Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Posted: April 19th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance

Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance, The Place, April 13

Matthew Morris and two of the girls in Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance (photo: Matthew Andrews)

I came away from Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance at The Place with an empty feeling that had started during the performance; for a theatrical presentation this means a failure. The empty feeling developed into a sense of annoyance, all the more vexing as there was nothing specific I could identify in the show that supported it and it was in marked contrast to the upbeat vibe of an audience who evidently loved it.

The idea for Men & Girls Dance started innocently enough when the directors of Fevered Sleep, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were auditioning trained male dancers for a project the day after seeing young girls performing in an end-of-term dance school show. Wondering what they might produce by bringing two such groups together, they explored the social and political implications of men and girls in our society. As Butler and Harradine explain in their newspaper of a program, ‘Men & Girls Dance hopes to offer provocations about, and ultimately solutions to, what we feel has fast become a problem around the culture of adults, and especially male adults, just being with children today.’ ‘We want people to be troubled’, says Butler elsewhere, to which Harradine adds, ‘To be troubled by witnessing playful, tender relationships. Why should that be troubling? But it is…’

The common language between men and girls is play, and this is where the production works best. The set is covered in newspaper pages, crumpled up and heaped at the back or carefully taped together in sheets like a quilt in the centre of the floor. Leaving aside the metaphorical significance of media coverage as floor coverage, the games played in this arena draw me into the engagement between the nine girls and the five men (including a brilliant entrance for Robert Clark who emerges from the crumpled newspapers at the back, dressed in…crumpled newspaper) with a theatrical sophistication that stands on its own. But beyond this delightful play, the choreographic ideas have the drawn-out quality of blandness with a giggly smile.

Part of the popularity of Men & Girls Dance undoubtedly has to do with the young girls who are auditioned locally wherever performances take place. In London the girls are Pebbles Doughty-White, Molly Beasley-Martin, Maya Demetriou, Belesther Huberson-Abie, Chadni Miah, Neve Seekings, Momoka Taniguchi-Warren, Amber Worboys Sayers and Rania Yarde. It must be a wonderful and nerve-wracking experience for them: wonderful to be performing with these five men (Clark, Kip Johnson, Luke Crook, Nick Lawson and Matthew Morris) and nerve-wracking to be learning both text and choreography to performance level in a short space of time. They do it brilliantly.

The other draw for Men & Girls Dance is that it’s a project whose premise you can’t easily reject: to create ‘a public space which allows play, tenderness, trust, empathy and love’ between men and girls. One can understand, for example, why the Wellcome Trust would want to support it and how the hype around the show generates ticket sales (the run at The Place has 9 performances, up to and including Saturday April 22). But a theatrical performance is more than its premise, and my empty feeling perhaps has its origin in the distance between the proposal and its manifestation. Men & Girls Dance treats a subject that is both light and dark, but its presentation on stage is only light; so where is the provocation, and to whom might it be addressed? It seems the only troubling thing about Men & Girls Dance is the absence of anything troubling. It’s a show the girls in their intuitively playful way might have choreographed and then asked the adults to formulate emotionally and intellectually. While the parallel social implications may well be contentious — the 64 pages of program text are an indication of how sensitive the subject can be — the choreographic manifestation in a controlled public space where the men need DBS checks to perform loses all pretensions of being provocative.

Could it be that an unintended consequence of current written funding applications is that what ticks the right boxes is the social significance and implications of a proposal rather than the quality of the performance which, at the point of application, may not yet have been created? Fevered Sleep has written a carefully worded newspaper about the subject of men and girls to accompany the show, offers discussions on the subject within each community where it plays and has garnered plaudits for broaching the subject — all valid — but it feels as if the company has sold us the funding application rather than the show.


Robert Clark: Promises of Happiness

Posted: May 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Robert Clark: Promises of Happiness

Robert Clark, Promises of Happiness, The Place, May 15

Janina Rajakangas, Stephen Moynihan, Martha Pasakopoulou and Kip Johnson revealing the colour of happiness (photo: Bronwen Sharp)

Janina Rajakangas, Stephen Moynihan, Martha Pasakopoulou and Kip Johnson revealing the colour of happiness (photo: Bronwen Sharp)

There are two ways a choreographer can affect an audience: by leaving the impact of a work to the imagination of the viewer or by dictating what he or she wants to achieve. Promises of Happiness falls into the latter category though Robert Clark does it in such a fun, warm-hearted way that the audience appears happy to accept his proposal (which is the goal of the work). Over two years ago Clark started a project in which he looked at the idea of happiness, what causes or provokes it in us and how it exhibits itself physically, both internally and externally. Clark is a dancer not a neuroscientist so he has approached the subject primarily through the body — through gesture and other physical manifestations of happiness — on the basis that it takes an external cause to bring about an internal reaction. In effect, Clark has made Promises of Happiness a kind of sensory sounding board for stimulating a reaction from each member of the audience. While it is the nature of dance to inspire this kind of interaction, Clark wants to make sure his audience leaves the theatre neither neutral nor upset; he wants them to come out smiling and in his quartet of dancers (Kip Johnson, Stephen Moynihan, Janina Rajakangas and Martha Pasakopoulou) he has every chance of succeeding. Clark does not preach happiness but suggests ways of experiencing it by irresistible example.

