Posted: April 11th, 2017 | Author: Ian Abbott | Filed under: Rehearsal | Tags: Alice Sheppard, Brewband, Graeme Smillie, Jill O'Sullivan, Marc Brew, Marta Masiero, Martyn Garside, Peter Kelly | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Marc Brew: Building His Brewband
Building The Brewband…Marc Brew at Renfrew Town Hall, Renfrew, January 19 and 20
Marta Masiero and Alice Sheppard rehearsing Brewband (photo: Ian Abbott)
I am a Marc Brew Company writing roadie, invited into the studio as Marc continues the creative process developing his new work BREWBAND. The company describes the work as, ‘Scotland’s new super band — that blurs boundaries and challenges people’s perception of identity.’ BREWBAND is being created in the glorious, high-ceilinged Renfrew Town Hall by award-winning choreographer Marc Brew and brings together the musicians Graeme Smillie (Unwinding Hours/The Vaselines), Jill O’Sullivan (BDY_PRTS/Sparrow And The Workshop), Peter Kelly (Galchen/The Kills) with dancers Martyn Garside (San Francisco Ballet), Marta Masiero (Scottish Dance Theatre) and Alice Sheppard (Axis Dance Company).
The first week is primarily about building confidence and trust between the performers; Marc is consistently asking them to go to places that are unfamiliar but the way he holds the studio and frames the workshop tasks is supportive and this checking in — asking if everyone is OK and making time for care — reaps enormous creative rewards.
Even the trio of post-rock musicians are involved in the physical exercises. None of them has encountered zip-zap-boing and blindfolded touch exercises before but immerse themselves fully before offering these responses: “In the blindfold exercise I was tracing lines on Martyn’s body — it was like a constellation; I was totally buzzing and decided to throw myself in and say touch me, pull me,” and “Being touched on the face is so unexpected; I use my fingers a lot but never really think about them — this is about bringing attention to our body.” This physical and emotional bonding acts as a shortcut and is right out the MIT leadership guide to building a new team; Brew ensures the mission, goals, rules, language and communication are clear and open which leads to a happy and productive team.
Graeme is the only musician who had participated in the first research period in 2015 and offers a thread back to some of the original thinking: “Collaborations are really fertile ground for me because we’re trying new things, challenging habits, and with the introduction of Jill it adds really strong vocals into the band which we didn’t have before. In the improvs I have to be more comfortable about not always trying to remember everything all the time as it isn’t important at this stage; it’s allowing room for experimentation but trying to get that feeling/energy back when it comes to the making.”
The creative tasks involved in the presentation of dance challenged Jill’s preconceptions: “I had some trepidation before the project started. There’s something in musicians, we play in the dark in dingy places and don’t have people looking at us. Marc commented that a lot of musicians have hair that covers their face and I suppose we do. What we’re doing with our bodies here is nothing like I’ve done before. I thought I was fit, but I’ve discovered new muscles that ache at the end of the day and it’s shattered my preconceptions of what dance is in a great way. When I see a dancer respond immediately and physically to what I’m playing — which is really unusual — it makes me play better as I am not only aware of myself, the song and other musicians but of the dancers as well. I’ve already noticed after 4 days that I’m a better musician because of this process.”
In creating BREWBAND there was some discussion from the musicians around repetition; how their bodies default to certain positions whilst playing a song 50 or 60 times before it’s familiar. Humans encounter a lot of repetition in daily routines; familiar faces, habits and pathways enable a certain level of comfort. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, has spent time investigating why repetition has a profound effect on us: ‘One of the reasons this kind of repeat exposure can cause an earworm to burrow in our mental soundtrack is because repetition actually changes the way we listen to music. Repetition changes the way we orient to sound and it tends to draw us into a participatory stance so that we’re imagining the next note before it happens.’
