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.


Casson & Friends, Selling Secrets Part 3: Office

Posted: August 14th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Casson & Friends, Selling Secrets Part 3: Office

Casson & Friends, Selling Secrets Part 3: Office, Purple HR, Bournemouth, August 7

Robert Guy in a previous manifestation of Selling Secrets (photo: Helga Brandt)

Robert Guy in a previous manifestation of Selling Secrets (photo: Ian Abbott and Casson & Friends)

The idea behind Tim Casson & Friends’ Selling Secrets is simple: gather information from a group of people and translate that information into a dance. It is the basis for Casson’s pop-up performances, The Dance WE Made and he did a variation of it for his Wild Card evening at the Lilian Baylis Studio. He added themes to the idea in two series of Selling Secrets — Part 1 in a hotel and Part 2 in a pub in Bournemouth — through commissions by Pavilion Dance South West. So successful were they that PDSW has commissioned a sequel, Selling Secrets Part 3: Office, hosted at Purple HR, a small office squeezed into what was once a neat, manila-coloured seaside town villa. It is possibly the first world premiere of a dance theatre work to be performed in an office.

For Office, Casson & Friends — the incomparable trio of Justine Reeve, Robert Guy and Katie Green — collected insights (and the odd choreographic suggestion) about office culture from fourteen people and the entire process, from the first interview to the first performance took five days. Notwithstanding, there is a maturity and cohesion about Office that takes the themed pop-up form to a new level. In short it’s a winner and opens up a host of possibilities for future performances: its portable nature and susceptibility to local stories means it could be coming to an office near you.

The framework of Office is a guided tour of the building for as many people as can sit around the boardroom table. Purple HR is a real company, but Casson & Friends’s surrogate, Mauve, is a tiny creative enterprise that designs, manufactures, hand folds and distributes birthday cards. Once inside we find out we are there not because we booked tickets but because we had won the first round of Mauve’s design competition.

Guy greets us at the front door and ushers us in to the boardroom where he preps us for the tour. What he doesn’t tell us in words he parlays into a gestural dance that snakes and twists, darts and smiles around the truth with a comic improvisation that has us all giggling helplessly. Before the tour he has us look at the desultory examples of cards on the shelves with a view to competing in the final round of designing a new birthday card. The card stock, colours and stickers on the table look as if they are lifted from the local kindergarten. We only have five minutes to complete the task (so Guy can see how we work under pressure) and the winning design, he tells us, will be accepted into the company’s catalogue.

This much is artifice, but the rest — the personality traits of the owner and her employees, their interactions and the events we witness on the office tour — are a synthesis of the real stories and anecdotes Casson & Friends collected. We have to pinch ourselves to remind us of this because reality is (far) stranger than fiction. If reality wasn’t so bizarre (and hilarious) it would be easy to see Selling Secrets as a slick parody or an easy satire of office life. Reeve, Guy and Green are gifted translators bursting with conviction but the material they are translating is nothing short of surreal which gives the performance a double edge of trenchant wit and underlying veracity.

Selling Secrets constantly crosses the line between an interactive presentation of the office environment and a performance of the anecdotal material, seamlessly flowing from one to the other and back again. Guy is telling us how dedicated and upbeat the team is just as a brooding Green mopes in with her lunch box. Reeve, the manager, comes in to demonstrate her control by making sure Guy is following the correct procedure, which he already has.

After the five-minute design task is officially closed, Guy invites us to see how the office he shares with Green handles the company’s distribution and logistics. We shuffle down the corridor and bunch into the office to see how skilled Green is at putting callers on hold — especially Guy’s mother — and then dancing to the hold music. Before any work is accomplished she and Guy encourage each other to take an early lunch at their desks. Reeve appears like a vengeful ghost outside the window spying on their activities. Amid all the office culture is a moment of pathos. It is Green’s birthday and nobody has remembered (perhaps it is this anecdote that suggested the nature of the company). She invites us outside with her birthday cake and a single candle; she lights it and asks us, in a tone reminiscent of Eeyore, to sing Happy Birthday. Through the window we see Guy’s chagrin as he rushes into rearguard action.

