Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night at the Theatre

Posted: May 20th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night at the Theatre

Casson & Friends and Stopgap Dance Company, Night At The Theatre, Rich Mix, April 24

Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Connor Quill in Night at the Theatre (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Connor Quill in Night at the Theatre (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Rather than contain his work within the confines of a theatre Tim Casson usually brings theatre into places that are essentially porous: think hotel, office, pub, or the street. This goes hand in hand with his method of gathering material: anonymous anecdotes from the hotel industry (Selling Secrets Part 1), public houses (Selling Secrets Part 2), office culture (Selling Secrets Part 3) and stories directed through the Royal Mail (Choreospondance). He has also worked directly with the public in outdoor spaces (Dances We Made). So finding Casson making work in a theatre is a new experience on unfamiliar ground. Night at the Theatre is aimed at children of all ages; gone are the adult themes and sardonic humour of the Selling Secrets trilogy and in their place is a complex plot within a plot within a plot that retains elements of Dances We Made. Casson has created a hybrid story that has the wit of the physical and the playfulness of the imagination, a brand of theatre that comes from the heart as well as the head. There is no gearing down for a young audience and the three protagonists — Connor Quill (just up from the mine in COAL) and Stopgap Dance Company’s Nadenh Poan and Hannah Sampson — know exactly how to stir up creative trouble.

‘When three characters discover a theatre, little do they know that they will soon become the stars of their own show.’ Although it takes place in Venue 1 at Rich Mix, Helen Scarlett-O’Neill transforms the stage into a backstage prop room. The three intruders are seen peering through a gauze window next to a high brick wall at the back and it is not long before Casson has his Pina Bausch moment and the wall comes tumbling down with Sampson leading Quill over the cardboard rubble. Clearing the way for Poan’s wheelchair, the trio explores the dusty props: boxes of dresses (all costumes by Valentina Golfieri), masks, and assorted theatrical paraphernalia. Quill finds a megaphone and interrupts Sampson’s reverie over a yellow dress; she is not amused. He then messes around with Poan until they find a pair of partially covered legs. A dead body? Sampson approaches cautiously and in the suspense Poan sneezes. Unfazed, Sampson uncovers the rest of a doll but in the process reveals a horse’s head than neighs loudly. She faints.

This is just the preamble before the plot unfolds in earnest. Casson has a mischievous sense of humour (as do his collaborators) that blends in well with the wide-eyed expectations of the children in the audience. Quill asks a young girl in the front row how she is and then innocently, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘To see a show,’ she replies. Brilliant idea. Quill suggests to Poan and Sampson that they do the same. They sit and watch the audience watching them and match their tics and gestures. Giggles of laughter. Then a phone rings; Quill finds it among the props and answers. It’s the voice of the theatre’s director (Tim Van Eyken); he has only a moment to explain his concept for the show he wants to make and before Quill can demur, the director clicks off. It’s fight or flight and the desire to create a show wins out over scuttling back over the rubble and escaping. The director wants a prince, a princess and a wizard. Dougie Evan’s choice of Prokofiev’s scores for Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf create an appropriate score of romance and headstrong ingenuity as the three set about deciding their roles and what to choreograph. Inspired by the infectious make-believe of the props they battle with paintbrushes and dusters, cross dress, and perform a trio of arms and torsos. Poan does wheelie pirouettes, Sampson and Quill dance a duet in which she perches on his feet, Sampson starts to seriously groove in a dance of her own, and Poan acts as a DJ on a turntable suitcase. The three are choreographing up a storm and in their enthusiasm miss another call from the director, who leaves a message: he wants a grand finale with 100 extras on stage. That’s 97 additional performers. Quill counts the audience. You know what’s coming. The grand finale becomes Casson’s trademark use of choreographic transmission in which we are all encouraged to make movement phrases that we perform in our seats.

Casson is essentially a choreographic provocateur in the way he blurs the distinction between audience and performer by combining or inverting the two. Night at the Theatre works on both levels, giving young audiences a chance to enter into the ludic nature of theatre with the courage to indulge their natural predilection for combining movement and words. And Poan, Quill and Sampson are ideal kindred spirits.


