Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Posted: April 28th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Swallowsfeet Festival 2017

Swallowsfeet Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 24-25

Swallowsfeet

Alicia Meehan and Gavin Coward in A Blighted Life (photo: Claire Nicolas Fioraso)

And you see a girl’s brown body dancing through the turquoise,
And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea.

These lyrics from Cream’s 1967 Tales of Brave Ulysses suddenly came to mind while I was thinking of Swallowsfeet Festival. Even if Hove faces the Channel and not the Mediterranean, there are both colourful and erotic elements in the heroic onboard fare that make you follow the footprint laid out for this fifth edition of the festival. Curated around themes of sexuality, gender, health and identity, eroticism is close to the surface in Masako Matsushita’s Un/Dressed and, with darker overtones, in Gil Kerer’s Between Us. You can’t miss the colour in Alice Labant’s installation, Current Biopsy, with painter Caroline Hands, or in Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, and there’s a heroic sense in Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, in the partnership of Iain Payne and Gabriel Moreno in The Howl of the Old Leopardi, in Jan Möllmer’s miniature epic, When You’re Smiling and in Joe Garbett’s spirited riposte to arts funding cuts in No.Company. Presented together over two days in a variety of locations within The Old Market, these works form a stimulating journey through which the white-overalled members of the Swallowsfeet collective guide the audience with dinner bells and semaphoric gestures. And if it’s all too much, down in the basement there’s Hamish McPherson’s Nonexistent Activity Outside The Capitalistic Time in which you can alternately relax and minister to the relaxation of others (if Ulysses was ever becalmed, this is where it happened). McPherson succinctly underpins all that is going on upstairs by suggesting that if we don’t care for each other the purpose of the arts has lost its way. Through its inclusivity, Swallowsfeet is more than a festival of international dance; it’s an event of human proportions in which dance, music and silence express contrasting aspects of the human condition.

With 280 submissions from 39 countries culled to nine performances, the collective has worked hard to produce a coherent and stimulating program on a small scale and a small budget. Perhaps because it is David to the region’s Goliath (the Brighton Festival), Swallowsfeet has failed four times in its last five applications for financial support from Arts Council England, but its dance programming is far more adventurous than its conservative relation further along the seafront. Swallowsfeet dips into areas that are rich seams for exploration even if the resultant works may hang on to their form by their fingernails; but in a festival setting this is preferable to the programming of rich formal works whose seams of exploration have long since been mined.

Take Iain Payne’s pairing with Gabriel Moreno. Both men are from Gibraltar, and while the sturdy Moreno lends his rich mellifluous voice and his guitar to songs and poetry, Payne is like an old bibliophile arranging books — the traces of his culture — around the island of his stage. He races forwards and backwards, slides and slips in his impatient race to keep abreast of history while Moreno’s voice is the rock of his stability. Payne builds a bridge of separate tomes to a cliff of books on which he balances precariously; but these are the very words Moreno keeps alive with his voice. The influence of the two men collides, producing the enigma of cultural identity.

Identity is at the heart of Gavin Coward’s A Blighted Life, more histrionic tableau than performative theme but its raw emotions, its African beat and vivid colours take us on a hedonistic journey with three dancers (Coward, Alicia Meehan and Patrick Ziza) with scarves, flags, cross dressing and undressing, high heels, and rubber car tyres. Grayson Perry is quoted in the program as saying, ‘Identity is an ongoing performance not a static state’ which is very much the nature of A Blighted Life, though it appears more permissive than blighted. The only suggestion of repressive homophobic attitudes comes through recorded commentary, which provides insufficient counterweight to the ebullience of the performance to make a political statement.

I saw Möllmer’s When You’re Smiling in the first-night performance on the paved area in front of The Old Market, where dancer Uwe Brauns mapped out a dance for two pairs of shoes. Using his hands inside the shoes he creates a soaring conversation between them and has them dance duets to Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. In a wonderful overlap of the imaginary and the substantive, the owner of the neighbouring house opens his door to see what is going on. A few minutes later Brauns calls someone’s name from another house but, disappointingly, nobody responds. Having traced a series of magical stories as mime and puppeteer, Brauns finally picks up both pairs of shoes and walks them back into the theatre.