It starts in the bar (a good place to start) before the show; the cast collects responses from the audience for their happiness survey. What makes you happy? On our way into the auditorium we receive a gold envelope with A Promise of Happiness printed on it like a formal invitation and on stage Pasakopoulou is at a microphone reading out some of the responses to the survey while Johnson brings in fresh data.

With a mixture of wit and heartfelt sincerity, Clark tries hard to reach everyone in the audience throughout the performance, either by direct challenge (hugs, a five pound note or a cup of tea), indirectly (the revelation of secrets like the colour of happiness), by suggestion (the sensual appeal of the kiss) or by appealing to the crowd (inciting the audience to get to their feet to applaud Pasakopoulou’s dance solo ‘because that is what she doesn’t get enough of’.) Once you start to enter into the spirit of Promises of Happiness you begin to smile (that’s the idea) and from the start the four dancers makes it easy with exuberant slapstick (silly walks and running), unabashed self-awareness and an irrepressible sense of humour.

You could argue that for the price of a ticket to The Place you could buy a self-help guide to happiness in which you could pick up some useful tips on the subject, but Clark’s work suggests something more, something that is elusive in our society. In using dance to express notions of happiness, he is highlighting the vital link between an expressive body and our sense of self (if you haven’t already heard it, listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on the subject). It is not that those members of the audience who are not dancers should immediately sign up to a dance class (though why not?) but that they should not miss in Clark’s promises the physical means to express them; we are not, as Sir Ken Robinson points out in his talk, ‘brains on sticks.’

In the midst of Clark’s physical stimuli he reminds us that emotions (the words ‘motion’ and ‘emotion’, I learned recently, come from the same root) are also an essential ingredient of happiness and, of the emotions, perhaps the strongest is love. Pasakopoulou asks us to close our eyes and think of someone special. ‘Imagine this person standing in front of you; notice the details. How do you feel about this person? Think of three reasons why this person is so special.’ When the moment comes to open the gold envelope with its promise of happiness, we return to this person. “We invite you to take this feeling, consider it a little more…and when you are ready, to call them and share your words and that feeling with them.” In the closing moments of Promises of Happiness the dancers slowly withdraw leaving us to listen to recordings of each of them in poignant phone conversation with their special person; you can sense the happiness these messages afford, both for the giver and the recipient. But if you prefer to give your message in person, Pasakopoulou has provided a recipe for Martha’s Greek Cheese Pie that you can cook and present on that auspicious occasion. If anyone would like the recipe, I would be very happy to send it to you.


Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vincent Dance Theatre: Underworld

Vincent Dance Theatre, Underworld, Brighton Corn Exchange, May 12

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Vincent Dance Theatre in Underworld (photo: Julia Parsons)

Charlotte Vincent’s set is beautiful, the kind that draws you in so you don’t realise you’re sitting in a theatre; you’re in the set. In fact you are sitting in the apse of a cathedral looking down the nave with its endless rows of chairs to a refectory table at the far end around which the performers are gathered. It’s all beautifully lit (by Jason Taylor) to give weight and depth and there’s a mist hanging over the nave as if we are on a battlefield. Underworld seems to borrow from both these landscapes in its depiction of humanity trying to rise above the level of the sordid earth to heaven. Well, maybe. Vincent has always a perspective or two up her sleeve that she drops into the action until you’re not quite sure what you have just seen.