The anecdotes Casson & Friends have collected seem to run along two themes: the insidious control culture of authority and the many surreptitious ways of surviving it. On our final stop in her office Reeve gives a Chaplinesque performance of masterful bloviation that illustrates the link between the two.

Guy rescues us by ushering us back into the boardroom where he has hastily assembled party hats (which we put on), crackers (with which we arm ourselves) and lurid cupcakes (which remain on the plate). Green walks in to enjoy the surprise of seeing streamers and hearing Happy Birthday once again, with gusto.

And the winner of the design competition? My card was chosen. Reeve hired me and fired me within the space of five minutes. It was a narrow escape.


Wild Card: Tim Casson & Friends

Posted: April 2nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Wild Card: Tim Casson & Friends

Tim Casson & Friends, Wild Card, Lilian Baylis Studio, March 18

Tim Casson on stage and on film in Fiend

Tim Casson on stage and on film in Fiend

There is something so ebullient about Tim Casson that his Wild Card evening at the Lilian Baylis Studio is bound to be a lively occasion. He takes over the Garden Court Café, the Khan Lecture Theatre as well as the Studio stage and fills them with dance appetizers and main courses that will cater for a broad range of tastes. Oliver Fitzgerald, Chloe Mead, Sarah Blanc and Jen Irons collect stories (in the nicest possible way) from people in the café prior to the main performance to gather material for a dance they will perform later on stage; this is the latest incarnation of Casson’s groundbreaking, record-breaking The Dance WE Made. While we are watching the first part of the evening on stage, these four dancers are editing and rehearsing their accumulated phrases for performance in the second half.

In the half hour before the main performance (it is also repeated in the intermission) Casson curates what he calls First Contact in the Kahn Lecture Theatre, bringing together two pairs of artists who have not worked together before, one a dancer and the other an artist from another discipline. Each pair has been given a speed-dating two days to come up with a collaborative work (collaboration is the name of this evening’s game). The first pair is filmmaker Alisa Boanta and dancer Robert Guy, the second actor/musician Tim van Eyken and dancer/choreographer Dani B Larsen. In Dust You Are Boanta projects a film on to Guy’s bare back that makes him both tactile screen, a live chakra model and actor in his own drama. The film is so cleverly filmed and projected that it is difficult to differentiate the filmed movements from Guy’s own. Van Eyken sings a ballad of a young man lost at sea while Larsen embodies his lover in her interaction with both the story and the storyteller.

On the Studio stage Casson presents three works that continue the theme of collaboration: works by Nina Kov, Cornelia Voglmayr and his own Fiend. Kov’s Copter was first seen as a Place Prize commission in 2012 but she has subtly reworked it from being a duet between a dancer and a remote controlled helicopter to a fable of human interaction with machine. Kov has also removed herself from the protagonist role, allowing her the distance to mould the choreography on Rosie Terry while the copter pilot is the ace Jack Bishop. I remember seeing the original and being more aware of the copter than of the dancer but Kov has now balanced the work to show a charged relationship between the two that runs the gamut from touchingly playful to coldly voyeuristic.

In Voglmayr’s Sonata in 3 Movements dancer Elisa Vassena and violist Benjamin Hooper create a deconstructed sonata in which the dancer’s body, the viola player’s body, the viola and the bow all have a significant and interchangeable role to play. Hooper begins by laying his viola on its side and lying on his back behind it. He reaches over his head to pluck the opening phrase of the glorious Prelude to Bach’s cello suite No. 1 with Vassena dancing her torso on his upturned knees. Throughout the work Voglmayr mischievously sets Hooper an obstacle course, both physical and mental, that tests his ability to return to the Prelude. In the second movement, Vassena gives Hooper a lesson in dance imagination: ‘take your sitting bones for a walk’, ‘imagine your pelvis coming out of your mouth’ ‘imagine yourself a pillar of ashes and your cells are disappearing in the universe’ to which Hooper valiantly submits with hilarious results. In the third movement Vassena holds the bow between her foot and her ear and Hooper presses the viola strings against it to play Bach’s notes in unfamiliar but recognizable fashion. It is a blurring of the familiar demarcation between musician and dancer that is witty and rewarding. Hooper gets his virtuoso moment in the coda while Vassena sits at his feet seemingly unmoved until she gets up and nonchalantly walks him off.