In Current Biopsy, painter Caroline Hands could simply be recording Alice Labant’s performance, standing on the side of the stage, Chinese brush in a hand hovering over ink and paper, but she’s an integral part of the performance. She watches Labant who lies on a corner of the barroom floor like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, her eyes closed. When she opens them she impishly instructs us to close ours. Once opened again — with her permission — we see Labant kneeling then rising in a dress the colours of the sea. Current Biopsy is a danced improvisation that plays with sumptuously coloured textiles Hands has fashioned, brought alive by Labant’s effusive, swirling movement. The work is an experiment in using the dynamic body to set materials in motion but it is also the materials that frame the body’s fleeting form. Paradoxically Hands tries to capture it with sketch after sketch, paper flying to the floor while Labant’s brother Boris plays a musical reverie on guitar. As rich as the materials from which it arises, Current Biopsy celebrates a path of light and tangible beauty in both limited space and time.

There is more form in Gil Kerer’s Between Us through his use of the body’s sinuous psychology. A duet with Kerer and Alex Shmurak to a score by Ori Avni, Between Us is an intimate portrait with brutal overtones. Trained in Gaga, Kerer’s body manifests the shades of intimacy, from generous to possessive, and he can swing his moods without warning; Shmurak is part foil and part accomplice. This emotional uncertainty keeps tension in the work while the precision of the interaction between the two maintains a visceral dynamic.

I have written elsewhere about a previous manifestation of Joe Garbett’s No. Company. In addressing the problem of rehearsal and production costs constantly outweighing financial resources, Garbett has hit on an idea that resolves an aspect of the equation while being inherently alluring. Using as his creative input text messages from a number of choreographers working in pairs on social media, Garbett leaves the dancers’ imagination, humour and ingenuity to interpret the messages. Garbett himself provides only direction and enough studio time in which to put it all together. This time he has used three texts from three pairs of choreographers (Perrine Gontié, Elinor Lewis, Maria Lothe, Alice Labant, Amy Toner, and Connor Quill) to create two independent duets, one with Lorea Burge Badiola and Ellya Sam, the other with Jacob Bray and Richard Pye. There are some similarities in the two duets, performed separately, but the dancers’ animated response to the input gives the duets an improvisational freshness that makes them a joy to watch.

For Un/Dress, Masako Matsushita is dressed in nothing but a surfeit of underwear. The multiple layers only become visible as she lowers one after another (seventeen or eighteen in all) to form a long tube dress of bright colours and patterns. She already makes an art of dressing but with the undressing the cool perfection of her flesh suddenly freed from clothing is intense. And just at that moment the drone of the score changes pitch, embracing and underlining the act so effectively as if the music itself had been caught unawares by the transformation. Matsushita allows us to experience the state of undress as the obverse of dressing rather than as a reduction to nakedness. Billed as ‘a metaphorical performance that…becomes an inquiry into the role of clothing and body in modern society’, Un/Dress is an exquisitely controlled deconstruction that places the body and clothing on the same aesthetic plane.

Perhaps the most formal work of the festival is the main stage performance on Friday night of Marc Philipp Gabriel’s Ajima, focusing on solo performer, Maija Karhunen. The formality is in the presentation but the subject is a flight of fancy that ‘oscillate(s) between real and fake, private and public, quotidian and theatrical.’ Karhunen, who was born with glass-bone disease, guides us consummately through the irony of following a yoga instruction video by a lithe young woman on a New York rooftop with its drippingly spiritual commentary: “Try to release all the pressure you have accumulated in the past, all anger, all the concerns…Allow the light to penetrate into your spine; feel confident about yourself.” Karhunen, who has all the confidence one could wish for in a performance, fast forwards to a more palatable section until she calmly closes the laptop. Pulling out a gold lamé shirt and a fur stole from a small cardboard cupboard behind her, she takes on poses of an exotic dancer, constantly challenging the norms, calmly cranking open the gap between our expectations and hers to the point hers make just as much sense. She tells a joke but the humour is in her self-deprecating inability to remember the punch line; she defiantly dances on her back with her eloquent arms and hands reaching the musical crescendo, and she rolls herself up in her yoga mat and makes faces by pulling out the edges of her mouth. We are watching an expressive mind and body interacting powerfully with the audience. For a finale she reads our horoscopes like an oracle divining the augurs from a selection of items collected prior to the show from members of the audience. We want to believe her, but she doesn’t always reach her mark. She might not be a great oracle, but she commands the stage.

The Swallowsfeet Collective can be proud of this event; the works stand together and support each other within a format that allows experimentation while not being afraid to fail. The festival deserves more attention from national arts funding sources and from the dance development leaders up the road. Great art doesn’t always come from great venues or festivals, but arises where the circumstances are propitious. Swallowsfeet Festival fits the bill, and high attendance proved its attraction. In the hope it will continue its journey, it might be worth remembering that Ulysses managed to navigate the perils and temptations of his epic voyage home not only with his courage and tenacity but with a little help from the gods.


