Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Posted: May 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project

Didy Veldman’s Umanoove, The Happiness Project, The Place, May 6, 2017

Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd in The Happiness Project (photo: Chris Nash)

Happiness is an elusive state and like the Mona Lisa’s smile remains enigmatic under scrutiny. There have been a couple of dance projects at The Place created around the concept of happiness: Robert Clark’s Promises of Happiness and now The Happiness Project by Didy Veldman, her first independent work for her own company, Umanoove. As their respective titles suggest, neither Clark nor Veldman set out to put their finger directly on happiness, but instead gather together some of its more familiar signifiers as a point of departure to explore it and disseminate their findings.

There are many such explorations in The Happiness Project, but the principal vehicle of Veldman’s work is the dancing itself. Veldman, a Rambert Company alumna, rejoices in the sheer pleasure of dancing, and the dancers with whom she created the work — Dane Hurst, Estela Merlos, Mathieu Geffré and Hannah Kidd — respond in equal measure (Kidd, however, was unable to perform the work and was replaced at short notice by Madeleine Jonsson). The movement is loose-limbed and generous, it jumps and turns with joyous intensity and is at times ecstatic.

In turn the dancing is inspired by the music, in which The Happiness Project is blessed with the presence on stage of composer and violinist, Alexander Balanescu. Balanescu takes on the central role of agent provocateur, a wandering musician who incites movement and laughter in his comrades. He is passionate in his playing, and his gestures are in themselves a form of dance linked directly to the music. Sometimes he plays solo and sometimes accompanied by a recorded ensemble, but he is always animated and his musical presence is pivotal to all that happens.

The inclusion in The Happiness Project of these two exalted expressions of music and dance are more than enough to fulfill the project’s promise; witnessing the dionysian nature expressed so fully in both musician and dancers is intoxicating. But for Veldman there is an additional rationale for the work: sorting out her approach to happiness by illustrating what it might be and rejecting what it is not. For a spectator this is less uplifting than it is interesting, for to follow Veldman’s illustrations is to learn as much about her thought processes as about happiness itself.

Her illustrations are in turn amusing, poignant and clichéd. They range from an individual desire to find love and inclusion to the pursuit of eternal youth, from the commercial association of happiness and fashion to sexual gratification, and from winning a pub quiz to enjoying Sunday mornings. With four dancers Veldman can vary reactions to a given stimulus, most notably in the episode on fashion. Hurst pulls out a piece of clothing from a box, announces its brand name and passes it to Jonsson who admires the design but passes it to Merlos who is generally unimpressed and passes it to Geffré who goes into fetishist rapture. The brands keep coming until Geffré comes too, Faun-like, on his pile of clothing. (Veldman is fond of quoting, and this is not the only dance reference; in a duet with Geffré and Jonsson there is a particularly egregious one from Pina Bausch’s Café Müller, which Geffré himself used in his duet, What Songs May Do). Veldman also questions notions of happiness through its antithesis: Hurst is a figure who at times stands back from the enjoyment of his peers like a cloud on a sunny day or dances up a storm to wreck what he sees the others enjoying. Geffré, in one of the more surreal episodes, carries desire to masochistic extremes.

Laughter is often synonymous with happiness though more as signifier than the state itself. In the same way, Veldman indicates happiness through an early performative display of slow-motion laughter (reminiscent, as one audience member pointed out, of Bill Viola), and Balanescu later conducts the quartet of dancers as a laughing chorus. In both cases the dancers appear to be happy but we cannot be sure. In a section where they each perform their response to the question, Are you happy?, a sense of equivocation infuses their words and gestures and when they display on a large piece of plastic sheeting what makes them happy, the scope of happiness is reduced to written indications. There is thus a dual nature in The Happiness Project: the more Veldman explores happiness, the further away she seems to get, and yet the vehicle of her exploration — the dance and the music — are singing its praises all along. In the question and answer session following the show, audience questions were uniquely about aspects of the performance rather than about happiness. I’m not sure if that is a mark of success or failure.


