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.


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/


Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets

Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets

Janis Claxton Dance, Pop Up Duets (fragments of love), National Museum of Scotland, August 17

One of Janis Claxton's Popup Duets (photo:

James Southward & Christina Liddell in one of Janis Claxton’s Popup Duets (photo: Ian Abbott)

Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.” – Anais Nin

With Pop Up Duets Janis Claxton has made photographic dance catnip; four lithe, athletic bodies, dripping with clean and dramatic lines, set against the backdrop of the National Museum of Scotland. Choreographically it’s a canny decision and demonstrates a genuine understanding of how audiences engage with work in public space. They will often stay with a work for four to six minutes, invest a little of themselves, take a photo and carry on with their day. But Pop Up Duets has been all over social media and the company has also been interviewed by BBC Loop to create a short video that racked up over 32,000 views — by far the biggest audience for contemporary dance at the Fringe.

With a company of exceptional dancers (Adrienne O’Leary, James Southward, Christina Liddell and Carlos J Martinez), nine duets lasting four to five minutes each are performed within the gallery spaces; the choreography and musicality are akin to rain droplets on the window of a speeding train: a swooshing arrival as they land, bodies slowly unfurling, leaving a water tail as they make their horizontal journey across the floor and then ramping up again as they gather momentum to join with other miniature streams as they run against the wind. There’s oodles of fevered contact, silky bodily meshing and recognisable tropes of physical intimacy delivering a choreographic vocabulary that is recognisable and accessible for all who encounter it.

I did not want to be a tree, a flower or a wave. In a dancer’s body, we as audience must see ourselves, not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.” – Martha Graham.

As the duets popped up around the museum an accidental audience would gather temporarily for a duet or two but when I attended the majority of the crowd were ready for a performance and stayed for the entire 45 minutes; they naturally formed a ring, hugged the safety of the edge and framed a circular stage area for the dancers to perform in. The space was never crossed or intruded upon once a performance began, demonstrating an understanding and familiarity with performance in public places. The audience was guided from the site of one duet to another by the introduction of the next piece of music issuing from two smartly designed vintage suitcases that acted as portable speakers. As the crowds gathered again the dancers emerged from within the crowd. The main gallery in National Museum of Scotland is like a three-tier ivory budgie cage with natural light beaming down from the roof; it was levels one and two that offered a birds-eye view and it was here that those a little less familiar with performance encountered the work from a safe distance with the ability to capture the results on their smart phone.

That hunger of the flesh, that longing for ease, that terror of incarceration, that insistence on tribal honour being obeyed: all of that exists, and it exists everywhere.” – Ben Kingsley

However, as I stayed with Pop Up Duets, my interest began to wane. Because the individual fragments exist in isolation and don’t talk to each other, there is a similarity in pacing and a lack of visible development in the wider narrative, and although the setting is majestic the context of the venue (a museum of inanimate history placed on plinths or stuck behind glass) offers little in terms of framing. Love and intimacy are rarely treated well choreographically in contemporary dance; convincing the audience that two people are longing to be together is difficult (and not all the dancers in the company manage it) but James Southward absolutely nails it — his body amplifies the feeling that exists in his hungry eyes as he falls into the orbit of all those he dances with — he’s absolutely magnetic and melts in and out of the eyes of all who watch him.

Presenting accessible contemporary dance in public has a fruitful history across the UK with the likes of Casson and Friends, Protein Dance and Tilted actively embracing the richness that comes from this level of engagement. There is a lot to love in Pop Up Duets, including Kathryn Joseph on the soundtrack, the technical facility of the dancers and blending of museum/dance audiences together, but I didn’t fall in love with all of it; we brushed cheeks, flirted together and enjoyed a little fringe holiday romance.


Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Self Revealed

Posted: August 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Self Revealed

Hannah Nicklin, Equations For A Moving Body, Summerhall, August 9; Rosana Cade, Walking:Holding, Forest Fringe, August 17, and Skye Reynolds, Pitch, Dance Base, August 17.

