Dance GB: Olympic fever

Posted: July 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance GB: Olympic fever

Dance GB, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, July 6, 19:30

From the press release: The UK’s three national dance companies – Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet and National Dance Company Wales, will perform together for the first time in an Olympian inspired program featuring three specially commissioned works from leading contemporary choreographers.

In a parallel project with sixty young dancers from Scotland, England and Wales, three separate but related works involving both dance and parkour have been created in their respective countries and spliced into a heartwarming film by Nic Sandilands called Dancing Parallel which is shown at the beginning of the evening.

The setting in the big tent at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is more like a large Punch and Judy show, with a faded blue velvet curtain drawn across the broad stage with a space above for a giant puppet master. In front of the tiered seating is a carpeted area for audience members to sit on pillows, blankets, inflatable mattresses or cushions. The tent flaps of the main entrance let in plenty of light, even when closed, but when the film starts it is just dark enough.

We see a hand reaching down to retrieve a partially submerged, wooden school chair out of the water and a young Welsh boy runs with it to a deserted building where he sets it down on a stone floor as a pommel horse and dancing partner. Welcome to the art of the sport of parkour. We see the boy’s legs, arms and torso arching over the chair during his routine, and when he finally sits, the camera pulls back to reveal his face. Cut to a windswept expanse of beach at low tide near Aberdeen. A boy gathers a chair from the wet sand and takes it to join his friends who have found similar chairs, which they form into a choreographic obstacle course on the beach. Cut to inside a dimly lit concrete basement, where these same friends put on a dance performance (choreographed by Emma-Jane McHenry and Lorraine Jamieson) for an audience of empty chairs. Cut to the same space with all the kids sitting in the chairs watching an empty space. Cut to an industrial, dockland warehouse in east London. The now familiar wooden chairs are bobbing in the water and a hand fishes them out one by one, passing them up a line of kids on a metal stairway into a vaulted brick space. We see the kids assimilating their dance movement phrases (choreographed by Laura Harvey, Danielle Jones and Hayley Arundel) then performing them all together for another audience of empty chairs, to the sounds of squeaking rubber soles. Cut to a close-up of an eye, that of the Welsh boy at the beginning. A fully expressed, sometimes wild and always poetic dance with chairs follows, choreographed by Jem Treays to street accordion continuum in the old NatWest Building in Cardiff. It begins with simple seated moves in unison, followed by a passage of movement around and over the chairs, then the kids lay them down, and a couple of boys dance with the equilibrium of the chairs on their feet. The performance is interrupted by the sound of an intruder; all the kids scatter to the recesses of the abandoned lobby. One hopes they will all have the courage to return to continue their dance.

I scoured the program for evidence of a clear mandate for the creation of the three commissioned works by Scottish Ballet, Dance Company Wales and English National Ballet, but if there is one, it is not elaborated. Christopher Bruce is unique in proposing to celebrate the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee together, and his Dream “is also a celebration of the sheer enjoyment of highly physical movement in all its forms.” For Martin Lawrance, choreographer of Run For It for Scottish Ballet, “The Olympics – like any live dance performance – challenges and celebrates an individual’s physicality and mindset. How do you just push that effort? How do you get to the next step, and the next, and the next? And if that ties into Einstein’s vision of dancers as God’s athletes, it also connects into our own lives whatever we do. You just have to get out there, run for it – and hope to win through on your journey.” Itzik Galili was more elusive when asked what the link was between the Olympics and his work for English National Ballet, And the Earth Shall Bear Again: “I feel like I am in the Olympic Games, just being in such a company!…2012 is a year of many beginnings, with potential for new world records…To me, it’s like the earth having its birth again.”

The work takes its title from one of the pieces for prepared piano by John Cage, composed in 1942, that Galili has used as his inspiration. There are various recordings, with a range of percussive tones, but the one used here by Boris Berman is more athletic than most and the amplification for this performance gives a particularly bass, almost distorted tone. Other works by John Cage used by Galili are Prelude for Meditation, The Perilous Night (4 & 6), Primitive, 3 Dances for prepared piano (excerpts), A Chance Operation, and Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos, Dance #1.

