Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Posted: July 2nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Knowbody II, Elixir Festival 2017

Knowbody II, Elixir Festival, Sadler’s Wells, June 24

ELIXIR FESTIVAL at Sadler’s Wells, London, UK ; 22 June 2017 ; Credit : Johan Persson

Company of Elders in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here (photo: Johan Persson)

Something interesting has happened to the bipartite formula for Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir dance festival celebrating lifelong creativity. Three year’s ago, the main stage performance Knowbody I was clearly the headliner of the festival while the Extracts, based predominantly on community dance, were the supporting acts. This year the quality of Knowbody II has declined while the first evening of Extracts has shown a marked advance in mature amateur dance to a middle ground between community dance and the main stage. One of the reasons is that the current programming of Elixir has not reflected what has been happening in mature dance in the intervening three years, both in this country and in Europe. Despite Sadler’s Wells membership of the large-scale, EU funded co-operation project, Dance On, Pass On, Dream On (DOPODO), that nine dance institutions from eight countries have developed to address ageism in the dance sector and in society, this year’s Elixir has the same format, some of the same performers, and the same division between professional and amateur companies as before. While the inclusion of Berlin’s Dance On Ensemble (a professional company for the over-40s) and some amateur performances from Holland, Germany and Denmark in the Extracts are welcome, it is a shame that Charlotta Öfverholm’s company Jus de la Vie, a signatory of the DOPODO agreement, could not be included on the main stage event this year. Öfverholm’s presence alone would have countered the tiresome absurdity of Annie-B Parson’s The Road Awaits Us and the misplaced, if respectful inclusion of Robert Cohan’s Forest Revisited. And if Elixir is addressing ageism in dance, why are such artists as Wendy Houstoun and Liz Aggiss, who are battling on the same front, missing from the lineup for the second time? But there is a much larger question that Sadler’s Wells’ own flagship Company of Elders raises that remains to be resolved.

There is a fundamental but vitally important distinction between presenting age on stage and celebrating age on stage. To watch Ana Laguna and Yvan Auzely on the main stage in Mats Ek’s Axe is to celebrate the unique contribution of the mature performer, and the same is true of the performance by Holland Dance of Jérôme Meyer and Isabelle Chaffaud’s My tasteful life in the first program of Extracts. It is not the difference between amateur and professional that counts but the degree to which performers can project their maturity in all its richness and complexity. This doesn’t happen, however, in Shobana Jeyasingh’s Here, choreographed for Company of Elders as part of Knowbody II; it opens promisingly with a wash of crimson costumes in glorious light but descends quickly to a composition of seated dancers waving arms, and such is the design of the chairs and the way the dancers are seated that a comparison with wheelchairs is unavoidable. This is a display of age dressed in glorious costumes and lights where the individuality of the dancers is replaced, in formal terms, by the identity of the group. If someone of Jeyasingh’s creativity cannot make a work on Company of Elders that celebrates their age, there is a problem. Perhaps the makeup of the company means she has had to create on the abilities of the weaker members to the detriment of the expressivity of the stronger ones, but no work of value can ensue from this compromise and the notion of a flagship company for mature dance sinks with it. For all the advantages Company of Elders receives as the Sadler’s Wells resident performance group for the over-60s — working with renowned choreographers, a highly visible platform, touring and high production values — its qualities are no more developed than its counterparts in Brighton, Ipswich, East London and Greenwich (all of whom were presented next door in Extracts). It would seem the opportunities laid at Company of Elders’ feet are being exploited rather than fully realised. Auditions may be one way forward and a re-selection of current members according to ability. And if Sadler’s Wells wants Company of Elders to share the main stage with professional dancers, shouldn’t they, too, be paid?