Skye Reynolds in Pitch (photo: Lucas Kao)

Skye Reynolds in Pitch (photo: Lucas Kao)

A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.” – Madeline L’Engle

The self is firmly on show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival (as it is every year). There’s a constant examination and excavation of the self; performers offering a sliver of their lives to the audience in exchange for attention and time. How much can we see and are we allowed to see? When does dance, performance and live art really reveal itself (or the self’)?

Pitch is Skye Reynolds’ 30-minute solo, made in collaboration with Jo Fong, which she describes as ‘…a realisation: how are we living our lives? The act of selling oneself, selling an idea.’ This is a constant in the life of the independent, self-produced choreographer; selling themselves to venues, festivals and programmers to try and make what they’re offering appeal to the dance taste makers of the UK. Although there’s little choreographed dancing, there’s oodles of giddy movement interspersed with text which Reynolds delivers with aplomb; through her ebullience and constant refraction of her self and her history we see how a self can become centred — she offers us constant crumbs of personal milestones: playing the good wife and the whore; dreaming about David Bowie, playing the virgin in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, truth bending about working with Kylie Minogue and the time she was in China pretending to be an animal in a perspex box. She leaves us no time to dwell on how these moments impacted her (or how they affect our impression of her) as she skittishly flits from one revelation to the next. She’s selling herself, her story and her experience to us. Are we buying? I think we are.

In the second half, Reynolds begins to pull out from her big black box pre-scripted texts about things that perhaps she and we could care a little more for: Brexit, Belgium, Syria, Calais and dozens more, macro issues that feel an infinity away from the first half. Beginning with a micro focus on the self and then scaling up and shifting onto the world stage is an intelligent way to anchor and shift our thoughts to global issues we are collectively facing that should warrant greater attention. Mid-way through the work Reynolds blends life and art even further as we hear an overly long home recording of her daughter Tallulah playing piano and practising her Misty Copeland; it’s a fine rendition but the impact is made within the first verse and chorus and we don’t need to hear the rest. After a short recitation of REM’s Losing My Religion Reynolds abruptly leaves the stage along with the spotlight that has been chasing her around for the entire show. Just as we think it’s an ending Tallulah herself emerges to sing an original song whilst pinning up a hand-written note that invites the audience to donate to Plan UK, an education scheme for girls in Africa (after three performances nearly £100 has been donated). The impact would have been heightened if Reynolds had stayed and watched her daughter sing so we could see that familial connection; it would have amplified all the different selves that she and we present to the world.

Scattered amongst Pitch there are echoes of the way Wendy Houstoun (Reynold’s has been a performer in Houstoun’s Stupid Women) presents her work, from the witty and rambling (though actually carefully constructed) word association to the visible control of the soundtrack through an mp3 player and making social commentary on the dance world, too. Pitch and Reynolds happily flirt on the artifice-to-reality spectrum with an intelligent construction, humourous delivery and buckets of vitality. We are introduced to what Reynolds was, is and could be; it offers an intriguing possibility of how Pitch could sit with a companion piece (authored by Reynolds or somebody else) that might allow us to dwell on, get under her skin of and make us feel a little more uncomfortable with ourselves.

So you might say, ‘Why do you end up making theatre in a world in which there is already too much of that? Creating layer upon layer of artifice?’ Perhaps the function is to pierce through that cloud and show reality — so the function of art is to make things — to show: ‘Hang on, this is real.‘” – Simon McBurney

In the act of opening up on stage, does the level of virtuosic performance equate to the scale of trauma and of personal revelation from an artist? Does the fact that the more we hear about the tapestry of their life mean we should connect and empathise more?

Hannah Nicklin’s Equations for a Moving Body is an elegy to endurance and she describes it as ‘A story about the physiology of endurance — when our brains tell our bodies to stop — and the psychology of continuing.’ The psychology of extreme athletes is a rich research field; there are always people fitter and faster than you. However there is a set of traits which such athletes often share: curiosity, persistence, lack of fear and sense of boldness. This is a performance about prowess, mastery and the pursuit of betterment, yet it’s delivered with a precision and a sparse physical palette in which the emotional effect is arresting.