Underworld ‘draws on the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice and explores the art of not looking back.’ For the life of me I don’t see this though there is a mythological aspect to the work, not least in its duration of two and a quarter hours (there is a longer version) without a break. The audience is invited to ‘come and go as they please’ but the action never lets up so there is no need for a break unless you really need to have a pee. Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss anything. It’s a perpetual motion event in which the performers never leave the stage; they come down the nave or retreat to their table that is lit like a Caravaggio painting to keep the smaller details ever visible. One senses the energy back there; whoever happens to be at the table forms a small chorus seated in repose or in attention to their friends’ performance. They cajole, applaud, encourage or disparage with equal vehemence and once refreshed — at one point a chef noisily serves up a chalky concoction they tip over their heads — they return to the battlefield to fight or pray. There is a lot of praying at different moments in Underworld and in the kneeling and abasement you can almost feel the coldness of the flagstones. The gestures are similar but what they recite seems to follow a laissez-faire religious policy covering Christianity and Buddhism (perhaps more). Gavin Bryars’ score captures all these elements: mystery, violence and redemption, coloured with sound design by Mic Pool over which Patrycia Kujawska adds from time to time her own soulful voice on violin. Underworld shows Vincent seamlessly marrying scenography, music and action to produce a monumental mythic vision; it’s a remarkable achievement.

Underworld is primarily physical; the events and actions, sometimes distressing sometimes morbid mixed with a strong sense of sardonic humour, elicit a physical response from the audience and it argues its case in body language that defies translation. The location does not change, nor the overall dichotomy of light and dark, heaven and hell. It has a musical structure akin to a theme and variations rather than a dramatic one; it is not linear but circular.

All eight performers deserve mention: Robert Clark, Greig Cooke, Antonia Grove, Patrycja Kujawska, Silvia Mercuriali, Janusz Orlik, Phil Sanger and Josh Wille. Mercuriali, Sanger and Wille were part of Phoenix Dance Theatre when Underworld was first commissioned in 2012 as a collaboration between Vincent Dance Theatre and Phoenix; the trio has returned for this restaging. It is the unity among all eight performers and the intensity of their punishing, bruising performance that keeps our attention; they are all warriors of the stage who have fought many a battle together under the banner of Vincent’s leadership.

At BDE in 2010 I saw Vincent’s If We Go On. It was an uncompromising (and I mean uncompromising) dissection of the performance process, reducing the theatrical presentation to a point of no return: a case of theatrical existentialism. Vincent had the courage to take her proposition as far as she could take it, coming up against the nature of performance (and some hostility in the audience) in the process. If We Go On couldn’t go on, and in Underworld there are traces of that questioning of theatrical convention. How far can you go to set alight a funeral pyre of chairs on stage? How close can Clark come to setting himself alight? How naked can Kujawska be to step into a bath on stage and have a shower (courtesy of Clark with a watering can)? None of these events go to their full conclusion but the attempt is made. This is not a matter, respectively, of health and safety, of the sanctity of life or of modesty but a statement of how artificial theatre can be. There is also a Brechtian scene where Kujawska performs in a makeshift proscenium of chairs and sacking to an audience of Sanger who claps as she makes successive entrances. So while the energy and exhaustion of the cast hurtling into each other and hurdling over the chairs is palpable and real, these mock events hold us back from reality and remind us we are in the theatre. And yet at the end of the action the performers eschew the conventional bows and simply retire to their table while Orlik adusts the chairs in their rows, leaving the audience unsure of its relationship to the cast and to what has just happened. It is Vincent’s playful, destabilizing intelligence at work, pulling the theatrical rug from under our feet yet again.

 


Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Posted: September 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Carlos Acosta, Classical Selection, London Coliseum, July 30

There is something about the dancers Carlos Acosta has gathered to celebrate his 40th birthday that reminds me of a band of players that puts on performances for the sheer joy of performing. Although Acosta is clearly the central figure there is a thoughtful egalitarianism in the various performances, an abandonment of star status for the delight of working collectively. In an interview with David Jays, Acosta says that ‘In my programmes, people are not just dancers — they are people who dance.’ It is an apt distinction, for what comes across in Classical Selection is the human element, the drama, the filtering out of any conceit to lay bare the person dancing.

Pianist Robert Clark is alone on stage in a pool of light, playing a Tchaikovsky nocturne. A second light picks out an empty chair in which Acosta, dressed in military attire, soon relaxes as if to start a rehearsal of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. He massages his foot, takes off his leggings, stuffs them in a bag, and puts on an overcoat. Any pretense of rehearsal evaporates as Marianela Nuñez arrives. Acosta throws off his coat (so soon after putting it on) and rushes to her. What follows is a duet of leave-taking between Masha and her lover Vershinin based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It is rich MacMillan territory in miniature, and the contrast between the exquisite Nuñez and Acosta’s bravado — she speaks in lines and beauty, he in clarity of force — keeps the drama alive in a passionate complexity of lifts and embraces that dissipate with his abrupt departure and her collapsing on the discarded coat.