Outgoing artistic director of English National Ballet, Wayne Eagling, intended to make Galili’s work the final offering on the program, as performed in Theatre Royal, Glasgow and Cardiff’s Wales Millenium Centre, but for technical reasons here in the tent it has been put first. Reading in the program how Galili uses light as a choreographic tool, I wonder where the lighting is going to come from as I don’t see any sophisticated lighting rig in the tent and there is evidently no fly tower. When the curtain slides open, the mystery is solved: designer Yaron Abulafia’s rig is an integral part of the stage design, some of the more sculptural elements being in plain view. I can see why you wouldn’t want to be setting this up during an intermission.

The stage is filled with atmospheric fog and we are immediately drawn into the murky darkness. What Abulafia has created is remarkable: a theatrical black hole from which dancers emerge into the light, or recede into latency at the will of the lighting designer and choreographer. As our eyes search for familiar form, we see the back of a dancer, too indistinct to know if it is male or female. This figure backs towards us into the diffused, triangular downlight, one fifth position at a time, the feet as closely spaced as the keys on a piano. The costume (designed by Natasja Lansen) is androgynous, worn by both male and female dancers: a black, transparent, sleeveless, net jerkin with its hem barely covering the buttocks. Legs and arms are bare, and reflect the light, while the torso absorbs it. The figure emerging from the mist is Esteban Berlanga. On the first brutally amplified note of Cage’s score, a girl walks across downstage from right to left. A line of dancers cross in the other direction, like a keyboard advancing across the stage, leaving a dancer in the centre with Berlanga, duplicating his movement. The line returns, sweeping away the first dancer and leaving another in her place. Others arrive; there are six on stage who are then joined by another twelve to complete the full complement of eighteen. The percussive nature of the score lends itself to fierce physicality and staccato movement. On two consecutive notes a girl jumps and is caught in the boy’s arms, like two pieces of a puzzle locking together, a movement repeated five times with five other couples. The limbs, because they reflect the light and are used in exaggerated extension, are the principal elements of the dance. Faces are not revealed as clearly, adding to the effect of a gesticulating forest of limbs emanating from mobile trunks. The girls are on point, accentuating the already attenuated lines. The movement is predominantly linear, launched in all directions, so when Nancy Osbaldeston pulls off a beautifully controlled multiple turn, sculpted to perfection in the light, its spiral form takes the breath away. If there is a sense of the title in the movement, it is this emergence of form from chaos.

If the energetic, athletic movement is a constant, Galili modulates it with a succession of male and female duets and trios – although the ultra-flexible movement of overextended legs and arms common to both male and female dancers blurs the sexual distinction – and with interesting dynamic juxtapositions: a mass of movement pauses leaving one girl dancing alone. Towards the end, Berlanga returns to a solo after which he is engulfed once more in the vapour from which he emerged, and a girl walks quickly from left to right across the stage. In the end is the beginning.

In Christopher Bruce’s Dream, the opening is all heart and amateur athletics from a bygone era: a tug of war, egg-and-spoon races, wheelbarrow races, leap-frog, three-legged races and sack races, overlaid with the sound of children’s excited voices. One couple takes a tumble and gets back up to continue the fun (they do it again later, so it’s not an accident). The backdrop is divided horizontally into two sections. The top three quarters is black and the bottom strip is white. All the races take place in front of it, giving the impression of an early home 8mm movie being spooled from one side of the stage to another. Guy Hoare’s lighting adds a touch of faded yellow to the action to complete the effect. This is Bruce looking back on his first memories of the celebrations and street parties for both the 1952 jubilee and coronation the following year, the only work on the program to anchor itself in a specific time and place. As the opening music finishes, one man is caught half way across the stage in his sack race; a poignant moment, as if the era had suddenly passed and he was unsure where he was going. After the festive events of the day, all the participants are standing in the street looking out at us – the future – dreaming of a better world.