Another feature of this edition of Elixir that compromises its value is the presence of so many young dancers on the main stage program. Pascal Merighi, who choreographed a solo for Dominique Mercy at the last Elixir has for this one created a duet for Mercy and his daughter, Thusnelda. Why? In Forest Revisited, some of the dancers who once performed Robert Cohan’s Forest (Kenneth Tharp, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, and Christopher Bannerman, joined by a younger Paul Liburd) are seen teaching it to a new generation. Is Elixir becoming an intergenerational festival? Artistic director Alastair Spalding describes Elixir as ‘an evening featuring choreography created and danced by older artists’ while his programmers seem to be doing something else. What Extracts has confirmed, however, is that works for mature dancers are gaining in quality and interest; hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years for the next edition of Elixir festival to see mature dancers in a new category of work that is currently coming of age.


Wendy Houstoun: 50 Acts

Posted: November 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Wendy Houstoun: 50 Acts

Wendy Houston: 50 Acts, Dance Umbrella, Platform Theatre, UAL Central Saint Martins, October 14

Wendy Houstoun in 50 Acts. Photo: Chris Nash

‘This is the beginning. This is Act 1. This is the bit where the lights go down and this is the bit where I turn around and walk to the back.’ Thus begins Wendy Houstoun’s 50 Acts; there is no artifice, just a slight inflection of her voice, but her delivery absorbs all our attention, drawing us inescapably into her world. This is one of the shorter of the fifty acts, some as brief as a stage direction and none longer than a Chopin Prelude. Collectively they contain tightly packed layers of poetry (Houstoun’s own), music clips, recorded interviews, political speeches, telephone messages, psychic consultation, health and safety regulations, and archival film that Houstoun (with lighting designer/production manager, Nigel Edwards) converts through the miracle of transubstantiation into a potent theatrical form exploring two of her bêtes noires: dangerous thinking around the issue of age and idiotic marketing speak.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.’ Like Shakespeare, Houstoun uses the stage, and her presence on it, as an analogy for life (‘how dare you take up centre stage when you are clearly middle aged…’) but concentrates her fifty acts on the latter ages (and some other irritations). ‘I am looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference.’ She does, convincingly, because she is such a brilliant performer.

Act 2 introduces us to Houstoun’s aphorisms, which appear as scrolling text on the screen behind her – almost too fast to read let alone write down, so I can’t really comment, but based on the quality of Houstoun’s live delivery, these aphorisms deserve more generous treatment. A book, perhaps? Dance Umbrella printed mugs and tee shirts? Ironically all I remember is ‘Time and space died yesterday.’ Act 3 is a triumphant yes yes yes, and Act 4 a defiant no no no. Act 5 is an affirmative yes to the human race and a sardonic yes to the rat race, in which silent film footage of crowds running in the streets haunts Houstoun who dashes about the stage to avoid them to the accompaniment of one of Chopin’s nimble Preludes. In Act 6 she feels her pulse.

Chopin and Shakespeare are both big influences here. In Act 9 Houstoun recites a prologue in Shakespearean rhyming couplets: ‘…advancing time, which lazy thinking calls decline’ with a searing reference to old age as ‘sadfucks past their bloom…clogging up time’s waiting room.’ It also contains the first of many failed magic tricks to make herself disappear (‘the absence there for all to see.’). Like a consummate clown, she can get away with making people laugh at serious issues, even matters of life and death.

It is easy to get caught up in watching Houstoun perform (the content of the piece) and not realise how carefully 50 Acts is constructed (the form). In her program note, Houstoun writes candidly that she has been trying to make this piece for some time. ‘Somehow the form meets the content in a way I have not achieved before (I have to thank Matteo Fargion for that).’ I have seen 50 Acts three times and each time it is slightly different, but this time I would concur with an audience member I overheard: ‘She absolutely nailed it.’ The form of each act — and of the whole — consists of a complex layering of meaning: sound effects, music, projected text and props reinforce Houstoun’s own finely-tuned speech. The advantage is that whereas she can only speak one word or phrase at a time, this vertical layering adds to her expressive palette like a painter applying impasto. Consider the broadcast, in the final acts, of platitudinous politicians defending austerity measures. The speech is overlaid with off-stage screams, the chiming of Big Ben, a spliced parliamentary chorus of Here! Here! and Peggy Lee singing Where or When? while Houstoun sits quietly waiting in the shadows of her final acts. The cumulative effect is such disillusion that it might come with a health warning were it not for Houstoun’s brand of dark humour.