In creating the programme for Classical Selection, Acosta wanted to ‘revisit some of the choreographers who have shaped and inspired me as a dancer down the years and to showcase some of the dancing talents with whom I have had the privilege to work’. Melissa Hamilton dancing Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan is clearly in the latter category, the first of three works in which she dances. Last year Susan Pritchard and Anya Sainsbury produced a book on Anna Pavlova (for whom Fokine created the solo) to mark the centenary of her moving to Ivy House. The old photographs show Pavlova at the height of her artistry but with a balletic line that appears less refined than that of today’s Royal Ballet. Melissa Hamilton has a precision in her wrists and arms that is swan-like but a high arabesque that belongs elsewhere. Unlike the musical interpretation (by Robert Clark on piano and James Potter on cello), Hamilton does not differentiate (as in a swan) the beauty and fragility of the upper body from the working of the legs, so we are drawn to her lines rather than to her heart: she is a swan, but she is not dying.

Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography is so deceptively simple perhaps because his language is so articulate and clear; his steps dance the dancers. In Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Ricardo Cervera and Yuhei Choe are all freshness and light, and Choe is quite fearless as she launches herself into Cervera’s arms. Rhapsody is like a sketch in pencil with watercolour highlights in which the costumes amplify the movement to perfection.

As the lights come up on Scheherezade, a story ballet from Diaghilev’s 1910 Paris season, it looks as if two oriental sleeping bags are on stage, a vestige of the exotic design of Leon Bakst’s original sets. The role of Zobeida was originally made for Ida Rubinstein, a beauty of her time whose power was in her mime rather than her dance. Nuñez is a beauty of our time, but she is also an exquisite dancer; she brings almost too much to the role. Acosta has all the animal quality and the overcharged energy of the passionate slave bolting into the harem for a brief, forbidden moment, with his large hands, like a Rodin sculpture, exaggerating his thrall. The extract is all expectation and suggestion: Nuñez is languorously supple and seductive, succumbing inevitably to the passion of Acosta who, after a final, brief climax, is spent. Unlike the murderous ending of Fokine’s full-length ballet, this is a ‘petite mort’.

In another kind of bedroom, an opulent four-poster dwarfs the set of MacMillan’s Manon. Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux is writing at a desk while Leanne Benjamin as his lover makes her sensual way from the sheets to his side, snatching his feather quill and, forgetting it is not a Parker fountain pen, tossing it away with a great deal of force for very little effect. Kish gets up not, it would seem, from any internal motivation but because the choreography dictates. She wants to play but he does not. She has the looks, the sinuous passion; he keeps well within his balletic shell. Their kiss at the end is, finally, believable, but the extract never really gets going, as it takes two and Kish’s motors are not turning over at Benjamin’s rate. He appears stilted: technically able, but without the emotional spark.

A musical interlude allows the orchestra, under Paul Murphy, to let rip on one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, directing the audience eastward from France to Russia.

Agrippina Vaganova’s choreography, Diana and Acteon, is a demonstration of the classical training for which Vaganova as a teacher is so renowned. And Acosta and Nuñez thrive on it. Nuñez already displays a lovely opening ballon before there is an audible ‘Aaaah!’ from the audience as Acosta flies in. Nuñez and Acosta are very calm together even though the choreography, on a bow-and-arrow theme, is highly charged and virtuosic. Nuñez’s split arabesque penchés are probably not in the original Vaganova conception but do not appear out of place as her entire performance is transposed to a consistently higher plane of performance. Acosta’s solo is beautiful, contained and centred, even if he has to put himself back on to his pirouette. Nuñez is ravishing in her solo with a breathtaking series of opening penchés. They are not all particularly feminine steps, but she brings together her strength and poise to create beautiful shapes. Acosta and Nuñez evidently inspire each other, and the coda is thrilling. There is a lovely moment when he partners her in pirouettes then takes away his hands to leave her to continue turning as if he were never there. This story of Diana and Actaeon has a happy ending: by the time this duet is finished, Diana’s desire for vengeance has metamorphosed into physical union. This is what we have come to see, classical ballet danced by two artists who are at the peak of their art.