The black backdrop descends, covering the white filmstrip: this is the real thing, set to the last movement of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Bruce takes simple body moves like stretching, running in place, rubbing shoulders, wave patterns and cartwheels as phrases that will be developed throughout the work. Four boys enter, good sports running around, practicing sprint starts, then joining together, arms around the waist, walking forward towards us. We hear a crowd roar at the scoring of a goal. The men run off, and Camille Giraudeau enters, her long red hair accentuated in the circle of light. To the rhythm of the introductory phrases of Ravel’s Boléro, Gaudreau shakes out her feet and legs. Such disarmingly natural movement makes this over-familiar music fresh again. Four other girls join, each performing a different exercise that develops into dance movement. Gaudreau, with Ravel, repeats the opening phrases, and the five girls dance together in a beautiful, musically precise, off-balance variation. The boys return; a duo of kicking and boxing morphs into wrestling and deliciously into a waltz before another boy breaks it up. Two girls are joined by a third in a bowling motif, after which they link arms and swing their hips as they sway upstage. Four boys play football; the girls lie on the ground in a circle kicking their legs in the crawl; two boys fence and shake hands; a basketball gesture becomes a dance phrase with more swinging hips, then a duo enters skating, in an inevitable reference to Torvill and Deane’s gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics. Two boys sprint across the back to the trombone solo. A trio of two boys and a girl, then all six girls build the physical complexity of the dance with the music, though Bruce pulls back to repeat that opening phrase once again. The javelin throw is followed by a group of four men in a marathon walk, handkerchiefs on head, which develops into a brilliant canon of girls who then pose while the sparky Naomi Tadevossian performs a lightning solo, leading the girls into a line. Now four men jump and a team of oarsmen cross the stage, two girls spin, the four men hurdle and the crescendo culminates in a triple black flip to a rock solid gymnastic pose, arms raised in celebration. There is applause, as the Boléro has ended, but there is an epilogue, to Grace Williams’ upbeat second movement from her Penillion, Allegro (and how) con fuoco. The men and women return to the street sports, to the sack races, the egg and spoon races, the three-legged race (the couple falls again), wheelbarrow races, and leapfrogging. In a final fling, eggs are tossed – and caught – before the street party winds up and the participants resume their opening positions in the dusk, looking dreamily out and up at the audience. Dream is full of heart, infused with a sense of humour and a nostalgic sense of sportsmanship without being soppy, and not so literally sporty as to be imitative, but rather celebrating the proximity of sport and dance.

Martin Lawrance’s Run For It is aptly named and with a score like John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony the wind is behind the dancers, blowing them along relentlessly. There are apparently subtle quotations from the Olympic sports though I only noticed the swimming gestures. It is is a very musical piece, though because of Adams’ pace and because Lawrance seems to have choreographed most of the accents in the many layers of music, the dancers have to maintain an inexorable momentum to keep up. As in Galili’s work, the movements of men and women are equally athletic and supple, with the girls on pointe, though the speed-enhancing costumes (by Yumiko Takeshima) clearly differentiate the sexes. The slow movement provides a respite, musically and choreographically, with a series of duets and trios with swapping partners on contrasted sequences – one lifting, the other turning – to the same music. Arabesques and deep lunges flow nicely with lovely lines, the technique is clean and the rhythms bright, but aerial shapes are less interesting. When four men lift one of the women, she appears (perhaps understandably) more manhandled than partnered and her shape is lost. Once the men have put her down and left, she recovers in a solo to deserved applause before the finale kicks in. A man’s flying entrance heralds a succession of energetic entrances but the movement vocabulary begins to run low on inspiration and the energy seems to flag, though the dancers regain their control of the score supported by what sounds like an entire farmyard of instrumentation with an energizing dose of percussion. By the time the rapid marching band of cymbals starts up, all the dancers are on stage, finishing in a tight group, with one man circling around them and dancing off at a tangent into the wings; a winding down, as in the music.

