Reckonings: works by Cunningham, Seva and Seutin at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reckonings: works by Cunningham, Seva and Seutin at Sadler’s Wells

Reckonings: Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva & Alesandra Seutin at Sadler’s Wells, October 13

BLKDOG

The cast in Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (photo: Johan Persson)

Marking its refurbishment 20 years ago as a production house catering uniquely to dance, Sadler’s Wells has commissioned 20 new works, three of which form Reckonings, a celebration of the future featuring UK-based choreographers Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva and Alesandra Seutin. Sadler’s Wells has lavished its production capacity on each and the result is a richly textured triple bill unified by Tom Visser’s lighting that demarcates regions of the stage into which the dancers can withdraw from sight and from which they can emerge; there are no theatrical exits and entrances. This corresponds particularly with the fluid spatial staging of Cunningham’s m/y and with Nell Catchpole’s engulfing interior soundscape. The work is a translation into choreographic form of Monique Wittig’s attempt in her novel, The Lesbian Body, to ‘create a new language that can function outside the dominant structures of patriarchal power’. It is not the cast of six women — Cunningham, Eleanor Perry, Hannah Burfield, Seira Winning, Sara Ruddock and Stephanie McMann — that suggests a lesbian discourse but the subtle structures that link them together, a fine weaving of almost abstract strands with sapphic overtones that creates a space in which no muscular, patriarchal figure would ever feel comfortable; the performers, dressed in Alexa Pollman’s body suits with diaphanous outer layers, seem to relish this independence. It is a pleasure to watch the way Cunningham opens up the space with such intellectual rigour; it starts in muffled containment as if the cast is an operatic chorus in a prison cell and develops into a sense of lightness and emancipation that Catchpole’s score reaffirms in its trajectory from dark clouds of industrial effluence to the open air, from interior rumblings to serene silence.

After the first intermission the contrasting, dark masculine energy of Seva’s BLKDOG is immediately palpable. In combination with Visser’s lighting, Ryan Dawson Laight’s wrapped anonymous costumes and Torben Lars Sylvest’s visceral score, Seva has invented a haunting, powerful reflection on depression inspired by Sally Brampton’s Shoot The Damn Dog. It was Winston Churchill who termed his depressive condition ‘The Black Dog’ from which Seva derives the title of his work and on top of Sylvest’s score are recorded voices from an imagined therapy session: ‘Let’s start with how you’re feeling.’ Set in a hip hop vocabulary on six dancers — Joshua Nash, Jordan Douglas, Ezra Owen, Victoria Shulungu, Shangomola Edunjobi and Naima Souhair — BLKDOG seethes with an inner malaise that explodes in tight, controlled gestures and broods in hooded acquiescence. Seva has developed an intricate and eloquent language within an urban context that manages simultaneously to get inside the head and flow through the body, seamlessly bridging emotional abstraction and a harrowing social narrative — an effect that is more Crystal Pite than Hofesh Schechter. In a work that depends for its affect on precision in both individual gesture and unison articulation it is a tribute to the dancers and to the rehearsal director Ekin Bernay that Seva’s conception is so fully embodied.

Like the two previous works, Seutin’s Boy Breaking Glass has a literary inspiration, this time through Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem of the same name. Breaking glass becomes in Seutin’s conception a metaphor for breaking through what may seem transparent but proves impassable, otherwise known as inequality of opportunity. She writes that five other authors ‘were all invaluable in my research about inequality, the act of survival and self-love.’ The problem is that however clear Seutin may be in her intellectual research such clarity fails to coalesce on the stage. From the outset there is a contrast between the formal volumes of the set — a broad white platform at the back for her five-piece band with a white dance floor bordered in black for her seven dancers — and the informal, folk-inspired choreography ‘inspired by Senegalese and Southern African traditional and social dances’. Visser’s liminal lighting is again on display but he seems unsure how to unite these contrasts. The members of the band are visually dominant which gives an importance to their presence and their music over the narrative taking place on the stage below them, while Randolph Matthews as the central figure among the dancers — the victim of inequality — is a vocalist. Attention on the primary theme is thus dispersed among the performative elements and while they are independently rich in expression, Seutin and her dramaturg/co-director Maxwell Golden have not succeeded in synchronizing their full value.