Casson’s Fiend (his definition of wild card?) is a collaboration between himself and computer programmer/operator Tom Butterworth with whom he shares the stage. The work is based on Nijinsky’s ballet L’Après-midi d’un faun where Casson is the faun but his nymphs are multiple images of himself captured in various poses and phrases by an onstage camera that Butterworth then loops on to the backdrop screen when the choreography demands: Butterworth improvises the transference of Casson’s movements on stage so that his screen image interacts with his nymphs. It is complex and the only way to see the logic of it is to watch the screen. Casson is using the technology to explore the dual nature of watching and being watched in an environment of digital manipulation and his adoption of Nijinsky’s lecherous faun adds an element of voyeurism — a subsidiary theme of this Wild Card — to the work’s theme.

The time arrives for The Dance WE Made, which references those who valiantly contributed their stories; it is short and sweet and danced with fun and enthusiasm that makes a strong point of contact with the audience. Casson comperes this part of the show, adding a final coup in which he divides the audience into pairs for a choreographic task: the first partner asks a predetermined question (Where do you live?) and the second answers in purely physical language. The second then asks ‘What kind of house do you live in?’ and the first responds with another phrase of movement. The two responses are then performed together (on stage or in the seats) to form a simultaneous series of short choreographic phrases. Hey presto, the choreographer has demystified choreography in such an unpretentious, engaging way and in doing so has possibly broken another world record for the number of new works created amongst a dance audience in one evening.


JV2: Tomorrow

Posted: April 22nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

JV2: Tomorrow, The Place, April 5

photo: David Gerrard

photo: David Gerrard

JV2 consists of ten dancers from Europe and Asia who are studying for the Jasmin Vardimon Company Professional Development Certificate. Part of the course includes a series of seven performances that premiered at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury on March 19 and ends at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on April 27. ‘Our aim,’ writes Vardimon, ‘is to train and develop well-rounded stage artists in a variety of performance disciplines and at the same time enable them to develop their own creativity. By blurring the definitions between art forms and encouraging collaboration they will be able to create and present work in a new and engaging light.’

Vardimon chose these dancers at an open audition, and they have been working alongside the professional company as part of their course. Seeing them on stage, it seems that any one of them could move seamlessly into the main company, which makes the course rather like a 25-week audition for which the students pay college-level fees. It is an inspired business model (unique in England), an inspired pedagogical model, but as a model for an evening of dance it proves less alluring.

JV2 is in part ‘an ideal opportunity for participants to deepen their knowledge of Vardimon’s methodology’ and there is no better way than to perform her works. Vardimon has designed this triple bill specifically for this tour, creating one of her own — a collage of extracts from previous works called paradoxically Tomorrow — and commissioning two others: Mafalda Deville’s Silence and Tim Casson’s Chapter One. Both choreographers have danced in the main company and Casson is the course leader for the JV2 Certificate, while Deville is the director of the company’s Education Project. One would expect a strong stylistic influence on their work from Vardimon, but Silence and Chapter One bear such a close resemblance to each other and to Tomorrow as to take their creative exploration to a level somewhere between plagiarism and sycophancy. While this may be stimulating and beneficial to the students, the effect of the triple bill over the course of the evening is one of predictable surprise.

