Ian Abbott reviews 3 Rounds of Amp by Artists 4 Artists

Posted: April 23rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott reviews 3 Rounds of Amp by Artists 4 Artists

3 Rounds of Amp by Artists 4 Artists at The Place, April 13

Joshua Nash’s Blacklist (photo:Camilla Greenwell)

We’re in the eye of the storm of the third wave of UK Hip Hop theatre makers, artists who have access to two generations of successes and failures alongside their respective knowledge and egos. Over the past 18 months Artists 4 Artists has been instrumental in supporting London-based makers in presenting new 20- to 30-minute works across London venues; they are nudging the community forward, evolving the forms and ensuring people sit up and take notice of London Hip Hop theatre. 3 Rounds of Amp is their third production of krump work in eight months featuring the choreography of Amanda Pefkou, Jordan ‘JFunk’ Franklin aka AIM, and Joshua Nash.

Pefkou’s opening of her Stranger at Home is exquisite; a single bare bulb upstage left, a tight focus of light inviting us to study her face, neck and torso in a simmering krump reduction. We’re here for six or seven minutes and it’s theatrically brave, taking our eyes, keeping them there and drawing us into her emotional states. Pefkou has delivered a number of leading krump performances in the past 18 months with roles in Becky Namgaud’s Like Honey and Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade’s K.R.U.M.P Macbeth – here she is only able to take us so far with her own choreography as a loose and flabby middle section undoes all the opening work. There’s some diagonal crawl towards a downstage right light that is located firmly in the forest of obvious. Towards the end she expels an I Belong Here – a cry-scream harnessing the power that has been building, erupting and passing through her (here as a woman? here as a woman in Hip Hop? here as a woman in Hip Hop at The Place?). This pared down, stripped, minimalist krump, whilst retaining the emotional heft, intensifies the feelings and is a marker of interesting things to come.

A number of Hip Hop dance forms when performed in battle or on stage have a narrow physical radius; in drawing attention to a single spot and bringing verticality, intricacy and detail to the fore popping, krump and breaking sacrifice any ability to travel, to move across a stage, to shift our attention and keep within the choreographic or conceptual worlds that have been created. All three works this evening suffer from this; as we see them move, exit or enter the stage between sections, tracks and scenes the dancers erase any concentration or magic. This also creates the trap of raw emotional fireworks into which krump theatre sometimes falls. Franklin’s AIMagination was the prime culprit in creating isolated visual bursts of energy that exist purely in silos. Displays of bravura technique only satisfy a certain portion of the head and heart; Franklin has used the theatrical context as mere ornamental decoration to amp up solo activity without the responsibility and dramaturgical consideration that is needed to craft, glue and take an audience with him. Although his 30-minute work garnered the most vocal reaction it was theatrically the weakest. AIMagination is a choreographic treatment for an EP dressed in Antony Hateley’s succulent lighting design. 

Blacklist by Joshua Nash is the most theatrically complete (and there’s an acknowledgement in the programme notes for Kwesi Johnson ‘for the mentoring and artistry in the studio’) and the middle 15 minutes brought krump into a conceptually and choreographically interesting sci-fi plane. Complimented by Torben Lars Sylvest’s emotionally rich score (which feels fresh out of the video game series Mass Effect) and Giacomo Bevanati’s wearable wire head piece, the collaborators succeed in changing the physicality, the emotional spectrum and the choreographic possibilities. If this section was built, exploded and dived into further there is real theatrical promise here. Nash offers a mission statement in his programme notes that he ‘aims to change perceptions of krump being nothing more than an aggressive dance style.’ With Blacklist he achieves this and much, much more.

Artists 4 Artists should be congratulated for presenting work to different communities and venues like Richmix, Redbridge Drama Centre, Laban and The Place; that the houses are sold out is a testament to their success. However, from August 2018 to July 2019 the ratio of male to female performers they are presenting (Duwane Taylor, Theo Godson Oloyade, Joshua Nash, Jordan Franklin and Amanda Pefkou) is 4 to 1 and their upcoming double bill of Chris Reyes and Kloé Dean will bring the ratio to 5 to 2. People who programme and produce work always have a choice of who they work with.