For over 80 minutes Nicklin guides the audience through her attempt to complete the Outlaw Triathlon (a 2.4m swim, 112m bike ride and 26.2m run) in July 2015 in her 30th year. The current narrative around Team GB’s success in Rio is that the public is seeing the rewards for the investment, sports science and the marginal gains that can be delivered through detailed preparation. It’s in this preparation and detail that Equations for a Moving Body shines brightest.

With a laptop, projector screen, some index cards on the floor and a water bottle, Nicklin talks to us from her chair or directly front on. Through her adept mix of live internetting and her nuanced vocal and physical delivery, we see flashes of her through the way she curates her online self in her profiles on Facebook, Flickr, and Bandcamp. As she scrolls, surfs and finds the URL’s to accompany her story we see her visual bibliography; there’s something satisfying in her sharing this intimacy. As she delivers stories of how she endured, trained and delivered we listen to Nicklin’s body as she slowly rock’s gently on her heels, the minute finger twitches and rubs on the palm; there’s all sorts of almost imperceptible physical signals at play here and although she clearly acknowledges us and is present in the room, I can’t help but sense she’s performing it for someone else, someone who’s not here.

How a work settles in a body changes the delivery and intonation; I saw this performance in the first week of the fringe (when some works are still trying to find their natural rhythm) but Nicklin had a comfort with these stories and with the science behind them. She understood the rhythm of her story and how to tell it; how to build, when to rest and let us recover. The stories and training are her embodied experience and there was an ease with which it flowed out. Nicklin met with a number of scientists in the construction of the work and there’s a strand of research from Dr Sarah Partington on the idea of the Storied Self which Nicklin paraphrases on her Ironman blog. ‘She explained that we are creatures of narrative — that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling — we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts.’

Equations for a Moving Body is an intimate portrayal of the self, layered with emotion, tragedy and curiosity, from which Nicklin constructs a compelling narrative and delivers with a vocal charge that ensures her storied self is one that is worth listening to.

 . . .sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?”
“Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.
” – Carlos Ruis Zafon

“Everything you see after you open your eyes is part of the performance.” That was the final instruction as I walked in silence from the Out of the Blue Drill Hall to the beginning of Walking:Holding, a work by Rosana Cade that turns Leith into a theatre. But the question is who are the performers? Hidden in the simple act of holding the hand of a stranger whilst walking together in public offers a number of self-examinations and surprises that I had not anticipated.

It was a blue, unclouded afternoon as I held the right hand of the first stranger; I denoted a tension in her arm as we paraded down Leith Walk. After a short exchange of questions and answers (we were free to be silent or to talk), she stopped and turned us to face the glass of a shop window: “What do you think people would say if they looked at us?” This one question knocks at the heart of Walking:Holding. Assumptions are often made based on how we dress, the age we look and our presumptive sex. I am guided over a zebra crossing and we are stopped by a man who asks, “Do you have a light?” “No,” I reply. “Well can I hold your hand instead?” At that moment, like a baton relay, I am handed over to my second companion and I discover an alternative physicality: he is taller than I am and so I need to raise my left arm higher to find his natural gait and we constantly adjust in an attempt to find a mutually comfortable proximity. As two people we are in an equally unstable position — we don’t know each other’s backgrounds, fears or curiosities — yet there is so much stimulation; I’m alive to new people, places and exchanges. The public are entirely unaware they are witnessing an intimate duet that has only just begun. Were we real in those 5 or 6 minutes together with each walker:holder? Were we performing a version of ourselves? What did we reveal to each other? I found out that one of the walker:holder’s identified as asexual and had never held a man’s hand in public in the daytime before.