The second half of the evening is more choreographed than the first, an almost continuous flow of works with the briefest of pauses and no bows. It is a more satisfactory format. In MacMillan’s Mayerling, Acosta pushes his interpretation of Crown Prince Rudolph to the edges of sanity. A three-panel screen at the back of the stage, a table and two chairs suggest Nicholas Georgiadis’s design for the hunting lodge where Rudolf and Mary Vetsera (Benjamin in great form) meet for their suicide pact. Cervera, as Rudolph’s driver Bratfisch, is delightfully at ease as he tries in vain to entertain the couple. Perhaps he senses something is not right and jokes away the quiet before the storm. MacMillan is at his most psychologically inventive, having the nervy Crown Prince move his own legs with his hands like someone controlled by an outside force. He craves the drugs that are evidently on the table. Vetsera has left the room to change and reappears in a light diaphanous gown as Rudolph reaches for the morphine. She circles her chair, he circles his and they meet to dance a tormented, passionate duet that gets rougher until he collapses on her. He draws himself up to the table with difficulty to get his fix. She climbs under his legs and reaches up his thighs. It’s heady stuff, and he is now out of control, throwing her around until he collapses on the floor, exhausted. They take each others’ hands. Rudolph then takes the pistol, goes with Vetsera behind the screen and shoots her. Staggering out, he raises the pistol, looks at it, and pulls the trigger just as Cervera returns. The applause seems out of place, a reminder of another tragedy: it was during a revival of Mayerling in October 1992 that MacMillan died of a heart attack backstage at The Royal Opera House.

Kish is the soldier in Gloria (I can’t help remembering the image of Julian Hosking in the role), and Hamilton the sylph, his ideal image. It is a complex relationship, with Kish manipulating her body with care (his partnering is superb) yet at one point he holds her like a gun. It is Macmillan at his most spare, a poem of movement in memory of his father who suffered in the trenches in World War 1. Hamilton is gorgeous here, her line matching the purity of voice in Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G sung by the Pegasus Choir, and Kish is the perfect counterbalance.

Another ballet of leave-taking, MacMillan’s Requiem is his ode to John Cranko, friend and fellow choreographer for whose Stuttgart company MacMillan created Song of the Earth. The music is Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, with the Pegasus Choir once more in the pit. Chris Davey’s lighting creates an autumnal pattern of leaves in which Benjamin appears in angel mode, moving Acosta back from the abyss of his mourning; his body is finely attuned to the voice as he lies listening close to the ground. Requiem is a quiet, fundamental piece that has elements of stillness, as in Romeo and Juliet, that serve to focus the power of the music. There is something universal here as Acosta seems to search for a sign of outer presence, but it’s already in him. His poignant final shape as he lies down, with his feet raised sideways, is reminiscent of Song of the Earth. MacMillan was evidently inspired by the voice; Benjamin in the Pie Jesu is beautifully wedded to the soprano voice of Moira Johnston, showing the purity and sensitivity of the female form, requiring balance, poise and line. She has them all: a joy to watch.

For the Rubies section of George Balanchine’s Jewels, Cervera is joined by Meaghan Grace Hinkis. Though Cervera has danced this before with the Royal Ballet, it is a version that does not exercise the wit of the music and Balanchine’s playful, devoted response, with the result that the dancing and the music are separated like misaligned colours in a print. Unfortunately for Hinkis, for whom this is the only appearance, neither ruby sparkles particularly brightly.

With Apollo, in which Balanchine ‘laid the foundations of what was to become neo-classicism,’ we see the clarity and elegance of pure form and Acosta and Nuñez bathe in its light. In this central pas de deux, Apollo plays with Terpsichore with breathtaking sensitivity.

It is heartening to see a work of Christopher Wheeldon on the bill. Tryst is a quiet duet that carves space beautifully, as Hamilton does in a simple transition from flexed foot to a pointed one. Her tryst is with Eric Underwood who has the luxuriance and grace to complement Hamilton in shapes that collapse, melt and reform like James MacMillan’s music. Underwood and Hamilton work well together. Left gazing into space on a trumpet passage, they roll together to a kneeling position like two perfectly attuned individuals finding each other.

The evening ends with Acosta drawing on his Cuban roots in a sensuous and powerful work by fellow countryman and Rambert dancer, Miguel Altunaga, called appropriately Memoria, to music by Mexican electronica artist Murcof. Acosta appears at first in a conical light as if in a jar, his torso and arms dancing while his heart directs. Altunaga brings out all of Acosta’s abilities here: power, passion, and technical bravado in all directions, showing us a dancer who is more completely himself than at any other point in the evening. There is also a sense that Acosta is doing this for us, giving back with a generosity of spirit that lifts the audience with him.

In a symmetrical end to the evening, Robert Clark returns to play – this time Sweet Dreams from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young – while Acosta sits back in his chair, puts on some warmer clothes, relaxes, perhaps dreams of his life at 40 in ‘the circle of public solitude’. He puts his bag over his shoulder and walks offstage.

Three years ago I happened to meet Acosta on the tube as I was passing through Covent Garden station. We spoke for all of two stops; I just had time to tell him I hadn’t yet seen him dance. He responded with a self-deprecating, warm smile that I had better see him soon as he was becoming a dinosaur.

Some dinosaur. Happy Birthday.