Repetition makes us listen and see things differently; it offers a chance to pay more attention to the nuances and subtleties in the choreography and composition as we are no longer occupied with just trying to process the main melodic or visually harmonic content. Each day Jill led a short vocal warm up mixing do-re-mi scales, lip-rippling-exhausted-horse exercises and joint head humming all the while stressing the importance of not over-warming up the voice: 10 minutes is often enough. After the warm-up ended it melted into a rich and unforeseen vocal improvisation; with Bjork’s Unravel playing, Alice began riffing in and out of the melodies before passing the mic to Martyn who brought acres of emotion and richness into the speakers. 15 minutes later there was a set of material that was stage ready, demonstrating the mutual trust and each person’s ability to respond to the delicate energies in play.
The structure of each day focused on a morning of skills development and bonding, working towards a creative something in the afternoon which may or may not make it into the final work. Peter offered an insight into how Marc created this mutually supportive environment: “When you join a new indie or rock band there are some salty road dogs who’re in their 60s, on cocaine every night and part of a clique. Here everyone is equal, slightly unsure but also so encouraging. I don’t think about each limb doing different things when I’m on the drums — you’d just fall apart if you did. You zone into it. We did this exercise with a deconstructed drum kit spinning on risers; playing was almost dizzying and a little like Tommy Lee from Motley Crue where he’s in the cage upside down in the audience. We’re working out how all the fills, flourishes and the ends of the tracks work, as well as working out how people work together. Touching strangers sober isn’t something you normally do.”
The shared musical palette of Mogwai, Nils Frahm and Godspeed You! Black Emperor offer a clear set of influences from which the music burrows under your skin and when they played live for the first time in rehearsal their movements — if you removed their instruments — were so compelling to watch. Melodies, rhythms and time signatures pulse through bodies: their physicality is mesmerising and BREWBAND is building.
Posted: March 18th, 2016 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Performance | Tags: Andy Hamer, Claire McCue, For Now I Am, Jamie Wardrop, Marc Brew | Comments Off on Marc Brew, For Now I Am
Marc Brew, For Now I Am, Lilian Baylis Studio, March 10
Marc Brew in For Now I Am (photo: Susan Hay)
There is not a wheelchair in sight. The setting of Marc Brew’s For Now I Am is prior to any suggestion of a wheelchair, when the idea of a wheelchair was just too optimistic. This is the morning Brew woke up in hospital following a car crash that left two of his friends dead and one still struggling for life in a ward above him. His body is draped in a white sheet and doctors are still analyzing his injuries. We see projected an image of clouds scudding across the sheet that become ominously darker until they are replaced by a white grid. A glaring scan runs from bottom to top and top to bottom; an X-ray of Brew’s spine is projected on to his supine form. The clinical tests and the body’s stillness are eerie; under the giant sheet on the Lilian Baylis stage is not an actor but the person who underwent that unimaginable experience. In the nineteen years since then Brew has travelled further than he ever expected as a dancer and along the way has sublimated those memories and experiences into a performance. This evening is the second part of a proposed trilogy that began with Remember When in 2008. The figure ‘eight’ in Chinese characters signifies ‘open’, so both the first and the second parts of the trilogy eight years later fall at propitious moments when Brew evidently feels open enough to talk about life before and after the accident. For Now I Am occupies the time immediately after, a time when the promise of the future was not clear, when his damaged and broken body was a battlefield of conflicting emotions. It is not hard to feel that the work is as much a memorial to his three fellow passengers as it is a memory for him. He points upwards not towards heaven but to the ward above where the only other survivor of the crash eventually succumbed to her injuries.
The production of For Now I Am constitutes an elaborate and rather beautiful metaphor for healing — ripples of water in both Jamie Wardrop’s projections and Claire McCue’s score — which Brew fills with an almost Butoh-like range of slow, precise and considered movements — part visualization and part exploration of his physical boundaries. The result of his spinal cord injury at C6/C7 was a paralysis from the chest down, and at first even the mobility of his hands and arms was affected. Such a simple task as placing each finger against the thumb was a mark of progress. The achievement of the staging is to draw us into this minute scale of attention that Brew experienced in the early days of rehabilitation. The silk sheet is pulled back to reveal first his head and shoulders; from underneath he brings out one arm and in Andy Hamer’s careful lighting we watch the smallest of movements, one finger at a time, take on a poignant significance. One can sense the achievement of clasping an elbow and raising it above his head or the frustration of beating his chest with his fists. The range of upper body movement grows; in lighter moments his arms and shoulders are eloquent as they converse with one another like the necks of two swans and in darker ones he transforms a symbol of prayer into a gun and grabs his head in despair. Gradually his body emerges like a chrysalis from its cocoon, a metaphor Brew understands only too well. His fingers walk up his vertebrae with the clinical calculation of a surgeon; we are watching the process of rebirth and regeneration after the operations to repair his spine. His shaven head atop his spare, muscular upper body seated on a sheet of white silk has connotations of a meditative practice, or simply of the willpower to overcome and ultimately to find the opportunity in his disability.
