Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Posted: June 16th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Barbican Centre, June 12

Smack That

The cast in Rhiannon Faith’s Smack That (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulu)

The Pit at the Barbican is decked in balloons and pink folding chairs around its perimeter and as we enter a sextet of similarly dressed and wigged hostesses welcomes us with a drink (cider or water) and a snack (popcorn) before we take our seats. All the hostesses are called Bev and once seated we are each given a name tag that carries the same (m)atronymic with a descriptive forename; I am Specs Bev and Caterina is Pearl Bev. In the centre of the floor is a circular arrangement of identical boxes tied with pink bows from which the hostesses hand out one each with instructions not to open it before we are told. It’s like the setting of a giggly sixth form annual dance.

Choreographer and social activist Rhiannon Faith has a knack of wrapping up serious social concerns in settings that belie the nature of their subject. She and Maddy Morgan did it with Scary Shit, which dealt with their phobias and insecurities, and she follows up with a show about domestic abuse that starts with a party. But although the party is the way into Smack That, it is also a form of festive affirmation for the performers who have all been through abusive relationships and have come out of them stronger and wiser. In this sense Smack That is both a celebration of resilience over adversity and a call to action, for what Faith also does is to tap into solutions. In Scary Shit she introduced audiences to cognitive behavioural therapy and in Smack That she works with a domestic abuse charity, Safer Places, and introduces the J9 Domestic Abuse Initiative named in memory of Janine Mundy who was killed by her estranged husband in June 2003 while he was on police bail. Faith is responsible for making Harlow Playhouse the first J9 Venue in the UK, and the Barbican is now signed up and accredited, which means it has a safe place where victims of abuse can use a phone line to access information and a full support system. Look out for the pink J9 heart.

Presented by the Barbican as part of its 2018 season, Art of Change, Smack That takes the experiences of seven women (Rebekah Dunn, Valerie Ebuwa, Yukiko Masui, Maddy Morgan, Kim Quillen, Hollie Stevenson-Phipps and Casey Tohill) as a starting point for a conversation with the audience about domestic abuse. Six of those women — Quillen is on maternity leave — happen to be our hostesses, so this is not verbatim but autobiographical theatre (as Scary Shit had been), a fact that makes the setting disarmingly ambivalent. Just as the pervasiveness of domestic abuse (according to statistics, one in four women will experience it in their lifetime) far exceeds the social recognition, it is difficult to fully comprehend the reality behind Smack That in the performances of these six women. It is only half way through a light-hearted confessional party game when Stevenson-Phipps completes the statement, ‘Never have I ever…’ with ‘been grabbed by the throat’ that the atmosphere suddenly freezes; this is the moment in Smack That when we become aware of how domestic abuse can so easily go undetected until the victim has a chance to speak up. The somber atmosphere is soon relieved by the permission to open of our presents: party crackers and streamers (for immediate usage) along with information from the National Centre for Domestic Violence.

The theatrical form of Smack That cannot be dissociated from its social content; it is a reflection of the need to spread awareness of a pervasive but private violence and to offer help. As part of this engagement, Faith’s audition process was firstly to select women who had first-hand experience of domestic abuse who were willing to work together on stage; only three of the Bevs have formal dance training but the six women work so intimately together that it is solidarity that triumphs over individual qualities. Faith unites the Bevs through an egalitarian vocabulary of movement that extends beyond formal dance training, but at the same time she uses the expressive potential of Ebuwa, Masui and Morgan to add layers of gestural imagery to verbatim text as well as to portray physical and psychological states that are beyond words. It is here that Faith’s work as choreographer rather than director finds its emotional eloquence.

In its concern with social issues, Smack That follows naturally from Scary Shit, but in its loosening of choreographic imagery for theatrical articulation Faith has subtly changed the relationship of the audience to her work and of her work to society. The effects are already apparent.


Cloud Dance Friends

Posted: December 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Cloud Dance Friends

Cloud Dance Friends, New Diorama Theatre, November 29  

Miranda MacLetten and Daniel Whiley in John Ross's Blink (photo: Chris Jackson)

Miranda MacLetten and Daniel Whiley in John Ross’s Blink (photo: Chris Jackson)

Chantal Guevara’s birthday celebration this year includes, before the chocolate cake, a performance at the New Diorama Theatre by Cloud Dance Festival alumni and friends; it is the kind of event for dancers and choreographers to try out new work in as relaxed an atmosphere as any public performance can be.

Elise Nuding, who opens the evening with a first performance of her I, object, bravely juxtaposes linguistics and wordplay with choreography. She writes, ‘This little nugget emerged during a particularly frustrating period of article writing, as I grappled with the slipperiness of words and their implications.’ The struggle is apparent both in her semantic parsing and in her accumulative gestures. As she arrives at each breakthrough in her argument, Nuding takes off a layer of clothes; by the end she has only got to the level of underwear, which suggests this slippery little battle has not yet reached its logical conclusion. Nevertheless I, object reveals a sophisticated aesthetic at work that, depending on what Nuding does with it, makes this nugget either ‘a small lump of gold’ or ‘a valuable idea or fact.’

I am not sure why Mike Williams titles his work 4’33 after the famous John Cage piece of music and makes it last 8 minutes. Why not call it 8’? Besides, a dance in the spirit of Cage’s 4’33 would have no movement but there is plenty in Williams’ angular, long-limbed plasticity though (at least in this evening’s performance) there is a lack of pliable technique to get the most out of it. Cage’s 4’33 contains a world of ideas — his love of silence, the withdrawal of music from the score, his delight in incidental sounds — but Williams’ dance, for all its movement, lacks this kind of philosophical integrity; he points in the right direction but doesn’t embody what he wants to convey and his final gesture for silence underlies the self-conscious conceit of the whole.

Jason Mabana’s Hidden, a duet for himself and Jacob O’Connell, is driven by a tactile quality, part ferocious, part gentle, that describes ‘the ambiguity of a relationship between two conflicted and dominant people.’ Mabana’s choreography carries its imagery with great strength and poetry like a smooth, rich baritone in a youthful body. There is both a singing quality to Mabana and O’Connell’s movement and a silence in the way they dance that leaves our visual and visceral senses free to enjoy the movement without unwanted punctuation. Hidden achieves what it sets out to do with a purity and sincerity that are refreshing.

Humanah Productions’ Egress starts off with a pile of bodies from which the one underneath slithers out with great difficulty to stand but collapses from its independence and returns to the heap. It is a metaphor of growth and departure in the form of a game, one of many ludic adventures in the work that lead the performers to set out on their own paths without forsaking their social cohesion. The games take the form of a structured improvisation but despite the energy of the performers and the inspired live music Egress never really evolves beyond that initial phase of innocent play.

I saw Anna-Lise Marie Hearn’s Our Physical Intentions at the Kaleidoscopic Arts Platform at the Galvanizers Union pub not long ago where the intimacy of the setting enhanced the intimacy of the thought processes that weave their way through the work and where the intensity of Eleanor Mackinder, in particular, was palpable. It was as if we were watching a conversation between three people in the same room. Even though the stage at the New Diorama is not exactly large, the dancers appear isolated in space. Perhaps there is something else at work: the nature of Our Physical Intentions is an ‘exploration of how our thoughts directly determine and influence our emotions’ but on a seemingly subcutaneous level. The costumes (by Inês Neto dos Santos) resemble the patchwork system of the body’s nervous system and the three performers (Mackinder, Laura Boulter and Lydia Costello) are as much a ‘cognitive pattern’ of thoughts, emotions and reactions as they are flesh and blood. Danced stories have traditionally read from the outside to the inner emotions whereas Hearn turns the process inside out: you follow the process to arrive at a story. In a larger space, however, the internal processes (Mackinder’s intense expression, for example) are less easy to read, distancing them from the story on which they are based.

Yukiko Masui’s Unbox is an ‘investigation into cross-genre movements which aim to be unidentified as a dance genre’ in which she is ‘searching for a place that people cannot put me in a category as a dancer or a person.’ Indeed all we see of her at first is the fingers of one hand playing in a circle of down-light, and when she steps into the light we see a heavily clothed and hooded figure with the physical mien of a young man. She moves in a macho, feline way, mixing contemporary and street dance with androgynous strength and sensitivity though by the time she develops her beautiful, spiral movements the female is in the ascendant. Having expressed so succinctly in dance form the strength and ambiguity of her presence, the conclusion of Unbox appears to contradict the latter part of Masui’s goal: she makes a point of categorizing her identity by letting down her hair and removing layers of clothing. The mystery has evaporated.

In John Ross’s work, Blink — a single chapter previewing a longer work — the symbolic and the expressive are both present in the gestural body. Loosely based on a short novel by Mitch Albom, ‘The five people you meet in heaven’, Blink follows the sensory trail of Eddie (Daniel Whiley) who, having just died and before entering heaven, meets five important people from specific periods in his life. This episode involves his wife (Miranda MacLetten). I have already written about Whiley’s ability — in Sally Marie’s I loved you and I loved you — to plumb the depths of a movement to present us with the clarity of the imperceptible. In Blink Ross works with this ability, exploring the form and substance of a man whose memory is so far detached from the living as to borrow from a spectral world. At one point MacLetten calls his name, which sends a shudder of recognition through Whiley and brings out tears of distant recollection. His body is the material of this dematerialization, a duality Ross expresses in and out of light, seen and not seen. The intriguing power of Blink is the way Ross brings together these contradictions to make visible a relationship that MacLetten remembers all too well but Whiley only senses through his faltering gestures: his nose nuzzling her shoulder, his dancing with her on her toes as if he has no weight or motion of his own or in his tremulous singing an old, shared song. Ross is adept at creating these kind of in-between experiences, between life and death, between remembrance and loss with a subtlety and sensitivity that both MacLetten and Whiley embody so convincingly and that composer Greg Haines nurtures with a haunting, other-worldly solo piano score. Blink may be a fragment, but it contains the promise of something substantial.

I can’t help sensing Estela Merlos is slaying some of her demons in her solo, UKOK, so fiercely provocative is it. Merlos has a lot of fire in the flash of her eyes but there is also a poetic flow in the powerful dislocation of space her movement provokes. While she writes that the work is ‘inspired by the alliance of women with nature in nomadic culture’, Merlos clearly identifies viscerally with the ‘intuition and vigilance of the feminine figure’: she transforms it into a force that surges through her body to the extremities of her splayed fingers and stamping feet with total conviction. It is a fitting conclusion to an evening that celebrates Chantal Guevara’s love of and determination to promote the rich seam of independent dance.