 


Spring Loaded: Triple Bill

Posted: June 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Spring Loaded: Triple Bill

Spring Loaded: Triple Bill, The Place, June 5

Robert Clark, Amstatten

Louise Tanoto in Amstatten. Photo Ludovic des Cognets

Louise Tanoto in Amstatten. Photo: Ludovic des Cognets

The spill of light from the exit lamps dimly illumines Louise Tanoto’s preparations before the start of the performance (wouldn’t it be wonderful if a performance could start in a true blackout), which takes some of the magic away. This is a finely tuned, concentrated performance that should appear out of the dark with the immediacy and vividness of a dream. Nevertheless, Tanoto soon puts back the magic when Guy Hoare’s lighting works it’s own magic with hers. Magic is not something one associates with imprisonment, but Robert Clark has chosen to take the brutality out of the prison and replace it with heart, imagination and stoicism, suggesting that our interior state of life is enough to transform a place or situation. Even if it is clear the stage at The Place is not a prison, still the sense of poetry and freedom in Tanoto’s sensitive performance has the ability to remove any barrier that may fetter our spirit.

A chair stands in the shadows beside a cell of light in which Tanoto lies prone, toes tensed against the floor, a bag over her head. To the eerie sound of a repeated organ phrase and a ticking clock her hand scuttles out from under her, reaching away blindly to the perimeter of the rectangle. Having done the rounds she gets up and bumps into the chair on which she sinks her head in a gesture of silent prayer or exhaustion. The bag on her head looks like it has ears but she slowly removes it, crumples it absent-mindedly and takes another tour round her cell. Three steps long, one step wide, she reacts to the sense of constriction by backing out of the light as if someone is sucking her life through a hole in the back wall. A masked figure in black stands ominously in the shadows like an executioner, then disappears. A recollection, a presentiment? The foreshortening of movements, the contortions of her body to keep within the confines of her cell are powerful reminders of physical repression, contrasted with an inner life that is both comic and surreal. As she sits bent forward on her chair, two fingers poke through her long hair, two imaginary eyes peering at us. Now all her fingers comb through her hair and end in fists, becoming defensive gestures, violent gestures that with a sinuous struggle end with hands held firmly behind her back. As we contemplate her next move, she faces us, turns her hands over, wrists uppermost, brushes back her hair, looking at us dispassionately. Hoares’s lighting alternates her outer form with her inner form, making her in turn both opaque and translucent. The music now takes over – Katyna Ranieri singing Riz Ortolani’s Oh My Love — providing a sentimental short cut to memories of better times and dreams of a bright new day. As the volume of music increases, Tanoto turns like a record, or a dervish, arms extended to her side, faster and faster. She has an ecstatic smile on her face as she spins out of control and gropes for the chair. Back to the ticking clock in her solitary cell. Tears.

James Wilton, In Cycles

In Cycles is a solo James Wilton created on a female dancer. It is evidently fungible as he writhes through it effortlessly, twisting and turning his well-developed torso into dynamic shapes and lyrical forms that defy gravity with a playfulness that is breathtaking. The title of the work derives from the idea of reincarnation and while certain of Wilton’s phrases repeat like a musical refrain, there is little else in the work to suggest the cyclical nature of life. If the idea has made its mark on his sensibility, its choreographic development has been hijacked by Wilton’s particular form of movement: for such a spiritual subject, the impression is unremittingly physical. I had a similar reaction to Wilton’s earlier work, Cave, that was inspired by the philosophy of Plato and Jean-Paul Sartre, perceptions of reality and the desire to uncover the truth: more the dialectical territory of Robert Pirsig’s The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than dance material. It is as if Wilton’s intellectual questioning wanders far beyond the capacity of his choreographic body to respond, or that his choreographic body is in a comfortable groove and he is dressing it up in different intellectual clothes. Either way, the clothes don’t fit. Perhaps I am making too much of a program note, but it is Wilton’s note, not mine and I assume his note is a way of giving himself a direction. He did seem, however, to be attracted to, and to have unconsciously given expression to his choice of music, a couple of songs by Einstürzende Neubauten that have a dark, secular fascination that roots one to the ground. Wilton’s introverted gaze and moments of existential angst seemed clearly attuned to the band’s sound while his rhythmic tapping with his foot or the heel of his hand engaged with the unctuous beat of the songs. Wilton has no lack of physical ability and his mind is evidently searching. Perhaps he simply needs to breathe in some fresh air to discover the true form of his intellectual and spiritual yearnings.