The title of the work is itself an indication of Brew’s acceptance of his condition and as a performer he is revealing his body for the first time to the gaze of the public as he once did involuntarily to the doctors and surgeons in hospital. For Now I Am is a performance of his acceptance. From his seated position he moves around the stage and around himself in a series of spirals, gathering in the silk sheet like a coiled throne until he arrives at a point of composure and self-control. What Brew does next is a transference in the dark of his seated body to one that is suspended upside down by his ankles and raised above the ground. It is a dramatic inversion, not only physically but conceptually. It may well be a clinical view of the broken body, an unsentimental acceptance of his material condition, but at the same time it is the one movement in the performance Brew has not had to fight with his extraordinary patience and courage to control.
For a recent interview with Marc Brew, click here.
Posted: March 4th, 2016 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Interview | Tags: Alistair Spalding, Andy Hamer, Claire McCue, Evelyn Glennie, For Now I Am, Jamie Wardrop, Kitty Lunn, Marc Brew, Ruth Mills | Comments Off on An interview with Marc Brew
An interview with Marc Brew
Marc Brew (photo: Andy Ross)
How does a dancer in the formative stages of his performing career deal with an accident that leaves him paralysed from the chest down? Marc Brew had trained at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School in Melbourne, then at the Australian Ballet School where he performed as an extra in Australian Ballet productions. His first professional engagement at the age of 18 was with P.A.C.T. Ballet in South Africa but it was there that he was involved in a car accident in which three of his friends were killed. Waking up in hospital with a white sheet over his body he learned that his spinal chord injury at C6/C7 meant he would never again have the use of his legs. “At first I was in denial. I thought, just get me back to Australia and into the gym again and I will be fine,” he laughs. Initially he was not able to move his hands but a lot of muscle strength came back to his shoulders and arms. Rehabilitation proved to be a whole identity shift. “I had to reassess what a dancer was. For me a dancer had to be on his legs, turned out in the hips. I had to stop looking in the mirror.” Brew had a lot of friends who wanted to get him back into a studio. In class one day a couple of dancers in New York came across a young woman who rolled into the studio in her wheelchair. “They jumped on her,” laughs Brew, “and told her all about me.” This was Kitty Lunn, whose career had been similarly interrupted after breaking her back in a fall. As she later wrote, “What I learned was that the dancer inside me didn’t know or care that I was using a wheelchair, she just wanted to keep dancing.” This was the kind of encouragement Brew needed and he travelled to New York to work with her and the company she founded, Infinity Dance. “I had to find a way to translate and adapt my former technique to my present body,” he recalls. “A year after the accident I was still thinking what my legs and feet would be doing.” However, the chair work, floor work and contact improvisation he worked on led him down the path of contemporary dance. Since then Brew has been dancing, choreographing, teaching and speaking around the world.
Brew had always been encouraged to choreograph since his school days. Within two years of his accident he was back in a studio creating and teaching and he hasn’t stopped. “I feel I have come full circle in regard to my practice. Before my accident I set work from my own body but after it my work was more task based. Now I am going back to generating my own material. I teach it to dancers and see what they do with it; then I direct it to bring it all together…My disability has helped inform the way I work…It was strange to work recently with Scottish Ballet. Instead of giving directions for the legs, I would give them upper body directions and let them sort out what they would have to do with their feet… All my ballet training is still there. It’s in my arms. Line, placement and shapes are still there. I just have to find new ways of exploring movement.”