The Integrated Dance Summit

Posted: May 24th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Integrated Dance Summit

The Integrated Dance Summit, presented by Pavilion Dance South West and Foundation for Community Dance at Pavilion Dance, May 16-17

Rosa Vreeling and James O'Shea in The Point At Which It Last Made Sense (photo: Chris Nash)

Rosa Vreeling and James O’Shea in The Point At Which It Last Made Sense (photo: Chris Nash)

Integrated Dance — loosely defined in this context as the participation of able-bodied and less able-bodied dancers in a single performance (think of the analogy with Charles Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra performing with Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics Closing Ceremony) — is a genre that runs the gamut from fully integrated to polarized with subtle gradations in between. A lot of discussion at the Summit devolved, not unsurprisingly, around the contribution of integrated dance to the efforts to improve health and social services, its potential to engage audiences, and its ability to raise awareness of the phenomenal contribution of the disabled in society — aspects I came to appreciate more fully over the course of the forums. But when it came to looking at the performances with a critical eye, I looked beyond these aspects to the visual, psychological and emotional levels that lead me into a work or out of it.  After all, these are not works about disability but about the ability of each performer to surmount their restrictions to create something that inspires. The performances that achieved this were those that effectively dissolved the barriers between able and disabled.

Both Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and The Point At Which It Last Made Sense by Robin Dingemans and Nick Bryson fall into this category. If the former is fully integrated, the latter goes one stage further by using James O’Shea’s powerful upper body (he is a Paralympic swimmer) and handsome beachcomber head to extrapolate the satire on marketing to a surreal level. Rosa Vreeling is O’Shea’s sensuous companion basking in self-adulation, while Nick Bryson’s dry humour as political commentator keeps the whole structure hanging irreverently in the air. Add understated costumes by Louise Bennetts, a clarity of vision from Guy Hoare’s lighting, marketing photos by Chris Nash that eloquently describe the work without need of words, and the package is irresistible. There’s a score, too, by Alessandro Bosetti but my eyes were so busy my ears couldn’t keep up.

Bowditch’s approach is more personal; she projects her life on to an alter ego that is Frida Kahlo; she does not try to be Frida but chooses her to channel her own history and aspirations and from whom she derives inspiration and encouragement. Kahlo was handicapped by a traffic accident at the age of 18, and Bowditch has suffered a genetic bone disorder since birth but both women have transformed their obstacles into their respective arts. In the emotional and openly erotic layering of the work we learn about both Bowditch and Kahlo, and about the unbounded force with which both women approach life. Katherina Radeva’s set and costumes are as vibrant as Bowditch herself in red skirt and blue blouse lying supine on a yellow table surrounded by yellow chairs in front of two green neon cacti against blue and white hangings. The music you hear as you arrive (the program notes tell us) is the music that played in Frida’s house, the music she lay down to. Bowditch lies on the table dreamily looking at herself in a hand mirror when the motherly figure of Yvonne Strain enters in indigenous Mexican dress to join her; she is the wholly integrated BSL interpreter whose grasp of the erotic texts provides some well-earned respect and laughter. There are two other members of the cast, Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino, whose youthful beauty and movement enhance the sensual quality of the action, laughing with arms and tongues and sharing lascivious glances. The generosity of spirit in the work includes a shot of Tequila for all members of the audience, some unforgettable lines (‘You drank to drown your sorrows but the damned things learned to swim’) and an all-too-human questioning of the marks or traces our lives might leave. It’s all about falling in love with Frida, but it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Caroline Bowditch.

StopGap Dance Company’s The Awakening, choreographed by Chris Pavia, is performed on the West Terrace in glorious sunshine. The four dancers (Amy Butler, Nadenh Poan, Hannah Sampson and Tomos Young) rope off a square with thick black ribbon inside which all the action takes place. The creative line of the work is not easy to fathom, though the common gestures of awakening to the sun and sky are clear; I feel on the outside of Pavia’s thought process but the work has an integrity that draws me in, especially to Poan’s physical expressiveness in his wheelchair. Legs can be expressive but when a dancer has no control over them, the focus of expression is in the torso, arms and face. The Awakening is one of the works in which the dancers with disability are more interesting by comparison than the dancers without; perhaps because their physical and emotional process comes from a deeper source. What this Integrated Dance Summit reveals is that able-bodied dancers have to go that much further in all senses to be on a similar footing when performing with less able-bodied dancers. The Awakening thus creates a juxtaposition rather than an integration of abilities. It is the same with Pavia’s lovely, tentative solo of spirals for Sampson in which her arms are like rays of light. What could possibly correspond in the able-bodied to this, or to Poan’s freeing himself from his chair? He is suddenly in another unfamiliar element and it is an emotionally significant moment. At one point Poan takes Sampson’s arm like a guide or teacher, laying on his hands: a powerful metaphor for dance as a healing art. The work accelerates with Poan’s chair off balance, animated arms once more raised in a ritual of sun and air worship until all the performers slowly remove the bindings from their wrists, drop the material on the ground and promenade slowly around the square, discarding that which binds for a sense of freedom.