There is a large amount of research in the field of walking psychology. Studies have shown that walking improves cognitive performance, aids problem-solving and creative thinking as well as enhancing our working memory. I remember so much of my emotional response in this 40-minute experience; more so than in many theatre-based performances: the sound of the loose change in the right yellow trouser pocket of walker:holder number six and the olfactory lingerings as I ambled past a number of oily garages with walker:holder number five. Your body is alert to everything: who’s thumb is on top; is it palms together or fingers entwined? Holding the hand of a child is loaded with safety and protection and it’s within that frame that I think Walking:Holding exists: we protect each other in public through this remarkable part of our body with which we can communicate so much. Without Cade being present she has constructed a frame and set in motion a number of carefully considered complexities that ensure this would resonate differently in parts of the world where human touch is either welcomed or frowned upon. For me, I left a little bit of myself with each of the six walker:holders and shared an equality of intimacy that has only been rivalled by Verity Standen’s Hug. Walking:Holding is a hugely intelligent work that left all sorts of residues on me: intellectually, physically and emotionally.

I came away from all three works thinking about the spectrum of artifice-to-reality and how other people can act as our mirrors. Skye had Jo Fong assembling, collaborating and refining herself as she went along; Hannah did the same through the people she encountered to build her story and the science behind it and Rosanna through her choice of walker:holders. All of them encouraged a self-reflection and if you combine the four titles (moving, holding, pitch(ing) and walking) they offer an instruction on how to approach the self and the people in your life; sometimes you dial up one or the other depending on the situation or who you’re with, but as a guide for the self you can’t go far wrong.


Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: hip hop culture

Posted: August 19th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: hip hop culture

Smother by 201 Dance Company, Skal by Lin Dylin and Bang! To The Heart by NUE Dance Company, Edinburgh Fringe, August 8 & 9

Smother by 201 Dance Company (photo: Cody Choi)

Smother by 201 Dance Company (photo: Cody Choi)

Our historical experience teaches us that men imitate one another, that their attitudes are statistically calculable, their opinions manipulable, and that man is therefore less an individual than an element in a mass.” – Milan Kundera

How do you translate a culture? West Side Story was a concept musical based on Romeo and Juliet that Jerome Robbins proposed to Leonard Bernstein in January 1949. It took another six years before playwright Arthur Laurents came up with the idea of two teenage gangs as the warring factions, one of them Puerto Rican, the other self-styled Americans. In November of the same year Stephen Sondheim joined the project as a lyricist and in August 1957 the stage version of West Side Story premiered in Washington D.C., with the film version released in October 1961. Successful translations take time to gestate, brew, fade and re-shape.

Feuding rivalries and gang culture are older than Shakespeare and it is within the embrace of West Side Story via the 90’s Sega Megadrive video game Streets of Rage that NUE Dance Company’s Bang! To The Heart resides. Heralding from Italy and presenting in the main space at Zoo, Bang! To The Heart offers the audience a large-scale, 60-minute work with 10 dancers, a complex set, multiple projections and an original soundtrack. The narrative premise is an exact replica of West Side Story – we have the Angels (Sharks) vs Zombies (Jets) fighting for supremacy; a gang member falls for a girl, loses the respect of his allies and has to make a decision whether to follow his heart or go back to his brothers. However, it is here that the similarities end as Bang! To The Heart is a graffiti cartoon fuelled with parkour bounding, a late night riot of outrageous bboy skills and facial exaggeration. With a number of distracting side panel screens projecting fluorescent animations of bodies glitching through an urban cityscape, the main focus lands on two large, reversible, wheeled walls that offer retractable ledges, staircases and scaffolding that allow the dancers to climb, bounce and launch themselves with consistent frequency. Rattling from scene to scene, face-off to face-off, the bboying is some of the best I’ve seen; extreme flexibility and strength sees crazy hollow backs, air flares and a whole suitcase of other power moves that wouldn’t be out of place at the bboy championships. It is physically impressive and the stamina is unrelenting; even in the last ten minutes with glistening brows none of the moves lose their edge. However, it isn’t all macho posturing. There are three female dancers who’s role is little more than moving wallpaper and street dance sirens calling to the bboys with their bodies; they are lifted and thrown around with brute force; without safe practice, damage to their bodies looks likely. Just because the bboys are at ease pushing the limits of their own physicality they should not jeopardise the safety of others within the company. With so much technical skill in the cast and heavy investment in production values, the company would benefit from a dramaturgical hand, otherwise Bang! To The Heart will fill its 22:20 kitsch slot and remain a slavish West Side Story imitation with lashings of bboy talent.