Avant Garde Dance, Fagin’s Twist

Posted: May 30th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Avant Garde Dance, Fagin’s Twist
Avant Garde Dance in Fagin's Twist (photo: Rachel Cherry)

Avant Garde Dance in Fagin’s Twist (photo: Rachel Cherry)

But struggling with these better feelings was pride — the vice of the lowest and most debased creatures no less than of the high and self-assured.” – Charles Dickens

Avant Garde Dance (AG) has been going “against the grain” for the last 15 years under the auspices of artistic director, Tony Adigun. Having seen more than a dozen of their outdoor and indoor works, commissioned them to work on large-scale performances integrating community casts of 100 people, to working with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on the iconic performance Vesalii Icones by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, I awaited with curiosity the skewing of a Dickens classic.

Fagin’s Twist, co-produced by The Place, is AG’s largest tour to date with over 40 performances across 2016 and substantial support from Arts Council England and other co-commissioning partners. Working with the writer Maxwell Golden and dramaturg Adam Peck, the audience is presented with a simple storyboard narrative that focuses on Fagin (Joshua James Smith) forging in the workhouse, his adventures in the lair and his ultimate undoing by young master Twist.

Opening with the full company (8 dancers) rotating, snaking and snapping whilst passing a mid-size white hat box between them exposes an early weakness as the ability to blend prop handling and movement restricts them and doesn’t allow them the anatomical freedom to focus or execute with the required conviction. Slipping between theatre, hip hop styles and contemporary dance we’re introduced to a krumping Bill Sykes (Dani Harris-Walters), a breaking Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) and a contemporary Nancy (Lisa Hood). Stylistically these fit their character traits — in the first act the jittery physical vocabulary and nimble b-boy flourishes of Nuttall add a depth of character as he breaks the fourth wall with a set of welcome narrations which aid the re-telling. Smith has also a certain dash about him, like a fencer darting across the stage with able command of both body and voice. With the five leads including Oliver Twist (Jemima Brown) mic’ed up we unfortunately see a lacklustre physicality seeping into the vocal performances; a lack of conviction in both body and voice, and an inconsistency across the two acts (this is the 12th performance on tour) caused my interest to wane.

The first act is a series of establishing speeches twinned with tutting and hip hop routines delving into Fagin, his gradual acceptance by Sykes, their joint escape, finding the lair and the introduction of Oliver. With a second act full of stage choreography for exposition purposes, the character definition breaks down and we are left with 8 moving bodies who’ve seemingly forgotten their original intentions and emotional relationships with each other. With a recurring motif of a low-crouched, puppet-armed jump that hints at A Clockwork Orange, the pack often comes together before splitting off into duets and trios that fall very close to “hip hop as mime” territory. There’s a fine line between showing a story and keeping the audience on the outside and telling a story and pulling us in.

When I first read ‘On the Road,’ it helped me figure out how to live against the grain. Now I wonder how to be subversive when the subversive has become mainstream.” – Tony D’souza

I see a number of biographical echoes where you could replace Fagin with Adigun; having started life outside the system he recruits a merry band of accomplices who begin to scratch a living together. Success comes slowly as he is embraced by others, but responsibility weighs heavy for the health of the unit whilst younger and hungrier insiders begin to splinter as he takes his eye off his pocket watch. However, after 15 years can you continually go against the grain? Pushing doors open for others takes a lot of energy and being swallowed by the mainstream that is slowly de-teething and sanding the edges that made them want you in the first place is a tricky position for Adigun to hold. Akram Khan serves as a warning/inspiration.

Fagin’s Twist offers an entertaining night out for those new to dance theatre who might be a little Dickens curious and there’s a slick production mask scaffolding the work. Jackie Shemesh’s lighting design casts elongated shadows, hiding faces and bodies in the half-light whilst Yann Seabra’s set offers nooks, levels and holes for the dancers to weave and scuttle about in.

However, if it’s going to sing loud in the autumn tour and emerge as a signature work, then some dramaturgical repairs are in order to build bonds with the audience so we can begin to care rather than watching blunt fireworks; dancers should fill and execute their characters whilst injecting a consistent musicality into their performances and Adigun needs to bring some abrasion and grit back into his choreography.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller