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.


John Ross Dance, Triple Bill

Posted: September 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

John Ross Dance, NACA showcase Triple Bill, Hackney Empire, September 17

 

John Ross Dance

John Ross Dance

It was at a Cloud Dance Sunday at the Giant Olive Theatre that I first saw John Ross in his Man Down, then Wolfpack later at a Cloud Dance Festival. Thanks to Matthew Bourne and his friends who provided the initial funds to start the New Adventures Choreographer Award, Ross has stepped up to another level by winning the 2014 NACA Showcase award. As a result his company, John Ross Dance, is presenting a triple bill at the grand Hackney Empire in a full stage production and a printed program to rival those at the Royal Opera House or Sadler’s Wells.

Man Down is a visceral solo about a commissioned officer killed in Afghanistan, while Wolfpack is a slice of contemporary youth culture. Both works make intelligent use of theatre and dance that have pathos, drama and in the case of Wolfpack, a dark sense of humour. Neither, however, prepare me for the first work on the NACA showcase, Eclipse, that Lee Smikle, artistic director of Shoreditch Youth Dance Company, commissioned Ross to create on his dancers earlier this year (Smikle is also Ross’s producer and a former dancer in Matthew Bourne’s various companies, so this is a close family affair).

Eclipse is pure dance with an inventiveness, excitement and musicality that is matched by the beauty and conviction of the Shoreditch dancers (Joey Barton, Kathy Collings, Hester Gill, Eimi Leggett, Joe Martin, Will Thompson, Elena Zube Perez and guest artist Jordan Ajadi) who take ownership of each detail of the dance. All the elements of the production come together seamlessly: the music is a blend of tracks by Greg Haines, If These Trees Could Talk and Ezio Bosso, while the costumes by Lez Brotherston (with original skirt design by Sara Rigden) serve the swirling rhythms of the dance to perfection. The work is based on the ancient Chinese notion that an eclipse is caused by a creature eating the sun and yes, there is a deep orange orb and a smaller black eclipse (both made by Amber Scarlett) that the dancers glide across each other to illustrate the tale. There are global echoes in an opening circle of dancers and a final tableau of arms like fiery tentacles appearing from behind the sun but in between Ross deploys a thrilling use of pattern, space and form in the choreography that to someone who has seen only Man Down and Wolfpack appears to arise out of nowhere, fully formed. Stunning.

How do you follow that? At this point it is perhaps just as well that Matthew Bourne makes an appearance in front of the curtain to introduce the NACA awards, like a palate cleanser in between courses. He ends by introducing Wolfpack, reworked for a new cast (Fionn Cox Davies, Stephen Moynihan, Erik Nyberg and Lewis Wilkins) that depicts four lads who start off a little the worse for wear and work backwards through the rambunctious, phantasmagoric events that got them there. Wolfpack started life as a piece called Occupied for six male dancers in a male bathroom. Ross has evidently kept one of the flushing toilets (offstage) but otherwise leaves the location of the action to our imagination. You get the picture quite quickly, but it is Ross’s wealth of imagery (complemented by Emma Robinson’s surreal masks) and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of camaraderie and self-destruction in his characterization that keeps the performance constantly on the edge. The music, an eclectic blend of tracks by Modeselektor, Moderat, Goran Bregovic, Brian Eno and Fennezs, weaves through the work, sometimes in front of the action and sometimes behind, so Ross keeps our attention moving in subtle and some not so subtle ways, juggling all the elements at his disposal.

Taken together, Eclipse and Wolfpack suggest Ross has the ability to create a full-scale West-End production, and that is almost what he provides with the second world premiere of the evening, Little Sheep. Inspired by the London riots of 2011, it is an outpouring of anger and frustration painted in large brush strokes that cover political incompetence and the impunity of social revolt. Lez Brotherston has moved the street on to the stage with crowd control barriers ready to be deployed where needed. Smoke hangs ominously over the set as does a large painted effigy of David Cameron with a blacked-out slogan that is revealed bit by ironic bit throughout the action (but only fully at the end). Given the cast is just seven strong (the four from Wolfpack plus Ana Mrdjanov, Maria Fonseca and Pauline Raineri) there is no possibility of massing police against rioters, but Ross appears to contradict the combined forces of Lucy Hansom’s ominous lighting, the foreboding set and the brooding complexity of the original score (by After They Left) with an uncharacteristic touch of caricature, first for the police (in full riot gear) and then the rioters. Strength in imagery returns with Maria Fonseca being dressed for action and with Fionn Cox-Davies reeling from a dose of tear gas, but it is only when Stephen Moynihan takes up the megaphone with an impassioned call to arms through to the final capitulaton of ideals that Ross’s conviction comes through. Little Sheep is his first large-scale creation but while the evidence of his past work indicates he is more than capable of handling the subject there are elements here that diminish its full expression and undermine his true talent.