Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Posted: January 6th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Annual Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018

Ian Abbott’s Reflections on Dance in 2018, December 31

Mele Broomes in VOID
Mele Broomes in VOID (photo: Jack Wrigley)

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”- Gabriel García Márquez

Here lies a reflection of some moments, performances and choreography that have settled in my 2018 memory bank. Shining brightest this year was the wealth of solo, female performance/ choreography/direction taking place outside London. 

Sitting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall to see VOID (a V/DA & MHz Production directed by Bex Anson and performed/choreographed by Mele Broomes) I was blasted for the first fifteen minutes by the ferocity of Broomes’ performance; VOID takes JG Ballard’s words, transfers them to a distressed body and leaves us in a visual glitchfield unable to settle. A deserved winner of the Total Theatre Award for Dance, VOID punctures the eyes and leaves us snagged in a net of inbetweenness. 

Unkindest Cut by Sadhana Dance made the windswept trip to Sidmouth Science Festival entirely worthwhile, spending 30 minutes in a pair of AV-filled shipping containers with Subathra Subramaniam looking at deliberate self-harm and mental health amongst young people. With Subramaniam’s intimate bharatanatyam solo I was gifted an intensity of subject and focus by the claustrophobia of the environment, the skilled AV collaborators (Kathy Hinde, Matthew Olden and Aideen Malone) and the repetition of gesture. 

I’ve previously acknowledged two works I saw in 2018: one at Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia, Première Stratagème’s Forecasting performed by Barbara Mattijevic (which is coming to The Place, London on February 26 and Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham on May 1 2019) and the other at Tanzmesse, Oona Doherty’s HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus. Both bear repeating as they’re exceptional works performed by two highly skilled and captivating women.

Parade by Tomoyo Okada was the standout solo performance at TPAM 2018 in Japan, delivered with lashings of integrity and wit; Okada spent her childhood walking along the Yokohama seafront and this walking-centred work is inspired by her memory of the Yokohama Port Centennial Parade over 50 years ago. Parade is a performative memorial delivered with a gentle fizz and confidence by a distinguished performer whom I could have watched all night.

Nestled alongside these solo works there are a suite of exquisite performances including Hannah Sampson (aided and abetted by Dave Toole) who delivered an emotionally devastating first half performance at Circomedia, Bristol during Stopgap’s recent tour of The Enormous Room. Restrained and nuanced Sampson brought her vulnerability to the fore connecting with audiences and delivering Lucy Bennet’s choreography with aplomb. Ladd, Light and Emberton’s Owain Glyndŵr Silent Disco descended on Abergavenny Castle to tell the story of Owain Glyndŵr — the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence with the aim of ending English rule in Wales — with a crate full of disco classics. With dozens of giddy families shepherded around Welsh heritage sites and headphoned, this family-friendly performance successfully demonstrated that rare combination of dance, heritage and audience interaction. It is also worth noting that The Hiccup Project’s Lovely Girls at Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol was an utter delight and landed a number of skewering blows to the patriarchy and reflects the reality and expectations on women in the 21st century. Although it was advertised as a work-in-progress,  its full 60 minutes had more material, comedy and charm than a lot of works that claim to be finished. Their Spring 2019 tour begins at Bath Spa Live on March 8 (International Women’s Day) and heads to Liverpool, Bridport, Exeter and Hereford with more dates to be announced.

There have been personal stinkers, too (which have garnered otherwise positive critical and audience response) including Lost Dog’s Juliet and RomeoAkademi’s The Troth directed and choreographed by Gary Clark and Barely Methodical Troupe’s SHIFT. I also saw a preview performance of Clark’s Wasteland— a sequel to his multi-award-winning Coal — at Cast, Doncaster; it is a carbon copy of his previous work fast forwarded a few years and transplanted to the 1990’s rave scene.

I have to admit to a small personal itch forming at the gap between how we look at, write about and respond to the work an artist has created, and the influence on that work of the institutions/organisations/venues that fund, support and champion it; they have a powerful steer and consume considerably more resource than the artists. The White Pube is a fine example of such cross-referential critical reporting/writing and it corresponds to my own feeling about a work with which I had a particular problem last year, Stillhouse’s SESSION at Bernie Grant Arts Centre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). 

SESSION is 45 minutes of live music from Empire Sounds (on keyboards, vocal, drums, guitars and laptop) driving the ears, feet and eyes of the assembled crowds with luscious afrobeats shaking the courtyard and concrete frontages of the venue accompanying 25 dancers drawn from two crews of Tottenham’s Steppaz Performing Arts Academy. Diamond Elite and Diamond Bratz deliver a suite of short commercial hip hop and afrobeat routines with a fine musicality. With the audience set up on three sides as cypher, members of Diamond Elite blur the edges of performance and stage by stepping in and out of the audience feeding their energy into the performance arena with the consistent hip hop cry ‘let’s go’ driving on their peers as the remainder of audience remains silent. 

