Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Posted: May 18th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gary Clarke and Akademi, The Troth, Queen Elizabeth Hall, May 5

The Troth

Subhash Viman Gorania and Vidya Patel in The Troth (photo: Simon Richardson)

The original review was published online in pulseconnects and appears here by kind permission of its editor, Sanjeevini Dutta. 

Gary Clarke’s choreographic adaptation of The Troth at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Alchemy is based on a love story (Usne Kaha Tha in its original Hindi) written in 1915 by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri that is set against the background of India’s involvement as part of the British Empire in the First World War.

As a youth Lehna Singh (Subhash Viman Gorania) meets Leela (Vidya Patel), like Romeo meeting Juliet, at a market festival and falls in love with her. When he bumps into her some years later, he learns she is betrothed. He answers a recruitment call to join the British Army and begins training. Eighteen years into the story, on the outbreak of the First World War, he discovers that his Captain (Songhay Toldon) is Leela’s husband and father of their son, Bodha (Dom Coffey), who is also leaving for the front. On their departure Leela takes Lehna aside and makes him promise to protect her family at all costs. Driven by his love for Leela and his sense of duty, Lehna fulfills his promise at the cost of his own life.

There is in the relationship between Lehna and Leela a metaphor for the ties between India and the British Raj, whether Guleri meant it or not. The British Army’s inducements to Indians like Lehna to protect the Empire were more calculatingly material — a contemporary recruitment poster offers shoes and food in return for the sacrifice of their lives — but the honourable relationship between country and beloved motherland had the same tragic consequences.

Despite its historical context, there is no horror in the re-telling of this story; dance can’t do horror very well and even the projected archival film footage of Indian soldiers on the front is quite sanitized, filmed from a safe distance behind the lines and suffused with subtle propaganda. One photograph of a pair of disintegrating legs attached to their boots in the mud is the only graphic image, a reminder of the fate of 60,000 Indian soldiers in the conflict. Shri Sriram’s percussive sound score rattles with bullets and explosions at high intensity and the dancers run at full tilt and fly to the ground in the chaos of battle but the reiteration of such physical exertion becomes a choreographic trope unless Clarke is suggesting the naivety of gymnastic preparations for modern warfare. The staged vigour of the soldiers on the battlefield is not far removed from the earlier men’s dances in the market, but how can one possibly approach on stage the conditions under which these soldiers had to exist in the trenches?

Neither did Guleri intend to write an anti-war tract; he was more concerned with the qualities of the heart. Hence, while Clarke’s treatment of The Troth can only approximate the war experiences, he shows more convincingly — because we can relate more easily with it and because dance can do it so well — the romance of Guleri’s story.

Clarke, as choreographer and director, takes the story at face value, and in Patel he has a convincing heroine for whom Gorania is quite understandably willing to sacrifice himself. But in framing the story on the troth between Lehna and Leela Clarke and producer, Akademi, risk subsuming the broader political picture into a romantic evocation of the past. This year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and The Troth is part of a cultural outpouring marking its remembrance. Next month, for example, Akram Khan’s full-scale solo Xenos ‘conjures the shell-shocked dream of a colonial soldier in the context of the First World War’ while English National Ballet will reprise its Lest We Forget program in September. The tendency of such works, and of the commemorative purposes underlying them, is to focus on the effects of war rather than on its causes; hence the stories of loss, love, loyalty, heroism and pity (‘The poetry is in the pity’, as Wilfred Owen wrote in a preface to his war poems). And yet in using these emotional stories as a means of memorialization, are we not in danger of forgetting the political forces that engendered them, those same political forces that continue to preside over the act of remembrance?

In Clarke’s previous work, Coal, about the 1984/85 coal miner’s strike, he contextualizes political force by juxtaposing the lives of the miners and their families with an appearance by a belligerent Mrs. Thatcher. It is this tension that holds the work together but in The Troththe use of archival film as historical context is little more than background and barely offsets the lack of narrative tension in the story. Perhaps Clarke could have found a way to use the political metaphor in the story but that would have run the risk of a post-colonial reading at odds with the commemorative intention of the work.


Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Posted: May 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Clarke Company, COAL

Gary Clarke Company, COAL, The Place, April 15

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

Gary Clarke Company in COAL (photo: Joe Armitage)

“She defined and overcame the great challenges of her age…” – David Cameron in his tribute to Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

“Thatcherism…reeked the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage on this country…” – Glenda Jackson in the House of Commons, April 10, 2013

It is an uncanny coincidence that the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike should occur at a time the current Conservative government is trying to dismantle another longstanding institution, the National Health Service. Gary Clarke’s COAL, commemorating the 1984/85 miners’ strike in choreographic form, comes as a salutary reminder of how politicians who capitalise on the self-aggrandizing belief they are ‘overcoming the challenges of (the) age’ can ruin the lives of entire communities. Clarke understands this firsthand, having been brought up in Grimethorpe, a mining town in South Yorkshire. ‘It’s deeply, deeply personal, and I just wanted to share how it felt to live through these times. How it felt then, and how it feels now as the pain, loss and division linger on in our stranded communities.’ It is memory that drives the work forward.

COAL is divided into three acts: the first is a slice of early-morning ritual in a single home that suggests the foundation of social life in a mining community. The wife (TC Howard) peels spuds in a bucket while the husband (Alistair Goldsmith) sleeps under a blanket; she is cook and feisty timekeeper, long-time lover and loyal supporter. Costume and set designer Ryan Dawson Laight takes delight in the details (Howard is reading a newspaper with the headline ‘Tory Cuts’) and Clarke fashions the spirit of comradeship in an earthy dance among the assembled miners (Goldsmith, Nicolas Vendange, James Finnemore, Joss Carter and Connor Quill) on their way to work. The second act is set underground (the pit cage and tunnels beautifully delineated in light by Charles Webber); it is a long section and full of tension. The qualities of their movement are a reflection of both the physical effort and their underground minds, a brutal existence spurred on by chalked targets, punctuated by bells and constantly threatened by hazards to limbs and lungs. It is perhaps the first time the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony has been used at the coalface and Daniel Thomas’ soundscape exaggerates the sense of pressure and confinement until we can’t take any more. Act three takes us up again into the air to the relative freedom of a social gathering, a chance to party and to relax, which is the moment Clarke introduces the figure of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (Eleanor Perry with the voice of Steve Nallon). This is the dramatic fulcrum of the work, the moment that defines the beginning of the end. From the intimately complex social solidarity of the first two acts, Thatcher’s intervention turns the community into a toxic, socially divisive battleground with Perry prowling like a bird of prey on one side of a picket line that bears a chilling resemblance to a gallows rope.

Clarke maintains COAL is not a political work but the politics are inextricable from the story and he plays the political aspect directly to the audience. If Perry doesn’t get booed during a performance she feels she hasn’t wrung a sufficiently derisive charge from her role. This raises questions as to the exact nature of COAL. In choosing to interpret this story through the medium of dance — particularly using his five muscular, handsome dancers as interpreters — Clarke mixes a social and political polemic with a soft image; he has us bathe in the action until we are as helpless in the face of fate as the miners with whom he is siding. The form of COAL thus straddles the tragedy of a community and an epic story of resistance, but in pointing the finger at Thatcher we collectively miss the opportunity to challenge our readiness to fight such injustices in the future. As Ernst Fischer wrote in The Necessity of Art when discussing Berthold Brecht’s use of emotional detachment to appeal to audiences’ reason and critical action, ‘The work of art must grip the audience not through passive identification but through an appeal to reason which demands action and decision.’

What Clarke has achieved is an intimate, nostalgic memoir in which the material is still full of pain and anger. The work is rooted in the communities he is honouring: apart from the permanent cast of Perry, Howard and the five male dancers, the supporting characters come from local mining communities or have a relationship to them and he uses songs played by colliery bands from areas of the country in which he is performing. This close-knit network of performers strengthens the cohesion of the work, but it is the lack of artistic detachment that weakens the dramatic impact. It implodes rather than explodes, draws us in rather than spits us out on a path to change. It is designed to rouse the emotions of the audience — and is more or less successful depending on where it is performed — to reaffirm the sense of betrayal that continues today.

We want COAL to succeed because what it depicts is vital to an understanding of these blighted communities and of our collective history but it falls short primarily because of its desire to entertain. The reality was and is far worse than COAL can ever admit but commemoration can also be a call to action; the struggle for the survival of the NHS is history repeating itself.