Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Posted: October 26th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses

Dan Canham/Still House, Of Riders and Running Horses, NCP Car Park Farringdon, October 16

The setting of Dan Canham's Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

The setting of Dan Canham’s Of Riders and Running Horses (photo: Paul Blakemore)

There is something unconventional if not transgressive in putting on a contemporary folk dance event atop a multi-story car park on an October night in London, but that is what Dance Umbrella and Dan Canham have done with Of Riders and Running Horses that opened this year’s festival. It is an apt pairing, for while Canham aims with his dance and music to carve out a space for people to gather, Dance Umbrella aims ‘to be a catalyst that introduces…the audience to artists in new ways.’

Canham is one of the most grounded choreographers I know and has compelling arguments behind each of his projects. Of Riders and Running Horses is the confluence of two principal ideas: to reimagine the transformative effect of folk traditions like the Molly dances of East Anglia, the straw bear festival of Whittlesea or the tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary, and to recreate the kind of urban public space where such events might happen. In his two previous works Canham proved adept at finding language to translate tradition and geography into dance: a paean for his childhood countryside in Ours Was the Fen Country and a tribute to the ghosts of an abandoned theatre in Limerick in 30 Cecil Street. His choreographic ideas grow not from abstract ideas but from fertile soil, from the life of the countryside he knows and loves. This is what makes his works not only graspable but memorable.

In thinking about what might constitute a modern folk idiom — one that eschews ownership and belongs to the life of the community in which it is practiced — Canham has taken aspects of house, jump and street dance as his point of departure for the work. And in the age of the Internet where the concept of ‘local’ is no longer bound by parochial geographical boundaries, Canham has borrowed and adapted steps he had seen in video clips of street dance in other parts of the world.

Of Riders and Running Horses is choreographed on five dancers: Anna Kazsuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tilly Webber and Tanya Richam-Odoi. To be more precise, the choreography developed through both Canham’s input and the dancers’ improvisation to the music of drummer Luke Harney (aka Typesun) and singer Sam Halmarack. These two are the ‘Riders’ in the title and the dancers are the ‘Running Horses’. In other words it is not always clear who is leading the way but once they get going there is no stopping them. It is Halmarack who cuts through the crowd’s chatter with a singing voice that instantly commands attention. Canham has each dancer in turn jump, step or fly out of the audience to begin dancing to Harney’s complex musical rhythms with a mastery of undulation and quicksilver footwork that builds into high-energy ensemble sections with thigh-slapping rhythms punctuated with calls. In between these group dances, four of the five performers merge back into the audience while a fifth dances alone, giving free rein to her personality until the group reassembles. Although there are shared elements in the vocabulary, each solo has variations in temperament; on one end of the scale Kazsuba is contemplative, winding down with sinuous grace to an eloquent whisper of movement, while the space around Egyiwan has no chance to rest. Yet when they all move together they are an irrepressible quintet.

The NCP car park in Farringdon is perhaps more exciting in theory than in practice. Its promise as a communal urban space is diluted by fixing the boundaries of the performance area at one end of the top floor, surrounded on three sides by the audience and an inner sanctum of a tent for the two musicians behind. The stage may be open to the elements but it is effectively a theatrical culture (with its ethos of watching rather than participating) transposed to the rooftop instead of an organic congregational format where people are drawn into the activity to watch, mingle and wander at will (a format suggested in Paul Blakemore’s photograph on the cover of the festival program).

Perhaps because the audience is so formally arranged around the ‘stage’ the celebratory aspect of the performance doesn’t physically ignite the audience, however hard the dancers try and however gleefully they reach out to the front row of hands as they pass. It is only at the end that the dancers breach the wall and invite the audience on to the dance floor. The opportunity to warm up may be one reason for the eagerness to join in but it also suggests a desire to engage with the dancers and musicians that has been too long withheld by imposed convention.


Still House / Dan Canham: Ours Was The Fen Country

Posted: June 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Still House / Dan Canham: Ours Was The Fen Country

Still House / Dan Canham:  Ours Was the Fen Country, The Place, June 7

Ours Was The Fen Country. Photo © Still House

Ours Was The Fen Country. Photo © Still House

‘The relationship between human beings and the earth is very complex, but it is not something remote from our daily lives. Rather, the people/earth relationship is involved in everything we do, and it affects every aspect of our experience….’ So wrote Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in his 1903 treatise A Geography of Human Life, and Dan Canham would agree. He takes the relationship between the flat land of the Fens and the people who have lived there for generations, farming, fishing, trapping and surviving the windswept, desolate, sinking countryside as the starting point for his choreographic exploration, Ours Was The Fen Country. The Fens are where Canham grew up, so the piece is both a revisiting of familiar geography and an autobiographical ode to the landscape and culture that formed him, distilling the people and places into an essence with which we can feel an emotional connection with an indelible sense of respect and humility.

