Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Posted: January 6th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018, December 31

Mele Broomes in VOID
Mele Broomes in VOID (photo: Jack Wrigley)

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”- Gabriel García Márquez

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and choreography that have settled in my 2018 memory bank. Shining brightest this year was the wealth of solo, female performance/ choreography/direction taking place outside London. 

Sitting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall to see VOID (a V/DA & MHz Production directed by Bex Anson and performed/choreographed by Mele Broomes) I was blasted for the first fifteen minutes by the ferocity of Broomes’ performance; VOID takes JG Ballard’s words, transfers them to a distressed body and leaves us in a visual glitchfield unable to settle. A deserved winner of the Total Theatre Award for Dance, VOID punctures the eyes and leaves us snagged in a net of inbetweenness. 

Unkindest Cut by Sadhana Dance made the windswept trip to Sidmouth Science Festival entirely worthwhile, spending 30 minutes in a pair of AV-filled shipping containers with Subathra Subramaniam looking at deliberate self-harm and mental health amongst young people. With Subramaniam’s intimate bharatanatyam solo I was gifted an intensity of subject and focus by the claustrophobia of the environment, the skilled AV collaborators (Kathy Hinde, Matthew Olden and Aideen Malone) and the repetition of gesture. 

I’ve previously acknowledged two works I saw in 2018: one at Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia, Première Stratagème’s Forecasting performed by Barbara Mattijevic (which is coming to The Place, London on February 26 and Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham on May 1 2019) and the other at Tanzmesse, Oona Doherty’s HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus. Both bear repeating as they’re exceptional works performed by two highly skilled and captivating women.

Parade by Tomoyo Okada was the standout solo performance at TPAM 2018 in Japan, delivered with lashings of integrity and wit; Okada spent her childhood walking along the Yokohama seafront and this walking-centred work is inspired by her memory of the Yokohama Port Centennial Parade over 50 years ago. Parade is a performative memorial delivered with a gentle fizz and confidence by a distinguished performer whom I could have watched all night.

Nestled alongside these solo works there are a suite of exquisite performances including Hannah Sampson (aided and abetted by Dave Toole) who delivered an emotionally devastating first half performance at Circomedia, Bristol during Stopgap’s recent tour of The Enormous Room. Restrained and nuanced Sampson brought her vulnerability to the fore connecting with audiences and delivering Lucy Bennet’s choreography with aplomb. Ladd, Light and Emberton’s Owain Glyndŵr Silent Disco descended on Abergavenny Castle to tell the story of Owain Glyndŵr — the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence with the aim of ending English rule in Wales — with a crate full of disco classics. With dozens of giddy families shepherded around Welsh heritage sites and headphoned, this family-friendly performance successfully demonstrated that rare combination of dance, heritage and audience interaction. It is also worth noting that The Hiccup Project’s Lovely Girls at Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol was an utter delight and landed a number of skewering blows to the patriarchy and reflects the reality and expectations on women in the 21st century. Although it was advertised as a work-in-progress,  its full 60 minutes had more material, comedy and charm than a lot of works that claim to be finished. Their Spring 2019 tour begins at Bath Spa Live on March 8 (International Women’s Day) and heads to Liverpool, Bridport, Exeter and Hereford with more dates to be announced.

There have been personal stinkers, too (which have garnered otherwise positive critical and audience response) including Lost Dog’s Juliet and RomeoAkademi’s The Troth directed and choreographed by Gary Clark and Barely Methodical Troupe’s SHIFT. I also saw a preview performance of Clark’s Wasteland— a sequel to his multi-award-winning Coal — at Cast, Doncaster; it is a carbon copy of his previous work fast forwarded a few years and transplanted to the 1990’s rave scene.

I have to admit to a small personal itch forming at the gap between how we look at, write about and respond to the work an artist has created, and the influence on that work of the institutions/organisations/venues that fund, support and champion it; they have a powerful steer and consume considerably more resource than the artists. The White Pube is a fine example of such cross-referential critical reporting/writing and it corresponds to my own feeling about a work with which I had a particular problem last year, Stillhouse’s SESSION at Bernie Grant Arts Centre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). 