Stillhouse choreographer Dan Canham has a history of guesting and spending extended periods of time in and with other communities to make his performance work; so SESSION isn’t out of context in the way he creates: 30 Cecil Street is a haunting solo made from the memories of ghosted pub goers in Limerick and Ours Was The Fen Country saw the last generation of East Anglian eel catchers share their memories through an impressive and evocative verbatim dance theatre quartet. This response is approached from a position of critical closeness. 

Judging by the marketing copy, this would appear to be the same for SESSION: ‘Made in collaboration with an extraordinary group of young performers SESSION is a battle cry and a love song, celebrating community, youth and belonging. Still House join forces with Steppaz and North London’s afrobeats powerhouse Empire Sounds to create an exhilarating night of dance and live music where everyone is welcome. Dance performance, gig, social, and rave, SESSION moves across hip-hop, contemporary folk and afrobeats vocabularies to create a new movement that is all and none of these parts.’ The language frames SESSION along (in)side the Hip Hop community with the likes of Boy Blue Entertainment and Avant Garde Dance who bring young people to the heart of their shows because their training, position in the community and knowledge distribution is central to their ethos. 

But the very language of how things are described and who offers the invitation reveal an inherent system of power and privilege; the copy frames SESSION in what might be called an elite European Performance Makers League — companies like Campo, Gobsquad, Lies Pauwel, and Forced Entertainment who make work with teenagers/children as the central performers for the left-leaning, middle-class arts audiences. A more critical reading of the work might be, ‘SESSION is a concept of a transplanted white male choreographer invited and commissioned by LIFT to spend time in an unfamiliar (to him) North London borough with two partner organisations at multiple intervals over a three-year period. Out of these working sessions choreographer Canham has created a project that has a clear lineage from his previous work but treads a dangerous line around the edges of appropriation.’

The reality is that LIFT wouldn’t have commissioned or presented the work of Steppaz and/or Empire Sounds as companies in their own right or on their own terms; they needed the external frame and validation of someone like Canham to make it ‘marketable’. There can be no doubt that with all its LIFT scaffolding SESSION is a slick production. However, in every town there are hundreds of private dance schools and youth groups that exist outside the subsidised arts world creating ambitious productions and training opportunities. This is where the majority of young people first experience and consistently engage with dance over many years; however, the festivals and theatres that claim to be integral parts of their respective communities repeatedly ignore them. SESSION is in this sense a manufactured community, complete with a mandatory audience invitation to get up at the end to lean, bop and ankle shuffle with the performers until the music dims and the energy dissipates leaving a lukewarm fuzzy in your feet and head. After leaving the venue I noticed in the town hall next door an Afro-Caribbean wedding with guests and music spilling out onto the street; here was an example of joy, dancing, music and community that SESSION had attempted to recreate but would never be able to emulate.

A final thought on the most unusual performance of the year, at TPAM’s Steep Slope ShowcaseDogman’s Life by Office Mountain (directed and choreographed by Taichi Yamagata) featured a cast of eight performers who played out (entirely deadpan) a day in the life of dog/humans at work in an office. Presented in a polystyrene-tiled room with simultaneous English captions, the choreography offered stiff canine simulations mixed with low-key energy reflections on the culture of overworking and emotional repression in society. There are some images that once seen you cannot unsee and Dogman’s Life  had an absolute bucketful of them


Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse 2018

Posted: September 10th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse 2018

Ian Abbott at Tanzmesse, Dusseldorf, Aug 29 – Sep 1 2018


Oona Doherty

Oona Doherty in HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus (photo: Simon Harrison)