On the positive side, Vardimon’s work is always witty, visually stimulating and musically eclectic and her dancers never give less than their all. On the distaff side, the wit, visual stimulus and musical eclecticism can be formulaic, like an overused refrain. All three works have a similar juxtaposition of unison movement and solos, narrative diversions, textual humour, surreal imagery, the use of voice, the overuse of the tucked-up fourth position and an overtly punishing tic of dancers having to hurl themselves to the floor (a dancer’s career is fragile enough as it is).

Deville’s Silence opens with a white sheet entering as a rectangle and turning into a sofa stuffed with dancers. The story of a first date on a dance floor (former ballroom dancer Lawrence James is a powerful and engaging presence) morphs into a crowd of hysterical fans at a Marilyn Manson concert giving us the full range of their voices (Noriko Nishidate’s hysterics indicate a performer with boundless resources). Tchaikovsky’s Only the Lonely Heart changes the mood to a mourning procession at the head of which Nishidate is pulled around the stage on the white sheet like a figurehead or an angel of mercy. In the background a couple is struggling in their embrace: a rag doll girl who can’t stand up and a violent partner who picks her up and lets her fall through his arms repeatedly. Silence is billed as an exploration of loss and longing, but it is loss and longing seen through the prism of Vardimon’s methodology; it is carefully crafted, has all the Vardimon attributes, but it lacks a unique voice.

At the very beginning of his work, Casson reminds us wryly of a dominant aspect of the Vardimon style when Joe Garbett flies prostrate from the wings on to the stage in his boxing gloves and shiny shorts as if ejected forcefully from the ring. Casson explores the music of the American folktronica duo, The Books, bringing out its quirky theatrical imagery in the wittily titled Chapter One. There’s a girl with a talking flower in a pot, a couple in clear plastic raincoats, Aleksandra Jakovic with her pet goat, Maria Doulgeri with a squid in a plastic bag and Connor Quill in a raccoon hat. In between The Books’ songs, Casson explores gestural correlation with both the speech of an incoherent drunk and with upper class conversational interjections. Casson’s strength is in his attention to detail, creating an intricate work — perhaps the most original of the evening — though it tends to default to the Vardimon style when it comes to broad phrases of movement and ensemble work. Although all ten dancers share equally in the details of gesture and voice Casson calls for, Cornelia Voglmayr is the one who is most herself in this work.

Vardimon’s Tomorrow is made up of the past; it is the art of making a retrospective look like an entirely new work. While three of the original works (Park, Justitia and 7734) were conceived with an integral vision — the fourth, Yesterday, is itself a collage of past works — their fragmentation and reconstitution into a new work raises the question of what we are seeing: without the integral vision, what is left is a visual and aural stimulus. It is as if we are seeing the building blocks of Vardimon’s creative process, the very methodology that is at the heart of the Certificate course. Interestingly, even though both Deville and Casson have created integral works, the form they use is heavily influenced by this building block concept, which in turn is facilitated by the eclectic choice of music: Tomorrow allows room for John Fahey, Sparklehorse, Brian Eno, Deathprod, Wagner, Mozart and Spiderbait. Deville’s Silence has a more restrained menu of Einstürzende Neubauten, Marilyn Manson, and Tchaikovsky.

The predominating image in Tomorrow is the vision of a moulting angel (Vogelmayr) in white with an armful of feathers. A flush of other angels swish crabwise like a blizzard back and forth across the stage, accenting their steps with their breathing. Vogelmayr gets caught up in their movement as she advances, losing feathers to the stampede despite her efforts to protect them: a sacrifice of purity and innocence to the passing of troubled times. This is where the redemptive music from Wagner’s Tannhauser swells the heartstrings along with Sparklehorse’s It’s a wonderful life and the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem. The feathers become the leitmotif, but Vardimon’s unison patterns and crashing fourth position dominate the choreography like an army on the rampage. It’s an unequal competition and the feathers remain scattered on the stage at the end, the ephemeral remnants of something alive and pure.