SESSION is 45 minutes of live music from Empire Sounds (on keyboards, vocal, drums, guitars and laptop) driving the ears, feet and eyes of the assembled crowds with luscious afrobeats shaking the courtyard and concrete frontages of the venue accompanying 25 dancers drawn from two crews of Tottenham’s Steppaz Performing Arts Academy. Diamond Elite and Diamond Bratz deliver a suite of short commercial hip hop and afrobeat routines with a fine musicality. With the audience set up on three sides as cypher, members of Diamond Elite blur the edges of performance and stage by stepping in and out of the audience feeding their energy into the performance arena with the consistent hip hop cry ‘let’s go’ driving on their peers as the remainder of audience remains silent. 

Stillhouse choreographer Dan Canham has a history of guesting and spending extended periods of time in and with other communities to make his performance work; so SESSION isn’t out of context in the way he creates: 30 Cecil Street is a haunting solo made from the memories of ghosted pub goers in Limerick and Ours Was The Fen Country saw the last generation of East Anglian eel catchers share their memories through an impressive and evocative verbatim dance theatre quartet. This response is approached from a position of critical closeness. 

Judging by the marketing copy, this would appear to be the same for SESSION: ‘Made in collaboration with an extraordinary group of young performers SESSION is a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging. Still House join forces with Steppaz and North London’s afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds to create an exhilarating night of dance and live music where everyone is welcome. Dance performance, gig, social, and rave, SESSION moves across hip-hop, contemporary folk and afrobeats vocabularies to create a new movement that is all and none of these parts.’ The language frames SESSION along (in)side the Hip Hop community with the likes of Boy Blue Entertainment and Avant Garde Dance who bring young people to the heart of their shows because their training, position in the community and knowledge distribution is central to their ethos. 

But the very language of how things are described and who offers the invitation reveal an inherent system of power and privilege; the copy frames SESSION in what might be called an elite European Performance Makers League — companies like Campo, Gobsquad, Lies Pauwel, and Forced Entertainment who make work with teenagers/children as the central performers for the left-leaning, middle-class arts audiences. A more critical reading of the work might be, ‘SESSION is a concept of a transplanted white male choreographer invited and commissioned by LIFT to spend time in an unfamiliar (to him) North London borough with two partner organisations at multiple intervals over a three-year period. Out of these working sessions choreographer Canham has created a project that has a clear lineage from his previous work but treads a dangerous line around the edges of appropriation.’

The reality is that LIFT wouldn’t have commissioned or presented the work of Steppaz and/or Empire Sounds as companies in their own right or on their own terms; they needed the external frame and validation of someone like Canham to make it ‘marketable’. There can be no doubt that with all its LIFT scaffolding SESSION is a slick production. However, in every town there are hundreds of private dance schools and youth groups that exist outside the subsidised arts world creating ambitious productions and training opportunities. This is where the majority of young people first experience and consistently engage with dance over many years; however, the festivals and theatres that claim to be integral parts of their respective communities repeatedly ignore them. SESSION is in this sense a manufactured community, complete with a mandatory audience invitation to get up at the end to lean, bop and ankle shuffle with the performers until the music dims and the energy dissipates leaving a lukewarm fuzzy in your feet and head. After leaving the venue I noticed in the town hall next door an Afro-Caribbean wedding with guests and music spilling out onto the street; here was an example of joy, dancing, music and community that SESSION had attempted to recreate but would never be able to emulate.

A final thought on the most unusual performance of the year, at TPAM’s Steep Slope ShowcaseDogman’s Life by Office Mountain (directed and choreographed by Taichi Yamagata) featured a cast of eight performers who played out (entirely deadpan) a day in the life of dog/humans at work in an office. Presented in a polystyrene-tiled room with simultaneous English captions, the choreography offered stiff canine simulations mixed with low-key energy reflections on the culture of overworking and emotional repression in society. There are some images that once seen you cannot unsee and Dogman’s Life  had an absolute bucketful of them


Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz in Session at LIFT

Posted: July 12th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz in Session at LIFT

Dan Canham/Still House, Empire Sounds and Steppaz, Session, Bernie Grant Centre, June 23

Session

Session at Bernie Grant Centre

In the courtyard of Bernie Grant Centre we are seated on three sides of a square awaiting the start of Session, a presentation of LIFT 2018 and a collaboration between choreographer Dan Canham, the afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds and Tottenham’s own Steppaz Performing Arts Academy; on the fourth side is a tent covering the musicians’ instruments and equipment. This is like the front yard for Empire Sounds and Steppaz who both make their home at the Centre; the atmosphere is as much festive as it is familial.

Anyone who saw Canham’s Of Riders and Running Horses atop a chilly, multistorey car park in Farringdon as part of Dance Umbrella in 2015 will perhaps recognize the setting of a proscribed urban area that becomes the site of a choreographic metamorphosis. Canham’s role in the collaboration, then as now, is as a catalyst for the transformation of a recognizable dance style into an unfamiliar format. As he explains, “The Steppaz dancers come from a background of competitive hip hop but I’ve pushed them into territory they have never done before which is a bit slower and more spacious. I’ve also challenged them to do something more intimate to what they’ve been used to because the audience won’t be sitting in the dark — they will be right in their faces.”

When the musicians — Josh Donkor, Mike Akrofi, Desty Engele, Tim Pabifio and Aaron Donkor — begin to play it’s as if they are laying down tracks in the air to prepare for the dance performance; the Steppaz Elites rise up in twos from their seats among the audience and enter the arena with an energy and force that fills those tracks with an equally impeccable rhythm and drive. It’s a heady experience watching the confidence that exudes from these young women and that energizes the entire crowd in the courtyard; those who are standing behind the seats are instinctively pursuing their own rhythms. In the sense of a shared experience on common ground the performance of Session is one of community — it is publicized as ‘a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging’ — but as solos arise out of the group as naturally as riffs on a theme, or as one choreographic formation morphs seamlessly into another, there is a formal aspect that begins to show through. Canham is listed as choreographer along with Abena Noel from Steppaz and Odilia Egyiawan with whom he worked on Of Riders and Running Horses, but he is also listed as director. How exactly Session came together from these individual inputs is impossible to tell by watching, but Canham has a knack of framing his projects in a way that hides his individual authorship and promotes their autonomy; it is his subject that always comes to the fore.

The relationship between dancers and musicians is reciprocal; this kind of constant exchange between the two is at the heart of non-western dance traditions. When one of the dancers sets a beat with forceful gestures of her entire body, the drumbeat anticipates her every move; it’s as if the sound is part of her gesture. At other times the relentless energy of the music becomes a force the dancers enter with a frenzy that is intoxicating.

About halfway through the performance the stage area clears to reveal a young girl, one of the Steppaz mini-Elites, who seems quite fearless in her ‘circle of public solitude’. As she begins her dance the precision of her arm gestures is so musical that you can see the beat. A contingent of mini-Elites swarm the stage and prove the future in Tottenham is equally as bright and dynamic as the present. They perform their routines with the energy and conviction of their elders, supported by the latter’s vocal encouragement from their seats in an exemplary transference of confidence and support. When the elders join in they combine their own expertise with the younger ones, extending the choreography to two generations in one declaration of piggy-back unity.

Session is so much more than the sum of its parts. What Canham and his team have done is to frame a community dance form as something that moves not simply through a variety of individual bravura steps — though there are plenty of those to admire — but through a choreographic vision that raises the entire performance to a level of communal aspiration and hope. Session becomes a piece of theatre in its own right without changing its essential nature.


Laura Dannequin, Hardy Animal

Posted: November 19th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Laura Dannequin, Hardy Animal

Laura Dannequin, Hardy Animal, Seligman Theatre, Chapter, November 17

Hardy Animal

Laura Dannequin in Hardy Animal (photo: Paul Blakemore)

Very broadly speaking there are two kinds of pain: the first one, acute pain, is a very useful kind of pain, because it’s pain that tells me when to remove my hand from the heat source that is burning it, or to stop running if I’ve just torn my hamstring…The second type of pain, chronic or maladaptive pain, can be defined as …pain that extends beyond the time that healing would have thought to have occurred after trauma or surgery. At the point when acute pain slips into chronic pain, what happens is that although the tissues that were initially injured have healed, pain messages keep getting fired via electric impulses along the nerve fibres, up the spinal cord and into the brain where the pain is perceived as very real. (From the bookwork of Hardy Animal)

For a work that addresses chronic back pain, Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal has a smooth, sculptural quality that belies the nature of its subject. Written on the edge of anger and frustration with a sardonic sense of the absurd, it is an ode to Dannequin’s search for a solution to the debilitating pain in her lower back, from vague diagnoses to disbelief, and from snake oil treatments to unrelieved disappointments. As a dancer she has known what the dancing body is capable of and what it feels like to move freely without fear, but she suddenly found herself confronted with what she calls ‘a negative loop of persistent pain’. There are elements of both a musical composition and a lecture here — at one point she reads from notes on what could be either a music stand or a lectern — but Dannequin’s textual score and her unembellished performative treatment of the story have transformed it into a remarkable piece of somatic theatre where motion and emotion confront each other.

