Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Posted: April 28th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Swallowsfeet Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 24-25

Swallowsfeet

Alicia Meehan and Gavin Coward in A Blighted Life (photo: Claire Nicolas Fioraso)

And you see a girl’s brown body dancing through the turquoise,
And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea.

These lyrics from Cream’s 1967 Tales of Brave Ulysses suddenly came to mind while I was thinking of Swallowsfeet Festival. Even if Hove faces the Channel and not the Mediterranean, there are both colourful and erotic elements in the heroic onboard fare that make you follow the footprint laid out for this fifth edition of the festival. Curated around themes of sexuality, gender, health and identity, eroticism is close to the surface in Masako Matsushita’s Un/Dressed and, with darker overtones, in Gil Kerer’s Between Us. You can’t miss the colour in Alice Labant’s installation, Current Biopsy, with painter Caroline Hands, or in Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, and there’s a heroic sense in Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, in the partnership of Iain Payne and Gabriel Moreno in The Howl of the Old Leopardi, in Jan Möllmer’s miniature epic, When You’re Smiling and in Joe Garbett’s spirited riposte to arts funding cuts in No.Company. Presented together over two days in a variety of locations within The Old Market, these works form a stimulating journey through which the white-overalled members of the Swallowsfeet collective guide the audience with dinner bells and semaphoric gestures. And if it’s all too much, down in the basement there’s Hamish McPherson’s Nonexistent Activity Outside The Capitalistic Time in which you can alternately relax and minister to the relaxation of others (if Ulysses was ever becalmed, this is where it happened). McPherson succinctly underpins all that is going on upstairs by suggesting that if we don’t care for each other the purpose of the arts has lost its way. Through its inclusivity, Swallowsfeet is more than a festival of international dance; it’s an event of human proportions in which dance, music and silence express contrasting aspects of the human condition.

With 280 submissions from 39 countries culled to nine performances, the collective has worked hard to produce a coherent and stimulating program on a small scale and a small budget. Perhaps because it is David to the region’s Goliath (the Brighton Festival), Swallowsfeet has failed four times in its last five applications for financial support from Arts Council England, but its dance programming is far more adventurous than its conservative relation further along the seafront. Swallowsfeet dips into areas that are rich seams for exploration even if the resultant works may hang on to their form by their fingernails; but in a festival setting this is preferable to the programming of rich formal works whose seams of exploration have long since been mined.

Take Iain Payne’s pairing with Gabriel Moreno. Both men are from Gibraltar, and while the sturdy Moreno lends his rich mellifluous voice and his guitar to songs and poetry, Payne is like an old bibliophile arranging books — the traces of his culture — around the island of his stage. He races forwards and backwards, slides and slips in his impatient race to keep abreast of history while Moreno’s voice is the rock of his stability. Payne builds a bridge of separate tomes to a cliff of books on which he balances precariously; but these are the very words Moreno keeps alive with his voice. The influence of the two men collides, producing the enigma of cultural identity.

Identity is at the heart of Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, more histrionic tableau than performative theme but its raw emotions, its African beat and vivid colours take us on a hedonistic journey with three dancers (Coward, Alicia Meehan and Patrick Ziza) with scarves, flags, cross dressing and undressing, high heels, and rubber car tyres. Grayson Perry is quoted in the program as saying, ‘Identity is an ongoing performance not a static state’ which is very much the nature of A Blighted Life, though it appears more permissive than blighted. The only suggestion of repressive homophobic attitudes comes through recorded commentary, which provides insufficient counterweight to the ebullience of the performance to make a political statement.

I saw Möllmer’s When You’re Smiling in the first-night performance on the paved area in front of The Old Market, where dancer Uwe Brauns mapped out a dance for two pairs of shoes. Using his hands inside the shoes he creates a soaring conversation between them and has them dance duets to Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. In a wonderful overlap of the imaginary and the substantive, the owner of the neighbouring house opens his door to see what is going on. A few minutes later Brauns calls someone’s name from another house but, disappointingly, nobody responds. Having traced a series of magical stories as mime and puppeteer, Brauns finally picks up both pairs of shoes and walks them back into the theatre.

In Current Biopsy, painter Caroline Hands could simply be recording Alice Labant’s performance, standing on the side of the stage, Chinese brush in a hand hovering over ink and paper, but she’s an integral part of the performance. She watches Labant who lies on a corner of the barroom floor like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, her eyes closed. When she opens them she impishly instructs us to close ours. Once opened again — with her permission — we see Labant kneeling then rising in a dress the colours of the sea. Current Biopsy is a danced improvisation that plays with sumptuously coloured textiles Hands has fashioned, brought alive by Labant’s effusive, swirling movement. The work is an experiment in using the dynamic body to set materials in motion but it is also the materials that frame the body’s fleeting form. Paradoxically Hands tries to capture it with sketch after sketch, paper flying to the floor while Labant’s brother Boris plays a musical reverie on guitar. As rich as the materials from which it arises, Current Biopsy celebrates a path of light and tangible beauty in both limited space and time.

There is more form in Gil Kerer’s Between Us through his use of the body’s sinuous psychology. A duet with Kerer and Alex Shmurak to a score by Ori Avni, Between Us is an intimate portrait with brutal overtones. Trained in Gaga, Kerer’s body manifests the shades of intimacy, from generous to possessive, and he can swing his moods without warning; Shmurak is part foil and part accomplice. This emotional uncertainty keeps tension in the work while the precision of the interaction between the two maintains a visceral dynamic.

