Images Ballet Company

Posted: July 10th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Images Ballet Company

Images Ballet Company, Lilian Baylis Studio, June 13

(l to r) Briony Andrew, Courtney Reading, Eleonora Falovo, Maria Bruguet, Gwainn van der Bijl, and Jessica Harding in Liz Aggiss’s Scenes of Death and Disaster (photo: Billy Nichols)

Images Ballet Company is a showcase for the dancers who choose to specialize in classical ballet in their final year of professional training at London Studio Centre. The program at Lilian Baylis Studio tests this training in a broad spectrum of dance performance that challenges the students’ versatility and stretches their expressive abilities. While Artistic Director Jennifer Jackson’s own work of the evening, Distant Beauties, is the one work to merge classical technique with a classical image, Matthew Hart’s Concerto for Joyce and Dennis uses pointe work in a contemporary setting, and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s Handsfree uses classical articulation and elongation in an abstract work. Only Liz Aggiss, who comes from the august tradition of German Ausdruckstänz, makes the technique utterly subservient in her Scenes of Death and Destruction to a rich expressive approach to dance that just happens, in its irreverent approach to classical ballet structures, to deconstruct them with evident relish.

It might be said that this year-end showcase reflects the current prospects for students of classical ballet in this country and elsewhere, as Jackson is well aware (just consider Scottish Ballet’s recent program of works by Angelin Preljocaj and Crystal Pite). Her decision to include such a variety of styles will serve her dancers well as their comfort levels are tested from work to work. Shaun Reidman, the one male in the group, does not look entirely at home in Distant Beauties, but in Scenes of Death and Disaster he comes into his own as the figure of Death replete with black cloak and scythe. Eleonora Falovo carries the narrative in Concerto for Joyce and Dennis so convincingly as Joyce that she looks out through her eyes. This kind of transformation is at the heart of performance and Falovo’s natural ability to unite her technical ability with a high level of expressivity is a gift for dance narrative in whatever form it might take.

Jackson’s Distant Beauties is loosely based on the pas de six from the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, Sleeping Beauty with which she would have been familiar in her days as a soloist with the Royal Ballet. Rather than getting her dancers to execute Petipa’s choreography, Jackson models the steps on the capacities of her dancers and ascribes contemporary values to the six Fairies of integrity, independence, humility, talent, resilience and confidence. By choosing Tom Armstrong to adapt Tchaikovsky’s score for a viola and flute (played live on stage by Rosie Bowker and Henrietta Hill), she has created a sparse aural environment which the dancers have the chance to fill with their ensemble work and solos. Classical technique is notoriously difficult to execute well, and not all the dancers do justice to the steps but they maintain the spirit behind them. Maria S. Catalayud managed both in her variation with a confidence that is a pleasure to see.

One of the characteristics that gives unity to the evening is the way Bowker and Hill play through the pauses between works, transitioning from one musical style to another as they wander like minstrels on stage. It allows the huge social gap between the Russian Imperial court and a care home to be bridged effortlessly along with the sterling efforts of the crew to transform the stage.

The central character of Concerto for Joyce and Dennis is modeled on Hart’s own grandmother whose physical condition has rendered her housebound and subject to a carer (Reidman) who doubles as her late husband. The cast enters into this poignant portrayal of memory and friendship with conviction, though the ideas in this narrative work carry a weight well beyond the scope of this performance; it is full of short scenes and episodes that strike me as the seed of a musical in which a larger, more diverse cast could more realistically portray the disparity in ages and physical (dis)abilities.

Handsfree, to the eponymous body-percussion score by Anna Meredith, is a response both to the music and to the sculpture of Dorothea Tanning. Set in rectangles of light that Runacre-Temple seems to relish, Handsfree is a complex rhythmical exercise in which the four dancers (Falovo, Catalayud, Courtney Reading, and Jessica Harding) engage with the music and with each other in close partnership where they seem to listen to the music in each other’s bodies. The exhilaration from the dancing and from the score itself is palpable, though the work seems more weighted towards Meredith than Tanning, missing a sufficiently visual component to satisfy the eye.

The title of Scenes of Death and Disaster accurately describes the progression of Aggiss’s work, from Reidman’s slow, cold, majestic entrance as the figure of death to the seven women with disheveled hair complaining about male choreographers of classical ballets who portray women as weak with a propensity for untimely deaths. Musically it progresses from its music box introduction through sampling of the ballet classics of Giselle, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet to earthy gypsy tunes and Highland bagpipes. Its irreverence for the classical canon belies the rigorous construction of the work and the expressivity required of the dancers to make it work. And work it does, with ferocious wit and satire both in what it says and the way the entire cast says it. That Jackson has the pragmatism and insight to program this broad scope of work is testament to her stewardship of the company.


Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Posted: July 2nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Knowbody II, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, June 24

ELIXIR FESTIVAL at Sadler’s Wells, London, UK ; 22 June 2017 ; Credit : Johan Persson

Company of Elders in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here (photo: Johan Persson)

Something interesting has happened to the bipartite formula for Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir dance festival celebrating lifelong creativity. Three year’s ago, the main stage performance Knowbody I was clearly the headliner of the festival while the Extracts, based predominantly on community dance, were the supporting acts. This year the quality of Knowbody II has declined while the first evening of Extracts has shown a marked advance in mature amateur dance to a middle ground between community dance and the main stage. One of the reasons is that the current programming of Elixir has not reflected what has been happening in mature dance in the intervening three years, both in this country and in Europe. Despite Sadler’s Wells membership of the large-scale, EU funded co-operation project, Dance On, Pass On, Dream On (DOPODO), that nine dance institutions from eight countries have developed to address ageism in the dance sector and in society, this year’s Elixir has the same format, some of the same performers, and the same division between professional and amateur companies as before. While the inclusion of Berlin’s Dance On Ensemble (a professional company for the over-40s) and some amateur performances from Holland, Germany and Denmark in the Extracts are welcome, it is a shame that Charlotta Öfverholm’s company Jus de la Vie, a signatory of the DOPODO agreement, could not be included on the main stage event this year. Öfverholm’s presence alone would have countered the tiresome absurdity of Annie-B Parson’s The Road Awaits Us and the misplaced, if respectful inclusion of Robert Cohan’s Forest Revisited. And if Elixir is addressing ageism in dance, why are such artists as Wendy Houstoun and Liz Aggiss, who are battling on the same front, missing from the lineup for the second time? But there is a much larger question that Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship Company of Elders raises that remains to be resolved.

There is a fundamental but vitally important distinction between presenting age on stage and celebrating age on stage. To watch Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely on the main stage in Mats Ek’s Axe is to celebrate the unique contribution of the mature performer, and the same is true of the performance by Holland Dance of Jérôme Meyer and Isabelle Chaffaud’s My tasteful life in the first program of Extracts. It is not the difference between amateur and professional that counts but the degree to which performers can project their maturity in all its richness and complexity. This doesn’t happen, however, in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here, choreographed for Company of Elders as part of Knowbody II; it opens promisingly with a wash of crimson costumes in glorious light but descends quickly to a composition of seated dancers waving arms, and such is the design of the chairs and the way the dancers are seated that a comparison with wheelchairs is unavoidable. This is a display of age dressed in glorious costumes and lights where the individuality of the dancers is replaced, in formal terms, by the identity of the group. If someone of Jeyasingh’s creativity cannot make a work on Company of Elders that celebrates their age, there is a problem. Perhaps the makeup of the company means she has had to create on the abilities of the weaker members to the detriment of the expressivity of the stronger ones, but no work of value can ensue from this compromise and the notion of a flagship company for mature dance sinks with it. For all the advantages Company of Elders receives as the Sadler’s Wells resident performance group for the over-60s — working with renowned choreographers, a highly visible platform, touring and high production values — its qualities are no more developed than its counterparts in Brighton, Ipswich, East London and Greenwich (all of whom were presented next door in Extracts). It would seem the opportunities laid at Company of Elders’ feet are being exploited rather than fully realised. Auditions may be one way forward and a re-selection of current members according to ability. And if Sadler’s Wells wants Company of Elders to share the main stage with professional dancers, shouldn’t they, too, be paid?

Another feature of this edition of Elixir that compromises its value is the presence of so many young dancers on the main stage program. Pascal Merighi, who choreographed a solo for Dominique Mercy at the last Elixir has for this one created a duet for Mercy and his daughter, Thusnelda. Why? In Forest Revisited, some of the dancers who once performed Robert Cohan’s Forest (Kenneth Tharp, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, and Christopher Bannerman, joined by a younger Paul Liburd) are seen teaching it to a new generation. Is Elixir becoming an intergenerational festival? Artistic director Alastair Spalding describes Elixir as ‘an evening featuring choreography created and danced by older artists’ while his programmers seem to be doing something else. What Extracts has confirmed, however, is that works for mature dancers are gaining in quality and interest; hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years for the next edition of Elixir festival to see mature dancers in a new category of work that is currently coming of age.


Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle

Posted: June 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle

Liz Aggiss, Slap & Tickle, Brighton Concert Hall, May 20

Liz Aggiss in Slap & Tickle (photo: Holly Revell)

Liz Aggiss in Slap & Tickle (photo: Holly Revell)

When I read Ian Abbott’s review of Liz Aggiss’s Slap & Tickle and took in the publicity image of a lascivious Aggiss astride a lit fluorescent tube on a red leather armchair, the two together confirmed an image of the show: irreverent, funny, and ripe with sexual innuendo. ‘Slap and tickle’, after all, is a British euphemism for foreplay. However, when I saw the show at the Brighton Festival soon after, these elements were framed in something altogether darker than I had imagined, with more bite.

Aggiss grew up ‘in a repressive era’ in a post-war Essex suburb, but she uses dance imagery that belongs to the 1930s Expressionism of the Weimar Republic and its satire of bourgeois values. We hear signature tunes from family BBC radio programs of the 50s whose naivety is cut through by the sexual politics of a later generation. ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’, she croons the beginning of Listen With Mother. ‘Well, it’s going to get worse.’ She strips back the dark underbelly of social mores and then rescues us from her gleeful dissection with her bawdy humour. Get Aggiss on a bad day, however, and Slap & Tickle would be murderously toxic.

But this evening she’s on her irreverent best behaviour. She even treats us to party games in the brief interludes between acts; the lucky winners of pass-the-parcel unwrap a yellow scarf with the printed black outline of a cock on it. There’s much penis envy among the losers. While playing pass-the-balloon the recorded voice of Emma Kilbey encourages us to rub them on our legs, or stuff them up our jumpers. ‘Let’s have a party’, insists Aggiss, and we do.

According to Aggiss’s trenchant text in the beautiful program booklet designed by Nerea Martinez de Lecea, ‘Slap & Tickle is a solo performance in three acts that decodes, in a disorientating display of contradictions, interpretations and propaganda: girls, ladies, women, mothers, pensioners and senior citizens.’ Pointing obliquely to the fact that when you get to be a pensioner or senior citizen your gender is considered superfluous, Aggiss, at the age of 63, is proof of the lie. She leads her female audience to revolt: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Well, you shouldn’t be.’ And she means it.

The three acts of Slap & Tickle roughly follow three stages of sexual emancipation, from the ‘world of child’ in which ‘answers…are merely guidelines’ through the dismemberment of ‘romanticism, dominant narratives and social codification’ of adolescence, to the exhilarating realm where ‘puritan ethics and codes are banished’ and ‘wearing a tail, a red hat and no knickers is de rigeur.’ Aggiss has spent her life preparing this work and it is in the editing of her material that she manages to concentrate that experience in such a rich, seamless format. Like the collage work of Hannah Hoch (whom Aggiss cites as an influence), her consummate skill in choosing which element to superimpose on, or juxtapose with another makes her allusions and metaphors subversively and disturbingly entertaining. At the beginning of the first act she enters regally in a voluminous golden dress, her head hidden under a Vogue-ish gourd. She opens a fold of the dress to reveal a cloth doll that she drops repeatedly and dispassionately on the floor before discarding it. She raises the hem of her skirt to reveal one glass slipper and performs an expressive arm dance to Mrs Mills on the piano and professes shyness as she raises the hem of her dress further to reveal bare white legs with a whiff of permissiveness. Then she huffs and she puffs and sings the line about the old lady who swallowed a fly as she slips out of her dress to reveal ample knickers from which she retrieves bits of padding, coins and a number of ping pong balls. If she’s not slapping us out of our social servility she’s tickling our desire for moral clarity. ‘All instincts that do not find a vent without’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘turn inwards…’ Aggiss spent a childhood turning inwards; now is the time to ‘vent without’, challenging ‘expectations of what a mature female dancing body should be doing, why she should be doing it, and where it should be done.’ Just as she uses her subversive brand of vaudeville to articulate suppressed instincts, her dance takes inner movements and turns them into outward form — the Ausdruckstänz, or expressionist dance of Mary Wigman. Her rendition of Klaus Nomi singing The Cold Song in a black and white costume reminiscent of Nomi’s own signature suit, is not only beautifully crafted but is consistent with her theme of bringing the body into line with the unfettered mind: ‘…the body and voice are tethered by an invisible umbilical vocal cord that swings abruptly through buried truths and nasty realities, whilst simultaneously and repeatedly slamming against the on/off button.’ It’s a battle, ‘push and pull’, and if it gets too much, ‘Let’s all go down the Strand – Have a banana!’ Foreplay has turned into punishment and reward.

Slap & Tickle engages fully with the audience in the music hall tradition so that however dark the material Aggiss finds a way into our minds with her irreverent humour and makes us laugh at our own wobbly moral compass. She has travelled a resolute path for the last 40 years and has emerged with ‘the determination to maintain female visibility, to snatch the dance performance space from the clutches of youth, and to contextualize the stage with a content driven world that speaks to and for other generations…’ ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Well it’s going to get a lot better.’

 

Liz Aggiss will be performing Slap & Tickle at The Place on June 17 and 18 at 8pm.  


Vincent Dance Theatre: Motherland

Posted: October 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Vincent Dance Theatre, Motherland, The Point, October 11

Andrea Catania and Benita Oakley

Life is a messy business, starting, as Charlotte Vincent does in Motherland, with menstruation. Aurora Lubos, elegantly dressed in black evening wear and high heels walks on to the bare, white stage with a bottle of red wine. She unscrews the top and slops it against the pristine backdrop at seat level: a dripping red splash. She puts down the bottle, hitches up her tight skirt and slides her back down the wall until she is sitting over the red stain. She remains there for a moment looking at us, challenging us to accept what she is representing. Soon after, an exhausted Andrea Catania walks in and collapses on the floor, like a bag from which the wind has been suddenly removed. Patrycja Kujawska walks across the back playing an elegy on her violin for the two women. It is a sequence that repeats throughout Motherland, Vincent’s examination of ‘the complex internal and external relationships that women have with their bodies, with their sense of self and with men.’ The latter are represented a few seconds later by a carefree Greig Cooke who walks on with his bottle of wine, smiles at us as he unscrews the top and takes a swig before continuing on his way.

I heard a little of Vincent’s pre-performance presentation in the theatre lobby by four young women reading and declaiming their hopes and determinations for their future growth. One of them mentioned a desire to be equal to men, to be respected in society for who she is. It reminded me of a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe: women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition. In other words, if men and their example are simultaneously a benchmark of success and a target of criticism, being equal to men carries within it a paradox. In Motherland, however, Vincent has no truck with this paradox, destroying it in one blow by altering the creation myth: once Eve is with child, Adam is transformed into the serpent. In a form that is somewhere between a modern-day morality play and a cabaret, Motherland, written by Vincent and her co-writer Liz Aggiss, with the collaboration of dramaturg, Ruth Ben-Tovin, sees the sexual revolution from an unashamedly female point of view, and for men it is a wakeup call.

Vincent states in the program that Motherland is driven by sex, birth and death, though death takes up very little space compared to sex and birth. A principal leitmotif in the work is the association of female fertility with that of the land.  The two are embodied by Lubos with a bellyful of earth hitched high up in her skirt that she empties on to the floor at intervals throughout the work: more mess. This earth becomes the land that Andrea Catania is toiling to nurture, like countless women around the world. At one point the entire cast joins in a ritual fertility dance to the accompaniment of Scott Smith on guitar singing Ready for Green. As Smith sings of ‘sowing the seeds of joy’ Cooke is screwing Catania on the ground. Making love might be stretching the imagination too far: the fertility cycle is in progress, but Catania is soon abandoned by Cooke, crawling off unnoticed to a corner of the stage next to a blackboard on which Cooke had written MOTHER in big letters. Vincent is not sparing on the irony.

Another, more urban illustration of the fertility cycle shows Lubos and Janusz Orlik arriving for a picnic, with a hamper and the Sunday paper. They relax on the grass, but instead of reading, Orlik takes prodigious amounts of cotton wool from the hamper and stuffs it under Lubos’s dress to a high-decibel distress signal played by Alexandru Catona on a gong. Lubos screams in pain. Kujawska appears holding up a speaker through which we hear applause. Orlik stuffs more cotton wool into Lubos’s expanding dress. She screams again and there is more applause, after which everybody takes a bow. Orlik’s newspaper is now stained with blood. Lubos pushes away both Orlik and Catona (more canned applause) and she takes a solo bow. She kisses Orlik and runs off. The applause continues.