The sculptural stage design by the 2011 Turner Prize winner, Martin Boyce, incorporates a Greek column to remind us of the origin of the games. The column, which commands a good portion of the stage, supports a roof of interlocking, transparent forms like a collection of identical 1960’s white lampshades. Indeed, the lighting (by Charles Balfour) is diffused through this honeycomb ceiling, lending it various suffused shades of red and blue. Its height from the stage – perhaps a function of the tent’s limited vertical space – tends to press down on the dancers and Adams’ music belongs to another era and another kind of landscape: an odd contest in which there is no clear winner.  

Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Rambert Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells, Mixed Bill, May 17.

There are two perspectives from which to view Rambert’s recent program at Sadler’s Wells: the historical and the spatial. The range of styles of the four works spans 100 years, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune of 1912 (in its 1967 staging by Ann Whitley) to artistic director Mark Baldwin’s response to it, What Wild Ecstasy. Itzik Galili’s SUB, created on his own company in 2009, and Siobhan Davies’ 1995 gem, The Art of Touch, are more recent but almost diametrically opposed in approach. Is it possible for a company to do justice to four such diverse works in a single evening? The answer to this could well depend on the spatial perspective, which is the view the spectator has of the stage. No choreographer creates a work with dancers in a studio two floors below across the road, so viewing a work from the perspective of the Second Circle at Sadler’s Wells is to see it in a way that was never intended. Seated in the stalls, you only have to be concerned by the historical perspective; sitting in the Second Circle, it could be the historical or the spatial, or a mixture of the two.

One thing that can be seen from above is pattern. Fortunately there is plenty of that in Itzik Galili’s SUB and the lighting by Yaron Abulafia is particularly sculptural. SUB starts with an explosion of thunder in the dark. A lone figure dances in a circle of light, naked but for what seems to be a long tutu that adds to the all-male cast’s androgynous look as the lighting blasts the dancers’ skin. (I gather later from a critic who sat in the stalls, that the costume is in fact an army greatcoat worn as a kilt). Adding the relentless pulse of Michael Gordon’s string quartet, Weather One, to the white light and military imagery, the scene is set for a work that is in turn hard-edged, nervy and menacing. These qualities are laid down on each layer of music, choreography and lighting. Indeed, the time coding of the lighting is so intimately linked to a commercial recording of the score that the quartet cannot be played live, giving a sense that SUB has been choreographed in light as much as in movement. Abulafia has created shadows on the stage in which a line of dancers will lurk while a duet or trio takes place in the light and the dancers never seem to exit; they glide instead into dark light, giving the work a feeling of constant intense activity. He also forms lines of light in front of the wings, like a lintel (this you wouldn’t see from the stalls, because the lighting designer has the added advantage of working like an architect with a plan). The choreographic structure is closely based on the rhythmic episodes in the music. There are constant juxtapositions of chaos and order, storm and calm, with complex spacing and interweaving that will suddenly transform into a line. The seven men dance for all they are worth, taking risks with their own force and in last-minute catches. The frenetic movement slows into a duet or trio accentuating the lines of the dancers slowly stretching into their shapes while others watch in their line of light at the side of the stage. The quiet is shattered by another explosion of energy, a frenetic movement that resolves in a line of dancers across the front of the stage watching a solo that has the feel of an interrogation under blinding light. Now we see the posse of men break out into seven wild solos that build in intensity until it re-forms with all seven jumping in unison to the rhythm of the music, reducing the evocative strings to a pounding, ominous pulse. Six men line up on the front of the stage, now facing the audience like a line of security guards, while the movements of a single dancer behind them fade in the dying of the light and the music.

Siobhan Davies’ The Art of Touch is a work that should definitely be seen close up. Her inspiration was ‘how a musician’s hand touches the keyboard and how the plectrum makes contact with the strings.’ How intimate and intricate is that? There are so many subtleties of gesture that get lost in seeing it from an upper balcony seat. Later, when I see the film of the original cast on the Siobhan Davies digital archive (see links), it is a revelation.