I have written elsewhere about a previous manifestation of Joe Garbett’s No. Company. In addressing the problem of rehearsal and production costs constantly outweighing financial resources, Garbett has hit on an idea that resolves an aspect of the equation while being inherently alluring. Using as his creative input text messages from a number of choreographers working in pairs on social media, Garbett leaves the dancers’ imagination, humour and ingenuity to interpret the messages. Garbett himself provides only direction and enough studio time in which to put it all together. This time he has used three texts from three pairs of choreographers (Perrine Gontié, Elinor Lewis, Maria Lothe, Alice Labant, Amy Toner, and Connor Quill) to create two independent duets, one with Lorea Burge Badiola and Ellya Sam, the other with Jacob Bray and Richard Pye. There are some similarities in the two duets, performed separately, but the dancers’ animated response to the input gives the duets an improvisational freshness that makes them a joy to watch.

For Un/Dress, Masako Matsushita is dressed in nothing but a surfeit of underwear. The multiple layers only become visible as she lowers one after another (seventeen or eighteen in all) to form a long tube dress of bright colours and patterns. She already makes an art of dressing but with the undressing the cool perfection of her flesh suddenly freed from clothing is intense. And just at that moment the drone of the score changes pitch, embracing and underlining the act so effectively as if the music itself had been caught unawares by the transformation. Matsushita allows us to experience the state of undress as the obverse of dressing rather than as a reduction to nakedness. Billed as ‘a metaphorical performance that…becomes an inquiry into the role of clothing and body in modern society’, Un/Dress is an exquisitely controlled deconstruction that places the body and clothing on the same aesthetic plane.

Perhaps the most formal work of the festival is the main stage performance on Friday night of Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, focusing on solo performer, Maija Karhunen. The formality is in the presentation but the subject is a flight of fancy that ‘oscillate(s) between real and fake, private and public, quotidian and theatrical.’ Karhunen, who was born with glass-bone disease, guides us consummately through the irony of following a yoga instruction video by a lithe young woman on a New York rooftop with its drippingly spiritual commentary: “Try to release all the pressure you have accumulated in the past, all anger, all the concerns…Allow the light to penetrate into your spine; feel confident about yourself.” Karhunen, who has all the confidence one could wish for in a performance, fast forwards to a more palatable section until she calmly closes the laptop. Pulling out a gold lamé shirt and a fur stole from a small cardboard cupboard behind her, she takes on poses of an exotic dancer, constantly challenging the norms, calmly cranking open the gap between our expectations and hers to the point hers make just as much sense. She tells a joke but the humour is in her self-deprecating inability to remember the punch line; she defiantly dances on her back with her eloquent arms and hands reaching the musical crescendo, and she rolls herself up in her yoga mat and makes faces by pulling out the edges of her mouth. We are watching an expressive mind and body interacting powerfully with the audience. For a finale she reads our horoscopes like an oracle divining the augurs from a selection of items collected prior to the show from members of the audience. We want to believe her, but she doesn’t always reach her mark. She might not be a great oracle, but she commands the stage.

The Swallowsfeet Collective can be proud of this event; the works stand together and support each other within a format that allows experimentation while not being afraid to fail. The festival deserves more attention from national arts funding sources and from the dance development leaders up the road. Great art doesn’t always come from great venues or festivals, but arises where the circumstances are propitious. Swallowsfeet Festival fits the bill, and high attendance proved its attraction. In the hope it will continue its journey, it might be worth remembering that Ulysses managed to navigate the perils and temptations of his epic voyage home not only with his courage and tenacity but with a little help from the gods.


Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Posted: April 19th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance, The Place, April 13

Matthew Morris and two of the girls in Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance (photo: Matthew Andrews)

I came away from Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance at The Place with an empty feeling that had started during the performance; for a theatrical presentation this means a failure. The empty feeling developed into a sense of annoyance, all the more vexing as there was nothing specific I could identify in the show that supported it and it was in marked contrast to the upbeat vibe of an audience who evidently loved it.

The idea for Men & Girls Dance started innocently enough when the directors of Fevered Sleep, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were auditioning trained male dancers for a project the day after seeing young girls performing in an end-of-term dance school show. Wondering what they might produce by bringing two such groups together, they explored the social and political implications of men and girls in our society. As Butler and Harradine explain in their newspaper of a program, ‘Men & Girls Dance hopes to offer provocations about, and ultimately solutions to, what we feel has fast become a problem around the culture of adults, and especially male adults, just being with children today.’ ‘We want people to be troubled’, says Butler elsewhere, to which Harradine adds, ‘To be troubled by witnessing playful, tender relationships. Why should that be troubling? But it is…’

The common language between men and girls is play, and this is where the production works best. The set is covered in newspaper pages, crumpled up and heaped at the back or carefully taped together in sheets like a quilt in the centre of the floor. Leaving aside the metaphorical significance of media coverage as floor coverage, the games played in this arena draw me into the engagement between the nine girls and the five men (including a brilliant entrance for Robert Clark who emerges from the crumpled newspapers at the back, dressed in…crumpled newspaper) with a theatrical sophistication that stands on its own. But beyond this delightful play, the choreographic ideas have the drawn-out quality of blandness with a giggly smile.

Part of the popularity of Men & Girls Dance undoubtedly has to do with the young girls who are auditioned locally wherever performances take place. In London the girls are Pebbles Doughty-White, Molly Beasley-Martin, Maya Demetriou, Belesther Huberson-Abie, Chadni Miah, Neve Seekings, Momoka Taniguchi-Warren, Amber Worboys Sayers and Rania Yarde. It must be a wonderful and nerve-wracking experience for them: wonderful to be performing with these five men (Clark, Kip Johnson, Luke Crook, Nick Lawson and Matthew Morris) and nerve-wracking to be learning both text and choreography to performance level in a short space of time. They do it brilliantly.