Krump audiences have an almost audio descriptive quality to them, with the live reactions of ‘naughty’, ‘mad’ and ‘let’s go’ peppering the air when they see things they appreciate or recognise. A night at the krump theatre is a rich, rewarding experience unlike any other and in 3 Rounds of Amp all the constituent parts of the krump vocabulary are present in abundance – we could play krump bingo with the chest pops, illusions and fake outs – but Stranger at Home and Blacklist have moved the form forward. Pefkou and Nash have pared it down, reached into sci-fi planes and almost Beckettian territory which, although not immediately obvious krump bedfellows, offer a future theatrical promise.


English National Ballet, She Persisted

Posted: April 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet, She Persisted

English National Ballet, She Persisted, Sadler’s Wells, April 12

She Persisted
Katja Khaniukova and her feminine spirits in Broken Wings (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

The title of English National Ballet’s second program celebrating female choreographers, ‘She Persisted’, may have derived, as Sarah Crompton writes in the program, from a 2017 statement by US Senator Mitch McConnell, but it also neatly references the company’s first program from two years ago, She Said. One of those works reappears here — Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings — alongside Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) that ENB acquired in 2016. Although the program only partially addresses the persistently unanswered question of why there are not more new female choreographers in classical ballet, the one new work by company dancer Stina Quagebeur, Nora (after the character in Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House on which it is based), marks the arrival of a distinctive, independent voice. 

It is immediately clear at the opening of Nora that Quagebeur has a choreographic imagination and the lighting of Trui Malten enhances it. Between them they introduce Nora (Erina Takahashi) engulfed in black walking though a door of light followed by five ‘voices’ (Alice Bellini, Angela Wood, James Forbat, Francisco Bosch and Rentaro Nakaaki) whose turbulent gestures form a constant expressionist chorus of Nora’s state of mind. Louie Whitemore’s isometric set with its tubular frame and suspended beams provides just enough volume to contain the storm of emotions the choreography unleashes. Quagebeur, however, hasn’t yet evolved a vocabulary that fully matches her imagination; the narrative tends to pull her in one direction and the pressure to devise steps in another. When Henry Dowden as the banker, Krogstad, first appears it’s easy to mistake him for Nora’s husband, Torvald, and she gives Joseph Caley as Torvald too much convoluted movement to arrive at a single expressive gesture. The subtlety and eloquence with which Antony Tudor pared back his choreography to transform narrative into gesture may serve as a useful guide for her next (much anticipated) work. 

Broken Wings has not been repaired since its first outing three years ago. It has vivid colour and a rich score but it seems — in contrast to the lives portrayed — choreographically quite thin. Ideas like the gender-fluid array of men and the dancing skeletons are brilliantly conceived but outshine their narrative importance; Broken Wings is all about Frida Kahlo and yet she barely manages to emerge from her own story. The stage is dominated by Dieuweke van Reij’s mobile cube that serves as Kahlo’s home, hospital and tomb and its manipulation by the skeletons from one manifestation to the next interrupts rather than informs the narrative. Lopez-Ochoa has clearly built her choreography on the relationship between Khalo and Diego Rivera and although their intense love and fiery intellectual bond appears too much as the stereotype of boy meets girl, the impassioned performances of Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov give the broken wings an opportunity to fly. 

When it was announced that English National Ballet had obtained the rights to perform Pina Bausch’s Sacre du printemps it was a major coup, adding another level of prestige to the company’s profile under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. The challenges of performing the work at ENB, however, differ from those in Tanztheater Wuppertal; there the dancers are attuned to Bausch’s way of working whereas ENB’s broad repertory demands of its dancers a constant readjustment to its rigours. Bausch’s Sacre du printemps never was, nor can it ever be a trophy work. It marries savagery with lyricism to an extent the two qualities live within each other; there is no respite as one emerges from the other. Josephine Ann Endicott, who staged it for ENB, was one of the work’s original dancers. She describes the movements to Crompton as feeling ‘masculine and not pretty, but at other moments they are extremely soft, sensual and feminine. You run with your heart and forget all you have learnt before and just come out and be yourself. It has to be real. If you are not exhausted at the end, you haven’t danced it properly.’ This evening there are moments among the men — noticeably in the transitions to partnering the women — when this kind of commitment is missing, when the mechanics of performing a phrase get in the way of expressing it. The energy and focus of the women, however, continues to feed each other until Emily Suzuki takes on the mantle of the chosen one and pushes the limits of her endurance to a level of artistry the work demands. 


Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

Posted: April 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

The Merce Cunningham Centennial, Night of 100 Solos, Barbican, April 16

Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham (photo by Annie Leibovitz)

To celebrate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust live-streamed three shows in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London) that each presented 25 dancers performing 100 solos from the Cunningham repertoire. In London’s Barbican, where the Merce Cunningham company had performed regularly for the last 20 years of its life, Daniel Squire (with help from Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) arranged extracts from 54 works, the earliest being Dime a Dance (1953) and the latest Nearly Ninety (2009), to fit within a 90-minute format. The idea of presenting solos as a collage without the context of their parent works follows one that Cunningham had devised whenever the company performed in a non-theatrical venue like an art gallery or a gymnasium. Despite the paradox of creating this event in a proscenium theatre it nonetheless offers an opportunity to savour the extraordinary richness of Cunningham’s choreographic thinking over a fifty-year period. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1968, ‘Seeing Merce is always a very great pleasure.’

Denby had attended Cunningham’s very first program of solo dances in New York in April 1944, describing their effect as ‘one of an excessively elegant sensuality’ that contrasted with ‘one of remoteness and isolation’. These two qualities, both alone and in combination, could well define the range of solos chosen for the Barbican along with an all-embracing sense of playfulness and wit that point to one of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s work. In his last recorded interview with Nancy Dalva Cunningham responds with the nonchalance of accumulated wisdom to a question about what dance means to him: ‘We look out at life and that’s dance.’ 

The Cunningham company was famously disbanded as part of its founder’s legacy plan following his death in 2009, so although there are seasoned performers like Squire and Julie Cunningham on hand, this centennial celebration is staged with dancers who have never been part of Cunningham’s company even if some of them have studied his technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust explains that ‘in each city, a former dancer experienced in creating Cunningham Events will work with an associate stager and other Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni to impart the choreography to a new generation of dancers.’ There is more public relations than clarity in this statement as such luminaries as Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Catherine Legrand and Asha Thomas, while absorbing to watch, are hardly a new generation of dancers. Apart from sharing the centennial with a global audience (those who missed it can watch the live stream from all three cities online until July 19) Night of 100 Solos is also advance publicity as well as a preview for a raft of Cunningham performances later this year that the Merce Cunningham Trust has generously offered to companies and festivals free of licensing fees. In the UK these include Dance Umbrella, Rambert and the Royal Ballet; London, at least, will be spoiled for choice.  

The PR nature of Night of 100 Solos clarifies the choice of performers; we can expect to see them again later this year in a Cunningham work on one of three continents — hopefully with a contingent of company alumni too. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Ballet will deal with Cunningham’s work. While his choreography borrows from many sources that include the classical ballet canon his technique can prove challenging to classically trained dancers. In teaching the body to ‘move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering’ (to quote Denby again), his technique is more akin to the requirements of Astaire than to those of Petipa. Watching Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Joseph Sissens in their solos is to see a concentration on form struggling with the dynamics of freedom; Cunningham makes the body dance to its own rhythm and allows us to watch whereas classical ballet both relies on a musical score for its expression and demands our attention. Toke Broni Strandby in his solo with the chair and Jonathan Goddard in his soft shoe shuffle demonstrate how deliciously translatable Cunningham can be.

The influence on Cunningham of his creative and life partner John Cage, who died in 1992, was abundantly present in the sophisticated playfulness of the five musicians in the pit: Mira Benjamin (violin), John Lely (objects and electronics), Anton Lukoszevies (cello), Christian Marclay (turntables and objects) and coordinator Christian Wolff (piano, melodica, objects). To paraphrase Cunningham, what you’re hearing is what it is.


Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival

Posted: April 18th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival

Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, Ramallah, April 2019

An image derived from the work of Khalid Bengharib

The idea of attending the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival was inspired by a British Council callout to bloggers. I applied to write about a dance festival of which I had never heard that took place in what I thought to be a conflict zone in Palestine. What kind of dance might emerge under such circumstances, and what kind of spirit was behind the organization of such a festival were two questions I was keen to explore. As a precaution before applying I contacted the director, Khaled Elayyan, and learned this international festival is now in its 14th edition and is steadily building its reputation with performances from Australia, Estonia, France, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Tunisia and the UK as well as hosting a roster of international dance producers, festival directors, and curators as speakers and guests. I was also happy to see Luca Silvestrini’s Border Tales was on the program; the idea of a festival in Palestine programming a work about borders when its own borders are controlled and being constantly eroded by an occupying state intrigued me. Art, as Gilles Deleuze breathlessly intoned, is inherently a form of resistance. 

Although my British Council application to attend the festival was not successful, two weeks later Elayyan very kindly invited me to attend as a guest for the first week that would include the inaugural Palestinian Dance Forum connecting artists and guests, a symposium on the subject of the The Body in the Arab World as well as several workshops, indoor and outdoor performances. The experience proved every bit as rewarding as I had hoped. 

You can only arrive in Palestine with the permission of the state of Israel, either through passport control on the Israeli side or at checkpoint on the bridge from Jordan. If you happen to be a curator of Arab dance living outside Palestine and your passport betrays an interest in countries like Syria, Lebanon or Iran such permission may be difficult to come by and if any dancer happens to be have been born in these countries and is now living in Europe, the chances of participating in the festival are nil. Nidal Abdo, a dancer and choreographer who was born in a refugee camp in Syria was only able to enter Palestine because he travels on a Ukrainian passport, but his company of dancers, Collectif Nafass — all Syrian refugees living in Europe — was denied permission to participate in the festival. Abdo had to make his ensemble work, What If Tomorrow…a solo instead.

Despite or perhaps because of the obstacles in its path, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival’s slogan this year, ‘Where To?’, is a question the brochure defines as  addressing ‘our national, social, economic, cultural and educational fate and future…in light of a harsh and difficult socio-political and economic reality.’ There is no immediate answer to the question; it will transpire only through the collective endeavours of those organizing, supporting and attending the festival. 

Rooted in Sareyyet Ramallah, an NGO that has a lineage from its early days in scouting, the festival is a flowering of the indigenous development of sport and dabkeh, the traditional form of folk dance. Sareyyet Ramallah today comprises three dance companies, a dance school, rehearsal studios, a swimming pool, a basketball court and a restaurant on a discreet but thriving campus just south of the city centre. The introduction of a contemporary dance workshop into the curriculum came about in 1998 through the suggestion of Australian dancer Nicholas Rowe who spent some years in the region and subsequently wrote a book about the history of dance in Palestine, Raising Dust. Rowe’s initiative led in 2005 — right after the end of the second Intifada — to a performance of At The Checkpoint by the Sareyyet Contemporary Dance Company, which toured throughout Palestine and in France, and then to setting up the first contemporary dance festival in 2006 in the same month Hamas won the national elections. It was not a propitious time for dance — Hamas felt the festival was too western and wanted to stop it — but that year there were five companies from Belgium, France, Benin, Spain, and Ireland as well as the Sareyyet company performing At The Checkpoint. It proved a great success and after 14 years, as Elayyan grins, the public is getting used to contemporary dance, enjoying a range of works over the years by the likes of William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Sasha Waltz, Maguy Marin, Russell Maliphant, Candoco, Stopgap and Protein Dance. It’s a remarkable achievement that continues to expand with a network in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Contemporary dance is presenting Palestine and the Arab world in terms of international cultural exchange that eloquently counters the region’s noxious political climate. 