Canham has already explored the notion of place as common denominator between dance and geography in his idiosyncratic history of a derelict theatre in Limerick, 30 Cecil Street, in which a building is a proxy for the town; in Ours Was The Fen Country, it is the Holme Fen Post that is a proxy for the entire countryside. The original cast-iron column, represented on stage by a wooden post, was sunk into the fen in 1852 till its top was flush with the peat surface. It now rises some four metres above ground level, a metaphor for a disappearing way of life.

Canham shares this project with three other performers, all attuned to its physical and spiritual nature: Neil Paris, Tilly Webber and Ian Morgan. Canham and assistant director, Laura Dannequin, conducted the interviews that form the raw material of the work over a period of two years, cycling or taking trains to seek out the colourful characters who people Ours Was The Fen Country and who reveal as much about themselves as the land on which they live: an indication of the trust they invested in their two interviewers, a trust that will be returned later this month when Canham and company perform Ours Was The Fen Country in some of the communities where these people live (see www.stillhouse.co.uk for dates). There’s the man who makes and lays willow traps for eels, the cattle farmer concerned about the viability of his farm, the stress counselor who gives her son the heebie-jeebies, the stableman who has shaken hands with seven members of the Royal Family, and the daughter who feels she is seeing the end of the traditional way of life. Canham holds up a mirror to their lives, like a painter who sees and develops the identifying characteristics of his subject on canvas, but he also honours them.

The recorded conversations are disembodied voices, but Canham pulls the disembodiment out of the ether and on to the stage by the way the performers inhabit the characters. We hear the words on different layers: the original interview, the same words spoken by one of the performers or lip synced; sections of conversation may alternate all three techniques, and at other times they will overlap to provide different emotional reactions. Canham, who has done the brilliant work of editing the interviews, has mined the conversations for their nuggets of wisdom and insight, and sets them in a textual framework like gemstones on a ring. At the beginning it is Webber who personifies a woman who wonders why anyone would want to learn more about the Fens, then Paris speaks about the village he lives in, Canham about Sutton Market and Morgan about the closeness of the rural communities. This is the neutral documentary style, the vanilla flavor, on top of which Canham layers additional techniques as the work progresses. There are projections of the countryside overlaid with verbal descriptions (‘flat’ is a word that comes up frequently) and a little history of the transformation of the marshland into agricultural land, and even into political land: Paris reminds us this is Cromwell country, with a portrait of the independent, cussed and awkward parliamentarian on the screen looking remarkably similar to Paris (without the warts).

Each performer is synchronized with the other three — and with the recordings — through individual iPods with earphones. For those who have seen 30 Cecil Street, the setup will be familiar, with a computer and speakers on a table at the side (updated technology from the reel-to-reel machine), timber to demarcate the performing space, chairs to sit on and some 4×4 fence posts to build a frame for the makeshift projection screen: all redolent of a summer fair on the green, a small-scale countryside laid out before us under Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and beautifully costumed by Dannequin. But it is in the dance that I feel Canham has taken the documentary to new levels of power and poetry. There are no steps that could be characterized as ballet or modern, contemporary, hip hop or jazz; the movement finds its form from the sometimes percussive and sometimes lyrical rhythms of the recorded speech, from the hesitancies of expression as much as from the sly humour. It is dancing to the voice as an instrument, incorporating body-at-the-pub gestures and personality ticks extrapolated into rhythmic steps and forms. There is a sense that the steps emerge only when needed as an additional layer of emphasis or colour, and always echo in their groundedness the ties to the earth. When Webber’s character speaks, she looks and thinks with her, head back, arched back, tensed shoulders and turned-in feet, her stress evident before she starts to move. All the men look at her until they stand up swaying as if the world is turning too fast. Canham is aware of the fissures in this rural way of life (his title is in the past for good reason) and places himself both inside it and outside, inhabitant and commentator. The four characters look at each other, exchanging positions, keeping eye contact. Two fall to the ground then get up, before they all lurch backwards, balanced on the edge, on the brink. Canham begins a simple gesture of slowly creaking back on his chair, until all four performers seem to be riding in place. Moving off their chairs, advancing slowly, they keep the rhythm while Webber articulates her arms and head so expressively within their minimalist range. The music takes on a unifying role as its rhythms urge the characters to find new ways of moving forward together. Keeping their focus on each other, they circle the stage, their steps getting bigger, anchored in the music, now turning, now jumping in place, an optimistic, joyous expression of ‘yes’ in the obdurate shadow of the Holme Fen Post.