The other draw for Men & Girls Dance is that it’s a project whose premise you can’t easily reject: to create ‘a public space which allows play, tenderness, trust, empathy and love’ between men and girls. One can understand, for example, why the Wellcome Trust would want to support it and how the hype around the show generates ticket sales (the run at The Place has 9 performances, up to and including Saturday April 22). But a theatrical performance is more than its premise, and my empty feeling perhaps has its origin in the distance between the proposal and its manifestation. Men & Girls Dance treats a subject that is both light and dark, but its presentation on stage is only light; so where is the provocation, and to whom might it be addressed? It seems the only troubling thing about Men & Girls Dance is the absence of anything troubling. It’s a show the girls in their intuitively playful way might have choreographed and then asked the adults to formulate emotionally and intellectually. While the parallel social implications may well be contentious — the 64 pages of program text are an indication of how sensitive the subject can be — the choreographic manifestation in a controlled public space where the men need DBS checks to perform loses all pretensions of being provocative.

Could it be that an unintended consequence of current written funding applications is that what ticks the right boxes is the social significance and implications of a proposal rather than the quality of the performance which, at the point of application, may not yet have been created? Fevered Sleep has written a carefully worded newspaper about the subject of men and girls to accompany the show, offers discussions on the subject within each community where it plays and has garnered plaudits for broaching the subject — all valid — but it feels as if the company has sold us the funding application rather than the show.


The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite

Posted: April 5th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite

The Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 23

Kristen McNally and artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern (photo: Johan Persson)

This is a program of repertoire works by former Royal Ballet dancers, David Dawson and Christopher Wheeldon, wrapped around a new commission by Crystal Pite, the first female choreographer to perform her work on the main stage in a long, long, time. Despite this landmark achievement, Pite is not a classical choreographer, nor are her works in the classical idiom. Borrowing a leaf from Tamara Rojo’s astute book, the Royal Ballet has brought in a lauded contemporary name on a contemporary theme at an appropriate moment. It is also borrowing from the book of Sadler’s Wells associate artists. Much as I love Pite’s work, Flight Pattern blends uneasily with both the accompanying repertoire and the surroundings. It’s a beautifully fraught work (beautiful and fraught) about the fate of migrants, not a subject that lends itself naturally to the velvet and gilded glamour of the Royal Opera House. It’s an oddly imbalanced program, too, because Flight Pattern is not a natural closer, and neither Dawson’s nor Wheeldon’s work prepares for it in any way; it comes out of nowhere. It is nevertheless a sublime conception, both scenically and choreographically, for a mass of 36 dancers with the suggestion of a lead migrant couple (an incongruous notion) of Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambé. Anyone who saw Pite’s monumental Polaris on the Sadler’s Wells stage for the See The Music Hear The Dance program just over two years ago will remember her powerful massed forms of 64 dancers responding to Thomas Adès’ orchestral storm of the same name. Flight Pattern is more poetic and less menacing, influenced by the eerie refinement of the first movement of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, but its subject is harrowing. The work visualises the endless lines of stooped humanity on a desperate trek to an unknown future but Jay Gower Taylor’s set, Thomas Visser’s lighting and Nancy Bryant’s costumes bestow epic proportions on the entire journey. The movements of the dancers are muted and repressed throughout the work, hemmed in by heavy overcoats and by the giant partitions of the set that close inexorably on them until only a gently rocking McNally and a seething Sambé remain isolated. It is a moment that almost spits with rage but Sambé at this crucial point allows his pyrotechnical wizardry to infiltrate his character, dissipating Pite’s entire psychological build-up.

There’s plenty of legitimate technical display on the rest of the program, however, and the men get a thorough workout in Dawson’s first work for the Royal Ballet, The Human Seasons, to a commissioned score by Greg Haines. You know you’re at the Royal Ballet with this level of technical skill, though the loud landings (and there are many of them) of the men in particular exhibit some weakness in execution. The women are on display too, especially when upright; they are less so when being dragged unceremoniously along the ground.

Seeing The Human Seasons (2013) side by side with Wheeldon’s After The Rain (2005) one can’t help seeing similarities; both are in the neo-classical style with stripped down costumes, and there are one or two quotes by Dawson of Wheeldon’s lifts and slides. Where the two works differ is in the use of space as part of choreographic form. For all its intense movement, its entrances and exits, and its asymmetrical groupings, The Human Seasons, unlike Keats’ sonnet that inspired it, is constantly crying out for some kind of form to hold them all together. This is amplified by a lackadaisical deportment in the men in between partnering duties or bravura steps; they just amble over to the next sequence, killing the dynamics. Haines’ score can’t hold the work together either, so with all these holes Dawson’s form fails to gel, leaking out in all directions over the course of the work’s 35 minutes.

Scored for three couples, the first section of After The Rain is set to the first (Ludus) movement of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; as soon as it begins, Wheeldon’s spatial stagecraft is apparent. The form is held in place by the harmony of the music allied with the harmony of the choreography, pumpkin rolls and all. The second movement, to Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, is joined to the first but not closely related. It is often performed as a separate duet and its renown makes it appear as the feature film we’ve been waiting for. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares make it a powerful meditation on the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty, where each gesture is thought through and flows seamlessly to its natural resolution. But while the consummate elegance of this movement is framed on one side, the absence of a final, contrasting movement leaves it floating in splendid isolation; it should either be set free for good or the frame completed.


Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me

Posted: April 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me

Deborah Light, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, Chapter, Cardiff, March 17

Deborah Light in a sharing of Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me (photo: Warren Orchard)

Four years after chipping away at the inner life of the nineteenth century paleontologist Mary Anning in The Curio Cabinet, and six months into carrying a third child, Deborah Light has been turning her choreographic imagination to an excavation of her own life in an array of objects collected from the rocks and crevices of her mind and body. In this sharing of a development phase for a new work, Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me, she regales the invited audience in the studio at Chapter with a running commentary of her evolution that Darwin himself might have enjoyed if not fully appreciated. Nevertheless, her condensed trajectory from chordate to choreographer and from mollusk to mother is an accelerated but otherwise totally convincing line.

The studio is laid out with tables (they could be glass cases in a museum) on which are arrayed the objects and specimens Light has chosen to represent her. There is no particular order but they include balls of wool and knitting needles (her mother’s influence), fossils, rocks, seeds (her partner’s influence), her grandfather’s mantle clock, flowerpots and books (her private passion), all of which she invites the audience to inspect and handle. There are two other tables that are littered with notes or laid with paper for our written suggestions and interjections.

Kneeling on all fours in front of the clock Light demonstrates with rhythmic dorsal undulations the early chordate’s need for structural reorganization, then evolves into the shape of the mollusk’s hard shell and with evolutionary haste bypasses the seed’s slow-burning life with the vital attempt to stand up. This leads her to the table marked What’s Important on which she asks someone to add, ‘standing up’ and, as she catches her breath, ‘breathing’. As a mother of small children she also adds ‘dry pants’ to the growing list and as a human being she adds, ‘world peace’. In the space of an hour Semi Detached – An Archeology of Me builds up delightfully disparate layers of autobiographical sediment that form Light’s own particular landscape, her own history at this particular moment in her life, and as the unique curator she animates it all as both subject and object. She listens to the sounds of her own name as we might address it, as her mother might have pronounced it, as her children might call it, as she might have called her mother. It is harrowing and deeply moving to hear her label herself with these inflections of welcome, caution, fear and love, scratching under the name to give it life, identity and meaning.

Light has learned from raising her children that the art of dissembling can be very effective in keeping cool under fire. The way she leads us to believe the ‘indispensable’ bear, Mishu, is indeed borrowed from her five-year-old son as she proceeds to dissect his wooly chest with clinical precision is a master class in psychological manipulation. It also turns into a lesson in genetic association at a molecular level and a brief survey of an endangered species. ‘This species of bear will have to adapt’, she adds firmly as we all take a deep breath and follow her at a distance with our eyes.

Continuing to conflate the structures of archaeology and family, Light recreates a symbolic generational skeleton that she animates with her great grandmother’s Motherhood Book as brain, stones as vertebrae, the clock as biological time, a pot of seeds as ovaries and a rock as fused pelvis. She reinstates Mishu as the heart covered in a pinafore handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.

As if her version of evolution is totally logical, she totters across the room in two flowerpots with a ball of wool that she strings between pieces of table and chair like a game her mother used to play. She is gently inciting us to respond like children, to break through the historical into the present moment, but I think the episode with Mishu has kept us at arms length.

Archaeology and family life come full circle; Light’s final intervention reminds us of the nature of time, of the cyclical nature of starting and finishing. She takes off her outer garments and lies supine in her underwear on the What’s Important table, lying there so still like a living sarcophagus with her belly breathing two lives, while a recording of Handel’s aria Ombra Mai Fu infuses the image with the beauty of both life and death. When she rises to signal the end of the performance, some of the felt tip words are imprinted on her back. At moments like this you know something profoundly significant has just transpired, held in the moment and never to be repeated. It is a privileged moment for Light to be performing this and for us to be witnessing it, but the inspired and nonconformist workings of Semi Detached – An Archaeology of Me clearly have life after birth.


Aakash Odedra, Echoes and I Imagine

Posted: March 25th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Aakash Odedra, Echoes and I Imagine

Aakash Odedra, Echoes and I Imagine, Lilian Baylis Studio, March 9

Aakash Odedra in Echoes (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

This review was commissioned by Pulse and appears here with the kind permission of its editor.

The setting of a theatre is not the most conducive to a meditative state; its dimensions are more utilitarian than spiritual and one’s focus on the stage is shared with (in the case of the Lilian Baylis Studio) about 180 other people. In Inter-rupted for Dance Umbrella last year, choreographer Aditi Mangaldas and her designers successfully challenged these limitations with a dynamic use of colour and space. In Echoes, her first Kathak solo for Aakash Odedra, Mangaldas uses the auditory quality of strings of traditional ghungroo bells to usher in a sense of calm. In the program note she quotes J. Krishnamurti: ‘If you listen to the sound of those bells with complete silence you would be riding on it, or rather, the sound would carry you across the valley and over the hill…’ The theatre setting militates against this but Krishnamurti’s aerial metaphor finds a visual counterpart in the strings of bells suspended above the stage, and they also spread like tentacles along the floor like an unrolled skein of wool. The bells become the playing field for Odedra whose dancing imbues them with life. We first see him wafting a tassel of bells around his torso, though Fabiana Piccioli’s engulfing cone of light at this moment is too sharp, too design for Odedra’s languour. While the sound and imagery of the bells recur throughout Echoes, it is Odedra’s presence and his ability to sinuously, noiselessly insinuate his shape into the space around and above him that invites us to contemplate. The silent dynamics of his movement have no edges, like sound itself; they flow and swirl and rise (his joyful elevation is rare in Kathak) in a series of choreographic variations. Mangaldas has fully understood Odedra’s gifts and through them achieves a sense of awe through a oneness of the dancer and the danced.