James Cousins, There We Have Been

Aaron Vickers and Lisa Welham in There We Have Been

Aaron Vickers and Lisa Welham in There We Have Been Photo: David Foulkes

Lisa Welham’s torso is illuminated (thanks to Lee Curran) high in the air but her source of elevation is for the moment invisible. She brushes her hair back as if sitting at her boudoir, bends forward, arches to the side and all the way round to the front again, then languidly reaches up with her arms for the full effect of being artificially high. She drops down through the ozone layer to a crouching position, just off the ground, in the miraculous embrace of Aaron Vickers. For the next sixteen minutes Welham never touches the ground, like a circus artist on a human trapeze, circling Vickers, climbing him, straddling him, and cantilevering her body from his iron grip. Vickers is undemonstrative, allowing Welham to do all of this without once complaining; he seems in his quiet way to revel in it. Some of the partnering is stunning, but it is not always pretty; there are some awkward angles and manoeuvres (otherwise described as ‘a daringly intimate glimpse into a secluded world of fragile dependency’), but this is inevitable given what Vickers has to do to keep Welham airborne. To suggest There We Have Been ‘takes its inspiration from the troubled relationships portrayed in Murakami’s bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood’ (this is my day for program notes) may be true but it is irrelevant: the entire focus of the piece — what Roland Barthes might call the ‘punctum’ — is that Vickers keep Welham off the ground. Any emotional involvement is swallowed up by this overriding physical objective. How do you end such an exercise? Cousins cheats. Vickers brings Welham down from the final lift in the dark, where a third person lifts her up again and Curran’s lighting picks her out as in the beginning sequence. Relieved, Vickers walks by himself into a circle of light.


Vincent Dance Theatre: Motherland

Posted: October 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Vincent Dance Theatre, Motherland, The Point, October 11

Andrea Catania and Benita Oakley

Life is a messy business, starting, as Charlotte Vincent does in Motherland, with menstruation. Aurora Lubos, elegantly dressed in black evening wear and high heels walks on to the bare, white stage with a bottle of red wine. She unscrews the top and slops it against the pristine backdrop at seat level: a dripping red splash. She puts down the bottle, hitches up her tight skirt and slides her back down the wall until she is sitting over the red stain. She remains there for a moment looking at us, challenging us to accept what she is representing. Soon after, an exhausted Andrea Catania walks in and collapses on the floor, like a bag from which the wind has been suddenly removed. Patrycja Kujawska walks across the back playing an elegy on her violin for the two women. It is a sequence that repeats throughout Motherland, Vincent’s examination of ‘the complex internal and external relationships that women have with their bodies, with their sense of self and with men.’ The latter are represented a few seconds later by a carefree Greig Cooke who walks on with his bottle of wine, smiles at us as he unscrews the top and takes a swig before continuing on his way.

I heard a little of Vincent’s pre-performance presentation in the theatre lobby by four young women reading and declaiming their hopes and determinations for their future growth. One of them mentioned a desire to be equal to men, to be respected in society for who she is. It reminded me of a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe: women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition. In other words, if men and their example are simultaneously a benchmark of success and a target of criticism, being equal to men carries within it a paradox. In Motherland, however, Vincent has no truck with this paradox, destroying it in one blow by altering the creation myth: once Eve is with child, Adam is transformed into the serpent. In a form that is somewhere between a modern-day morality play and a cabaret, Motherland, written by Vincent and her co-writer Liz Aggiss, with the collaboration of dramaturg, Ruth Ben-Tovin, sees the sexual revolution from an unashamedly female point of view, and for men it is a wakeup call.

Vincent states in the program that Motherland is driven by sex, birth and death, though death takes up very little space compared to sex and birth. A principal leitmotif in the work is the association of female fertility with that of the land.  The two are embodied by Lubos with a bellyful of earth hitched high up in her skirt that she empties on to the floor at intervals throughout the work: more mess. This earth becomes the land that Andrea Catania is toiling to nurture, like countless women around the world. At one point the entire cast joins in a ritual fertility dance to the accompaniment of Scott Smith on guitar singing Ready for Green. As Smith sings of ‘sowing the seeds of joy’ Cooke is screwing Catania on the ground. Making love might be stretching the imagination too far: the fertility cycle is in progress, but Catania is soon abandoned by Cooke, crawling off unnoticed to a corner of the stage next to a blackboard on which Cooke had written MOTHER in big letters. Vincent is not sparing on the irony.