Ian Abbott previews RISE 2019 at Findhorn

Posted: April 16th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Interview | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott previews RISE 2019 at Findhorn

RISE 2019 – festival of contemporary dance, Findhorn May 3-5

Robbie Synge and Julie Cleves in Passing Through (photo: the artists)

With the upcoming edition of RISE, curated by Karl Jay-Lewin, a little under a month away, I want to draw attention to the artists who’ll be making the trip to the wild beauty of Findhorn and have a deep dive with one particular duo; there’s a strong international presence with works from Canada (Singeries by Mandoline Hybride) and Taiwan (Bon 4 Bon by Chang Dance Theatre) alongside independent, female lead works (Screensaver Series and The Human Clock by Janine Harrington, and These Hands and Ritual Echoes by Crystal Zillwood) from England. There’s a number of collaborative pairings from Scotland/Canada (Paysages Mixtes and Dix Commandments by Katrina McPherson and Harold Rheaume) and Scotland/England (Extremely Pedestrian Chorales by Karl Jay-Lewin and Matteo Fargion), yet none from mainland Europe. 

RISE is a festival of contemporary dance which this year centres upon themes of landscape, the everyday and relationships; the terms ‘festival’ and ‘contemporary dance’ have lost their vibrancy and currency in recent times as everything is a festival and everything is movement-based practice. There is a definite change in the use of language and the approach of how people are describing and curating festivals and showcases; we often hear talk of communities, activism and dance but they turn out to be little more than a hollow program of works slapped together over a period of time with little care for the audience/artist. 

RISE is different — and I say this from experience — as it gives space for communities to form; it offers time for morning walks along Findhorn beach, time for the whole community to eat together, to share stories and reflections on the work seen. There’s classes for professional dancers and for little people with their big people alongside a talk by Simone Kenyon’s work being with women who walk, work and live in the Cairngorms – a work being made in response to Nan Shephard’s seminal Into The Mountain.  

However there is one work which embodies all of the festival themes: Passing Through by Julie Cleves and Robbie Synge. Julie and Robbie have had a long relationship with Dance North Scotland, spending time in residence, making some of the films seen in the work and they’ll present the latest iteration of their partnership at the festival. I spent some time with them recently in Glasgow talking about the work and their relationship.  

IA: There’s something radical and political about the act of sitting. It’s been used throughout history as a marker of resistance; what are your thoughts on that and how sitting has manifested in your practice. 

JC: The thing about sitting is…sitting in the wheelchair the whole time, and people ignoring me, blanking me and asking whoever is with me questions; they don’t treat me like a human. Whereas when I’m on blocks I know that I’ve got power in that moment. I’m in control of how they’re noticing me. 

RS: I haven’t considered the dramaturgical connotations of sitting; but it’s always struck me when we’ve done it in places where the ownership of the land or the environment is a particular way. So for example Findhorn beach. Karl’s initial support was to go and make a film on the beach and talk about it. Sitting there on the sand for the first time…politically it’s a leisure and recreational space, but when we went to Tate Modern last year (the installation with the swings — One Two Three Swing! by SUPERFLEX — was so clever because you can sit together and have this conversation; it encourages social dialogue and inclusivity. Of course for us we can’t get on those swings. But we turn up with this massive bag on the back of Julie’s chair and the security guards don’t question it, because probably… 

JC: I’m not going to blow anything up!

RS: She’s a bit disabled. It’s a bit awkward to ask her. So I get my backpack searched and we rolled down the bank and decided to get down among the swings, and once you’re down there there’s no quick or easy way out. 

IA: It’s about 15-20 minutes to get back up? 

RS: Yeah. We were clocking out the corner of our eyes all these security guards going ‘Is this OK?’

JC: And we were literally right in the middle with the swings all around us. 

R: We also discreetly placed a camera on top, which is a big no-no there. That felt like an act of resistance, but it’s a bit like ‘Fuck you with your swings which are inaccessible and are bullshit around access and your inclusive joyful social experiment’. Similarly we did it on land near Tower Bridge which is owned by Kuwait Oil…in that area there are people with sunglasses from Men In Black watching you…

IA: You’re making a choice about where you make the films. 