Dance Holland Park: emerging choreographers’ showcase

Posted: August 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Dance Holland Park: Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase, July 7 at 1pm

Dance Holland Park is a joint project between English National Ballet and Opera Holland Park as part of Big Dance 2012. The mandate for each of the choreographers is to create a dance work on an opera theme. The setting is the same for each: a broad expanse of stage with Holland House as a natural backdrop and its dramatic porch as the principal entrance and exit.

Alice Gaspari in Hunted Devotion (photo: Nicholas Minns)

Alice Gaspari in Hunted Devotion (photo: Nicholas Minns)

Romanian choreographer, Arcadie Rusu, opens the afternoon with his Hunted Devotion, based on Verdi’s opera, Falstaff, or, more accurately, based on the character of Falstaff himself. Rather than using Verdi’s own music, Rusu has chosen that of his compatriot, Alexander Balanescu, whose Aria, Life and Death, and New Beginning – like all the live music for this choreographic showcase – are beautifully played by Esther King Smith, Simeon Broom, Helen Sanders-Hewett and Carina Drury, conducted by Thomas Kemp.

A group of five dancers huddled together and holding on to each other peer out uncertainly through the grand porch of Holland House, under the taut tent-like structure, edging their way down the broad steps, looking around for signs of danger or distress. They are clearly on unfamiliar ground. A jester (Christian Coe) comes bounding from the side of the stage and offers his posy of flowers to whichever girl will take it. The girls run away, and the men keep their distance until the jester senses failure and runs off. Based on the distaff side of Falstaff, Rusu shows the many traits of this jovial figure through these six dancers. The jester is clearly Falstaff’s sense of humour, and the flowers are a symbol of his purity, in the sense that Falstaff is fully devoted to his desires and hunts them with the uncompromising desire of a hunter. The remaining two couples form duets, one energetic with Alessia Cutigni and Chris Knight, and the other lyrical with Alice Gaspari and Nuno Almeida, to the same music. Opposing desires do not end well, and Gaspari and Knight end up lying side by side, head to foot like corpses. Mattia Di Napoli, a bare-chested, manly figure in a full-length earthy-coloured skirt (Falstaff’s wisdom, perhaps), revives Gaspari, who begins an introverted, lyrical solo in silence. Where her head moves, her body sways in subservience, yet her guiding hand suggests a searching for the light in the darkness. In the meantime, the other five characters quarrel and make up, attract and reject each other in equal measure, as parts of a single conflicted psyche. Di Napoli is a grounded, powerful trait, Gaspari a poetic one. Knight is a clever schemer, quick to somersault and twist and turn, while Almeida is simplicity itself, and Cutigni a worldly muse. When all these meet together in different combinations, the drama of Falstaff is revealed. Later in the work, the men dance bare-chested, adding an air of passion and male pride, which is ready at any time for a fall. Falstaff’s dominant trait, his sense of humour, finally breaks down the differences in his character, and the six dancers make their way back through the doorway with more wisdom and understanding, we hope, than when they arrived. Such an approach to Falstaff is necessarily intimate, and the broad expanse of the Holland Park stage tends to dissipate the effect of this carefully wrought choreography. Fortunately there is a beautifully filmed trailer of Hunted Devotion that shows not only the sensitive camerawork of Takako Nakasu but the ability of Rusu to direct.  http://vimeo.com/43110678

This Wicked Desire © James O Jenkins

I had never thought of crossing classical Indian dance with Fiordiligi’s aria, Per Pieta, from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, but Katie Ryan’s This Wicked Desire, a playful duet between Kali Chandrasegaram and Khavita Kaur, brought out the delicious spirit of the music as if they belonged together. The two dancers are a study in complementary opposites that is clear as soon as they make their entrance through the Holland House doorway, the voluptuous Kaur leading the way in her black-bodiced, high-waisted costume and the imposing Chandrasegaram a step behind in lyrical support. The program notes say the dance is a playful struggle between the opposing forces of desire and virtue, but it is difficult to know if Kaur is overflowing with desire or virtue, and Chandrasegaram, a dancer of strength and delicacy in equal measure, has a mischievous joy in all he does that is as irresistible as the music. Their duet is thus rightly ambiguous: desire and virtue are not such opposing forces after all. What Ryan does so well, and the two dancers embody, is to show the constant interplay between the two in a way that Mozart clearly understood.