Harpsichord is not the easiest of instruments to listen to (Sir Thomas Beecham once likened its sound to two skeletons copulating on a tin roof), but there is a sumptuous quality to the playing by Carole Cerasi of five keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the specially commissioned Sette Canzoni of Matteo Fargion. Mathematics apart, the work is set in seven movements for seven dancers. Seeing the work close up on screen, the choreography is so rich and ripe it just bursts on to the stage from the first moment. Thrilling. It is difficult to know if the Rambert dancers are underplaying the subtleties of gesture, or if my own spatial perspective is the reason why what I see on stage is not what I see later on the screen. Not all is lost, however: in the second sonata duet you can feel the gentleness of his touch on her stomach, and in the solo in the third sonata (originally danced by the late Gill Clarke) there are beautiful arm movements, swaying behind the back and the head thrown back in abandon. When the buoyant Scarlatti ends and the reflective, introspective Fargion begins, there is a clear break, psychologically and choreographically. It doesn’t last long. In the following section there is a relentless volley of notes to which a line of dancers one behind the other bourré like a caterpillar on speed. There are spirited games, an element of madness and chaos, patterns flowing from one group to another, solos and duets, and a line wheeling around to a final diagonal, in which the movement seems caught in suspended animation.

The stage is beautifully set by David Buckland, reminiscent of a Paul Klee painting, the colour of reddish cork, and as soft. Now that I have seen the original cast, I notice the costumes have changed since those first performances; a turquoise waistcoat stands out as a vestige of Scarlatti himself. Even if the experience of seeing The Art of Touch from the Second Circle is frustratingly incomplete, it has led to an appreciation of the work through other means. This is the advantage of a digital archive.

When L’après midi d’un faune was first performed at Covent Garden, Diaghilev had made Les Ballets Russes the centre of artistic endeavour: he was determined to make the ballet a catalyst for all that was modern and exciting in the arts. Nijinsky was in his prime as a dancer and Faune was his first choreographic exploration. Crucially, he choreographed the faun on himself, with a cast of seven maidens to frame his erotic episode. Nijinsky’s reputation is always going to be an enigma to audiences today, but one person who saw him dance the faun, Cyril Beaumont, wrote in his memoirs: “Nijinksy’s Faun was a curious conception, a strange being, half human, half animal. There was little of the sprightliness, lasciviousness, and gaiety which legend has ascribed to such beings. There was something cat-like about his propensity for indolence and the elasticity of his slow, deliberate, remorseless movements. His features were set and expressionless, and did not change throughout the ballet. By this means he suggested the brute, the creature actuated by instinct rather than by intelligence. Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of Nijinsky’s portrait was this lack of emotion, all feeling being subjected to the exigencies of pure form.” If I hadn’t seen this quality for the first time in a dancer just last week, I would not have known what Beaumont meant. Dane Hurst has beautiful line and poise, but he has not that brutish quality. Faune is only superficially about turned-in lines and shapes; at its heart is the animal nature in pure form, something primeval. There is no notation that can capture that.

Mark Baldwin’s What Wild Ecstasy is his celebration of the centenary of L’après midi d’un faune and at the same time his response to it in terms of its outdoor nature, its ‘primal instincts and urges, fascinations and attractions.’ The score by Gavin Higgins suggests ‘Acid House music with its hedonistic home in the underground rave scene’ and the design by Michael Howells, dominated by a giant insect hanging above the stage, enhances both approaches: we see a wildly ecstatic dance in wildly colourful costumes from beginning to end. In the program notes, Baldwin writes about his fascination for the ritualized dance gatherings in his native Fiji and their ability to help ‘bond a community, bolster its individuals and act as a way of releasing tension.’ This is perhaps more true for the participants than for the onlooker, especially one seated so far away from the action.