Laïla Diallo: Hold everything dear

Hold everything dear, Laïla Diallo, ICIA Bath, May 26

The ability of the theatre to transport us somewhere else, the footloose, peripatetic lifestyle of artists, ideas of migration and dislocation, and the state of arts funding are all present in Laïla Diallo’s Hold everything dear, although it is not about any one of them: it is only framed by them, like a play within a play. The richness of the meaning is in the unity of the complete work.

Since March, when the initial work was presented at the Linbury Studio Theatre as a new dance commission, Diallo has been planning to extend the work into a full-length work but she and the dancers have only two weeks together at Bath University’s ICIA to stage those ideas and shape them. Why only two weeks? The tight schedule is partly to do with money – Diallo is stretching the grant money for the project as far as it can go – and partly to do with developments in the creative process that were not conceived at the time the initial grant was submitted. Nevertheless, Guy Hoare has been revising the lighting for the last four days, dramaturge Chris Fogg has been involved on and off for the last two weeks and the musicians arrive just the day before. Time may be condensed but there is clearly an experienced and brilliantly creative team on hand to deliver.

Diallo has said that she only choreographs what is close to her life, and Hold everything dear draws from her experiences of traveling as part of a dance company and in her own right as a dancer/choreographer and her learning about the effects of war zones on refugees and hearing stories of displacement. Given this background, it is no surprise that Diallo cites as a primary inspiration John Berger’s book of dispatches on survival and resistance, Hold Everything Dear – primarily its Ten Dispatches About Place. It gives the work a political undertone that is not evident in the performance, but has clearly influenced Diallo’s conception of the work:

Every day people follow signs pointing to some place that is not their home but a chosen destination. Road signs, airport embarkation signs, terminal signs. Some are making their journeys for pleasure, others for business, many out of loss or despair. On arrival they come to realize they are not in the place indicated by the signs they followed. Where they now find themselves has the correct latitude, longitude, local time, currency, yet it does not have the specific gravity of the destination they chose. [1]

As people come into the theatre, they see the cast on stage in relaxed freeze frame: standing, sitting, or lying down, staring at the floor or into the distance, as if they finished in these positions at the end of the last show and are recharging for the next one. The heartbeat is a single note on an accordion, breathing in and out. The place is indeterminate, many places superimposed on each other:

I imagined, Diallo writes, a stage that could become the end of a pier for a moment, then a station, a void or a home – a stage that might suggest all those places at once maybe, a space where solitudes would find a heightened resonance and where individuals, their stories and emotional worlds might collide expressively.

At a given moment, everyone except for the figure that remains covered with a raincoat on the floor changes into active state to prepare for the performance: Jules Maxwell pushes the piano into place and tunes it, Helka Kaski sweeps up the pile of polystyrene snow from the stage and scoops it into an old-fashioned suitcase; Seke Chimutengwende picks up his cards and puts them back in order. Theo Clinkard unwinds the string of lights from the porter’s trolley and stretches it across the front of the stage. Chimutengwende puts his suitcase on the empty trolley and wheels it away. Gabi Froden (of Foreign Slippers’ fame) is limping towards a chair in one high heel shoe to put on the other one, while Diallo takes the raincoat off the figure on the floor and puts it on herself. Chimutengwende begins a sales pitch about the benefits of a holiday in the sun, standing on his soapbox of a trolley, but his voice is in competition with an increasing volume of recorded music and we only see his mouth and gestures continue as Wu wheels him off. Finally the figure on the floor wakes up to find she is bound up in luggage tape, herself a piece of luggage. Letty Mitchell struggles out of the tape and stands up, but her knees give way and she falls to the floor. She tries to stand again but faints; Kaski is nurse, supporting her, wiping her brow, trying to keep her upright. This disparate group of people, joined by outer circumstance as much as by inner connection, is at once the performer and the performed. Over the course of the evening they reveal their individual selves in their dances and gestures, in their music, and in their relations with each other, but their presence here is dictated by forces beyond their control. As John Berger writes of the former Red Cross shelter for refugees and emigrants at Sangatte near Calais and the Channel Tunnel:

After long and terrible journeys, after they have experienced the baseness of which others are capable, after they have come to trust their own incomparable and dogged courage, emigrants find themselves waiting on some foreign transit station, and then all they have left of their home continent is themselves: their hands, their eyes, their feet, shoulders, bodies, what they wear, and what they pull over their heads at night to sleep under, wanting a roof. [2]

Froden sings the first line of a song in her rich folksy voice, and the dancers begin to cross and re-cross the stage together like a broom, always leaving someone or something behind in their wake, to be swept up in the next time across. Through such images of displacement, temporary residence and the detritus it leaves behind, Diallo portrays her ideas, not to be read as in a book, but to be sensed: frailty, insecurity, a search for home. As she writes, ‘It is an attempt to convey something about leaving, arriving, letting go, holding dear – an attempt to say something about being forever in transit or in a state of waiting.’