Hardy Animal frames stillness as a memory of movement in the same way the nerves remember pain after the initial injury has healed. Dannequin instead instills movement in our imagination through the dynamic motion of her score, making us move on a journey from the ‘biological body’ in front of us to the ‘memory body’ that has the capacity to dance without pain. What is moving us is her will, and as we reach the climax of Hardy Animal, it is her will that sets her in motion.

The piece begins in darkness with Dannequin’s voice telling us what she would like to accomplish during the performance; it is a hungry voice that remembers what it was like to eat, a tired voice that wants to get up and dance just to show that it can. Later, in the isolated image of her uncovered back — illuminated at first by two torchlights held by two front-row members of the audience — we see a soft muscular voice. With her back towards us, Dannequin uses both her recorded voice and her own in this sequence; with the recording her body is motionless, but when she speaks the reverberations of her words work their way into her neck and back so subtly but directly that they become gestures in their own right. And even though the stage is quite spacious, the focus is on Dannequin’s upper body framed in a soft light that reveals the two aspects of Hardy Animal that define it: her voice which constantly mediates between the mind and body, and the physical condition of her back. Without the voice the back would have suffered in silence, and without the chronic pain in her back there would be no subject.

Dannequin’s journey is made possible by speaking out with brutal directness and elegantly sharpened wit not only to the medical profession, the healing profession, the quacks, the disbelieving and the incompetent, but to her own body. She has argued with it so passionately and exhaustively that she has perhaps shamed it into grudging admiration, coming to terms with the pain through dogged determination and patient preparation. There’s a resolution to Hardy Animal, and it’s not the voice that resolves it but the body. Released by a recording of the largo from Bach’s keyboard concerto in F minor, her body eases into a fluid, understated dance of muted ecstasy.

 

Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal was presented at Chapter as part of Cardiff Dance Festival, a biennial event that circulates ideas, images and movement in a heady mix of choreographic thinking.


Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Posted: October 26th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses, NCP Car Park Farringdon, October 16

The setting of Dan Canham's Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

The setting of Dan Canham’s Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

There is something unconventional if not transgressive in putting on a contemporary folk dance event atop a multi-story car park on an October night in London, but that is what Dance Umbrella and Dan Canham have done with Of Riders and Running Horses that opened this year’s festival. It is an apt pairing, for while Canham aims with his dance and music to carve out a space for people to gather, Dance Umbrella aims ‘to be a catalyst that introduces…the audience to artists in new ways.’

Canham is one of the most grounded choreographers I know and has compelling arguments behind each of his projects. Of Riders and Running Horses is the confluence of two principal ideas: to reimagine the transformative effect of folk traditions like the Molly dances of East Anglia, the straw bear festival of Whittlesea or the tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary, and to recreate the kind of urban public space where such events might happen. In his two previous works Canham proved adept at finding language to translate tradition and geography into dance: a paean for his childhood countryside in Ours Was the Fen Country and a tribute to the ghosts of an abandoned theatre in Limerick in 30 Cecil Street. His choreographic ideas grow not from abstract ideas but from fertile soil, from the life of the countryside he knows and loves. This is what makes his works not only graspable but memorable.

In thinking about what might constitute a modern folk idiom — one that eschews ownership and belongs to the life of the community in which it is practiced — Canham has taken aspects of house, jump and street dance as his point of departure for the work. And in the age of the Internet where the concept of ‘local’ is no longer bound by parochial geographical boundaries, Canham has borrowed and adapted steps he had seen in video clips of street dance in other parts of the world.

Of Riders and Running Horses is choreographed on five dancers: Anna Kazsuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tilly Webber and Tanya Richam-Odoi. To be more precise, the choreography developed through both Canham’s input and the dancers’ improvisation to the music of drummer Luke Harney (aka Typesun) and singer Sam Halmarack. These two are the ‘Riders’ in the title and the dancers are the ‘Running Horses’. In other words it is not always clear who is leading the way but once they get going there is no stopping them. It is Halmarack who cuts through the crowd’s chatter with a singing voice that instantly commands attention. Canham has each dancer in turn jump, step or fly out of the audience to begin dancing to Harney’s complex musical rhythms with a mastery of undulation and quicksilver footwork that builds into high-energy ensemble sections with thigh-slapping rhythms punctuated with calls. In between these group dances, four of the five performers merge back into the audience while a fifth dances alone, giving free rein to her personality until the group reassembles. Although there are shared elements in the vocabulary, each solo has variations in temperament; on one end of the scale Kazsuba is contemplative, winding down with sinuous grace to an eloquent whisper of movement, while the space around Egyiwan has no chance to rest. Yet when they all move together they are an irrepressible quintet.