The contrast with Odedra’s own choreography, I imagine, reveals an artist who is as expressive in a spiritual role as he is as a common man (or woman). On a stage marked out in white tape like an architectural plan and piled with suitcases of all shapes and sizes, he embodies the spirits of his antecedents, inhabiting the symbols of travel (quite literally at first) while questioning the ideas of migration and home. He scrabbles around the suitcases, retrieving old portraits (in the form of masks created by David Poznanter) and honouring their memory by imagining their peripatetic tribulations, their aspirations and dreams. He is so present in their lives that they live through him, voices and all. It takes a while to square this performance with the previous one, because Odedra has moved far from his Kathak roots into experimental theatre; he is an actor in his own drama and indulges his ability to evoke his past and present through theatrical means. Choreography enters slowly, but when he performs what appears to be a ritual dance at a suitcase altar, his flowing hands and arms describe everything words cannot. As in Echoes, his dancing comes from an intimate space inside the body, a place of emotions from which he extrudes meaning through his eloquent limbs. Odedra choreographed I imagine to the voice of spoken word artist, Sabrina Mahfouz. She, too, talks eloquently and powerfully about home and migration, her words complementing Odedra’s staged conception. Except that Odedra, in some alchemy of performance, has managed to say it all himself.


Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo

Posted: March 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo

Project Polunin: Icarus, Tea or Coffee, Narcissus and Echo, Sadler’s Wells, March 14 

Sergei Polunin, Alejandro Virelles, Daniele Silingardi, Alexander Nuttall and Shevelle Dynott in Narcissus and Echo (photo: Alastair Muir)

Sergei Polunin has long been interested in mythology. It could be said that his early life up to his departure from the Royal Ballet has elements of the myth of Icarus, and his more recent re-emergence in the light of Take Me To Church with the myth of Narcissus. It is perhaps no coincidence that Project Polunin should bookend its triple bill with works that reference both, though in terms of Polunin’s life there’s an important hiatus between the two.

With the recent release of Steven Cantor’s film The Dancer about Polunin’s life, it would be easy to imagine that Project Polunin follows on seamlessly where the film leaves off. But The Dancer took five years to film and another year to edit, so the film’s concluding performance of Take Me To Church — which at the time Polunin conceived  as the final act of his ballet career — happened six years ago. A lot has happened in Polunin’s life in the intervening years; most importantly he has rediscovered his desire to dance and has gathered around him a group of creative people who have given him the confidence and stability to develop new projects. He is also, as evidenced in his Q&A following the launch of the film, questioning current norms in the ballet world with the proselytizing zeal of a reformer.

This premier production of Project Polunin consists of three works. As he explains in an interview with Sarah Crompton, “It shows what my thinking is influenced by…There’s an old Soviet ballet, a hint of dance theatre and…the kind of dance theatre I would like to explore.”

Expectations run high for an event like this, especially with the media attention from The Dancer. Will Project Polunin fly or won’t it? When Polunin discovered a video of Vladimir Vasiliev’s duet, Icarus, the night before the flight — created for himself and his wife Ekaterina Maximova in 1971 — it must have struck him as auspicious. Vasiliev had inspired the young Polunin with his powerful, passionate style of dance, and here was choreography with a mythical subject close to his own heart. Polunin extended an invitation to Vasiliev (Maximova died in 2009) to come to London to mount the duet on a younger pair of lovers, Polunin and Natalia Osipova. The choreography for both male and female equates powerful technique with powerful emotions, heroic form with mythological mettle. Polunin revels in the bravura steps, displaying the elevation and flight for which he is renowned and, as his betrothed Aeola, Osipova has so integrated her prodigious technique into her body that she can express every nuance of her devotion to Icarus as well as the depth of her despair suggested in Vasiliev’s choreography. Just to see these two together giving full rein to their Russian heritage is a privilege.

After only a brief pause we jump 45 years ahead to Tea or Coffee, served Russian style with dark and surreal humour. Choreographed by Andrey Kaydanovsky for four soloists from the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet (Alexey Lyubimov, Valeria Mukhanova, Asastasia Pershenkova and Evgeny Poklitar), the ballet could well share the lineage of Nikolai Gogol with last year’s Royal Opera production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, except that instead of the nose it is a cup of tea (or coffee) that seems to have a life and influence of its own. The work consists of four rounds of a game in which whoever starts by stirring the cup of tea (or coffee) is initially eliminated from the next one. Within this ludic format the two couples interchange and squabble over an unspecified but evidently banal issue which gives rise to is a delightfully absurd set of convoluted solos, duets, double duets and trios that borrow their wit and rhythm from the eclectic score.

