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.


Hubert Essakow, Terra

Posted: March 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hubert Essakow, Terra

Hubert Essakow, Terra, The Print Room at The Coronet, March 12

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra

Benjamin Warbis, Rob Bridger, Luke Crook and Monique Jonas in Terra (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Terra is the final part of Hubert Essakow’s trilogy based on the three elements of water, fire and earth. First came Flow, then Ignis and now Terra. I didn’t see Flow but in Ignis Essakow used the analogy of human passion to explore the element, and fire also made a dramatic appearance on stage. In Terra the analogy with earth is that of the human footprint but the element of earth does not appear on stage. In the handsome program for Terra are three performance photographs by Zadoc Nava of Estela Merlos, Luke Crook and Benjamin Warbis dancing on sand; the link with earth is immediate, but for some reason the concept has not been carried into the production.

After a stunning opening solo by Merlos as the romantic, half-naked spirit of Mother Earth, four chalky white dancers climb onto the cramped white stage with their white rhomboid suitcases, to begin Earth’s population. They look as if they are artists from a travelling mime circus who have lost their way. The contrast with Mother Earth couldn’t be greater, but paradoxically it is she who is out of place in Terra. The set, by Sofie Lachaert & Luc D’Hanis, is a paper cliff at the foot of which furniture thrown down from the top has come to rest: chairs, a table, a wardrobe, a lamp, a broken mirror. Everything is whitewashed, abstracted and drained of any hint of earth. The set instead belongs to an artistic concept for which Terra seems ill adapted. Lachaert and D’Hanis are designers who have ‘built together an intriguing oeuvre of objects, furniture and site-specific installations, in which they interrogate the boundaries between fine art, craft and design.’ That might work well in the Hayward Gallery but not here. Martina Trottman’s costumes are clearly influenced by Lachaert and D’Hanis so two of the principle theatrical elements in Terra take it in a different direction, one suspects, from that conceived by the choreographer. Militating against the shift is a poem by Ben Okri who was commissioned to write it for Terra. It is rich in allusions and allegories of Earth and we hear the sonorous voice of Okri reading passages from it through the work. Introduced initially over Merlos’s solo with sound designer Gareth Mitchell’s soft rumbling of falling rocks, Terra thus begins in harmony before the seismic conceptual shift takes over.

…Our beginning who knows it,
Except the silent mother
Who was the womb
For all this history.
From her we grow, we die,
We rise…

The four dancers (Crook, Warbis, Rob Bridger and Monique Jonas) gather cautiously on the shore, a confluence of strangers despite their similar appearance and identical suitcases. There is a little mistrust in their exploration of each other, a testing of boundaries and balance, as Merlos, now costumed similarly, tries to make them feel at home. Jean-Michel Bernard’s score is redolent of Debussy, airy and playful, while Mitchell’s growling sounds suggest weight and danger.

All these faces,
All these masks and dreams
And dances,
All these leaps into the unknown,
All these eyes
That gaze into the mysteries,
All these feet

That turn and leap and glide
Across continents
In the curving dance
Of time.

Essakow’s choreography keeps close to Okri’s poetry, finding in it both the keys to the non-narrative nature of his elemental drama and personal traits for his dancers; Jonas’s solo, like Merlos’s earlier, arises out of the verse, embodying it and enriched by it. The human footprint is extended by the appearance of Constance Booth whose maturity allows her to hold her own with the adults, as much a child of the family as she is an individual in her own right. Essakow now condenses the action to a series of short tableaux separated by blackouts: the family; broadening horizons; risk-taking and exploration on the paper mountain with a pulsing score. You get the idea, but in such a cramped space with a restrictive set that waters down the elemental force of Okri’s poem, the human footprint slows to a melodramatic plod with predictable symbolism; we hear a recording of different languages while the performers stare at the audience as if looking at the future. The three women dance to Okri’s lines:

Mother of culture
And all the magic
We can conceive,
She is the greatest
Magic of them all.

When the men rejoin, the stage is swirling in movement but without a clear idea of where it is going until it resolves in a line at the front of the stage. The cast leaves except for Merlos and Booth, the ‘spirit made flesh’ and the promise of a future. There is the rumbling sound again, and Merlos looks at the girl, performs a kind of benediction and retreats.

At a post-show talk with Marc Brew at the Lilian Baylis just two days before, Dame Evelyn Glennie had spoken of the nature of collaborations as being intrinically unstable; you just don’t know if it’s going to work until the collaboration is complete. With Terra Essakow staked his success on a raft of collaborators, some of whom understood his concept and others who just supplied their own. Perhaps that is, after all, an apt, if unintended comment on the current state of the Earth.