Rambert’s season of new choreography

Posted: June 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Rambert Dance Company: Season of new choreography

Queen Elizabeth Hall, May 31

Dance is close to music in that what we see on stage can move us emotionally, but an intellectual gap can exist between what we see and what we understand of what we see. Without bridging this gap, the scope for further discussion and debate about dance is diminished. One has only to think of the talks and explanations about classical music on Radio 3 to appreciate the value of such insights. Rambert Dance Company is evidently aware of this, and for their Season of New Choreography at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, provide helpful program notes and a brief Q&A session with both the choreographers and composers immediately following the performance, mediated by Rambert’s head of learning and participation, Joce Giles. It is clear, for example, that the creative process began with the movement and the music followed, often by long-distance communication. In the music for Face Up composer Semay Wu has incorporated a familiarity with choreographer Mbulelo Ndabeni’s culture that makes the score  as much reflective as descriptive. Ndabeni’s explanation of the use of clicks in his language and the meaning of passages in his native tongue that were incorporated into Wu’s composition was not only instructive in itself but an invaluable entrance into the world of the choreographer and his work.

Dane Hurst: The Window

 Choreographer Dane Hurst writes in the program notes, “The most devastating phenomenon to affect the residents of old South End  (a neighbourhood of South Africa’s Port Elizabeth, where Hurst was born) was undoubtedly the Group Areas Act. The Act was part of a clutch of apartheid laws passed after the National Party came to power in 1948; it was intended to give effect to the Population Registration Act of 1950 which labeled and classified all South Africans as part of a defined population group. Soon after, eviction notices were handed out followed by protests and unrest; but inevitably thousands of families were displaced and homes demolished.”

A tall lamp with a reddish glow is the only visible furniture. A woman (Angela Towler) lies restless on her back at its base, her hand on her stomach. The evocative score by Christopher Mayo describes Towler’s contrasted state with a passage for solo violin and harp combined with an ominous drum. Three girls appear, one after the other, similarly dressed. In this particular household, we imagine them to be three sisters and Towler their mother. The score increases its instrumentation as the family discusses the ramifications of the Group Areas Act. All the girls seem to be talking at the same time, but not listening to each other until Towler focuses their attention. They share a frightened gesture of hand across the face, legs raised forward, unsure of what will happen. Another woman appears, in a light grey dress, moving calmly, unaffected by the commotion. Her hands are open, raised to her face. Raucous trumpets herald the arrival of three men in suits with what we assume to be an eviction notice, flaunting their power in large, expansive movements, swinging legs wide in predatory jumps. The three sisters remain in the shadows but the men grab them by their necks and are about to rape them when a girl in white (Estella Merlos) flies into the room, disrupting the proceedings but focusing all the brutal attention on herself. She is possibly a local activist, and she is interrogated, turned upside down, and threatened with the eviction notice. She treats it with contempt, incensing the men to continue their assault. Shown the notice again, she screws it up and puts it in her mouth, for which she is beaten and left on the floor. The men leave. The scene changes to an overt choreographic quote from Kurt Joos’ Green Table: the family is standing around a table drumming their arms on the surface to a war-like rhythmic pulse in the music. Towler presides as they pass around the eviction note, snatching it from each other. The eight dancers – the family enlarged by a number of neighbours – are angry; the men want to resist, but the women are worried what will happen to them. While they express their frustrations amongst themselves, the light intensity floods in through the wall. A calm descends, and the children dance their way across the stage and out of the room. The woman in grey reappears, a muse indicating a way forward for Towler, who replicates her movements and gestures. Towler is left alone in a pool of fading light, her hand raised in an attitude of stoic resolve, or prayer.