A preview of Swallowsfeet Festival

Posted: March 12th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , | Comments Off on A preview of Swallowsfeet Festival

Swallowsfeet Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 24-25

Swallowsfeet Festival promotional image (photo: Paul Seaby)

This article first appeared in the March edition of the magazine, Viva Brighton, who commissioned it. It appears here with the editor’s kind permission.

Billed as Brighton’s only platform for international contemporary dance in a city that hosts England’s largest arts festival, Swallowsfeet Festival embodies a culture of spirited resistance to the status quo. If one takes New York’s Judson Dance Theatre collective in the sixties as a point of departure, spirited resistance is what guides much of contemporary dance and since it uses the body as its primary instrument, its arguments are a form of physical discourse.

When Swallowsfeet Festival presents its program at the Old Market theatre on March 24 and 25, it will be celebrating its fifth outing. Some of the planned activities around the weekend have had to be put on hold following the failure of an Arts Council funding bid but the core program remains intact thanks to the pluck and conviction of the six-member Swallowsfeet Collective: Jessica Miller, Rosa Firbank, Jessica Léa Haener, Sivan Rubinstein, Gordon Raeburn and Harriet Parker-Beldeau.

They all met while studying contemporary dance at Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance in London but it was Miller who first grounded the performances of the collective in her native Brighton as an outlet for a group of Laban students to present their final works to an audience of friends and family. Just four years later the open callout for the 2017 festival has produced 280 proposals from 39 countries which the Collective has distilled to a program of nine works in the image of Brighton itself: edgy, diverse, challenging, and engaging.

Having narrowed down its 280 proposals, the Swallowsfeet Collective decided to include in the festival those that had, in the vocabulary of the physical, the possibility of the greatest impact on its audience, and the focus of these nine works coalesces around four predominantly physical themes: sexuality, gender, health and identity. At its best, contemporary dance picks up on issues of its time and transforms them through the body as voice.

Ironically, one of the works on the program, Joe Garbett’s No.Company, was conceived as a reaction to funding cuts for the arts. First shown at Emerge Festival in London, six choreographers in six different locations sent movement ideas, images and suggestions via text message to the two performers who then spent only two days in a borrowed space putting it all together. This is unheard of in the current funding matrix of rehearsal time and studio rental, but the result was fresh, immediate and magical. For Swallowsfeet Festival, Garbett is using a different score of text messages and is inviting two couples to interpret and perform two separate works from it; like musical improvisations, they will never be repeated. It might sound like a choreographic manifestation of a throwaway society, but the impression No.Company made when I first saw it was profound. It is this ability of contemporary dance to make the body speak, whisper and shout that has driven the Swallowsfeet Collective’s choice of all nine works on the program in March.

To book tickets for Swallowsfeet Festival and find out more about the events, go to

www.swallowsfeet.com/2017programme/


Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 19

Posted: December 5th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 19

Emerge Festival, Week 2, The Space, November 15-19

Joe Garbett and Jessica Haener in No. Company at Emerge Festival

Joe Garbett and Jessica Haener in No. Company at Emerge Festival

The appeal, not to mention the importance, of a festival like Emerge that presents new and experimental work by new and experimental choreographers, is the possibility of a work appearing on the program that stands out, that leaves a palpable trace or sensation. It doesn’t mean the work is ready to tour nationally or internationally but simply that it ushers in the possibility of new developments in choreography. Such innovations don’t necessarily require lots of money but they do need to be seen.

On each week of its two-week run, Emerge’s curator, Adam Towndrow of C12 Dance Theatre, has produced a single program of five works that is performed five times, and there is no connection between the works apart from their intrinsic interest. The little miracle happened in the second week. Most of the works involve a single choreographer but Joe Garbett coordinated eight (Jacob Bray, Daisy Farris, Chloe Mead, Joel O’donoghue, Hannah Parsons, Hannah Rotchell, Thea Stanton and Cornelia Voglmayr) in the work he conceived and directed, No.Company. It’s all about collaboration that keeps the collaborators out of the room, a choreographic form like remote surgery with the haptic feedback coming from the performers. It’s an interesting creative paradigm; choreographic ideas sent by text message — anything from a suggestion, to word play, to a precise instruction — from each of the choreographers and translated by the two interpreters, Garbett and Jessica Haener, into formal phrases. Garbett says the process of interpreting the texts and directing the finished work took three studio days.