50 Acts takes a break from the question of ageing to let off steam on another topic: ‘The world of questionnaires, idiotic marketing speak and non-stop initiative drivel has been driving us mad for some time so I am happy to get a little of this irritation out of my system.’ Houstoun dons a hard hat and an ANSI Class 2 safety vest, and cries, Heads! while samples of health and safety regulations like Do not carry loose objects scroll down the screen. She is subject to various assassination attempts from gunshots throughout the piece — one of the hazards of the job — and regularly checks her vital signs: putting a microphone to her heart on one occasion we hear a thumping beat; she puts it to her head and we hear an ambulance siren. Houstoun is not beyond making fun of herself to make a comment about our mental well-being.

After the half-time interval, in which we remain in our seats watching Houstoun taking a breather, an alarm like a school bell sounds. Houstoun brings on a music stand with a score, a wooden stool with a pile of vinyl records and a hammer. We hear an interview in which two women are talking about our need to breathe more deeply and to use time as tendrils that we can pull out as a way of foreseeing the future. Houstoun is busy unraveling a cassette tape. There’s a drum roll followed by another Chopin Prelude. Houstoun stands with her eyes on the score, a hammer raised in her right hand and a vinyl record resting on the stool in the other. On an emphatic chord in the music she smashes the record with the hammer and prepares another, hitting the accents in the music (and the records) with perfect timing until the Prelude – and the pile of records – is finished. This is perhaps what she means by ‘getting a little of this irritation out of my system.’ She returns to the cassette tape, feeding its tendrils through her fingers like a medium looking into the future. ‘I’m getting a cross; it’s in the south: a southern cross…I’m getting a pension….no, no, I’m not getting a pension…I’m getting labels, labeled…I’m just getting the odd word now: tainted, cradle, grave, burden, tax…We’re in a dance hall, a palace of wasted steps…We’re doing the dance of the daft, the half-light limbo, the dead leg mambo, the go-and-get-pissed…All the steps are disappearing, one by one.’ Another, rather mournful Chopin Prelude now, and over the top Houstoun plays the end of a telephone message on her cassette player: Cheers then, lots of love which she rewinds and plays over and over again while bleached family photographs display on the screen. It is an act that has the poignancy of autobiography.

We are on to end-of-life questionnaires on the screen: Did you find your life experience a) satisfactory or b) unsatisfactory? Your opinions are important to us. Another abortive disappearing trick leads to the sound of a woman sobbing overlaid by a voice saying, ‘Preview’. Houston tries one last time to disappear — in vain — before delivering a Shakespearean epilogue imagining the visible specks of dust floating in the spotlights are living entities from beyond who may ‘tell us things we need to learn.’ She places her microphone in the air and manages to pick up scraps of speech and thoughts, not always welcome. This is where the political speech on austerity begins, and Houstoun sits it out under a light at the back, doing a seated soft-shoe shuffle. Acts 47 and 48 flow into one another as the clock ticks inexorably. By Act 49 she is still seated as if in a waiting room. There is a drum roll, but no action. We reach Act 50. Houstoun is gently nodding. On the screen a series of suggestions on how to finish the act scrolls down the screen (more slowly, as time has taken a break). I could sidle off into the shadows…sing a gently lullaby so everyone feels cared for…rage against the dying of the light…like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore…recite a poem. No, that would be too wordy. Lights out. It is the performance of a lifetime.


Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play

Candoco Dance Company: Three Acts of a Play, Laban Theatre, October 17.