The NCP car park in Farringdon is perhaps more exciting in theory than in practice. Its promise as a communal urban space is diluted by fixing the boundaries of the performance area at one end of the top floor, surrounded on three sides by the audience and an inner sanctum of a tent for the two musicians behind. The stage may be open to the elements but it is effectively a theatrical culture (with its ethos of watching rather than participating) transposed to the rooftop instead of an organic congregational format where people are drawn into the activity to watch, mingle and wander at will (a format suggested in Paul Blakemore’s photograph on the cover of the festival program).

Perhaps because the audience is so formally arranged around the ‘stage’ the celebratory aspect of the performance doesn’t physically ignite the audience, however hard the dancers try and however gleefully they reach out to the front row of hands as they pass. It is only at the end that the dancers breach the wall and invite the audience on to the dance floor. The opportunity to warm up may be one reason for the eagerness to join in but it also suggests a desire to engage with the dancers and musicians that has been too long withheld by imposed convention.


Still House / Dan Canham: Ours Was The Fen Country

Posted: June 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Still House / Dan Canham: Ours Was The Fen Country

Still House / Dan Canham:  Ours Was the Fen Country, The Place, June 7

Ours Was The Fen Country. Photo © Still House

Ours Was The Fen Country. Photo © Still House

‘The relationship between human beings and the earth is very complex, but it is not something remote from our daily lives. Rather, the people/earth relationship is involved in everything we do, and it affects every aspect of our experience….’ So wrote Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in his 1903 treatise A Geography of Human Life, and Dan Canham would agree. He takes the relationship between the flat land of the Fens and the people who have lived there for generations, farming, fishing, trapping and surviving the windswept, desolate, sinking countryside as the starting point for his choreographic exploration, Ours Was The Fen Country. The Fens are where Canham grew up, so the piece is both a revisiting of familiar geography and an autobiographical ode to the landscape and culture that formed him, distilling the people and places into an essence with which we can feel an emotional connection with an indelible sense of respect and humility.

Canham has already explored the notion of place as common denominator between dance and geography in his idiosyncratic history of a derelict theatre in Limerick, 30 Cecil Street, in which a building is a proxy for the town; in Ours Was The Fen Country, it is the Holme Fen Post that is a proxy for the entire countryside. The original cast-iron column, represented on stage by a wooden post, was sunk into the fen in 1852 till its top was flush with the peat surface. It now rises some four metres above ground level, a metaphor for a disappearing way of life.

Canham shares this project with three other performers, all attuned to its physical and spiritual nature: Neil Paris, Tilly Webber and Ian Morgan. Canham and assistant director, Laura Dannequin, conducted the interviews that form the raw material of the work over a period of two years, cycling or taking trains to seek out the colourful characters who people Ours Was The Fen Country and who reveal as much about themselves as the land on which they live: an indication of the trust they invested in their two interviewers, a trust that will be returned later this month when Canham and company perform Ours Was The Fen Country in some of the communities where these people live (see www.stillhouse.co.uk for dates). There’s the man who makes and lays willow traps for eels, the cattle farmer concerned about the viability of his farm, the stress counselor who gives her son the heebie-jeebies, the stableman who has shaken hands with seven members of the Royal Family, and the daughter who feels she is seeing the end of the traditional way of life. Canham holds up a mirror to their lives, like a painter who sees and develops the identifying characteristics of his subject on canvas, but he also honours them.

The recorded conversations are disembodied voices, but Canham pulls the disembodiment out of the ether and on to the stage by the way the performers inhabit the characters. We hear the words on different layers: the original interview, the same words spoken by one of the performers or lip synced; sections of conversation may alternate all three techniques, and at other times they will overlap to provide different emotional reactions. Canham, who has done the brilliant work of editing the interviews, has mined the conversations for their nuggets of wisdom and insight, and sets them in a textual framework like gemstones on a ring. At the beginning it is Webber who personifies a woman who wonders why anyone would want to learn more about the Fens, then Paris speaks about the village he lives in, Canham about Sutton Market and Morgan about the closeness of the rural communities. This is the neutral documentary style, the vanilla flavor, on top of which Canham layers additional techniques as the work progresses. There are projections of the countryside overlaid with verbal descriptions (‘flat’ is a word that comes up frequently) and a little history of the transformation of the marshland into agricultural land, and even into political land: Paris reminds us this is Cromwell country, with a portrait of the independent, cussed and awkward parliamentarian on the screen looking remarkably similar to Paris (without the warts).