If you’re not messing up every now and then at practice, you’re not doing anything above your ability to progress.” – Crazy Legs

How do you adapt a culture? Baz Luhrmann, the director of Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge, Australia and Romeo and Juliet has just released The Get Down for Netflix, a glossy technicolour and romanticised fable on the birth of hip hop in the summer of 1977 in the Bronx. 12 episodes made for $120 million. The first six episodes are woven around a pair of young lovers who through music try to better themselves and move away from the culture and people that forged their personalities and life experience to date. With all four elements of hip hop — mc’ing, b-boying, graffiti, dj’ing — and plenty of Puma on show, Luhrmann integrates shots of original news footage in an attempt to transport us back to the Bronx, but at it’s heart, it’s a pond skimmer: dancing on top, unwilling to break the surface and burrow beneath a rich, politicised and complex culture.

Skal is a twenty-five minute work exploring macho culture within hip hop by the Swedish duo of Pontus Linder and Olov Ylinenpää (aka Lin Dylin). Dance Base presented Skal as part of Nord Dance, its festival of Scandinavian work, in November 2015 which is where I first saw it. After a second viewing I notice the visibility of child-like play and a depth of nostalgia that permeates the work. Linder and Ylinenpää start upstage seated on a picnic rug decorated with plants, records, soft furnishings and a slide projector. They oscillate between this quiet reflective space (which leaves the audience with little spectacle but the mundane re-arrangement of records or the watering of a plant) and the stage — the place where they play. Choreographically they’re reconfiguring windmills, belly swipes and air flares, slowing them down so we’re able to dissect them: we see battle tricks in duet and solo form broken down to reveal when momentum gathers and where delicate weight shifts take place. In a form that rewards either dizzying speed or precision freezes, Skal attempts to adapt the original into an alternative choreographic language; imagine bboys in treacle.

As two performers who are still active on the battle scene, Linder and Ylinenpää represent different sides of the bboy coin; Linder holds his footwork in high esteem, stylishly tinkering at the edges of the melodies whilst Ylinenpää is all power moves and physical prowess. There’s a comfort and unspoken solitude between them on stage and this settles in between the gaps of performance. When they return to the rug and strike up the slide projector we see a series of kaleidoscopic amorphous shapes oozing and lolling around. Silence and space are a rare presence in the hip hop world and consequently these 25 minutes feel unusual, which I appreciate; Skal is a quiet study of the bboy and Lin Dylin happily inverts the tropes that are usually associated with it to create a balanced and playful simplicity.

Our pleasures are not material pleasures, but symbols of pleasure — attractively packaged but inferior in content.” – Alan W Watts

In the UK there are a number of artists who frame themselves as making dance/theatre that uses hip hop as their primary movement language whilst mixing other styles and influences; Vicki Igbokwe, Botis Seva, Tony Adigun, Emma Jayne Park, Benji Reid and Robby Graham — a by no means an exhaustive list — are artists who are sensitive to the origins of hip hop, offer ambitious narratives for their audiences to engage with and have been pursuing theatrical presentations of their work for the last decade or more.

How do you dilute a culture? Smother by 201 Dance Company returns to the Fringe after a successful run last year that saw the company hoovering up a number of 4-star and 5-star reviews from EdFest Magazine, Broadway Baby and Scotsgay. Housed on the main stage at Zoo, the company of seven dancers explores the story of two men’s broken encounter whilst touching on the themes of addiction, obsession and commitment. 201 presents homosexual relationships in hip hop as sensitive territory but if you consider the history of hip hop and the funk styles of waacking, voguing and the balls that emerged in the late 70s and continue today there has been consistent and active communities within hip hop that are not defined by their sexuality. These communities kept themselves underground because of the intolerance of others to accept different types of bodies and beliefs; inside and outside hip hop the prejudices they encountered are still alive today, and I’m unsure whether attitudes are thawing or not.