Mbulelo Ndabeni: Face Up

 Two figures arrive stage left in the dark. Under a spotlight we see two men, one standing (Miguel Altunaga), the other (Mbulelo Ndabeni) seated on a bench. Altunaga takes off his raffish hat and jacket while Ndabeni remains reflective looking off into the wings. Face Up is clearly about the relationship between these two men, and it works on the dual levels of personal diary and public affirmation. The choreography derives from personal gesture and movement and its philosophical tone is dictated by three phrases in Ndabeni’s native tongue. One phrase states that when we are assailed by too many problems, it is better to take a step back and another that when you take a step back, the knots or problems can be undone. A third advises that even when you feel a lack of kindness in a given situation, don’t give up. From the repeated opening sequence of Altunaga running across the stage, stopping and walking backwards to where he starts, indecision is evidently one of the problems in this relationship, which alternates phases of fighting like children, pulling shirts and jumping on each other’s back, with other more accepting, more caring gestures. It is a constant struggle to retain a sense of respect despite their differences and the pressures they feel. Altunaga is the more extrovert, excitable and sulky, Ndabeni more quiet and philosophical, the one more likely to seek resolution even in the face of rejection. At one point Ndabeni embraces Altunaga, who ducks out leaving Ndabeni holding his position while Altunaga loses himself in a convoluted, shoulder-slapping dance with pumping sobs and the image of bound hands that returns from an opening sequence. After finally exhausting themselves in a flurry of flying falls and floor play, Ndabeni gets up. Both have their hands over their faces, as if not wanting to see or be seen. He drags his friend back to the bench where they take up their opening positions with Ndabeni’s rich, clicking voice saying “I will not give up” as the lights and music fade.

Jonathan Goddard and Gemma Nixon: Heist

The only program note for Heist is a quote from René Magritte: “Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Whatever it holds of significance for the choreographer’s creative juices, such a quote leaves the spectator in total panic of ever figuring out what he or she is about to see. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jonathan Goddard is in the spotlight, adjusting his tie, wiping his neck, pushing at his lapel, his hand around an imaginary figure. There is a figure in the background, in mirror image. It is Gemma Nixon who is backing up towards Goddard. Another man, Eryck Brahmania, enters between Nixon and Goddard. There is a conversation going on in which it is evident that Goddard has a beautifully expressive mime quality. The three form a fluid relationship puzzle, joined but not joined (remember the Magritte quote). The movement sequences repeat. Estella Merlos (much in demand in this evening’s program) enters into the light, a ménage à quatre. She repeats a gesture towards the ground made earlier by Brahmania, and the same lapel gesture as Goddard. She and Brahmania form a duet, melting into one another, turning, lifting, to a rumbling, driving, ticking soundtrack by Miguel Marin. Goddard and Nixon are sitting close by, watching until Nixon gets up to repeat Merlos’ gestures. The two men now partner the two women, starting with the same movements and then mutating them. The relations between the four are constantly shifting, formally and emotionally. The final statement before the lights fade is an enigmatic gesture by Merlos with her back to us. Heist is a fragment of a work, but a beautiful one. Despite the Magritte quote, this is the easiest work to take in visually as it is not narrative but choreographic in structure. There is no story to worry about, only patterns changing, reversing, repeating; it is the overall form that expresses something beyond what we are seeing. Heist seems to be the vestige of an original idea for the work; the idea has changed but the name hasn’t. Very Magritte.

Patricia Okenwa: Viriditas

 Viriditas, as the program notes explain, is a word associated with abbess Hildegard von Bingen and has many connotations, but fecundity is the one that seems to have struck a chord with Patricia Okenwa and her designer, Hyemi Shin: the stage is covered in white, polystyrene eggs of all sizes. Before the performance can begin, the stage manager and his assistant are placing them, carefully at first in a circle in the centre, then increasingly randomly around the stage, emptying out the last few with a suggestion of impatience. In the dark we hear what sounds like an ancient drawbridge descending, and a thundering avalanche followed the call of displaced ravens, a medieval prologue to Mark Bowden’s score, Viriditas. After such a cataclysmic event there shouldn’t be many eggs left, but as the lights come up five women in flowing grey robes and crocheted cowls are kneeling among them, unharmed and intact. The program notes explain that there are ‘six types of material’ in the music, ‘all derived from a continuous and never repeating melodic line, intertwined to create a continually shifting structure that moves between moments of tranquil calmness and erratic, hocketing episodes.’ In the Q&A after the performance Bowden has a simpler explanation and a revised figure: there are five women, five distinct characters and five corresponding types of music ‘chopped up into lots of little bits and mixed up into a structure so these five characteristics intertwine with each other.’ The costumes suggest an ecclesiastical setting, and the intensity of this medieval play without words is charged with religious fervor. Hannah Rudd is the first character to break out of the circle, light and jaunty, and a second follows to a darker, more moody theme. A third character is more frenetic and Antonette Dayrit is positively possessed, dancing out a wild ritual in expiation or exorcism of animal spirits. There are sections of healing and mutual encouragement, as when the four women watch Estela Merlos dance cathartically as the chosen sister. However, the brooding sense of ritual exorcism and self-flagellation continues to a dramatic climax with the crash of a gong. It is Rudd who then brings back an element of calm after a moment of silence. The women minister to Merlos who has dropped from exhaustion, lifting her up and circling around the egg-strewn stage in a final redemptive procession.