Each performer is synchronized with the other three — and with the recordings — through individual iPods with earphones. For those who have seen 30 Cecil Street, the setup will be familiar, with a computer and speakers on a table at the side (updated technology from the reel-to-reel machine), timber to demarcate the performing space, chairs to sit on and some 4×4 fence posts to build a frame for the makeshift projection screen: all redolent of a summer fair on the green, a small-scale countryside laid out before us under Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and beautifully costumed by Dannequin. But it is in the dance that I feel Canham has taken the documentary to new levels of power and poetry. There are no steps that could be characterized as ballet or modern, contemporary, hip hop or jazz; the movement finds its form from the sometimes percussive and sometimes lyrical rhythms of the recorded speech, from the hesitancies of expression as much as from the sly humour. It is dancing to the voice as an instrument, incorporating body-at-the-pub gestures and personality ticks extrapolated into rhythmic steps and forms. There is a sense that the steps emerge only when needed as an additional layer of emphasis or colour, and always echo in their groundedness the ties to the earth. When Webber’s character speaks, she looks and thinks with her, head back, arched back, tensed shoulders and turned-in feet, her stress evident before she starts to move. All the men look at her until they stand up swaying as if the world is turning too fast. Canham is aware of the fissures in this rural way of life (his title is in the past for good reason) and places himself both inside it and outside, inhabitant and commentator. The four characters look at each other, exchanging positions, keeping eye contact. Two fall to the ground then get up, before they all lurch backwards, balanced on the edge, on the brink. Canham begins a simple gesture of slowly creaking back on his chair, until all four performers seem to be riding in place. Moving off their chairs, advancing slowly, they keep the rhythm while Webber articulates her arms and head so expressively within their minimalist range. The music takes on a unifying role as its rhythms urge the characters to find new ways of moving forward together. Keeping their focus on each other, they circle the stage, their steps getting bigger, anchored in the music, now turning, now jumping in place, an optimistic, joyous expression of ‘yes’ in the obdurate shadow of the Holme Fen Post.

 


Dan Canham & Theo Clinkard: Double Bill

Posted: February 25th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Dan Canham: 30 Cecil Street and Theo Clinkard: Ordinary Courage, Pavilion Dance, February 21

Dan-Canham-30 Cecil Street

Watching Pavilion Dance’s inspired double bill of Dan Canham’s 30 Cecil Street and Theo Clinkard’s Ordinary Courage I had the stimulating if somewhat unnerving experience of sitting with a playwright (Nell Leyshon) and a theatre director (Jessica Swale). Where dance merges with theatre, these are the kinds of eyes and ears and intelligence — attuned to what makes theatre alive and sensitive to any dramatic inconsistency or to anything remotely artificial — that choreographers need to work with if their creations are to effectively merge the two disciplines. Canham’s 30 Cecil Street triumphs because all its elements hang together within an intelligently delineated frame which leaves abundant room for his sometimes haunting, sometimes comic and always heartfelt response to the life once lived in the theatre whose walls he traces in white tape on the stage floor like an architectural drawing. Clinkard’s Ordinary Courage, however, divides along the fault lines of dance and theatre. The six performers each have a solo that is very much the property and personality of the individual dancers, but the framework of the piece, even though it is much tighter than when I first saw it, does not hold together. It is for the most part a loose assembly of loosely disguised rehearsal exercises that are decidedly un-dramatic, which leaves the individual solos unsupported by a context. When I first saw Ordinary Courage at Laban, I felt the overall tone was muted, and even though I was happy this time to return to each solo like returning to a favourite painting in a gallery, the integrity of the work still fails to coalesce. It is Clinkard’s first work, and one in which he himself performs. As he ruefully admits in the Q&A afterwards, it was only after he saw a filmed version of the work that he saw for the first time what he had created. He has made changes that have improved the work, but I don’t imagine he will repeat the dual role for his next creation.