Tanzmesse 2018 is the first under the new directorship of Dieter Jaenicke. In his introduction he talks of this edition as one of change, a stepping stone towards something different in 2020: “Tanzmesse is going to change in the direction of an ideas fair where the most important topics (which are moving the international dance world) will be discussed and performed: topics like migration, democracy, on how to deal with the post colonial division of the world and its resources…from now on contemporary dance, contemporary ballet and urban dance will be presented on an equal level.”
Solos by Hodworks (Hungary) is a joyful, carefully crafted hour by Adrienn Hod with three exquisite performers (Emese Cuhorka, Csaba Molnar and Imre Vass). Hod has created a Generation Game prize belt of ever changing 4-6 minute solo choreographic scenes for an audience in the round. With each scene chained together by the end/start level of emotional intensity it’s an interesting way to view the range and versatility of the performers alongside the dozen or more miniature ideas that Hod wants to explore wrapped in a faux-fur creature singing big numbers from Cats and Disney classics, a gentle lingering hug for a single audience member, a hyper-inflated word stream outlining the trouble of the choreographic process or a sweet pepper eating trial. Solossits well in the late night cabaret slot of Tanzmesse and adds to the reputation of both Hod and Hodworks.
Crépuscule des Océans by Daniel Leveillé Danse (Canada) self describes as ‘a human tide, animated by opposing currents: busy, but at the same time on guard — concentrated to make no mistakes — resistant, ambitious and obsessive.’ The reality is a woeful 55 minutes in the 1200-seater Capitol Theatre of seven dancers, naked for 70% of the time, pairing up in small areas of the stage to repeat the same 8 minutes of out-of-time tippytoe-tensing, 80s-lungeing-with-pointy-fingers choreography to piano music by Jean-Sébastien Durocher. Heralded in the 1990s as the Canadian pioneer of presenting the unclothed body on stage, Leveillé’s concept or choreography appears not to have changed since; how ironic to be presenting this 11-year-old work on Jaenicke’s first program of ‘change’. As Crépuscule des Océans lurches on, one dancer makes three clear mistakes, forgetting the choreography and freezing in one group section and making two large stumbles elsewhere; as the audience leaves after a smattering of slow claps, there is angry talk of wasted time, the mistakes and the possibility of what could have been experienced on stage instead.
There is a suite of talks each day with one entitled The Future of Performing Arts Market featuring Sophie Travers (APAM), Jaenicke (Tanzmesse), Asa Richardsdottir (Ice Hot) and Alain Paré (Cinars): four current performing arts markets talking about their future? Unsurprisingly there is no real sense of what the future might look like because the speakers have no desire to erase their own presence and with no input from anyone outside a performing arts market there is no alternative perspective; the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. If the purpose of these events (the majority of which are still replicating near 30-year-old models) is to act as a meeting point, to stimulate new relationships and to ‘offer more space for communication, exchange and contact’ then we need voices from outside (in both programming and construction) to widen possibilities and ensure representation and intersectionality are considered at the centre of future editions.
In the Women’s Voices in Choreography talk, chair Andrea Snyder from American Dance Abroad highlighted the percentage of women represented in each part of the programme; it’s around a third. For every two performances or pitches by a male in the biggest dance trade fair in the world there is one by a female. This is unacceptable. Insightful contributions from the floor by Emma-Jayne Park (Scotland) and Annabelle Guérédrat (Martinique) as well as by Christine Bonansea (USA) on the panel are counterbalanced with some eyebrow-raising talk from other women in the room on how ‘women lack ambition and lack the ability to be strategic.’ There is a call for a consistent sisterhood that does not keep cutting each other down and a clear call for action in the Tanzmesse evaluation where we should demand an equal number of performances and programming slots for women as a minimum in future editions.
Alongside the talks programme there are some fifty 20-minute open studio/pitching slots over the two days where artists can offer a flavour of something new that is coming down the pipeline to generate interest in future international touring or building co-production partnerships. Seeta Patel presents a polished 8-minute excerpt of her bharatanatyam reimagining of The Rite of Spring that will tour the UK with 6 dancers from May 2019 and scale up to the Sadler’s Wells main stage with 12 dancers in 2021. Group bharatanatyam is a rarity and it is refreshing to see the intricate patterns multiplied and echoed across many bodies as the power and collective sound of the jattis leave me wanting to see and hear more.
HOPE HUNT & The Ascension into Lazarus (HHATAIL) by Oona Doherty blasts the dusty roof off Tanzmesse 2018 and if the rarely-heard decibel level of applause and the length of standing ovation are anything to go by, then the Belfast-based performer/choreographer is about to collect some serious air miles. With the audience starting out on the street, sardined on the narrow paths outside the FFT Kammerspiele, an ageing Volkswagen blaring 90s UK dance music screeches to a halt, the driver pops the boot and out onto the concrete night floor lands Doherty. As she discovers her Bambi legs and staggers into and out of the crowd, up and down the road, the audience begins to absorb her, spits her out and takes her back, in an exchange of energy that stays charged till the end. Dressed in three stripes, Shockwaves hair and gold-chained neck, Doherty screams at us to get inside into the black as we are about to witness ‘a man who is many men telling his story, a hunt for hope as we are twisted and contorted with ideas of masculinity, morality and nostaligia.’ With HHATAIL we are in the arc of an eruption; Doherty coughs and conjures up words, memories and choreographies that bite and nestle under the skin offering us a glimpse of an underclass, of Belfast and of a resistance. As we continue to see the repeated crunch of her body biting the floor it is her energy and performance that stains the mind. Injecting a fire and spirit into the audience against the relentless Tanzmesse schedule and the wearisome neoliberal politics of the West HHATAIL is testament to the quality of Doherty’s dramaturgy and performance.
There is a growing presence of work made for non-theatrical spaces at Tanzmesse and a highlight of that programme is DISCOFOOT by CCN Ballet de Lorraine (Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley). Two teams of 11 classically-trained dancers in short short gold lamé shorts, play/perform football with a mirrored disco football to a bass-heavy disco soundtrack played over two 10-minute halves on a marked out 5-a-side pitch outside Forum with a referee, live DJ and a set of ice-dance judges marking their performance alongside goals scored. It’s an absolute hoot and demonstrates a rarely seen lighter side of large-scale ballet companies. Tackling via the splits, twerk grinding whilst holding the ball up and with elaborate simulation when a foul has been committed, all demonstrate a clear knowledge of football with a wry sense of the growing theatricalisation and entertainment arena in which football and dance sits. As a model it could be exported to other events; imagine at the UK Dance Showcase having a 5-a-side beach version of DISCOFOOT with Avant Garde Dance vs Ladd Light and Emberton or Russell Maliphant vs Barrowland Ballet.
On the final day there is an addition of an ‘Urban Dance Art Day’ with a programme curated by Takao Baba at Welkunstzimmer presenting a conversation, Urban Dance Goes Theatre, and two 90-minute showcase blocks of works (in progress, excerpted, improvised) by the likes of The Ruggeds, Gladness, House as well as two 15-minute excerpts of longer works, Between Tiny Cities រវាងទីក្រុងតូច by Nick Power and Tangle by Kinetic Art. Presented on the classic taped b-boy cardboard floor we’re offered a series of quarter-baked ideas and a poor sound system so we’re unable to hear the names of performers and what the works are about. The only work to come out with any sense of quality, presentation or theatricality is Power’s: the audience is placed in a cypher, providing energy for the two b-boys (Erak Mith and Aaron Lim) as they skirt the edges, playfully mock the tropes of the genre and each other and fake and play like boxers in the ring sussing out their opponent before attempting to land the knockout blow/move. Nevertheless, presenting ‘Urban Dance Art Day’ in this context shortchanges the audience but more pertinently reveals an uneasy, ongoing attempt by presenters to box/shoehorn hip hop culture into existing theatrical conventions.
With advisors Malco Oliveros, Christian Watty and Carolelinda Dickey, Jaenicke’s first Tanzmesse displays not only an embarrassing lack of female choreographers and performers across the performance and pitching programme, but a geographical exclusion of dance from vast tracts of the world like Africa, the Middle East and South/Central America. I have only written about a very small percentage of the programme and one of hundreds of possible routes through the event but until the gender and geographical bias is acknowledged and altered then Tanzmesse will continue to feel like a central meeting place in Europe where the elite wield their power, position and privilege and deepen the chasm between those who are here and those who are not.


Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia

Posted: March 30th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018 in Sofia

Ian Abbott on Aerowaves, Spring Forward 2018, Sofia, March 23-25

Forecasting

Barbara Matijevic and MacBook in Forecasting (photo: Yelena Remetin)

Spring Forward 2018 is a flipbook of European contemporary dance; 22 performances selected from over 580 applications from 40 countries and squashed into 2.5 days. It would have been 22 performances but for Oona Doherty’s last minute injury which put an end, for the second year running, to her performance of Hope Hunt (the one UK representation). Directed by John Ashford and managed by Anna Arthur, the Aerowaves network is an ever growing set of programmers, artists and writers injected each year into a different European city for three days with the help of a local delivery partner. Derida Dance Centre played host this time and offered a wealth of local knowledge, volunteers, walking guides and oodles more to ensure a smooth-ish international parachuting.

One of the benefits/disadvantages of the Aerowaves format is that all work programmed has to be between 20 to 40 minutes (even if the original work is longer) which requires judicious pruning to ensure the heart of a work remains intact but removes any flab for the gluttonous Spring Forward crowd. The viewing pace is also accelerated; seeing 5 or 6 pieces a day at the Edinburgh Fringe was frenzy enough but at Spring Forward you’re seeing 21 works in 52 hours — one piece of contemporary dance every 2.5 hours — which affects how you see, how you process and how you articulate a response to each work.