 


Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Rambert Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells, Mixed Bill, May 17.

There are two perspectives from which to view Rambert’s recent program at Sadler’s Wells: the historical and the spatial. The range of styles of the four works spans 100 years, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune of 1912 (in its 1967 staging by Ann Whitley) to artistic director Mark Baldwin’s response to it, What Wild Ecstasy. Itzik Galili’s SUB, created on his own company in 2009, and Siobhan Davies’ 1995 gem, The Art of Touch, are more recent but almost diametrically opposed in approach. Is it possible for a company to do justice to four such diverse works in a single evening? The answer to this could well depend on the spatial perspective, which is the view the spectator has of the stage. No choreographer creates a work with dancers in a studio two floors below across the road, so viewing a work from the perspective of the Second Circle at Sadler’s Wells is to see it in a way that was never intended. Seated in the stalls, you only have to be concerned by the historical perspective; sitting in the Second Circle, it could be the historical or the spatial, or a mixture of the two.

One thing that can be seen from above is pattern. Fortunately there is plenty of that in Itzik Galili’s SUB and the lighting by Yaron Abulafia is particularly sculptural. SUB starts with an explosion of thunder in the dark. A lone figure dances in a circle of light, naked but for what seems to be a long tutu that adds to the all-male cast’s androgynous look as the lighting blasts the dancers’ skin. (I gather later from a critic who sat in the stalls, that the costume is in fact an army greatcoat worn as a kilt). Adding the relentless pulse of Michael Gordon’s string quartet, Weather One, to the white light and military imagery, the scene is set for a work that is in turn hard-edged, nervy and menacing. These qualities are laid down on each layer of music, choreography and lighting. Indeed, the time coding of the lighting is so intimately linked to a commercial recording of the score that the quartet cannot be played live, giving a sense that SUB has been choreographed in light as much as in movement. Abulafia has created shadows on the stage in which a line of dancers will lurk while a duet or trio takes place in the light and the dancers never seem to exit; they glide instead into dark light, giving the work a feeling of constant intense activity. He also forms lines of light in front of the wings, like a lintel (this you wouldn’t see from the stalls, because the lighting designer has the added advantage of working like an architect with a plan). The choreographic structure is closely based on the rhythmic episodes in the music. There are constant juxtapositions of chaos and order, storm and calm, with complex spacing and interweaving that will suddenly transform into a line. The seven men dance for all they are worth, taking risks with their own force and in last-minute catches. The frenetic movement slows into a duet or trio accentuating the lines of the dancers slowly stretching into their shapes while others watch in their line of light at the side of the stage. The quiet is shattered by another explosion of energy, a frenetic movement that resolves in a line of dancers across the front of the stage watching a solo that has the feel of an interrogation under blinding light. Now we see the posse of men break out into seven wild solos that build in intensity until it re-forms with all seven jumping in unison to the rhythm of the music, reducing the evocative strings to a pounding, ominous pulse. Six men line up on the front of the stage, now facing the audience like a line of security guards, while the movements of a single dancer behind them fade in the dying of the light and the music.