In 2008 Brew created Remember When, the first work of a planned trilogy and at Sadler’s Wells in March he will present the second part, For Now, I Am. Introducing the personal pronoun into the latter title suggests a change in his attitude towards his disability. “I have reached a point of acceptance, which for me means being whole. I love my body as it is now. This is the first time in 18 years that I am showing my body, allowing people to explore it as if it were being examined on the hospital table. I am giving permission to everyone to explore.” Brew started the creative process wanting to explore the notion of being broken. He analysed his body by looking once again in the mirror, coming to terms with being both broken and becoming whole. Through Jamie Wardrop’s video projections, Andy Hamer’s lighting design and Claire McCue’s musical score he uses the analogy of water as an element of ritual cleansing. He also uses X-rays and scans to map his accident, finding a new freedom in working through those painful memories. “With rehearsal director Ruth Mills, I am able to talk about it now. I feel I am moving through it, like a chrysalis being born…Acquiring a disability is different from being born with a disability. Before the accident I was Marc and I still am. I am comfortable with having a disability; I claim ownership over it… Disability creates different possibilities. I hope other people see it in the same way. That’s what I find difficult, how other people view disability…It’s great that Sadler’s Wells is supporting my work and finding ways of communicating the human condition to the audience.”
What about the third part of the trilogy? Brew smiles. “I have some ideas. Maybe the last performance will be my funeral.” More laughs. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour.”
For Now, I Am is at Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 March before embarking on a national tour. The evening is a dual presentation of movement and words, illuminating distinctive artistic practice, entitled Dance & Dialogue. On Thursday 10 March, renowned percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and Marc Brew compare creating, performing, and collaborating in their respective art forms. On Friday 11 March, Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells’ Artistic Director and Chief Executive, will be in conversation with Marc Brew on creating dance that reflects life experience.
Posted: May 24th, 2014 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Performance | Tags: (i)land, A Sense of Beauty, Arc Dance, Caroline Bowditch, Conversations with Dystonia, Deaf Men Dancing, Falling in Love with Frida, Guy Hoare, Integrated Dance Summit, Kate Marsh, Louise Bennetts, Marc Brew, Mark Smith, Nick Bryson, Noëmi Lakmeier, Rachel Gomme, Robin Dingemans, Stopgap Dance Company, Susie Birchfield, The Awakening, The Point at Which It Last Made Sense, Welly O'Brien, Yvonne Strain | Comments Off on The Integrated Dance Summit
The Integrated Dance Summit, presented by Pavilion Dance South West and Foundation for Community Dance at Pavilion Dance, May 16-17
Rosa Vreeling and James O’Shea in The Point At Which It Last Made Sense (photo: Chris Nash)
Integrated Dance — loosely defined in this context as the participation of able-bodied and less able-bodied dancers in a single performance (think of the analogy with Charles Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra performing with Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics Closing Ceremony) — is a genre that runs the gamut from fully integrated to polarized with subtle gradations in between. A lot of discussion at the Summit devolved, not unsurprisingly, around the contribution of integrated dance to the efforts to improve health and social services, its potential to engage audiences, and its ability to raise awareness of the phenomenal contribution of the disabled in society — aspects I came to appreciate more fully over the course of the forums. But when it came to looking at the performances with a critical eye, I looked beyond these aspects to the visual, psychological and emotional levels that lead me into a work or out of it. After all, these are not works about disability but about the ability of each performer to surmount their restrictions to create something that inspires. The performances that achieved this were those that effectively dissolved the barriers between able and disabled.
Both Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and The Point At Which It Last Made Sense by Robin Dingemans and Nick Bryson fall into this category. If the former is fully integrated, the latter goes one stage further by using James O’Shea’s powerful upper body (he is a Paralympic swimmer) and handsome beachcomber head to extrapolate the satire on marketing to a surreal level. Rosa Vreeling is O’Shea’s sensuous companion basking in self-adulation, while Nick Bryson’s dry humour as political commentator keeps the whole structure hanging irreverently in the air. Add understated costumes by Louise Bennetts, a clarity of vision from Guy Hoare’s lighting, marketing photos by Chris Nash that eloquently describe the work without need of words, and the package is irresistible. There’s a score, too, by Alessandro Bosetti but my eyes were so busy my ears couldn’t keep up.