Annie Hanauer and cast in Set and Reset/Reset. Photo: Hugo Glendenning

Programming is everything in a triple bill; it can be an uneasy alliance of repertoire and new work, an indigestible three-course meal, or it can be like three acts of a play, an analogy Candoco Dance Company adopted for its most recent triple bill. Two of the acts are welcome re-stagings — Trisha Brown’s Set Reset/Reset and Wendy Houstoun’s Imperfect Storm — and the third is a new duet for Mirjam Gurtner and Dan Daw, Studies for C, by Javier de Frutos.

I saw Set and Reset/Reset last year in the company’s Turning Twenty program and thought it suited the company beautifully. It still does. Robert Rauschenberg’s design floats above the stage, though it seems there is a little less floating than before. Even though there is a structure to the choreography, the dancers seem to walk or run on as the spirit takes them, joining in Laurie Anderson’s musical procession that strolls down the west coast of California with its bells, assorted sirens and vocal improvisations in a spirit of carefree timelessness. There is a seductive dynamic of improvisation in the dance, too, a freedom of movement in which the dancers bump into each other and ricochet off each other with singular unconcern. The wings are of diaphanous material so we see what is going on off stage as well as on, a spatial continuum that Brown clearly enjoys and which is enhanced by Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. The dancers are quite at ease, partly because the choreography is at ease and partly because the dancers have contributed to some of the choreography in the creative re-setting process. ‘Go with the flow’ seems to be the philosophical underpinning of the work, with its random connections, playful exits and entrances and a lightness that comes from Brown’s joy in exploring the air. As might be expected, there is no purposeful ending; the music fades away into the distance and the dance continues until we can no longer see it.

Dan Daw and Mirjam Gurtner in Studies for C. photo: Hugo Glendenning

Studies for C is pure magic. The setting suggests a domestic hearth with a carpet and two chairs, drawn in to an intimate space by de Frutos’ own lighting and haze, but the context suggests a wrestling ring with Daw and Gurtner fully masked and wearing leather jackets covered in painted phrases like ‘Better to Die’, and ‘The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks’. The inspiration is more Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real than Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but the songs by Lila Downs take us definitively to Mexico. In this rich juxtaposition of influences, Daw and Gurtner converse or argue with mute passion in their carpeted ring, giving a rich reading of the characters. The effect of the masks pushes the physical element to a stifling pitch of psychological intensity. Gurtner is mad, and flies across the floor. Daw is upset and stands truculently with his hands on hips. They are a couple that feels trapped by their familiarity, and struggles in vain to break free. The masks add an insectile quality to the characters and the inclusion of the song of La Cucaracha suggests two cucarachas down on their luck going through their death throes, legs in the air, trembling on the edge of extinction. They crawl over each other, Daw pulling at Gurtner’s mask. She kicks him, he howls and after a semblance of compassionate support, the two retreat to their respective corners to the lament, Yunu Yucu Ninu. Gurtner starts to take off her mask as the lights go down. Will she break free? We never see her face.

Victoria Malin in Imperfect Storm. photo: Hugo Glendenning

Annie Hanauer takes the microphone at the beginning of Wendy Houstoun’s Imperfect Storm, surrounded by her group of actors. ‘Tonight we were going to do The Tempest, by Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. But we found it a little wordy.’ Deciding to act it without the text, the only way to get people on and off the stage is to use the stage directions, she explains, and to use lighting (by Chahine Yavroyan) to create a series of tableaux, like paintings layered with costumes. Enter Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio; enter Ferdinand and Gonzalo; enter Prospero; enter Boatswain. Miranda’s already at the microphone. John Avery created just the right music, and Nicola Fitchett found just the right ruffs, hats and other assorted costumes and props. Each character picks a vestige of costume from the overturned costume rack. Sound of storm and lashing rain. Daw puts on his Boatswain’s hat, while others are quaking from the storm, pitched and tossed across the stage. Alonso pulls in a string of lights and drapes then around the shipwrecked group. Victoria Malin begins to recite snatches of Prospero’s lines, which devolve into a commentary on the progress of the play (‘we got trapped in this corner…by lighting’) as three characters fight with two wooden swords and a coat hanger. Malin continues with a brilliant monologue on the courage to stay… while all the characters leave. She then describes the stages of a storm that Daw illustrates in an extended solo, dancing in the spotlight. It is wonderful, from feeling the wind in his face (stage 1) to leaves rustling (stage 2) to whole trees in motion (stage 5) and widespread structural damage (stage 7) by which time Daw is running around in a circle jumping and flapping his arms. Alonso and Miranda enter and Daw is carried off, exhausted.