The relevance of Narcissus and Echo as a contemporary myth is fully developed in the program by Ilan Eshkeri, where he quips, ‘Narcissus’ reflection in the pool is arguably the first selfie.’ Eshkeri also wrote the score (played live by members of the London Metropolitan Orchestra under the baton of Andy Brown) and his concept for Narcissus and Echo is credited as the starting point of the work. In a Polunin work about the power of the image it is not surprising to find the visual influence of photographer David LaChapelle, who conceived the video Take Me To Church. It is evident in the opening tableau of Narcissus (Polunin) and his four Theban mates (Shevelle Dynott, Alexander Nuttall, Daniele Silingardi and Alejandro Virelles), in the overall colour palette and in the surreal pond with its haze of light and outstretched arms appearing from below the dark water. It is less easy to discover the choreographic form of Narcissus and Echo. There are four choreographers listed: Polunin and his assistant choreographer, Valentino Zucchetti, Osipova (for her solo), and Jade Hale-Christofi (also of Take Me To Church fame) for Polunin’s solo. In such a sharing of choreographic initiative it is perhaps inevitable the story of Narcissus and Echo as Eshkeri conceived it is sublimated for a show of dancing inspired by its two protagonists with, in the case of Hale-Christofi’s contribution, ‘selfie’ quotes from Take Me To Church. Polunin, however, inspires his mates to excellence, especially Silingardi and Virelles (both on loan from English National Ballet), while the five nymphs (Alexandra Cameron-Martin, Maria Sascha Khan, Adriana Lizardi, Callie Roberts and Hannah Sofo) seem to operate in the shade of Osipova’s orbit. It is perhaps the first time seeing Osipova working out choreography on her own body, from subtle insinuation to blindingly powerful despair, and the result is sublime.

The similarity between The Dancer and Project Polunin is that they are both in the image of Polunin himself; Icarus has recovered but Narcissus is always going to be susceptible. As Eshkeri points out eloquently in his program note, ‘What is fascinating is how quickly the human condition allows us to become intoxicated with ourselves. And once engulfed by it how do we avoid the beguiling fate of our lamentable protagonists.’ Polunin is clearly trying to distance himself from his own image by paying his respects to his past, but he will need to find a new myth to define his next stage of development.


Caroline Broadhead, Nic Sandiland and Angela Woodhouse: Close Distance

Posted: March 16th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Installation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Caroline Broadhead, Nic Sandiland and Angela Woodhouse: Close Distance

Caroline Broadhead, Nic Sandiland and Angela Woodhouse, Close Distance, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, March 11

Close Distance

An image from Close Distance (photo: Nic Sandiland)

The first impression as you enter Wollaton Hall’s Prospect Room from the narrow stone staircase is one of emerging into light and space. The first owner of this grand Elizabethan pile, Sir Francis Willoughby, had the room designed as a palatial lookout over the sylvan prospect all around, a place of privilege from which he could proudly survey and show off his walled domain. Six floors below, in the rock foundations on which Wollaton Hall stands, lived the household servants with little or no prospect at all. The architecture of Wollaton is thus an existing material imprint of a social hierarchy that no longer exists.

Close Distance, a subtle and imaginative installation by artist Caroline Broadhead, filmmaker and designer Nic Sandiland, and choreographer Angela Woodhouse, uses the present physical imprint to shed light on aspects of domestic life that can no longer be seen, and by setting the installation in the Prospect Room its creators neatly invert history by allowing servants to be re-imagined in this locus of privilege to which they would never have had access. Giving them the key to the Prospect Room was none other than Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, which now runs Wollaton Hall as a historic house and natural history museum, and which commissioned Close Distance as part of Dance4’s Nottdance Festival. This is creative commissioning at its best.

Broadhead, Sandiland and Woodhouse have added the touch of a smile to their reflections on life below stairs at Wollaton through a series of elaborate artistic conceits. The servants are represented by four dancers (Martina Conti, Kristian Tirsgaard, Vanio Papadelli, and Alice Labant) whose movement phrases, choreographed by Woodhouse, nuance the lives of the servants through silent gesture, sometimes inhabiting their despair and sometimes their hopes and aspirations. These choreographic episodes have been captured on film by Sandiland and looped on to small tablet screens embedded into items of furniture sourced by Broadhead. You may need to lift the lid of the sewing box or open the drawer of the escritoire to see the screen, but open or closed the films are running all the time — like the servants, who had to sleep on their feet. To this already complex layering of artifacts Broadhead has added samples of locally sourced material from the Middleton embroidery collection — a piece of lace or a square of luxurious carpet — that frame each screen. A gentle musical continuum of Handel concerti is pierced only by the persistent sound of the servants’ bell.

The focus of the Prospect Room is outwards, not inwards, and its only furnishing was possibly a telescope or a pair of binoculars similar to that in the installation; it was never intended for furniture so the four period items Broadhead has placed there along with the utilitarian wooden stepladder serve to reference other rooms in the house. Once arrived in the room, the privileged spectator wanders freely in this airy space from one artifact to the next in no particular order, building a sensory impression of what life might have been like below them. What Nottingham City Museums and Galleries has commissioned, in effect, is a playfully subversive display of social history at Wollaton Hall that paints the household in a way the taxidermy downstairs in the Natural History Museum can never achieve for its collection of wildlife.

One of the beauties of this kind of installation is that its very subtlety forces you to think, to contemplate and ask questions; it is an imaginative archaeology of past sensations that requires further study and exploration. In avoiding an approach to history that profiles the dates and achievements of the wealthy and powerful, Broadhead, Sandiland and Woodhouse have not only recalled an underprivileged past but have recalibrated it: it is the servants who, after all these years of confinement, have finally emerged into the light and space.

Close Distance is open at Wollaton Hall until May 1, 2017.


A preview of Swallowsfeet Festival

Posted: March 12th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , | Comments Off on A preview of Swallowsfeet Festival

Swallowsfeet Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 24-25

Swallowsfeet Festival promotional image (photo: Paul Seaby)

This article first appeared in the March edition of the magazine, Viva Brighton, who commissioned it. It appears here with the editor’s kind permission.

Billed as Brighton’s only platform for international contemporary dance in a city that hosts England’s largest arts festival, Swallowsfeet Festival embodies a culture of spirited resistance to the status quo. If one takes New York’s Judson Dance Theatre collective in the sixties as a point of departure, spirited resistance is what guides much of contemporary dance and since it uses the body as its primary instrument, its arguments are a form of physical discourse.