Rita Gobi’s Volitant is a tightly constructed and deftly articulated solo with a choreographic vocabulary that is part ornithological, part sumo and part wrought spring. With a taped floor pattern of an arrow head of parallel white lines, our eyes are drawn to the points of tension in Gobi’s shoulders, cheeks and knees; it’s a contagious state amplified by the Morse code-, typewriter- and pong-inspired soundtrack by Dávid Szegő that accentuates her physical punctuation and treacle netball heel pivots. With a sympathetic monochromatic lighting design by Pavla Beranová emphasising the clarity of her movement through silhouette Gobi is an exquisite performer with the ability to build and choreograph a minimalist landscape worthy of greater attention.

Imagine a slug. Imagine a giant black rumbling slug. Imagine a giant black rumbling choreographic slug that can suck up, swallow and spit out naked humans at will. Welcome to Pietro Marullo’s WRECK from Insiemi Ireeali Company, an ambitious 40-minute scenography with a flawed narrative that could have dropped straight out of The Prisoner. With a huge black inflatable pillow taking the role of the Big Slug we watch it ooze and blob from side to side, rising up to demonstrate its power and mark its territory without any visible human intervention. After five minutes we are surprised to see it burp up a naked human who remains motionless in its slimy wake; the premise accrues over the next 10 minutes with naked bodies in solo, duo, trio and up to quartet being hoovered and deposited across the stage to an electronic noise glitch pulsing soundtrack. And then a switch occurs. The bodies, previously stilled, have thawed and begin to run, circle and cower in the path of Big Slug. At which point the narrative bottom falls out of the work. I almost believed we were being presented with a new terrain, a sci-fi otherness when suddenly it’s the tiny wizard curtain behind the curtain from The Wizard of Oz and we see it being manipulated for the remaining 15 minutes by a sixth naked body. Big Slug isn’t real. The bodies aren’t really being eaten, digested and reborn; it’s just an inflatable pillow wafting around the stage and audience with some naked performers. With interest waning I’m left soaked in disappointment in the possibilities that might have been.

Forecasting by Premiere Stratagème is intelligent, funny and conceptually rich; it responds to the increasing mass of YouTube content and society’s need to upload and document every facet of our lives. Performed by Barbara Matijevic the work begins with a Macbook Pro on stage alone on a metre high stand when a classic YouTube video of how to change your battery on your Macbook begins and Matijevic enters. Over the next 40 minutes Matijevic strategically places her hands, torso, face and other anatomies behind/around the Macbook over dozens of short videos so that it looks like she is, in turn, preparing a meal, indulging in a spot of toe sucking, having her face dog licked or firing dozens of rounds from a pistol. The skits trigger an almost constant laughter as she plays with perspective, inverts expected scenarios and uses her own body to echo and amplify the screen content; full body recoil after firing and suggestive eye rolls and raised eyebrows during the toe sucking demonstrates an accuracy and formidable control of her body. Sat alongside the suggested narratives and sweet jump cuts in the video (edited by Giuseppe Chico) Matijevic’s deadpan delivery ensures that Forecasting has a wide resonance with audience and the potential for a multiple cast expansion.

Like any festival or venue programme there are works that connect with an audience and those that don’t; a number of Spring Forward veterans felt two thirds of this 8th edition programme misfired and was one of the poorest in recent memory. It was no secret that  seeing Mathis Kleinschnittger in “Grrr, I’m Dancing”, where he rolls around the floor clutching three teddy bears, had caused a dozen French programmers to walk out the theatre and slam the door nosily behind them. As a Spring Forward first timer I can only respond to the work presented and would agree that 2018 was not a vintage program.

I could talk about the tired clichés of the two cis hetero male/female duets Rehearsal On Love and F63.9 from Finland and Bulgaria respectively, both choreographed by men and ‘exploring’ domestic violence in relationships. Or I could talk about Jordan Deschamps’ numbing and glacial ‘exploration’ of intimacy in the male sauna, Dédale, with four nude men flopping about under an orange street light. Or I could talk about the much-hyped Opus by Christos Papadopoulos of Leon & the Wolf that offered four dancers as human instruments articulating their body to the score and cadences of the string soundtrack. However when half the cast do not have the ability to pop, punctuate or articulate a movement it undermines the essence of the show and demonstrates poor casting, rehearsal and direction.

Spring Forward’s primary purpose (aside from brutal scheduling and presentation of dance) is as an international pollinator; it is the conversations and dialogue that manifest on the long walks between the venues that genuine exchange occurs. The value of people offering alternative perspectives on work, on ecologies in other countries and on choreographic possibilities for the future is rich and ensures that despite the misfiring class of 2018 people will return because bees need pollen and Spring Forward is a garden with a lot of flowers in it.