Bowditch’s approach is more personal; she projects her life on to an alter ego that is Frida Kahlo; she does not try to be Frida but chooses her to channel her own history and aspirations and from whom she derives inspiration and encouragement. Kahlo was handicapped by a traffic accident at the age of 18, and Bowditch has suffered a genetic bone disorder since birth but both women have transformed their obstacles into their respective arts. In the emotional and openly erotic layering of the work we learn about both Bowditch and Kahlo, and about the unbounded force with which both women approach life. Katherina Radeva’s set and costumes are as vibrant as Bowditch herself in red skirt and blue blouse lying supine on a yellow table surrounded by yellow chairs in front of two green neon cacti against blue and white hangings. The music you hear as you arrive (the program notes tell us) is the music that played in Frida’s house, the music she lay down to. Bowditch lies on the table dreamily looking at herself in a hand mirror when the motherly figure of Yvonne Strain enters in indigenous Mexican dress to join her; she is the wholly integrated BSL interpreter whose grasp of the erotic texts provides some well-earned respect and laughter. There are two other members of the cast, Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino, whose youthful beauty and movement enhance the sensual quality of the action, laughing with arms and tongues and sharing lascivious glances. The generosity of spirit in the work includes a shot of Tequila for all members of the audience, some unforgettable lines (‘You drank to drown your sorrows but the damned things learned to swim’) and an all-too-human questioning of the marks or traces our lives might leave. It’s all about falling in love with Frida, but it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Caroline Bowditch.
StopGap Dance Company’s The Awakening, choreographed by Chris Pavia, is performed on the West Terrace in glorious sunshine. The four dancers (Amy Butler, Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Tomos Young) rope off a square with thick black ribbon inside which all the action takes place. The creative line of the work is not easy to fathom, though the common gestures of awakening to the sun and sky are clear; I feel on the outside of Pavia’s thought process but the work has an integrity that draws me in, especially to Poan’s physical expressiveness in his wheelchair. Legs can be expressive but when a dancer has no control over them, the focus of expression is in the torso, arms and face. The Awakening is one of the works in which the dancers with disability are more interesting by comparison than the dancers without; perhaps because their physical and emotional process comes from a deeper source. What this Integrated Dance Summit reveals is that able-bodied dancers have to go that much further in all senses to be on a similar footing when performing with less able-bodied dancers. The Awakening thus creates a juxtaposition rather than an integration of abilities. It is the same with Pavia’s lovely, tentative solo of spirals for Sampson in which her arms are like rays of light. What could possibly correspond in the able-bodied to this, or to Poan’s freeing himself from his chair? He is suddenly in another unfamiliar element and it is an emotionally significant moment. At one point Poan takes Sampson’s arm like a guide or teacher, laying on his hands: a powerful metaphor for dance as a healing art. The work accelerates with Poan’s chair off balance, animated arms once more raised in a ritual of sun and air worship until all the performers slowly remove the bindings from their wrists, drop the material on the ground and promenade slowly around the square, discarding that which binds for a sense of freedom.
Marc Brew’s (i)land also lends itself to the terrace outside, this time overlooking the beach. There is an irony of bringing six tons of sand to build an island on a terrace within sight of the beach but there are technical reasons for it. On this tiny desert island topped by a mast and a vestige of rigging there are buried some seemingly unrelated objects that the Robinson Crusoe figure (Rob Heaslip) begins to uncover. What may be evident to us is not evident to Heaslip who builds with them a makeshift deck chair and settles down in the sun to rest. Up pops the head of Marc Brew from within the sand, a wonderful image like Christ rising from the dead. A third character (Rebecca Evans), dressed as The Lady of the Sea, wanders on to the island to complete the trio. The narrative follows the development of an escape plan with the limited resources available but it is Marc’s struggle from being buried to becoming mobile that holds my attention because his movements constantly express both fragility and determination. There are overtones of Lord of the Flies in Heaslip’s attempt to stop Brew from assembling his means of escape but the relationship between Heaslip and Evans and between Evans and Brew are barely defined by comparison. Once Brew’s means of escape is constructed (an antediluvian contraption with wheels and sails, somewhat like Da Vinci’s sketch of a helicopter), we want him to take off into the blue sky, but this alas is not within the production’s means. Evans returns to the sea, Heaslip remains on the lookout atop the mast, but Brew can only wheel away his contraption. Perhaps it is an allegory of dependence and independence, of freedom and restraint, of mobility and immobility but the contradictions within the work preclude a real sense of integration and appropriate resolution.