When Swallowsfeet Festival presents its program at the Old Market theatre on March 24 and 25, it will be celebrating its fifth outing. Some of the planned activities around the weekend have had to be put on hold following the failure of an Arts Council funding bid but the core program remains intact thanks to the pluck and conviction of the six-member Swallowsfeet Collective: Jessica Miller, Rosa Firbank, Jessica Léa Haener, Sivan Rubinstein, Gordon Raeburn and Harriet Parker-Beldeau.

They all met while studying contemporary dance at Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance in London but it was Miller who first grounded the performances of the collective in her native Brighton as an outlet for a group of Laban students to present their final works to an audience of friends and family. Just four years later the open callout for the 2017 festival has produced 280 proposals from 39 countries which the Collective has distilled to a program of nine works in the image of Brighton itself: edgy, diverse, challenging, and engaging.

Having narrowed down its 280 proposals, the Swallowsfeet Collective decided to include in the festival those that had, in the vocabulary of the physical, the possibility of the greatest impact on its audience, and the focus of these nine works coalesces around four predominantly physical themes: sexuality, gender, health and identity. At its best, contemporary dance picks up on issues of its time and transforms them through the body as voice.

Ironically, one of the works on the program, Joe Garbett’s No.Company, was conceived as a reaction to funding cuts for the arts. First shown at Emerge Festival in London, six choreographers in six different locations sent movement ideas, images and suggestions via text message to the two performers who then spent only two days in a borrowed space putting it all together. This is unheard of in the current funding matrix of rehearsal time and studio rental, but the result was fresh, immediate and magical. For Swallowsfeet Festival, Garbett is using a different score of text messages and is inviting two couples to interpret and perform two separate works from it; like musical improvisations, they will never be repeated. It might sound like a choreographic manifestation of a throwaway society, but the impression No.Company made when I first saw it was profound. It is this ability of contemporary dance to make the body speak, whisper and shout that has driven the Swallowsfeet Collective’s choice of all nine works on the program in March.

To book tickets for Swallowsfeet Festival and find out more about the events, go to

www.swallowsfeet.com/2017programme/


Resolution 2017: Jan Lee, Denis Santacana Dance Company, Hanna Wroblewski

Posted: March 7th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2017: Jan Lee, Denis Santacana Dance Company, Hanna Wroblewski

Resolution 2017: Jan Lee, Denis Santacana Dance Company, Hanna Wroblewski, February 2

Danai Pappa, Katsura Isobe and Thelma Sharma in How to Play a Room (photo: Tim Murray-Browne)

I should begin by saying Jan Lee and I shared a dramaturgy course last year given by Lou Cope. What drew me to the course was the similarity I felt between dramaturgy and the process of writing about dance; one helps build the internal cohesion of a work while the other attempts a deconstruction of the work to reveal that cohesion. Lou had suggested that any of the participants who wanted dramaturgical help on future projects should ask amongst themselves as a way of offering practical experience, which is how I came to work with Lee on her How To Play A Room. It is a privileged position from which to write as I can view the work, as it were, from somewhere in the middle.

In How to Play a Room Lee explores her own experience of being an outsider crossing social boundaries, of how to play a room when you don’t feel you belong, so having three performers of different nationalities (Katsura Isobe, Danai Pappa and Thelma Sharma) is no coincidence. Lee approaches dance with a musical mind as she is both a musician and dancer; she makes musical gestures with the bodies of her dancers and uses their voices and her own processed recordings of conversation as muscular elements in the choreography. How to Play a Room about the messiness of hybridity and the discovery of what remains inviolable. Isobe may mistranslate the physical conversation of Pappa and Sharma, and may have difficulty finding a way into their circle, but her own identity is poignantly clear in her singing of a Japanese lullaby at the end. Pappa is anchored in a dramatic reality that moves with her and she can transform her environment — especially when expressed in voluble Greek — into an emotional maelstrom, while Sharma is a Chaplinesque figure who finds strength in making sense of the world’s conundrums; she plays down her own identity and knows instinctively how to play a room. Lee and her dancers have collaborated to allow all these elements to overlap like three beams of different-coloured light to see what develops where they meet. The process is as messy as hybridity itself but somehow Lee manages to keep all the action on stage, illumined by the costumes of Elisa Nader and the lighting of Lucy Hansom, so that How To Play A Room emerges as a celebration of cultural fluidity.

There is something brutally physical in much of the dance I have seen from Spain but there is a beauty that inevitably arises from it. Denis Santacana Dance Company’s Encuentros has both a grounded physicality that borrows from flamenco and moments of sinuous energy that fly upwards. Encuentros is as much a duet about the juxtaposition of two contrasting personalities — Santacana and Victor Fernández — as it is about the overlap between the earthy and the ethereal. But if physicality is the motor, the imagery of Encuentros is mercurial, borrowing from chance meetings with changing outcomes; it is not linear but seems to move forwards and backwards. Chairs, a table and a wine glass suggest the nature of the meeting place but the table and chairs also serve as platforms for dancing, and the glass becomes a musical instrument. The relationship between the two men oscillates between manipulator and manipulated, between puppet master and puppet, and between acceptance and rejection, all depicted through episodes of careful shading and projected shadows. The imagery merges into the physicality, sometimes tortured and percussive, sometimes sinewy and light, until the story is exhausted. It’s all in the cinematic flow of the music, too: Encuentros by Victor Guadiana.