For all its apparent chaos, Imperfect Storm is a sophisticated work with beautiful writing (Houstoun takes sophistication and writing to another level in her 50 Acts). Houstoun allows the dancers to be themselves on stage while playing a failed amateur drama group without hamming it up. What comes across is a work that seems built up from an acute observation of what the dancers can do, and with their creative cooperation: a work that is not imposed on them, but grows out of them.

We have arrived at the finale, the end. Hanauer muses on how best to achieve the ending since everyone has already left and there are no more stage directions. Perhaps the lights fade slowly to black, or the lights could go off one by one, or there could be hundreds of candles we could blow out, or someone with a torch and the battery runs down. Or perhaps…

And as she continues to muse, the lights go suddenly and convincingly to blackout.


Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Antonia Grove: Small Talk

Antonia Grove, Small Talk, directed by Wendy Houstoun, Soho Theatre, October 2

It was an inspired decision for Antonia Grove to hitch her star to that of Wendy Houstoun. An original ten-minute sketch of Small Talk was worked out by the two of them in 2010, and the version performed at the Soho Theatre upstairs last week evolved from that sketch. If anyone can get a grip on a mercurial, conflicted, miasma of a personality and create from it a compelling piece of theatre that makes us laugh while keeping us unsettled, it is Houstoun. This is not one of her own solos she has adapted for someone else; she has got under Grove’s skin, into her psyche and coaxed out something that is not a portrayal, nor a story, but Grove as you will never be able to know her. Houstoun says of the work that it ‘hovers around the territory of theatre but it sidesteps character and motivation and instead pushes for an immediacy that I often feel is missing from acting.’ Grove sees her role more from the performer’s perspective: ‘The woman, the women, they are all me and they are not me. They are themselves and they are not themselves. They know something and they don’t know anything.’ Small Talk is the confluence of these two complementary ideas.

Grove’s first line of defence for her many personae is a line of disguises. She begins in neutral territory, arranging her props and costume changes on a table to the side of the stage. She pulls out a chair into the centre of the room and wanders back to her table. She puts on earphones and a pair of high heels, checks her phone and takes off her tracksuit top to reveal a slinky mini dress. Attractive and voluptuous, the starlet Grove nonchalantly wanders out to her seat. She looks out at us but doesn’t see us. It is as if we are looking at her through a two-way mirror. Her eyes are very dark and piercing, or would be if they were brought into focus. Instead they seem to stare into the indeterminate foreground that stops just where the audience starts. Instead of looking out from her face, her eyes seem to be drilling back in, trying to get their bearings, trying to find out who is in control. We in the audience are wondering, too.

A self-help relaxation tape is playing. Allow your mind to relax and sink deeper into this place…even deeper…you are in an open body position, legs uncrossed (she crosses them). Just breathe in and let it out. Grove closes her eyes and smiles enigmatically. With her iPod she selects some breathing music. Her voice cuts through it with a nasal American accent, giving us a movie scenario about sweet young American school girls being caught up in a European torture ring, and dying in horrible ways, delivered in a tabloid-dispassionate way. ‘We create whatever we want to be…Lauren lives in the moment…Heather is such a good actress…’ As her small talk threads through self-help, self-realisation and self-delusion in a flawless continuum, she crosses and uncrosses her legs as if they are somebody else’s, slips off the lip of the chair and recovers, in one long, slinky move. She shakes out her hair, laughing self-consciously and steps behind her chair, keeping her gaze on the imaginary screen between us. ‘Exelle seems very innocent, but she knows how to get what she wants…’ Grove dips down as if her legs give way, keeping the small talk going as her mercurial body recovers its glittery poise. Sitting down again, she blows away a strand of hair from her face, traces her finger down the front of her chest, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She continues the scenario about fighting mutants, ‘rocking them and killing them,’ she laughs, opening her eyes and closing them again. She changes to a motivational tape and moves the chair to the side. What do you want to become? Who do you want to become? You have the power to change… She changes shoes, another pair of sexy high heels. She puts on a tiara and takes a single rose stem, poses at the back of the stage, a camera without a film. A new persona emerges, and more small talk to camouflage it. She steps forward like a model, over-crossing each step but slowly, balancing unsteadily on each forward movement. ‘I guess I’m shallow,’ she concludes. ‘I think I’m kind of a chicken actress.’ Her eyes are glaring (and she can glare convincingly), as she picks off rose petals distractedly, speeding up, madly dismembering the stem and discarding the remains at the feet of the front row. Nobody dares touch it.