Artistic director, choreographer and dancer Andrea Walker is to be applauded for attempting to explore this area as few in the UK have done so to date. However, for over 55 minutes we are presented with a number of low-quality commercial street dance routines — truncated to match the length of a pre-existing musical tracks — interspersed with faux, angsty dacting (dance acting). The routines are loose, unsymmetrical and there is an inconsistency across the dancers in terms of who is and is not able to hit the beat or understand the musical texture and nuance required. The dacting sections bear no relationship to the routines (which repeat motifs and material multiple times) and the physical encounters offer a uni-dimensional representation of relationships that are angry, promiscuous and unsubtle. Walker is noticeably the weakest dancer; he gives himself a lead role, often front and centre of the arrow formation, yet his execution has little attack and is always a beat behind. Smother lacks emotional subtlety, historical awareness and presents a series of shallow sub-standard choreographies that could be found in an improvers street dance class at Pineapple. You have to know where hip hop has been to know where it can go.

Hip-hop artists, especially the older ones, are the ones who knew hip-hop was a worldwide phenomenon before the mainstream caught on, so hip-hop artists are forward thinkers. We want to stay with the new.” – Nas


Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Hiccup Project

Posted: August 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe: The Hiccup Project

The Hiccup Project, May-We-Go-Round?, Dance Base, Edinburgh Fringe, August 9

Chess Dillon-Reams and Cristina MacKerron of The Hiccup Project (photo: Maria Falconer)

Chess Dillon-Reams and Cristina MacKerron in May-We-Go-Round? (photo: Maria Falconer)

If you never tell anyone the truth about yourself, eventually you start to forget. The love, the heartbreak, the joy, the despair, the things I did that were good, the things I did that were shameful – if I kept them all inside, my memories of them would start to disappear. And then I would disappear.” – Cassandra Clare

The lost art of bedroom choreography is flung out of the wardrobe and up to the Edinburgh Fringe with gusto. May-We-Go-Round? cycles through a 60 minute excavation of past loves and exorcises them in the style of Taylor Swift. We meet Ian, Elliott (with a double t), Luke, the fit PE teacher, and oodles more as Chess Dillon-Reams and Cristina MacKerron narrate each other’s temporary heartbreak via shared direct address, full sass choreography and bedroom dance routines.

The face is where we as humans connect with each other; we don’t look at the suppleness of the spine or a hyper-extended leg to feel closer to a performer; we can admire it but it inevitably distances us. Chess’s and Cristina’s faces are things of elastic wonder; eyebrows on the go slow, tightly mouthed squeals of delight or throwing us two barrels of side eye — they perform with their whole bodies and we drink them in entirely. There’s a real guts and guns approach to the quality of movement — a throw-your-body-on-the-line-and-leave-nothing-behind — and this spirit engenders a forgiveness for any lack of technically sound unison, unfinished moves or broken lines.

May-We-Go-Round? acts as a connector to our own histories, a show with two performers we can relate to and it triggers memories of Dreamphone, Now 42 and Smash Hits. The Hiccup Project have cleverly tapped into a 90s nostalgia kick and it disarms the normally reserved contemporary dance audience. Their audio bibliography is clear (Spice Girls, Craig David and Cher) and how they describe and execute their work (not a mention of the word dance in the description) resonates with the majority of the under-35, female audience who were having a noticeably good time. Chess and Cristina are full of empathy and it’s impossible not to like them.

The strong bond of friendship is not always a balanced equation; friendship is not always about giving and taking in equal shares. Instead, friendship is grounded in a feeling that you know exactly who will be there for you when you need something, no matter what or when.” – Simon Sinek

Their relationship and familiarity with each other is clear and strong; the work is embedded in their bodies allowing their performance to shine through in the detail. Working with Antonia Grove and Lou Cope on the dramaturgy has resulted in a tightly-woven and well-constructed work. In the sections between the narration and movement they break the fourth wall and gift the audience a generous quadruple vodka and a dash of cranberry or explain the reasoning behind Chess’s excessively red face. These sections aren’t gimmicky but fit the tone, mood and enhance the connection between performers and audience.