‘Finished work’ might be an overstatement; with its fluid, interpretative basis, No.Company has the quality of an improvisation — albeit within restrictions — with the refreshing continuity of a spontaneous conversation replete with asides, pauses, connecting gestures and phrases. I saw it twice and the second time it had matured but not substantively changed. Garbett and Haener are relaxed together, freely and informally engaged in the moment without any indication they know what’s coming up next. Neither do we; the nature of the collaboration is eight unrelated subjects with eight unrelated soundtracks joined together to form a single discursive performance. But because Garbett and Haener are so engaging and the work so full of suggestion, we as an audience can draw our own conclusions like a directorial line. Paul Klee once described his doodles as taking his pencil for a walk; No. Company takes the body for a walk, and in its expressive articulation — even the pastel colours of their clothes help legibility — I have a sense of reading the choreography as it is written in space. Garbett’s governing idea is about the process of creation, but the result is that the eight creators and two translators, through some special alchemy, have created an intriguingly coherent work.

Also on the program is a reworking of Pomodoro by Alice Weber. It is a more powerful work than when I first saw it at Blue Cloud Scratch but Weber understandably skirts round the full horror of the experience that prompted it. It is a dark meditation on the vulnerability of the human body to trauma. Using the fragility of tomatoes as a metaphor is a stroke of genius but the potential menace of her conception is susceptible to psychological escape valves that leave the audience unsuspecting and the work unfulfilled. Weber shared the solo with Merritt Millman but even by detaching herself from the work through another interpreter, she maintains a safe distance from the subject.

The last time I saw a work by Rhiannon Brace (Baby), she was celebrating the birth of her son, Dylan; in The Last Dance On Earth she has jumped to the other end of the spectrum with the depiction a family living out its final day. Drawn from a reading of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, we meet the three generations of family sitting listening to the radio announcing the end of the world. Jay Jeyakumar has changed from a teddy-bear father in Baby to a stunned and confused one, but Mary Cox is still the smiling grandmother whose memories transform her movements into optimism. Brace herself is the mother, and Marta Polak the daughter who takes with her all the longing and pluck in her body. It’s a finely drawn characterisation that lifts the miniature work to a level of poignant urgency.

Paola Napolitano’s work on mental health, SELphOBiA, has far-reaching ideas that have not yet developed a coherent choreographic language to convey them, nor a setting in which to frame them. How do you convey emotional fragility through a body and mind that are strong and healthy? Napolitano’s imagery stays too much on the surface to convey the psychological depths she wants to explore. A straight jacket can point to a condition but does not in itself convey it, and Napolitano’s use of a broken mirror as a metaphor is similarly too literal; we should be looking through it rather than at it. I am reminded of those harrowing photographs by Richard Avedon of his sister and other inmates in a mental asylum: we see them through his lens and at the same time we feel the his emotional connection. In the theatre we are in effect behind the lens and it is only the physical language of the performer that can create that connection. No easy task, but there is more to unlock here.

By contrast, in Amy Foskett’s Through The Cottongrass the choreographic language dominates the narrative. Inspired by the beloved Swedish fairy tale, Princess Cottongrass, Foskett has created an episodic duet with Katherine Whale that picks up on the companionship of the princess and the elk in their magical journey through the forest. Of course in a theatre you can’t go very far, so the various stages of the duet rely for their effect on the quality of physical connection between the two dancers. Their duets create an ever more urgent but always precise and eloquent dynamic that is a pleasure to watch but the narrative basis of the work is only crudely tacked on to either end. The tale is certainly suitable for translation into dance but that, perhaps, is another project.

Just a final word to signal the heroic efforts of Edmund Sutton on the lighting desk and of Charlotte Tuckwood for her cameo performances in preparing the stage for each work.


JV2: Tomorrow

Posted: April 22nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

JV2: Tomorrow, The Place, April 5

photo: David Gerrard

photo: David Gerrard

JV2 consists of ten dancers from Europe and Asia who are studying for the Jasmin Vardimon Company Professional Development Certificate. Part of the course includes a series of seven performances that premiered at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury on March 19 and ends at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on April 27. ‘Our aim,’ writes Vardimon, ‘is to train and develop well-rounded stage artists in a variety of performance disciplines and at the same time enable them to develop their own creativity. By blurring the definitions between art forms and encouraging collaboration they will be able to create and present work in a new and engaging light.’

Vardimon chose these dancers at an open audition, and they have been working alongside the professional company as part of their course. Seeing them on stage, it seems that any one of them could move seamlessly into the main company, which makes the course rather like a 25-week audition for which the students pay college-level fees. It is an inspired business model (unique in England), an inspired pedagogical model, but as a model for an evening of dance it proves less alluring.

