. The playwright (Humberto) and his wife (Typhaine Delaup) are seated at a table on a raised dais in the centre of the room looking into each other’s eyes. The stage is set up for a cabaret show and musicians (Lenzini on guitar, D’Arquian on bass) start to assemble. From their static poses Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and Marc Stevenson come to life and slowly make their way to the stage. The band starts up and Thiriot delivers a ballad in a rich French voice while dropping flowers distractedly from a bowl. Delaup suddenly jumps up from the table and rushes from the room. Quests has begun in real time. Three veiled beauties waft into the room like muses to inspire Humberto while Ottillie Parfitt as his producer arrives dripping with disdain and drops an envelope of money on the table to get the writer out of his depression and into finishing the new work.

Quests is, like Francois Truffaut’s film Day for Night, a play about the making of a play. In this promenade format, D’Arquian pulls apart the story to put it back together again, sets us loose to explore aspects of the narrative and gives us enigmatic clues along the way that only deepen the mystery. We shuffle through Stevenson’s room, a suicidal bathroom, a noxious vision of Eden in the lobby where Humberto chases his spirited wife out of the theatre into a taxi and back, on through a passage with a pram spattered in blood, a room where one of the muses plays piano and bodies lie under a dinner table of dirty dishes, up the stairs with walls pasted with notes and envelopes, and finally into the main hall where the two aspects of the story collide in symbolism of epic proportions.

Paradoxically the means by which D’Arquian achieves all this are flimsy; it is theatre-by-the-seat-of-your-pants in which the richness of its soaring imagination is in conflict with the naivety of its materials. The struggle of this latter part of Quests is how to make our imagination surmount the means. The contrast in scale between the performers — extended to a cast of almost 30 — and the giant muslin tent that covers most of the Hall is redolent of a religious ceremony and the plainsong chant (and Geneviève Giron’s bright white light) raises the ritual theatre to a contemplative level. But the dispersed action in this large space lacks sufficient tension to keep our focus from wandering to the manipulation of the fabric. There are episodes that overcome this, as when two performers desperately try to communicate while their handlers at opposite corners let them out slowly towards each other on the end of ropes. When Humberto raises his voice, the ropes are let go and the two fall into an embrace. Or when Humberto is playing the white piano like a crazed genius and the three muses interrupt him; while two drag him away a third seamlessly takes over playing his score. But it is the setting of the final duet with Stevenson and Thiriot that gets close to bringing all the elements together and to suggesting the scale D’Arquian has in mind. Using the muslin as a screen for projecting images of In Situ, placing the extended chorus singing a ritual chant behind the (now seated) audience, summoning the author and the producer to resolve the story (the play is a huge success but Humberto is leaving to start a band), and introducing a funeral procession with a coffin outlined in rope, the choreography is a catalyst of resolution in its contrast of sinuous and angular, torso and extremities, and distance and contact. All that remains is a grand anthem of a song while an electric fan in the background sends those mountains of script floating into the air.