There’s a growing crop of independent female choreographic voices that are excavating their own past and using comedy intelligently to bring audiences towards them: Sarah Blanc, Justine Reeve, Skye Reynolds, and Rhiannon Faith. The Hiccup Project’s choreographic candyfloss can be added to that list. I look forward to Now That’s What I Call The Hiccup Project 2.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Under its influence, ordinary songs take on dimensions and powers, like emotional superheroes.” Kate Christensen


Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe, Meeting

Posted: July 2nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe, Meeting

Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe, Meeting, Battersea Arts Centre, June 28

Alisdair Macindoe and Antony Hamilton in Meeting (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Alisdair Macindoe and Antony Hamilton in Meeting (photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure — as a mere automaton of duty?” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Bodies as automatons? It’s a philosophical question that sits at the heart of choreography. Can dancers deliver the same movement, at the same intensity again and again without deviation or wrinkle? Both Antony Hamilton originating the choreography and Alisdair Macindoe inventing the bots and polyrhythmic composition dissolve the seam between choreography and composition. Their meshing as a performance duo with highly tuned musicality is a feast of call and response and displays acres of tensile strength. Imagine the microseconds before the gun of a 100m race is fired: Macindoe and Hamilton don’t go on the ‘b’ of the bang, they play in the space when the lips begin to close and formulate the hum of the ‘b’.

With the 55 minute performance split into three sections, the first sees Hamilton and Macindoe inhabiting the 4-metre radius circle of bots (64 pieces of wood measuring no more than 20 x 15 x 10 centimtres with a pencil attached to a pivoting mechanism on the side, tapping the floor at different intervals); this intensity of focus and action does not allow our gaze to wander or be distracted by any superfluous activity. It deepens the connection between audience and performers as we’re all submerged in this tight frame for the first 25 minutes; it is relentless adventure with feats of physical and verbal memory.

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.” – Theodore Dreiser

Hamilton and Macindoe are human gnomons casting shadows and carving air as they latch on to one of the many polyrhythms created by the orchestra. The primary choreographic language employed is popping (sometimes known as the robot dance), building staccato patterns through the isolation of muscles in their arms, neck and torso. The style ensures a crisp, cool and technically impressive feat yet Macindoe does not match Hamilton’s skill. The difference is clear and Macindoe is not able to execute and pop as the softness of a contemporary training blunts the edges required.

As Hamilton slowly breaks the circle of bots, we see his b-boy history as he softly baby freezes over the boundary of bots, shifting his weight as he meets the floor and begins to reconfigure them into a new formation. With a series of miniature robotic henges casting dawn-length shadows across the stage we began to see and hear a transformation. There is a delicacy in play in the second section — a balance between sound, motion, the sound of motion and the motion of sound. The sonic palette has shifted too as miniature trays, blocks and alternative materials are placed underneath the pencils and as they strike down alternative tones reverberate and the monochromatic drum march has been replaced with a textured soundscape.

Ah, thou hast made my heart captive in the endless meshes of thy music.” – Rabindranath Tagore

Time is often foregrounded; from the unfinished and rewound repeated movements glitching in our eyes, to the complex musical time signatures pulsing in our ears — we know that time exists but are unsure at which speed it is being played out. This invisibility is remembered at the end as the dancers leak off stage and the audience is serenaded for the last five minutes by the orchestra. Even though the bodies are no longer present, the interweaving of choreography and composition ensures a physical residue in the audience memory. As the tones shift I see their bodies echo in the space, popping, patterning and replaying movement sequences that were present a few moments before.

There were dozens of moments of virtuosity: from an eyes-closed verbal recall of a numeric pattern at Mach 1 making them sound like a pair of Australian market traders bamboozling the audience’s ears, to a tight hand sandwich duet at close proximity as they pivot and twist, using their palms as records moving in and out of a jukebox at speed. As an audience we’ve been internally tightened and our gears wound watching these feats without breathing or shuffling in the rich and sparse landscape Hamilton and Macindoe have created. Meeting is a quietly rich encounter between man, machine, motion and sound that rewards your attention with mesmeric human feats and meditative sonic patterns.