Although men are an integral part of the fertility cycle, their social role comes in for particular censure in Motherland. Consider the depiction of carefree Cooke when he pulls down his zip and knowingly extracts his…banana. He peels it and eats it with gusto: no need to look up Freud’s interpretation. Retribution comes to Robert Clark when he opens his wooden box and pees into it; he carelessly closes the lid on his dick and screams in agony. Pulling out a blackened banana from his flies he begins to eat it, but loses his appetite.

Elsewhere, men are depicted as sleazy purveyors of sexual innuendo in the Manhood Music sequence, and generally as congenital misogynists who take advantage of women for their own pleasure and gratification. While it is the women in Motherland who punch their emotional weight, only the men dance. Cooke dances as if he is the master of his destiny, a charismatic charm offensive with his elaborate reverence and sleight of hand, but he is unaware that he moves in a series of hesitations; nothing is fully realised, and in his eyes is a look of perplexity. This contradiction is expressed after he plants Catania in the earth when he says excitedly to her: ‘I’m in control. I’m here for you right now’ after which he immediately abandons her. Only Clark is allowed any signs of compassion towards women. His duet with Lubos has a tenderness that is perhaps the one concession that men can behave with respect towards women. Not even this, however, can save the three men later from crawling like serpents through the earth on their way to hell.*

Robert Clark and Greig Cooke

Men playing women get more sympathetic treatment, as Orlik performs a drag routine that has Janowska applauding again. (When she attempts the same routine a little later, she ironically raises no laughter and no applause). Two men who play a rather privileged if tainted role in Motherland are Catona and Smith, the two-man band of troubadours, clowns and accomplished instrumentalists that adds both a lyrical and poignant element to the tableaux, making Vincent’s uncompromising stance more palatable. What lends this polemic of the sexes an air of authority, however, is the introduction of two key characters: 12-year-old Leah Yeger, through whose eyes the world of men and women is filtered and absorbed, and 75-year-old Benita Oakley, whose accumulated experience provides a sense of perspective and dignity.

Yeger is the one who arrives at critical moments in Motherland to question her colleagues, and thus forces them (and us) to examine what they are doing and why. It is her simplicity and lack of antagonism to either sex that brings people together. She tames Clark, who protects her and it is she who signals a truce to the (hilarious) slow-motion battle of the sexes (in which Catona excels as a victim of the invincible Kujawska), and rallies everyone together for a rousingly beautiful rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s children’s song, Why Oh Why.

Oakley’s contribution is based on her own experience. She begins her story lying on her side on the earth, with her head propped on a brown velvet pillow. Smith gives her a microphone and then accompanies her story on guitar with Catona on harmonica. She talks of her first pregnancy in 1956 and the difficulties she faced being unmarried. Lubos is making baby gurglings into the microphone on the other side of the stage. As the baby girl is born prematurely, she is taken away from her mother until she becomes stronger; Oakley cannot stay with her. She sleeps in the open but visits her baby regularly to give milk, until she can take back her baby with her. Oakley is dignified and calm, and every word has the unadorned simplicity of truth. After she finishes her story, she crawls back with slow deliberation to stuff the cushion back in its box, and carries it off like a memory.  The second part of her story occurs a little later. She outlines her mouth with imaginary lipstick, pulls out her long silver hair, remembering how beautiful she was (without realizing how beautiful she is), feeling her figure and stomach. She relates the births of her next two children, in 1957 and exactly twenty years later. Both daughters are in the audience.

The function of a morality play is not to preach as much as to encourage or actively promote reflection on our present condition. There is much to be done, and many pitfalls still to negotiate, like the relation between wanting to be attractive and becoming an object of attraction and confounding a product with its advertising values. As Yeger says at one point, ‘It’s not about the look; I’m a person.’ The presence of Yeger prompts a reflection on the future and Oakley’s story shows that what she has experienced has been happening for longer than we care to remember.

The piece ends as it begins, with its charismatic cast of characters parading on to the stage, with the men looking a little the worse for wear. Have we learned anything from what we have seen? The ultimate success of Motherland depends on it.

Motherland is currently on tour. See www.motherland.org.uk for details.

* I have amended this paragraph after seeing Motherland again in London in November. Its emotional coherence made the balance between men and women clearer.