Everything moves, in and out of the light, which also moves. People drop in and drop out of the group, form pairs and remain for a time in each other’s arms, then walk away. There are also moments of solitude and calm reflection, as when Diallo walks to the end of a makeshift pier carrying her shoes; you can almost feel the breeze in her face and hear the gulls. She breathes deeply and looks into the distance as Chimutengwende sings a hauntingly beautiful acapella version of I get along without you very well and Clinkard dances an intimate, introspective, inside out solo. Across the stage, four dancers offer their hands in a mutually supportive group; they lean on each other, pull, and counterbalance:

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot
but given as a torch
[3]

Something disrupts the group; Diallo is the first to walk away. Mitchell and Chimutengwende follow her, leaving Clinkard by himself. Diallo dances a beautiful solo in two opposite directions not knowing which way to go and as she backs up into the piano, Maxwell plays a children’s tune. Everyone is drawn in to the music, accompanying with their own instruments: a band of traveling musicians. Even the piano is traveling. Dancers and musicians pair up, beginning a slow, intimate waltz. Chimutengwende breaks away; he is claiming his travel points and is on his way to Hawaii. Mitchell gives him a pair of sunglasses, places a lei lei around his neck and wheels him around the stage to the piano that doubles as a bar. He is relaxed and downs a cocktail, happy to have escaped his humdrum job and to be close to the beach: the illusion of a holiday when all that we wish to escape is still in our baggage. Mitchell, Diallo and Clinkard carry three muslin clouds suspended from fishing rods over Chimutengwende’s head and follow him around until he exits, we imagine, to the beach. The three forecasters sit down with their back to us, gently wafting their clouds up and down until the storm passes. On the other side of the stage, Kaski is nurse once again, trying to support and encourage a constantly shifting group, but she can’t manage to keep up their spirits or their bodies.  She herself succumbs as they fall one by one, leaving only Mitchell standing alone.

Meanwhile (and there is a lot of meanwhile in this environment), Froden begins to haul in the lights along the front of the stage until they are now wound round her arms, making her face radiant. Kaski’s group has recovered, puts on shoes and begins to dance a conversation, huddling together, clasping arms and hands, dispersing and then running into each other’s embrace. They all break off to sing their songs of homeland, and to reminisce. Kaski lays down polystyrene stones on an imaginary path so she can find her way back;

Our poems
like milestones
must line the road. [4]

Chimutengwende takes a plant from his suitcase and places earth around its roots, while Mitchell sits with her battered suitcase, lost in thought. In a beautiful light, Kaski launches into a precariously off-balance dance like a willow in the wind. We see her hands, her face and blonde hair as accents in the dance, as she sinks and rises up, retiring gently into a dimming light to sit on the floor with a bench behind her, staring into the distance. Diallo is the first to step up on the bench and open a suitcase of polystyrene snow on Kaski’s head, a blinding white light falling on her. Mitchell follows with another, then Clinkard with a third, as Kaski lies in the white pile of snow, yearning for the light of home.

They are beside the place they chose to come to. The distance that separates them from it is incalculable. Maybe it’s only the width of a thoroughfare, maybe it’s a world away. The place has lost what made it a destination. It has lost its territory of experience. [5]

The lights dim and a last waltz begins. Everyone dances the same movement sequences but at their own pace. Froden captures in her voice both the transience and the wistfulness of the moment: Hold everything dear till the sky is clear. The song disintegrates and the dancers disperse to the back of the stage. Clinkard walks to the front and passes Diallo circling in the opposite direction. In a flash of recognition they clasp hands and cling to each other, dancing a tango as their comrades approach and clap in accompaniment. The couple breaks apart and comes back together, pushing and shoving as if in the middle of an argument. Chimutengwende and Mitchell begin to dance a slow waltz together but the tensions between Diallo and Clinkard overpower their fragility. Clinkard leaves her on the bench, and immediately falls apart. He turns to Kaski and Mitchell who offer him faltering support. Chimutengwende reads his set of cards, one at a time: “For fear, for hope, for love…” answering the question of why we move around so constantly and what we hope to find. Mitchell is falling again, and as she rolls on the floor she becomes entangled in more tape, watched impassively by all the others. Wrapped up and waiting to be shipped off again…or preparing for the next performance?

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear [6]

Diallo spent eight years in Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance, so you might expect her style of movement to have been influenced by his, but this is not immediately evident. What Diallo seems to have picked up from McGregor is more the creative approach to which she contributes her own issues and sense of movement. One might also expect each person in Hold everything dear to be quite distinctly delineated in such a diverse assembly, but there is a homogeneity in the choreographic language that suggests the hand of one person, Diallo herself, although the unity of the group is also a factor. The way Clinkard moves and Kaski moves is not dissimilar to the way Diallo moves, so their body language naturally forms a cohesive whole. I could imagine Mitchell having a different voice if left to her own devices, but her nature fits easily into this group, forming a unity in diversity. Chimutengwende is the extrovert declaimer of the crowd, a versatile performer and striking presence who can sing acapella sublimely with a minimum of vocal chords, and Froden’s rich voice provides in the songs much of the poignancy of the music, though she is backed up by a trio of expressive players: Grigory Tsyganov (violin), Semay Wu (cello) and Jules Maxwell (piano), who made all the musical arrangements. Clinkard contributed the subtle earthen colours of the set and costumes, which form another unifying element. The lighting of Guy Hoare is superb, telling the story as evocatively as the music and the choreographic images and Chris Fogg has had a decisive if unseen hand in shaping the finished work.

I like to think of dance,Diallo has said, as a way of communicating something of what it is to be human (Berger might well say the same about his writing)…The pleasure of being a choreographer is meeting people and discovering the route with them. What we see in Diallo’s Hold everything dear is the particular route she has taken with her fellow artists, and what emerges is a poetic celebration of the human spirit.


[1] John Berger, Hold Everything Dear, Verso, 2007 p 113

[2] John Berger, op.cit., p 114

[3] Gareth Evans, Hold Everything Dear, for John Berger, op. cit.

[4] Poem by Nazim Hikmet, quoted in John Berger op. cit., p 25

[5] John Berger, op. cit., p 114

[6] Gareth Evans, Hold Everything Dear, for John Berger, op. cit.



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