She sidles to the microphone and sings. ‘Some say I’m a devil, some say I’m an angel, but I’m just a girl in trouble’, her voice a crevice of vulnerability from an emotionally turbulent soul. She throws off her shoes and the tiara and puts on another disguise, taking the time to get ready. Grove takes a sip of a drink and dances a spin to the appropriately named Foggy Notion by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers before downing another shot, losing herself in uncontrolled laughter when she is already lost. Her wig unseats during the turbulent dance, and she adjusts it back in place. We hear the same warning shots as in Houstoun’s own 50 Acts, though here they miss their mark; Grove seems unaware of any danger. Status Quo plays Down Down as the tape continues: And you allow yourself to drift down to this warm comfortable and safe place. Down deeper, letting go, down deeper. She crouches on the balls of her feet and pushes her knees forward slowly to the ground, then bends back revealing quite obliviously her black trunks and smooth legs. She rolls over and lies exhausted. Time for a change of persona. Taking off her wig, she puts on a cowboy shirt, and replaces the short wig for a long one. Donning a leather jacket she stands at the microphone. ‘Funny comes from smart…accidental funny comes from not so smart.’ She tells a crap wedding story she alone finds funny, her eyes looking around, mouth in a grimace. We hear a lot of people laughing, but she is not; her eyes are lost and sad while the mellifluous female self-help voice assures her she is on her way to being able to make other people laugh. Grove steps into the shadows away from us and turns back to reveal a large red clown nose. Good, says the voice. She begins to clown around with crazy moves while the woman’s voice continues to encourage her. Her mouth is in a grimace, then a smile, going through the motions of a twitching guitarist, a crazed rock and roll musician. Punching the air, jumping, bouncing, her wig falling over her nose, she throws off her jacket, and her wig follows. More taped laughter. Another shot rings out; Grove grinds to a halt and puts her wig back on, taking stock. Over at the table she opens a beer and drinks it. At last you love your life. Notice how your outlook on life is enhanced. You are calm (as she drinks a beer). You are working towards the person you were always meant to be. The new you.

Grove puts on her cowboy boots and hat and sings beautifully accompanied by a toy xylophone. The song is interlaced with the other voice. Grove seems to be herself when she sings, but the voice talks of ‘leaving everybody permanently’. We are not sure who she means by everybody. The many personae, perhaps. One marvels that Grove can inhabit them all so convincingly. Perhaps she will be left with herself. Perhaps not. She puts on her jacket, gathers all her accessories, her shoes and tiara into a plastic bag. ‘I want to say thank you to so many people…I’m just trying to matter… I’m just trying to make work that means something to people.’

It is a stunning performance from Grove; for more performance dates, see her website. And if there is any doubt about Houstoun’s ability to make work that means something to people, she was the dramaturge for h2dance’s Duet that recently won the audience vote to participate in The Place Prize final; her Imperfect Storm (based on The Tempest) for Candoco can be seen next week at the Laban Theatre, and her own solo, 50 Acts, is at Dance Umbrella this Friday and Sunday.