Marcus Waterloo, We have bled

Posted: July 1st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Film | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Marcus Waterloo, We have bled

Marcus Waterloo, We Have Bled, Frame Film Festival, Rose Theatre, June 10

Rosa Antuña in a still from We have bled

Rosa Antuña in a still from We have bled

The director of We have bled, Marcus Waterloo, was not able to attend the film’s showing due to illness, but the film’s producer, André Semenza, very kindly agreed to ask him my questions about his approach to the film. I have used some of Waterloo’s responses written from hospital.

Apart from the opportunity to see dance live on stage, film is the most effective medium for capturing the dance elements of movement, line, rhythm, and colour. But a seat in the theatre offers both a fixed distance to the dancers and a fixed perspective. Film has the advantage of moving the audience exactly where the director wants; both the distance and perspective can change as well as the frame of vision and the clarity of focus.

A film by Marcus Waterloo, We have bled, shown at the Frame Film Festival in Kingston, emphasised these advantages so much it stood out for pushing beyond ‘dance on film’ and even ‘dance as film’ to a mature creative genre of ‘film as dance’. Waterloo was director of photography for another film at Frame, the full length Sea Without Shore (2015) by directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi, with whom he has worked since 1998, notably on Ashes of God (2003). His cinematography is rich in colour, meticulously framed and he has a feel for choreographic space; he doesn’t simply follow dancers but enhances their movement with his camera work. For some time Waterloo has also directed, filmed and edited his own short dance films, of which We Have Bled is the most recent and the longest he has made in this genre.

Waterloo did not start with a vision for the film; as he writes, ‘Everything started with Fernanda and André, and the possibilities that came up when Rosa was in town; we felt “let’s get together and see what happens.” I know that something always happens when we get together, a sort of magic. I was not going to bring the camera to the first rehearsal but I did, and I am so glad I did.’

Waterloo joined the three dancers — Lippi, Rosa Antuña and Kirill Burlov — in a dance studio observing through his lens ‘…the interactions and natural energies between the people’ that Lippi had orchestrated through task-oriented choreography and improvisation. He was interested simply in ‘watching people; people, like little creatures, and what the creatures are up to…It’s as if I want to swim and flow with other humans. There is no ‘grand statement’ — it’s simply part of the process of being human, the poetry of it…It’s like dancing with other people.’

It was in the first edit that Waterloo perceived in the images what he describes as, ‘a compassionate look at the turmoil in our relationships; when we exhaust ourselves and can turn to a place of surrender and acceptance. We cannot be anything else but human, it’s an inevitability of life: to acknowledge we will hurt a little on the way.’

Cued to piano music by Kai Engel, we see the dancers alone or in pairs, close up or at a distance, framed within the architectural space; within that frame there are others because Waterloo glances at the moving bodies through windows, through reflections in windows, through doorways, at the end of passages and from behind the studio’s barres. The motion of the camera sets up a tantalising superimposition of bodies and architecture moving in and out of focus within and through the frame — sometimes multiple frames within the same shot — at different rhythms. In the editing Waterloo thus sets up a poetic syntax that enhances what we see, building emotional traces like brush strokes on a canvas. This process, Waterloo writes, is like ‘excavating the human heart…The film is about people: you see straight into people’s hearts and souls, and what is possible — what great potential there is. Editing is about totally surrendering; it’s a natural response.’

The originality of We have bled is in its creation of an intoxicating juxtaposition of choreographic images to create the suggestion of a narrative. The starting point was not conceptual but instinctual: ‘I see the beauty of humans drifting past all the time, like a grand archaeological and architectural display. Filming is knowing where you are going to dig. You have an inkling that there is something under the surface, so “let’s set up and dig”. When something is revealed, you just continue digging…it’s a response, an experience…’

Marcus Waterloo’s website http://marcuswaterloo.com/

Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/marcuswaterloo

 

Ten days after writing this, in the afternoon of July 11, 2016, Marcus Waterloo succumbed calmly to his illness.


Dance Roads 2016

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

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

Lucie Augeai and David Gernez in Nœuds at Dance Roads

Lucie Augeai and David Gernez in Nœuds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Until the Lions: Akram Khan Company at The Brighton Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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