JV2 is in part ‘an ideal opportunity for participants to deepen their knowledge of Vardimon’s methodology’ and there is no better way than to perform her works. Vardimon has designed this triple bill specifically for this tour, creating one of her own — a collage of extracts from previous works called paradoxically Tomorrow — and commissioning two others: Mafalda Deville’s Silence and Tim Casson’s Chapter One. Both choreographers have danced in the main company and Casson is the course leader for the JV2 Certificate, while Deville is the director of the company’s Education Project. One would expect a strong stylistic influence on their work from Vardimon, but Silence and Chapter One bear such a close resemblance to each other and to Tomorrow as to take their creative exploration to a level somewhere between plagiarism and sycophancy. While this may be stimulating and beneficial to the students, the effect of the triple bill over the course of the evening is one of predictable surprise.

On the positive side, Vardimon’s work is always witty, visually stimulating and musically eclectic and her dancers never give less than their all. On the distaff side, the wit, visual stimulus and musical eclecticism can be formulaic, like an overused refrain. All three works have a similar juxtaposition of unison movement and solos, narrative diversions, textual humour, surreal imagery, the use of voice, the overuse of the tucked-up fourth position and an overtly punishing tic of dancers having to hurl themselves to the floor (a dancer’s career is fragile enough as it is).

Deville’s Silence opens with a white sheet entering as a rectangle and turning into a sofa stuffed with dancers. The story of a first date on a dance floor (former ballroom dancer Lawrence James is a powerful and engaging presence) morphs into a crowd of hysterical fans at a Marilyn Manson concert giving us the full range of their voices (Noriko Nishidate’s hysterics indicate a performer with boundless resources). Tchaikovsky’s Only the Lonely Heart changes the mood to a mourning procession at the head of which Nishidate is pulled around the stage on the white sheet like a figurehead or an angel of mercy. In the background a couple is struggling in their embrace: a rag doll girl who can’t stand up and a violent partner who picks her up and lets her fall through his arms repeatedly. Silence is billed as an exploration of loss and longing, but it is loss and longing seen through the prism of Vardimon’s methodology; it is carefully crafted, has all the Vardimon attributes, but it lacks a unique voice.

At the very beginning of his work, Casson reminds us wryly of a dominant aspect of the Vardimon style when Joe Garbett flies prostrate from the wings on to the stage in his boxing gloves and shiny shorts as if ejected forcefully from the ring. Casson explores the music of the American folktronica duo, The Books, bringing out its quirky theatrical imagery in the wittily titled Chapter One. There’s a girl with a talking flower in a pot, a couple in clear plastic raincoats, Aleksandra Jakovic with her pet goat, Maria Doulgeri with a squid in a plastic bag and Connor Quill in a raccoon hat. In between The Books’ songs, Casson explores gestural correlation with both the speech of an incoherent drunk and with upper class conversational interjections. Casson’s strength is in his attention to detail, creating an intricate work — perhaps the most original of the evening — though it tends to default to the Vardimon style when it comes to broad phrases of movement and ensemble work. Although all ten dancers share equally in the details of gesture and voice Casson calls for, Cornelia Voglmayr is the one who is most herself in this work.

Vardimon’s Tomorrow is made up of the past; it is the art of making a retrospective look like an entirely new work. While three of the original works (Park, Justitia and 7734) were conceived with an integral vision — the fourth, Yesterday, is itself a collage of past works — their fragmentation and reconstitution into a new work raises the question of what we are seeing: without the integral vision, what is left is a visual and aural stimulus. It is as if we are seeing the building blocks of Vardimon’s creative process, the very methodology that is at the heart of the Certificate course. Interestingly, even though both Deville and Casson have created integral works, the form they use is heavily influenced by this building block concept, which in turn is facilitated by the eclectic choice of music: Tomorrow allows room for John Fahey, Sparklehorse, Brian Eno, Deathprod, Wagner, Mozart and Spiderbait. Deville’s Silence has a more restrained menu of Einstürzende Neubauten, Marilyn Manson, and Tchaikovsky.

The predominating image in Tomorrow is the vision of a moulting angel (Vogelmayr) in white with an armful of feathers. A flush of other angels swish crabwise like a blizzard back and forth across the stage, accenting their steps with their breathing. Vogelmayr gets caught up in their movement as she advances, losing feathers to the stampede despite her efforts to protect them: a sacrifice of purity and innocence to the passing of troubled times. This is where the redemptive music from Wagner’s Tannhauser swells the heartstrings along with Sparklehorse’s It’s a wonderful life and the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem. The feathers become the leitmotif, but Vardimon’s unison patterns and crashing fourth position dominate the choreography like an army on the rampage. It’s an unequal competition and the feathers remain scattered on the stage at the end, the ephemeral remnants of something alive and pure.