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.