Standing on a tall pedestal, Hanna Wroblewski with her trademark red hair and flowing robe, cuts a statuesque figure. In Darling, I Don’t Sell Dreams… she shrinks the theatre (with the help of Joseph Bisat Marshall’s design and Lucy Hansom’s lighting) into an artist’s studio in which she is both the model accepting our gaze and the artist of her own creation. Inspired by her ‘fascination with the public and private personas of silver screen sirens’, Wroblewski plays a very public figure to the music of her very private thoughts. In her stillness, the bareness of her legs, the downward angle of her head and the sound of her heavy breathing, she at first appears to be on a ledge contemplating her fate. As she leans further, tiny bright red hearts cascade from her dress, flashing in the light as they fall around the pedestal. Gravity wins, but the hearts are escaping dreams. She begins to hum as she continues to revolve, letting her hair down, dipping a leg languorously to either side or raising a pliant arm, to reveal both her defiance of fear and her full sculptural presence. It takes a lot of courage to maintain this slow revolution (interestingly it allows us to conjure up so many images) but it becomes a dream-like metaphor for another kind of courage Wroblewski is about to reveal. After lowering herself over the pedestal, head draped towards us, she breaks the silence with an admission: she has an age-old fear of singing in public except, she realises, when she is feeling comfortable with her surroundings. Evidently she does here, for she launches into the sentimental ballad, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, finding just enough breath and just the right notes, not selling dreams but wrapping them up as gifts.


Resolution 2017: Jair Ramirez, Maria Lothe & Co and The Rebirth Network

Posted: March 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2017: Jair Ramirez, Maria Lothe & Co and The Rebirth Network

Resolution 2017: Jair Ramirez, Maria Lothe & Co, The Rebirth Network, February 23

Maria Lothe & Co’s Can You Hear the Sound of the Flowers? (photo: Maria Lothe)

Jair Ramirez begins Sugarman intriguingly enough, entering the stage in his dressing gown as if it is his bathroom and the audience his mirror. He yawns and takes out toothbrush and paste to clean his teeth, but all too soon the theatricality of his presentation is revealed as a thin pretext for his speciality: aerial straps. His dressing room of sartorial props is set up to lead us to his first show of prowess, turning with his head supported in a strap while holding an open briefcase. In his second feat, he writes notes while suspended in the splits and then braces himself supine between two straps, one attached to his feet and one to his head. He maintains this pose with all the nonchalance of lying in bed and gets applause, for it is his prodigious strength that eclipses the theatricality that leads to its display. It is a problem with circus acts that want to explore outside the ring; there is a difference between emphasizing the theatricality of a particular act, and dressing an act in theatricality. Ramirez has chosen the latter, an option that further reveals its weakness at the end when after finding an effective moment to leave the stage he feels the need to return in his dressing gown to continue brushing his teeth.

Maria Lothe & Co’s Can You Hear the Sound of the Flowers? begins with three supine dancers (Svenja Buhl, Fergus McIntosh and Victoria Rucinska) in loose, vegetable-coloured clothing propelling themselves tortuously across the stage like a race of snails, each holding a potted plant on their stomachs; they could be tendrils searching for light but for the resistance of the Marley floor. Lothe & Co develop these images further with meditative poses, a vocabulary of gestures derived from biology and paleontology, vocal work learned directly, perhaps, from plants in various states of health, and mystical incantations. There is an intensity and humour in the three plant warriors as they grapple with the exotic forms and pliability of nature in all their idiosyncratic rawness, borrowing the dynamics of both growth and sickness since there’s not a drop of water to be seen under those blazing lights. If you’re going to choreograph a piece on the benefits of permaculture* this is the way to do it, using the kind of witty associations between body and plant life that make you want to read more (except for those who mistake the wacky humour as a spoof). But it also renders the recorded text by permaculture founder David Holmgren far too serious, sitting uneasily with the fertile imagery on stage below. It is also superfluous. As the three performers inch their way off at the end leaving the potted plants centre stage, Lothe & Co have already done their job; it’s up to us to explore Mr. Holmgren’s ideas further.

*Permaculture takes its inspiration from ecological systems and patterns in nature. Through its ethics and principles, permaculture provides practical methods of how to develop sustainable human environments.

The Rebirth Network’s Reuben Parker is a selection of episodes that form a preview to a longer work, not enough of them here to spin its moral but complete enough to recognize its value and to want to see more. It is described as ‘a hip-hop dance drama about a man who is granted a special gift to shift and shape his reality.’ Clearly such a gift can be both a blessing and a curse and that is the drift of this morality tale which begins with the narrator’s biblical voice of contrition: “I want to tell you a story.” The action introduces us to Reuben Parker in his present form and then relives autobiographical episodes of his life; dancers who play Reuben at different times of his life each wear white gloves so we know who’s who and each episode or tableau is clearly introduced by the narrator and separated from the next one by a blackout. On the way up, we see Reuben saved from bullying at school by a kind teacher and his acquisition of a special gift of power over others. On the way down we see him squander his gift in his careless treatment of his mother, lose the girl he loves and acquire a gambling habit. The dynamic rhythm of Luke ‘Gkid’ Grant’s original music and Daniel 7’s choreography make Reuben Parker look like a musical on a spiritual theme, but the upbeat production values tend to even out the register of emotional ups and downs: the special teacher, Mr. T., makes only a brief appearance for such an influential figure, and the tragic death of Reuben’s mother becomes merely sentimental. At times there are sixteen dancers on stage and the strongest choreographic expressions belong to them as they communicate not only their love of performing but their belief in their message.