Arc Dance presents two works choreographed by Suzie Birchfield, a dancer who early on in her training developed Dystonia that has left her in a wheelchair. She has worked tirelessly over the last twelve years since establishing ActOne ArtsBase as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and advocate for accessible dance, which is the inclusion of people with disabilities in dance-related classes, workshops and performances. In Conversations with Dystonia Birchfield dances with Peter Baldwin and Tyrone Herlihy and in A Sense of Beauty Rosie Leak expands the trio into a quartet. In both works composer Nao Masuda provides a dexterous live accompaniment. Birchfield is both choreographer and central character in each work, a difficult balance to pull off at the best of times, but with the weight of her experience and advocacy it is almost impossible to avoid a polarization of disability: we are drawn in to her affliction so closely that the contrast with the athletic prowess of Baldwin and Herlihy is uncomfortable to watch. Yet there is a moment in Conversations with Dystonia — when Birchfield is supported on the equipment designed by Alex Harvey of Ockham’s Razor and slowly descends in a classical plié as she looks out with those lucid eyes — that is pure magic. The powerful metaphor of support is contrasted with the fragility of the body and force of mind; it is perhaps in itself a pure form of integration.
One final performance element of the Integrated Dance Summit is the Integrated Choreolab, ‘a partnership between South East Dance, Pavilion Dance South West and GDance to respond to the lack of development and choreographic opportunities for artists working in integrated dance.’ The three artists chosen (Noëmi Lakmaier, Kate Marsh and Mark Smith) were asked to choose their own collaborators. Lakmaier choose Rachel Gomme to perform a durational piece that took place over four hours outside on the South Terrace, of which I saw very little as it coincided with work going on inside. Marsh chose Welly O’Brien whom she has known since their days in Candoco Dance Company and Smith chose two dancers who suffer like him from deafness: Anthony Snowden and Kevin Jewell. Anyone thinking they had a good grasp of integrated dance before this Choreolab had yet another aspect to consider: the integration of artists with complementary or similar disabilities. Marsh has two arms, one hand, and two legs, while O’Brien has two arms, two hands and one leg (though I never noticed in Falling in Love with Frida), making a collective total of four arms, three hands and three legs. Marsh and O’Brien use their respective limbs as a composer might use a key signature: an intricately inventive composition both constrained and enriched by the imposition of a set of rules. Marsh and O’Brien know each other well and have a similar clarity and consistency in their collaboration tinged with a sense of humour that develops from an opening motif to a ratcheting up of cattiness in competitive gestures.
Mark Smith is, amongst other things, the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing, so his collaboration with Snowden and Jewell sidesteps the Summit’s notion of integrated dance for an integration of dance with gesture and sign language. The music is by creative signer Pete Waller, aka Deafboyone, and it is Jewell’s pinpoint timing in his hand gestures to the first song that communicate extraordinary power. Smith explains in the subsequent Q&A that one of the causes of deafness is the scrambling of hair nerves in the ear that impede the incoming sound waves. As with other performances over the weekend, it is the transformation of these kinds of disabilities into a clear communication of overriding truth that makes integrated dance — in all its manifestations — not only a vital element within the broader dance field but a universally valid art form in itself. Two other writers were invited to comment on the Summit: Dave Young and Rebecca Nice. Their reviews can be read on the Pavilion Dance South West site.
Posted: September 8th, 2012 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Performance | Tags: 12, Candoco Dance Company, Claire Cunningham, Marc Brew, Parallel Lines | Comments Off on Candoco, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham: Unlimited
Candoco Unlimited, Unlimited Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, September 6, supported by The Brazilian Embassy.