R: There’s a kind of cinematography even if it’s quite amateur. It’s Tower Bridge. It’s a recognisable landmark to people. We tried to choose as many recognisable things as we can. We thought about going to Parliament Square. It’s amazing when you dig in to the access and find out what’s permitted. There are all these 10-metre squared sections where you’re allowed to protest. It’s owned by a certain estate. I thought about going into Westminster…going along to a protest and us getting down there and just dancing. I think you’d find that exciting.

IA: There’s activist possibilities to it?

JC: I think it’s pushing the boundaries really. Just to see what would happen. That’s what gives me the excitement really, to see how far we could go. It’s like Robbie’s saying, there’s the leisure spaces and then there’s the one where you say let’s see how many people we can piss off. Or how are they going to kick us out.

IA: In some of the films when you’re in the woods or the beach, you get the sense there’s nobody else around and that has a totally different feeling; we are being let in to your world. But then there’s the opposite. You being very visible in spaces like Tower Bridge or Calton Hill; you’re toying with that duality of look but don’t look. 

RS: I think we both respect that it might be interesting, amusing or provocative, this question of people’s responses and the strange responses it provokes. I don’t want to laugh at people for their responses because it’s an unusual thing to see…us with these boards taking two hours to go along a little loop. People do check in and I totally respect that. But when it’s in the middle of Tate Modern and they’re singing the praise of some accessible, social artwork…if you’ve got a problem with us sitting on the floor, come and make our film better by standing in the shot and talking to us about it. Going to the beach is different. It’s a personal conquest. 

JC: And it feels different; inside me it feels different. In Tate Modern I really didn’t like it there. We walked around for ages trying to look for a spot and we were like, are you sure this is OK? It really didn’t feel welcoming at all. But the beach or Calton Hill is a lot more welcoming and I can feel it inside; I’m a lot more relaxed. I like how it takes me from one to another.

IA: You use the words ‘solutions’ and ‘design’ and you’ve iterated from yoga blocks to wood blocks to gravel things. Can you talk about how your being together might be solving a problem? 

RS: I guess it started with a very biomechanical process in the studio…about how two bodies work together to move. We worked out very quickly that if there isn’t contact, weight and pressure between us then we are quite static. In order to set up the challenge of can we move from A to B across the studio floor — which is the challenge we give ourselves — we tried to find ways of doing that. After a while being in the studio we thought it would be nice to do something else like walking around the town together. By that stage we’d already got to the floor in the studio. That was the thing that got us going, embodied solutions to problems rather than the machine. Could we do it together? Save money, save time. And where could we sit? We don’t need to just sit in the studio, we could sit…

JC: …anywhere. It’s been quite a slow process but it started very simply…with us getting to know each other’s bodies. My skeleton is nothing like yours, and it’s nothing like anybody else’s in this room. So it’s finding out about that, finding out how best to empower and enable me. And also do the same with Robbie. It’s a two-way street. Then it’s taking that from there and that’s how we’ve got bigger and bigger; as we’ve got bigger we’ve thought we need advice, support and funding. 

IA: Have you engaged any designers? Or have you done it yourselves?

R: So far it’s only been us…just because it’s that thing of money and when you’re in this sector it’s a familiar thing touring a piece but it’s quite unfamiliar engaging with designers. We had a great residency at Siobhan Davies studios, and met a lot of people from architectural backgrounds and academic institutions. We had a follow up at Metal and now we need to contact these people and see where it’s going. I think it will be productive. But in terms of the next stage, there isn’t anything in the pipeline. We’re always thinking about how we might improve on the blocks. 

JC: You need to think small and then prioritise it. We had some great responses from people at Siobhan Davies; it was just an idea we had about these blocks and then you go in and you’ve got someone who is a really posh architect who is like ‘Actually that’s a bloody good idea, but if we make it like this it’ll be a lot better or a lot lighter’…or whatever. It’s really exciting to know it can develop into something else. 

RS: If it could all fold up into a little backpack or if it was made of carbon fibre or was a lot lighter and took up less space… It’s about avoiding motors, electronics and keeping it primitive. 