Naomi Deira’s Buoso is inspired by the story of Buoso Donati, the patriarch whose will is the contested event around which Puccini’s one-act opera Gianni Schicchi revolves. Deira’s cast is two women (Nicole Geertruida and Heli Latola) and two men (Eric Lamba and Kiraly Saint Claire), though any direct link between Puccini’s characters and Deira’s cast seems tenuous. Death and its effects, however, are central to the work. Deira makes this clear by beginning Buoso with music by Armand Amar from a film score to Hors La Loi, a pounding, haunting, percussive score that expresses the 1945 massacre of Algerians in Sétif. It is the way Saint Clair sneaks on to the stage, his lithe movement, arched back and disdainful manner that suggest a force of evil. The charismatic Lamba’s powerful physique, especially when he gets going, suggests a lion to Saint Claire’s cobra, both images of force and rivalry that are far removed from Schicchi’s cunning but kindly trickery. When we hear Puccini’s pleading aria O mio babbino caro, however, the healing begins. Lamba and Latola are like the young lovers in Puccini’s opera, while Geertruida and Saint Claire are Buoso’s quarreling relatives. At the end, Geertruda bends towards us from Saint Claire’s back as he mounts the steps, leaving the lovers in peace. Now that’s a happy ending.

A change in the order of the program means that Lucia is next, choreographed by Anne-Marie Smalldon, artistic director of Combination Dance Company. It is inspired by Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a tragic tale of love between Lucia and Edgardo, of Lucia’s betrayal by her family and her ultimate madness. Smalldon approaches the opera’s story in a straightforward manner, choosing three scenes, but sharing the role of Lucia between her three women: Briar Adams, Julie Ann Minnai and Toni-Michelle Dent. Before the work begins, heaps of rose petals – a symbol of love as well as loss – are strewn on the steps and on the front of the stage. Lucia in white descends the steps, kneels in front of petals and bathes in their fragrance. Edgardo in kilt and pale lemon shirt joins her and tries to distract her, kneeling beside her, lying and rolling with her. They create beautiful lines between them in their steps and lifts. A second couple joins like a second musical theme, until the first couple reappears to form a quartet on the theme of love. The two Lucias dance briefly together before one leaves and Julie Ann Minnai is left alone with the two men (Thomas McCann and Travis Clausen-Knight), who are no longer the lovers but have morphed into rather manipulative members of her own family. The men manhandle Lucia, throwing her between them and sharing her in a decidedly unpleasant way. The program notes tell us that Lucia is forced to submit to a marriage against her will, though there is no way of knowing that from watching the dance. In the final scene, Lucia plays with the flowers and rose petals, watched by the other four characters. Her descent into madness is marked by a lovely arabesque line that Smalldon uses to emotional effect in an otherwise contemporary language of distress. Lucia runs from one figure to the next as they close in on her, throwing petals over her head. For a moment she remains still, grasping her flowers to her as they dance around her but she soon throws down her flowers and breaks away. The four characters follow her movements and close in for the last time, their hands all over her, covering her in petals before they retreat. The child sitting next to me understands everything and says ‘bye-bye’.

After the rose petals have been swept up, there’s more red in the form of a powder poured in a semi-circle around the front half of the stage, a bloody arena in which the two men, Richard Bermange and Daniel Hay-Gordon, enact a concentrated version of the doomed friendship between Lenski and Onegin from Tchaikovsky’s opera. ContraVersus, choreographed by English National Ballet’s James Streeter, is an intense miniature in which each movement is concise, reduced to its emotional essentials in the manner of a Schiele drawing. The figures are bare-chested and in black tights, at once masculine and vulnerable; the closeness of their friendship is expressed in an almost contorted vocabulary and Streeter keeps the steps to initial themes that repeat or change direction within the proscribed red circle, setting up a sense of foreboding. Lenski repeats Onegin’s opening steps, as one instrument might pick up a tune from another, and later they dance the same steps but in different directions. Both men look the part, drawn towards each other naturally as equals but tragically linked by an inability to compromise. After the duel, Onegin supports the dying Lenski to the floor and then repeats his opening steps as if nothing has changed. If Streeter’s choreography is impressive, the score by Janine Forrester – Onegin: the duel and death of Lenski – is equally so. A gem on both counts.