Siobhan Davies’ The Art of Touch is a work that should definitely be seen close up. Her inspiration was ‘how a musician’s hand touches the keyboard and how the plectrum makes contact with the strings.’ How intimate and intricate is that? There are so many subtleties of gesture that get lost in seeing it from an upper balcony seat. Later, when I see the film of the original cast on the Siobhan Davies digital archive (see links), it is a revelation.

Harpsichord is not the easiest of instruments to listen to (Sir Thomas Beecham once likened its sound to two skeletons copulating on a tin roof), but there is a sumptuous quality to the playing by Carole Cerasi of five keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the specially commissioned Sette Canzoni of Matteo Fargion. Mathematics apart, the work is set in seven movements for seven dancers. Seeing the work close up on screen, the choreography is so rich and ripe it just bursts on to the stage from the first moment. Thrilling. It is difficult to know if the Rambert dancers are underplaying the subtleties of gesture, or if my own spatial perspective is the reason why what I see on stage is not what I see later on the screen. Not all is lost, however: in the second sonata duet you can feel the gentleness of his touch on her stomach, and in the solo in the third sonata (originally danced by the late Gill Clarke) there are beautiful arm movements, swaying behind the back and the head thrown back in abandon. When the buoyant Scarlatti ends and the reflective, introspective Fargion begins, there is a clear break, psychologically and choreographically. It doesn’t last long. In the following section there is a relentless volley of notes to which a line of dancers one behind the other bourré like a caterpillar on speed. There are spirited games, an element of madness and chaos, patterns flowing from one group to another, solos and duets, and a line wheeling around to a final diagonal, in which the movement seems caught in suspended animation.

The stage is beautifully set by David Buckland, reminiscent of a Paul Klee painting, the colour of reddish cork, and as soft. Now that I have seen the original cast, I notice the costumes have changed since those first performances; a turquoise waistcoat stands out as a vestige of Scarlatti himself. Even if the experience of seeing The Art of Touch from the Second Circle is frustratingly incomplete, it has led to an appreciation of the work through other means. This is the advantage of a digital archive.

When L’après midi d’un faune was first performed at Covent Garden, Diaghilev had made Les Ballets Russes the centre of artistic endeavour: he was determined to make the ballet a catalyst for all that was modern and exciting in the arts. Nijinsky was in his prime as a dancer and Faune was his first choreographic exploration. Crucially, he choreographed the faun on himself, with a cast of seven maidens to frame his erotic episode. Nijinsky’s reputation is always going to be an enigma to audiences today, but one person who saw him dance the faun, Cyril Beaumont, wrote in his memoirs: “Nijinksy’s Faun was a curious conception, a strange being, half human, half animal. There was little of the sprightliness, lasciviousness, and gaiety which legend has ascribed to such beings. There was something cat-like about his propensity for indolence and the elasticity of his slow, deliberate, remorseless movements. His features were set and expressionless, and did not change throughout the ballet. By this means he suggested the brute, the creature actuated by instinct rather than by intelligence. Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of Nijinsky’s portrait was this lack of emotion, all feeling being subjected to the exigencies of pure form.” If I hadn’t seen this quality for the first time in a dancer just last week, I would not have known what Beaumont meant. Dane Hurst has beautiful line and poise, but he has not that brutish quality. Faune is only superficially about turned-in lines and shapes; at its heart is the animal nature in pure form, something primeval. There is no notation that can capture that.

Mark Baldwin’s What Wild Ecstasy is his celebration of the centenary of L’après midi d’un faune and at the same time his response to it in terms of its outdoor nature, its ‘primal instincts and urges, fascinations and attractions.’ The score by Gavin Higgins suggests ‘Acid House music with its hedonistic home in the underground rave scene’ and the design by Michael Howells, dominated by a giant insect hanging above the stage, enhances both approaches: we see a wildly ecstatic dance in wildly colourful costumes from beginning to end. In the program notes, Baldwin writes about his fascination for the ritualized dance gatherings in his native Fiji and their ability to help ‘bond a community, bolster its individuals and act as a way of releasing tension.’ This is perhaps more true for the participants than for the onlooker, especially one seated so far away from the action.