There is also an illuminating difference in the initial inspiration for the two works. With Canham it is direct and physical: he had come across the near-derelict Theatre Royal in Limerick after finishing a tour with DV8, looking to replenish his inspiration. He was immediately attracted to the place and began to explore his feelings about it in movement in the street at night or in the early morning when nobody else was around. He then filmed some of his choreography in the building itself before creating the stage version. The soundtrack, played on a reel-to-reel tape deck, is a collage of interviews with people associated with the theatre, snatches of music, bingo calling, glass harmonica, music hall and opera that had once been heard there. John McCormack singing Down by the Sally Gardens is particularly poignant. Canham’s movement seems to originate as much from the dank walls and drunken conversations as from the foot shuffling music hall routines and there is a section where his hands tune in to the invisible waves of past performances that crackle into being on the tape and disappear again as he moves around the stage. Although it is only Canham we see, it is the theatre that is the subject of the piece, the heart of the piece and out of respect he removes himself from the stage at the end (by the steps and the door he has marked), leaving us to hear the resigned tones of a conversation about the end of the theatre.

The inspiration for Ordinary Courage is more spiritual and indirect. As he explains himself, Clinkard felt he was ready to choreograph but was searching for a theme. While teaching in Chile, he saw an illustration of a heart with the words Without Fear inscribed inside and took this at his theme for the new work. The theme is recognizable — specifically the courage to face loss — but the message is internalized, inward looking. Clinkard had lost a friend, the choreographer Tanja Liedtke, and his mother Robin (to both of whom Ordinary Courage is dedicated), which may explain his almost private response. Canham draws us in — indeed he wants to draw us in — but Clinkard seems more focused on the crafting of the dance, as if our eyes never quite meet. The lighting (by Zerlina Hughes), based on photographic soft boxes suspended from the lighting bars, also tends to flatten the dance, though there are moments when the colours and textures of the costumes benefit beautifully. The central series of six solos is linked to keyboard partitas and sonatas by Bach and Scarlatti — played live by Clíodna Shanahan — which sit elegantly within an elemental sound design by Alan Stones that conjures up a rising squall at the beginning that gradually overpowers a Bach partita and against which the group tries in vain to advance. Helka Kaski’s beautifully nuanced dance of helplessness and Charlie Morrissey’s wild despair succeed best in capturing a state of grief in movement; I enjoy watching Clinkard’s solo for its intimacy and lyricism, though I wonder to what extent his expression of loss is coloured  by the inherited vocabulary of previous work. Maho Ihara’s sensitivity is a joy to watch, her mime — a mother’s memories of nurturing a child — a delight, and her singing to calm the enigmatic bear an inspired addition. Margarita Zafrilla Olayo’s solo is an attempt to break free of the ‘family’, to grieve alone, while Adam Blanch’s solo, which he heralds by leaving the stage and returning in black shoes, is danced with bravado, but feels more technically formal and less integrated into the theme than the others. We are also expecting it, as he is by now the only one not to have danced a solo (the element of surprise is quite low in Ordinary Courage).

This is Clinkard’s first ensemble work, and he will be relieved to have given it birth. But if he wants to hone his dramatic skills on the next piece, I know just the people to give him feedback.


Smith dancetheatre: Agnes & Walter, A Little Love Story

Posted: December 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Smith dancetheatre: Agnes & Walter, A Little Love Story

Smith dancetheatre, Agnes and Walter: A Little Love Story, Pavilion Dance, November 8

Agnes & Walter

I had the pleasure of seeing Smith dancetheatre in Neil Paris’ Agnes & Walter: A Little Love Story at Pavilion Dance at the beginning of November. Pavilion Dance has a great venue for smaller-scale dance and a thoughtful, engaging program. The front-end team of Deryck Newland and Ian Abbott nurture their dance and their public in ways that may encourage BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz, to modify his elitist slant on the benefits of arts funding. But back to Agnes & Walter.