Unlimited is a project at the heart of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad that celebrates disability, arts and culture on an unprecedented scale. Twenty-nine new works were commissioned to encourage deaf and disabled artists to push boundaries, by creating work which opens doors, changes minds, and inspired new collaborations. (Arts Council England)
The Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre is an encouraging, life-affirming project that parallels the sporting premise of the Paralympics, and it finds a fullness of expression in the two works commissioned by Unlimited and presented by Candoco Dance Company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday evening: Parallel Lines by Marc Brew, and 12 by Claire Cunningham.
The motivating idea behind Brew’s Parallel Lines is the lines of communication between the 2012 Olympics host country, its predecessor, China, and its successor, Brazil, and it uses dancers from all three countries. The cables we see suspended and stretched across the stage are both the lines that unite by carrying this communication, and the lines – like race, physical ability or national borders – that can demarcate. Parallel Lines is thus an idea that works on an intellectual level as well as on stage, thanks to Brew’s creative, all-embracing magic. He has the dual experience of being an able-bodied dancer (he used to dance with Candoco) who now finds himself in a wheelchair, so he has a profoundly nuanced understanding of what it means to have unlimited movement and what it means to be physically constrained.
Another force that leads Parallel Lines forward is its score by Michael Galasso (Scenes), creating a series of delightful variations that allow space for the dancers to move in between its layers. Brew has caught the dynamics of the music beautifully in his own treatments of duet, trio, quartet and ensemble, mixing male and female, male and male, able and disabled, with an overarching theme of support, be it from the ground or from a partner. The duet with Darren Anderson and Edu stands out as an expression of courage, strength, caring and love, with a delightful sense of humour. Brew transforms disability into an emotional quality that imbues the partnerships he sets up with an equality and universality that is surely the summit of his achievement. The creative elements of set design (Sam Collins), costumes (Jo Paul) and lighting (Ben Pacey) complete the unity of this work.
Claire Cunningham takes a different tack in her creative process. She is used to choreographing work on her own body and drawing material from her own life, incorporating the crutches on which she relies. She said in a Q&A after the performance that the prospect of creating work on a group of dancers filled her with misgiving and fear. There was the double challenge of creating for both disabled and non-disabled dancers and of assigning the movement’s ownership to someone other than herself. Her solution to the first was, like Brew’s, an emotional one: finding in the crutch a symbol of our forms of dependence, something with which we can all associate. Cunningham’s answer to the second was to get the dancers to create autobiographical material of their own by giving them improvisation tasks in the studio, and taking from the movement what she and her assistant director and mentor, Gail Sneddon, felt was right for 12. The advantage of working in this way is that it has allowed Cunningham to break through a psychological barrier to realizing a much broader palette. The danger, however, is that the material escapes her creative control, as with Pandora’s box, and cannot be enticed back. 12 is thus uneven in its pace, abstruse at times, but never lacking in visually arresting imagery. Crutches are used as guns and as air guitars, and in a particularly oppressive scene, as elements of violent manipulation and submission: emotional dependence has a decidedly dark side. Crutches are also used in less sinister fashion as elements of an animated conversation between Welly O’Brien and Mickaella Dantas, and as puppet sticks in the scene with the bookish Ming Hei Wong and the voluptuous Annie Hanauer who dances around a candy cotton microphone to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Dan Daw, whose dramatic talent shines here, is mesmerising as he strives to control an errant arm while seated in a chair. Shanti Freed evidently had a lot of fun with the costumes, and Matthias Herrmann’s score hung on to Cunningham’s roller-coaster vision by the seat of its pants. Karsten Tinapp lit it all admirably through the billowing fog.
What Marc Brew and Claire Cunningham so convincingly affirmed on Thursday night is that there is no notion of disability in terms of artistic expression, and the dancers are all brilliant performers. Candoco’s reputation has been sufficiently established that it is perhaps time to quietly remove its label of disabled and non-disabled dancers. And where, oh where, are the designer crutches?