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.


Rambert New Choreography

Posted: January 2nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert New Choreography

Rambert New Choreographers, The Place, December 16

Dane Hurst in O'dabo (photo: John Ross)

Dane Hurst in O’dabo (photo: John Ross)

A student handed in a paper to his professor. The next time the professor saw the student he asked him if he considered the paper the best he could have done. Nonplussed, the student reflected, re-read his text, made some changes and re-submitted the paper the following day. When the professor saw him again he asked the same question. The student thought he must have missed something and decided to rework the paper one final time. On submitting it again, and faced with the same question, he replied with conviction, “Yes, sir.” “Then I will read it,” responded the professor.

A ticket-paying member of an audience, like the professor, has a similar expectation of the work he or she is about to see. Even if the performance comprises new choreography from dancers within a company trying their hand at the form, one wants to see works that have found their final form. Works that are still in a process of evolution should remain in the studio or be shown in an open rehearsal. As the evening in question involves Rambert, what excuse could possibly be wanting to open the doors of their new home for such a purpose?

Of five works on the program at The Place, only one has found its form, and that is Dane Hurst’s paean to Nelson Mandela, O’dabo. The other four, for all their crafting, are closer to sketches: interesting only in the context of the final form but as the final form they lose their cogency. Artistic Director of Rambert, Mark Baldwin, explains at the beginning of the evening that this annual platform is a necessary step for aspiring choreographers within the company towards making work for the main stage. Patricia Okenwa, who is working towards her first commission for the company in 2016, admits in her program notes that No. 1 Convergence is a process, but this is not her first attempt at choreography; she is experienced in this program and should, with a commission in the offing, be closer to bringing the parts of No. 1 Convergence into a formal unity. Choreographed on six dancers, the convergence of patterns is evident but the convergence of overall form is not.

Luke Ahmet’s duet Unspoken Dialect starts from an interesting premise of making internal dialogue visible, but it is a premise that lends itself more to a solo than to a duet. Adam Blyde and Carolyn Bolton in effect perform two solos that happen to intersect on the same stage at the same time. They are both striking dancers but the reason for them dancing together is missing and this detracts from the ideas Ahmet sets out to develop.

Some ideas for choreography seem destined not to translate and Simone Damberg Würtz’s RIFT, based on an old ad from her native Denmark illustrating the fatal consequences of not wearing a seatbelt whilst driving is a case in point. It might have helped to create the aural impact of a crash to set a clear, dramatic context, but instead Damberg Würtz takes an existential idea of ‘the unshakeable sense of guilt a death can have on the conscience’ on which to base her physical exploration. Such cerebral concerns reduce dance space and time in RIFT to a stillness unrelieved by an accompanying Danish text that, if it has significance for Damberg Würtz, is not shared with those of us in the audience who don’t understand Danish.

It is in Pierre Tappon’s Related that a clear choreographic idea begins to develop between the trio of Liam Francis, Antonia Hewitt and Stephen Wright. Tappon calls it a short story and sets up a stage of symbolic sculptural elements — a rock-like doorway and pedestal — on which and around which the characters dance. In the story, Hewitt appears to be a siren whose initial allure fails to win over the two men, perhaps because it is Francis who demonstrates a palpable allure in the fluidity of his dancing and the movement he is given to explore.

Hurst explains O’dabo (a Yoruba expression meaning ‘until I return’ or ‘goodbye’) as ‘a physical reaction to my reflections on the many faces of Nelson Mandela.’ Hurst, who was brought up in South Africa, has made the country his focus once before (The Window) in a Rambert choreographic evening, and his connection with his subject is visceral; his inspiration flows not only into his movement but through all the elements of the work — the first movement of Paul Gladstone Reid’s Symphony of Dust and Air, the richly coloured carpets laid out so carefully, Lucy Hansom’s lighting and Hurst’s costume of cloth and powder. He expresses in his body what he imagines it is like to build hope, to have a vision, to counter frailty, face defeat and emerge victorious and he has the courage to keep his choreographic language close to the ground, transforming his internal conviction into the physical symbolism of Mandela’s journey. This transformation breaks down only when Hurst defaults to classical technique in the form of turns and barrel rolls that appear more about the dancer than the master. If he can develop the early imagery and follow it through to its apotheosis rather than borrowing from a foreign idiom, O’dabo will gain in cohesion, something Mandela himself championed.

 


Rambert’s season of new choreography

Posted: June 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Rambert Dance Company: Season of new choreography

Queen Elizabeth Hall, May 31

Dance is close to music in that what we see on stage can move us emotionally, but an intellectual gap can exist between what we see and what we understand of what we see. Without bridging this gap, the scope for further discussion and debate about dance is diminished. One has only to think of the talks and explanations about classical music on Radio 3 to appreciate the value of such insights. Rambert Dance Company is evidently aware of this, and for their Season of New Choreography at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, provide helpful program notes and a brief Q&A session with both the choreographers and composers immediately following the performance, mediated by Rambert’s head of learning and participation, Joce Giles. It is clear, for example, that the creative process began with the movement and the music followed, often by long-distance communication. In the music for Face Up composer Semay Wu has incorporated a familiarity with choreographer Mbulelo Ndabeni’s culture that makes the score  as much reflective as descriptive. Ndabeni’s explanation of the use of clicks in his language and the meaning of passages in his native tongue that were incorporated into Wu’s composition was not only instructive in itself but an invaluable entrance into the world of the choreographer and his work.

Dane Hurst: The Window

 Choreographer Dane Hurst writes in the program notes, “The most devastating phenomenon to affect the residents of old South End  (a neighbourhood of South Africa’s Port Elizabeth, where Hurst was born) was undoubtedly the Group Areas Act. The Act was part of a clutch of apartheid laws passed after the National Party came to power in 1948; it was intended to give effect to the Population Registration Act of 1950 which labeled and classified all South Africans as part of a defined population group. Soon after, eviction notices were handed out followed by protests and unrest; but inevitably thousands of families were displaced and homes demolished.”

A tall lamp with a reddish glow is the only visible furniture. A woman (Angela Towler) lies restless on her back at its base, her hand on her stomach. The evocative score by Christopher Mayo describes Towler’s contrasted state with a passage for solo violin and harp combined with an ominous drum. Three girls appear, one after the other, similarly dressed. In this particular household, we imagine them to be three sisters and Towler their mother. The score increases its instrumentation as the family discusses the ramifications of the Group Areas Act. All the girls seem to be talking at the same time, but not listening to each other until Towler focuses their attention. They share a frightened gesture of hand across the face, legs raised forward, unsure of what will happen. Another woman appears, in a light grey dress, moving calmly, unaffected by the commotion. Her hands are open, raised to her face. Raucous trumpets herald the arrival of three men in suits with what we assume to be an eviction notice, flaunting their power in large, expansive movements, swinging legs wide in predatory jumps. The three sisters remain in the shadows but the men grab them by their necks and are about to rape them when a girl in white (Estella Merlos) flies into the room, disrupting the proceedings but focusing all the brutal attention on herself. She is possibly a local activist, and she is interrogated, turned upside down, and threatened with the eviction notice. She treats it with contempt, incensing the men to continue their assault. Shown the notice again, she screws it up and puts it in her mouth, for which she is beaten and left on the floor. The men leave. The scene changes to an overt choreographic quote from Kurt Joos’ Green Table: the family is standing around a table drumming their arms on the surface to a war-like rhythmic pulse in the music. Towler presides as they pass around the eviction note, snatching it from each other. The eight dancers – the family enlarged by a number of neighbours – are angry; the men want to resist, but the women are worried what will happen to them. While they express their frustrations amongst themselves, the light intensity floods in through the wall. A calm descends, and the children dance their way across the stage and out of the room. The woman in grey reappears, a muse indicating a way forward for Towler, who replicates her movements and gestures. Towler is left alone in a pool of fading light, her hand raised in an attitude of stoic resolve, or prayer.

Mbulelo Ndabeni: Face Up

 Two figures arrive stage left in the dark. Under a spotlight we see two men, one standing (Miguel Altunaga), the other (Mbulelo Ndabeni) seated on a bench. Altunaga takes off his raffish hat and jacket while Ndabeni remains reflective looking off into the wings. Face Up is clearly about the relationship between these two men, and it works on the dual levels of personal diary and public affirmation. The choreography derives from personal gesture and movement and its philosophical tone is dictated by three phrases in Ndabeni’s native tongue. One phrase states that when we are assailed by too many problems, it is better to take a step back and another that when you take a step back, the knots or problems can be undone. A third advises that even when you feel a lack of kindness in a given situation, don’t give up. From the repeated opening sequence of Altunaga running across the stage, stopping and walking backwards to where he starts, indecision is evidently one of the problems in this relationship, which alternates phases of fighting like children, pulling shirts and jumping on each other’s back, with other more accepting, more caring gestures. It is a constant struggle to retain a sense of respect despite their differences and the pressures they feel. Altunaga is the more extrovert, excitable and sulky, Ndabeni more quiet and philosophical, the one more likely to seek resolution even in the face of rejection. At one point Ndabeni embraces Altunaga, who ducks out leaving Ndabeni holding his position while Altunaga loses himself in a convoluted, shoulder-slapping dance with pumping sobs and the image of bound hands that returns from an opening sequence. After finally exhausting themselves in a flurry of flying falls and floor play, Ndabeni gets up. Both have their hands over their faces, as if not wanting to see or be seen. He drags his friend back to the bench where they take up their opening positions with Ndabeni’s rich, clicking voice saying “I will not give up” as the lights and music fade.

Jonathan Goddard and Gemma Nixon: Heist

The only program note for Heist is a quote from René Magritte: “Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Whatever it holds of significance for the choreographer’s creative juices, such a quote leaves the spectator in total panic of ever figuring out what he or she is about to see. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jonathan Goddard is in the spotlight, adjusting his tie, wiping his neck, pushing at his lapel, his hand around an imaginary figure. There is a figure in the background, in mirror image. It is Gemma Nixon who is backing up towards Goddard. Another man, Eryck Brahmania, enters between Nixon and Goddard. There is a conversation going on in which it is evident that Goddard has a beautifully expressive mime quality. The three form a fluid relationship puzzle, joined but not joined (remember the Magritte quote). The movement sequences repeat. Estella Merlos (much in demand in this evening’s program) enters into the light, a ménage à quatre. She repeats a gesture towards the ground made earlier by Brahmania, and the same lapel gesture as Goddard. She and Brahmania form a duet, melting into one another, turning, lifting, to a rumbling, driving, ticking soundtrack by Miguel Marin. Goddard and Nixon are sitting close by, watching until Nixon gets up to repeat Merlos’ gestures. The two men now partner the two women, starting with the same movements and then mutating them. The relations between the four are constantly shifting, formally and emotionally. The final statement before the lights fade is an enigmatic gesture by Merlos with her back to us. Heist is a fragment of a work, but a beautiful one. Despite the Magritte quote, this is the easiest work to take in visually as it is not narrative but choreographic in structure. There is no story to worry about, only patterns changing, reversing, repeating; it is the overall form that expresses something beyond what we are seeing. Heist seems to be the vestige of an original idea for the work; the idea has changed but the name hasn’t. Very Magritte.

Patricia Okenwa: Viriditas

 Viriditas, as the program notes explain, is a word associated with abbess Hildegard von Bingen and has many connotations, but fecundity is the one that seems to have struck a chord with Patricia Okenwa and her designer, Hyemi Shin: the stage is covered in white, polystyrene eggs of all sizes. Before the performance can begin, the stage manager and his assistant are placing them, carefully at first in a circle in the centre, then increasingly randomly around the stage, emptying out the last few with a suggestion of impatience. In the dark we hear what sounds like an ancient drawbridge descending, and a thundering avalanche followed the call of displaced ravens, a medieval prologue to Mark Bowden’s score, Viriditas. After such a cataclysmic event there shouldn’t be many eggs left, but as the lights come up five women in flowing grey robes and crocheted cowls are kneeling among them, unharmed and intact. The program notes explain that there are ‘six types of material’ in the music, ‘all derived from a continuous and never repeating melodic line, intertwined to create a continually shifting structure that moves between moments of tranquil calmness and erratic, hocketing episodes.’ In the Q&A after the performance Bowden has a simpler explanation and a revised figure: there are five women, five distinct characters and five corresponding types of music ‘chopped up into lots of little bits and mixed up into a structure so these five characteristics intertwine with each other.’ The costumes suggest an ecclesiastical setting, and the intensity of this medieval play without words is charged with religious fervor. Hannah Rudd is the first character to break out of the circle, light and jaunty, and a second follows to a darker, more moody theme. A third character is more frenetic and Antonette Dayrit is positively possessed, dancing out a wild ritual in expiation or exorcism of animal spirits. There are sections of healing and mutual encouragement, as when the four women watch Estela Merlos dance cathartically as the chosen sister. However, the brooding sense of ritual exorcism and self-flagellation continues to a dramatic climax with the crash of a gong. It is Rudd who then brings back an element of calm after a moment of silence. The women minister to Merlos who has dropped from exhaustion, lifting her up and circling around the egg-strewn stage in a final redemptive procession.