Another, more urban illustration of the fertility cycle shows Lubos and Janusz Orlik arriving for a picnic, with a hamper and the Sunday paper. They relax on the grass, but instead of reading, Orlik takes prodigious amounts of cotton wool from the hamper and stuffs it under Lubos’s dress to a high-decibel distress signal played by Alexandru Catona on a gong. Lubos screams in pain. Kujawska appears holding up a speaker through which we hear applause. Orlik stuffs more cotton wool into Lubos’s expanding dress. She screams again and there is more applause, after which everybody takes a bow. Orlik’s newspaper is now stained with blood. Lubos pushes away both Orlik and Catona (more canned applause) and she takes a solo bow. She kisses Orlik and runs off. The applause continues.

Although men are an integral part of the fertility cycle, their social role comes in for particular censure in Motherland. Consider the depiction of carefree Cooke when he pulls down his zip and knowingly extracts his…banana. He peels it and eats it with gusto: no need to look up Freud’s interpretation. Retribution comes to Robert Clark when he opens his wooden box and pees into it; he carelessly closes the lid on his dick and screams in agony. Pulling out a blackened banana from his flies he begins to eat it, but loses his appetite.

Elsewhere, men are depicted as sleazy purveyors of sexual innuendo in the Manhood Music sequence, and generally as congenital misogynists who take advantage of women for their own pleasure and gratification. While it is the women in Motherland who punch their emotional weight, only the men dance. Cooke dances as if he is the master of his destiny, a charismatic charm offensive with his elaborate reverence and sleight of hand, but he is unaware that he moves in a series of hesitations; nothing is fully realised, and in his eyes is a look of perplexity. This contradiction is expressed after he plants Catania in the earth when he says excitedly to her: ‘I’m in control. I’m here for you right now’ after which he immediately abandons her. Only Clark is allowed any signs of compassion towards women. His duet with Lubos has a tenderness that is perhaps the one concession that men can behave with respect towards women. Not even this, however, can save the three men later from crawling like serpents through the earth on their way to hell.*

Robert Clark and Greig Cooke

Men playing women get more sympathetic treatment, as Orlik performs a drag routine that has Janowska applauding again. (When she attempts the same routine a little later, she ironically raises no laughter and no applause). Two men who play a rather privileged if tainted role in Motherland are Catona and Smith, the two-man band of troubadours, clowns and accomplished instrumentalists that adds both a lyrical and poignant element to the tableaux, making Vincent’s uncompromising stance more palatable. What lends this polemic of the sexes an air of authority, however, is the introduction of two key characters: 12-year-old Leah Yeger, through whose eyes the world of men and women is filtered and absorbed, and 75-year-old Benita Oakley, whose accumulated experience provides a sense of perspective and dignity.

Yeger is the one who arrives at critical moments in Motherland to question her colleagues, and thus forces them (and us) to examine what they are doing and why. It is her simplicity and lack of antagonism to either sex that brings people together. She tames Clark, who protects her and it is she who signals a truce to the (hilarious) slow-motion battle of the sexes (in which Catona excels as a victim of the invincible Kujawska), and rallies everyone together for a rousingly beautiful rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s children’s song, Why Oh Why.

Oakley’s contribution is based on her own experience. She begins her story lying on her side on the earth, with her head propped on a brown velvet pillow. Smith gives her a microphone and then accompanies her story on guitar with Catona on harmonica. She talks of her first pregnancy in 1956 and the difficulties she faced being unmarried. Lubos is making baby gurglings into the microphone on the other side of the stage. As the baby girl is born prematurely, she is taken away from her mother until she becomes stronger; Oakley cannot stay with her. She sleeps in the open but visits her baby regularly to give milk, until she can take back her baby with her. Oakley is dignified and calm, and every word has the unadorned simplicity of truth. After she finishes her story, she crawls back with slow deliberation to stuff the cushion back in its box, and carries it off like a memory.  The second part of her story occurs a little later. She outlines her mouth with imaginary lipstick, pulls out her long silver hair, remembering how beautiful she was (without realizing how beautiful she is), feeling her figure and stomach. She relates the births of her next two children, in 1957 and exactly twenty years later. Both daughters are in the audience.

The function of a morality play is not to preach as much as to encourage or actively promote reflection on our present condition. There is much to be done, and many pitfalls still to negotiate, like the relation between wanting to be attractive and becoming an object of attraction and confounding a product with its advertising values. As Yeger says at one point, ‘It’s not about the look; I’m a person.’ The presence of Yeger prompts a reflection on the future and Oakley’s story shows that what she has experienced has been happening for longer than we care to remember.

The piece ends as it begins, with its charismatic cast of characters parading on to the stage, with the men looking a little the worse for wear. Have we learned anything from what we have seen? The ultimate success of Motherland depends on it.

Motherland is currently on tour. See www.motherland.org.uk for details.

* I have amended this paragraph after seeing Motherland again in London in November. Its emotional coherence made the balance between men and women clearer.