Marc Brew’s (i)land also lends itself to the terrace outside, this time overlooking the beach. There is an irony of bringing six tons of sand to build an island on a terrace within sight of the beach but there are technical reasons for it. On this tiny desert island topped by a mast and a vestige of rigging there are buried some seemingly unrelated objects that the Robinson Crusoe figure (Rob Heaslip) begins to uncover. What may be evident to us is not evident to Heaslip who builds with them a makeshift deck chair and settles down in the sun to rest. Up pops the head of Marc Brew from within the sand, a wonderful image like Christ rising from the dead. A third character (Rebecca Evans), dressed as The Lady of the Sea, wanders on to the island to complete the trio. The narrative follows the development of an escape plan with the limited resources available but it is Marc’s struggle from being buried to becoming mobile that holds my attention because his movements constantly express both fragility and determination. There are overtones of Lord of the Flies in Heaslip’s attempt to stop Brew from assembling his means of escape but the relationship between Heaslip and Evans and between Evans and Brew are barely defined by comparison. Once Brew’s means of escape is constructed (an antediluvian contraption with wheels and sails, somewhat like Da Vinci’s sketch of a helicopter), we want him to take off into the blue sky, but this alas is not within the production’s means. Evans returns to the sea, Heaslip remains on the lookout atop the mast, but Brew can only wheel away his contraption. Perhaps it is an allegory of dependence and independence, of freedom and restraint, of mobility and immobility but the contradictions within the work preclude a real sense of integration and appropriate resolution.

Arc Dance presents two works choreographed by Suzie Birchfield, a dancer who early on in her training developed Dystonia that has left her in a wheelchair. She has worked tirelessly over the last twelve years since establishing ActOne ArtsBase as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and advocate for accessible dance, which is the inclusion of people with disabilities in dance-related classes, workshops and performances. In Conversations with Dystonia Birchfield dances with Peter Baldwin and Tyrone Herlihy and in A Sense of Beauty Rosie Leak expands the trio into a quartet. In both works composer Nao Masuda provides a dexterous live accompaniment. Birchfield is both choreographer and central character in each work, a difficult balance to pull off at the best of times, but with the weight of her experience and advocacy it is almost impossible to avoid a polarization of disability: we are drawn in to her affliction so closely that the contrast with the athletic prowess of Baldwin and Herlihy is uncomfortable to watch. Yet there is a moment in Conversations with Dystonia — when Birchfield is supported on the equipment designed by Alex Harvey of Ockham’s Razor and slowly descends in a classical plié as she looks out with those lucid eyes — that is pure magic. The powerful metaphor of support is contrasted with the fragility of the body and force of mind; it is perhaps in itself a pure form of integration.

One final performance element of the Integrated Dance Summit is the Integrated Choreolab, ‘a partnership between South East Dance, Pavilion Dance South West and GDance to respond to the lack of development and choreographic opportunities for artists working in integrated dance.’ The three artists chosen (Noëmi Lakmaier, Kate Marsh and Mark Smith) were asked to choose their own collaborators. Lakmaier choose Rachel Gomme to perform a durational piece that took place over four hours outside on the South Terrace, of which I saw very little as it coincided with work going on inside. Marsh chose Welly O’Brien whom she has known since their days in Candoco Dance Company and Smith chose two dancers who suffer like him from deafness: Anthony Snowden and Kevin Jewell. Anyone thinking they had a good grasp of integrated dance before this Choreolab had yet another aspect to consider: the integration of artists with complementary or similar disabilities. Marsh has two arms, one hand, and two legs, while O’Brien has two arms, two hands and one leg (though I never noticed in Falling in Love with Frida), making a collective total of four arms, three hands and three legs. Marsh and O’Brien use their respective limbs as a composer might use a key signature: an intricately inventive composition both constrained and enriched by the imposition of a set of rules. Marsh and O’Brien know each other well and have a similar clarity and consistency in their collaboration tinged with a sense of humour that develops from an opening motif to a ratcheting up of cattiness in competitive gestures.

Mark Smith is, amongst other things, the artistic director of Deaf Men Dancing, so his collaboration with Snowden and Jewell sidesteps the Summit’s notion of integrated dance for an integration of dance with gesture and sign language. The music is by creative signer Pete Waller, aka Deafboyone, and it is Jewell’s pinpoint timing in his hand gestures to the first song that communicate extraordinary power. Smith explains in the subsequent Q&A that one of the causes of deafness is the scrambling of hair nerves in the ear that impede the incoming sound waves. As with other performances over the weekend, it is the transformation of these kinds of disabilities into a clear communication of overriding truth that makes integrated dance — in all its manifestations — not only a vital element within the broader dance field but a universally valid art form in itself. Two other writers were invited to comment on the Summit: Dave Young and Rebecca Nice. Their reviews can be read on the Pavilion Dance South West site.