I was sure Dan Canham and Sarah Lewis were going to speak in the opening section; language is so close to the surface of their movement that it seemed inevitable it would materialize, but nobody says a word. In that eloquent, perfectly-timed opening sequence Paris introduces the absent-minded, clean cut Walter (Canham) standing at a pale blue table dreamily running a string of Christmas lights through his fingers, checking them without looking. His wife, Agnes (Lewis), in a dress and apron is resignedly sweeping sawdust from the ground around the garden shed (which later doubles as a gingham-curtained house) as if she has done it many, many times before. There is a sense of nostalgia in the costumes (by Kate Rigby) and the set (lit nostalgically by Aideen Malone), a return to what is perceived as a homely set of values and an almost naïve sense of the goodness of life. Walter gets to the end of the string of lights, puts them down and crosses to the shed as Agnes comes over to the table to check the lights for herself (we are not the only ones to think Walter is absent-minded). A few moments later Walter emerges from the shed covered in sawdust, emptying it from his pockets and spreading it at every footstep. Seeing this, Agnes commits hara-kiri in slow motion with a kitchen knife right there on the pale blue table to a melodramatic Hollywood horror score. Walter immediately springs into action as the surgeon in his plastic safety goggles, saving his patient with consummate skill: pulling out the knife, plugging the hole, sedating the patient and stitching her up. He checks her vital signs, has to resort to shock treatment and succeeds in reviving his patient to a sitting position. She falls back but Walter applies his healing hands to her chest; she gestures ‘mouth to mouth’ to the romantic surgeon, so he inflates her by degrees until she reverts to life. She palpitates her heart with a fluttering hand, expresses a certain sadness that the play is over and starts to clean up.

All this makes perfect sense when you know that Agnes & Walter is based on James Thurber’s short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is an inspired realization, and although it never again approaches its inspiration so purely as in this opening scene, Agnes & Walter confidently develops its own variations with Thurber-like humour. There is the couple of Walter and Agnes in older age, in which it is Agnes (Elizabeth Taylor) to whom her husband’s earlier absentmindedness seems to have migrated. She dances a poignant solo in which she appears to be in a dream, dancing around a maypole, waving at everyone, gathering spirits from the air, pulling them down to her lips as she rises up on tiptoe to meet them. Walter in older age (Ronnie Beecham) is as spry as his wife used to be, maintaining a risk-taking active life, finding pleasure in canoeing on the roof of the shed (as his wife wheels it across the stage) or in performing a rip-roaring dance with a pair of bunny ears around his neck. If this is the golden age, bring it on.

Weaving between the two couples is the figure of their guardian angel or spirit (Margaret Pikes), helping to resolve their problems and lending their narrative an emotional quality that derives from her voice: she does not sing her songs, she lives them, particularly Léo Ferré’s Avec le temps. In fact, music throughout Agnes and Walter – from Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man to Bruce Springsteen to Henryk Gorecki – provides an emotive backbone that reinforces the dance.

Paris’s choreography grows from the ground on which the characters stand, developing from the stillness of a thought into a phrase, just as Walter Mitty’s reveries were sparked from something he saw on his excursion to the shops. With Canham, the thought lingers unhurriedly before the movement develops but Lewis is more spontaneous. Responding to the wind (generated on stage by a 1950s-style standing fan) and to the second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, she immediately lets down her hair, breathing in deeply, stretching up in ecstasy, her arms dancing up in the air, head raised, smiling, aspiring. She stands on the table to get higher, lets go, and falls to the floor, yet after each collapse, she clambers back to the source of the wind. Feeling the air in her face and hands again, she reaches like a young child pulling spirits from the air (a recurring theme in Agnes & Walter), before the wind finally dies out.

If at first the two Agneses and Walters seem to pass across each other as different couples, towards the end they become superimposed in a quartet of coexisting ages. Canham develops a theme from sweeping the floor into a reverie of uncertain movement; Beecham joins in with his own variation on Canham’s theme. They stumble together, both finishing with arms raised and sitting on the table side by side with their backs to us in touching unity. Pikes, leaning against the shed, sings her final song, Springsteen’s My Father’s House: ‘I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart Will never again, sir, tear us from each other’s hearts.’ Taylor and Lewis step pensively on to the stage, step together, step together; Canham and the smiling Beecham gradually join in. Pikes opens the door of the shed and puts up Walter’s Christmas lights in the doorway while Canham and Lewis begin a variation on a theme of making up (this is, after all, a little love story). Lewis lures Canham into the shed, closes the door and turns off all the lights.

There is something about the image of Agnes and Walter in the publicity material that is immediately appealing. In its colouring and content it contains all the elements of the work: its beguiling charm, its emotional range, its generational range, its down-to-earthness and even its literary provenance. It might have its origins in a bygone age, but the reach of the performance draws inspiration from the air and has room to breathe, making the characters in Agnes and Walter never less than fully alive and fully present.