IA: Choreography as design. There was an article on how choreographers have impacted on city planning. Dancers are people who are using their bodies as their tools every day. 

RS: The idea of embodied solutions rather than an engineer thinking ‘I’ll put a motor in it’ which is a very disembodied experience…

JC: …Or a piece of equipment like the hoist. That’s the last thing I want. I want something I can move with…I want to move on my own rather than be being part of a piece of equipment. 

RS: What we’re doing isn’t a solution for everyone. It’s an art project and we really hold onto that. We’re not going to create a product that is going to sell millions and we’ll be retiring in the Bahamas. 

IA: You could create Julie and Robbie : Embodied Solutions with a bit of venture capital…You’ve done a lot of work and thinking on it. 

RS: I think it’s a very social thing. The benefits aren’t the result of the action of getting up stairs. It’s the interaction between people which is communicative and cooperative; in the way you would see in a kid’s playground…it might take two people to pull a rope and turn a thing…it’s that sort of potential you wonder about in the back of your mind. Is this a thing in our digital age? With everyone in their tunnels…is that a thing we could do?

JC: I think it’s important that the blocks are a great thing, but we shouldn’t just roll with it and forget the other stuff we’re doing. That’s what’s so good with us…it’s only a part of what we’re doing. 

IA: I was looking back and the first thing I could find of you two is a video from 2009. 

RS: Oh god! 

IA: It was of you two. 10 years ago. How has your relationship changed over time. A decade of collaboration is a great longitudinal study. That’s what’s at the heart of this. Julie and Robbie. 

RS: It’s open ended. So it probably won’t have an ending. It’ll keep going as long as we can put up with each other. We’ve discussed the quickness and pace of that early work…we both slow up a bit and our interests have evolved now. We’ve just hung out more and you get to know people better; I think as we’ve gone on we get more aware about other people’s perceptions and the broader discourse around disability and privilege. Our relationship hasn’t really shifted much, I think we were always good pals, but we’ve talked a lot more about ourselves in relation to other people and the obstacles that can throw up. Obstacles, funding and narratives other people want to hear.  

IA: Are you like Ant and Dec; is it Robbie on the right Julie on the left. 

JC: Oh my, that is scary! 

RS: I wonder if there is a consistency there…it would be funny if there was. 

IA: What’s your response, Julie? 

JC: I think at the beginning it’s like any kind of dance relationship or friendship. You want everything done tomorrow or yesterday. You know we had these great ideas of what we wanted to do in the studio. Ups and Downs and Whoopsie Daisies was great and it was about when you’re a teenager and ‘I’ve got to do everything.’ Then as we’ve gone on we’ve learned a lot about each other, we’ve relaxed with one another and I think that’s shown in our work. There’s a lot of shit stuff that Robbie’s seen — when we’ve been out travelling — the way people treat me. A lot of people don’t see that. That’s going to affect the work and how we talk to each other about it. I’ll come up with stories as well: yesterday so-and-so said this to me. I think as time has passed we’ve got a lot more honest with one another. Now I feel a lot more like a Grandma. I feel pleased with what we’re doing and I still want to challenge myself more. But I’m really happy where I am.

RS: Being a family guy now, and having a child, certain things aren’t quite as exotic and exciting any more. They’re just a bit tiring. But also being comfortable with what we’re doing and just letting it tick over…being conscious there’s opportunities out there and our work has become more about the story, the broader relationship and the implications rather than what you can do in 40 minutes. 

IA: It would be interesting to do a retrospective of the 10 years. This presentation feels like a concentration of that. How could you represent that 10-yearness? 

RS: One of our strands is having a website. A digital encounter. Partly because it’s difficult to travel and have those live encounters…but we want to get it out there and a timeline that we can add to every time we hang out and do one of these things. An accumulation that you could scroll through, stop at and look into it further. 

JC: As Robbie is saying about family, my body’s ten years older. It’s s not what it was and there’s times when I’m feeling weaker or whatever. We have to think around that and ask ‘Do we use film more?’ It’s getting your head around that because we’re both changing, our bodies are changing and we need to talk about that…how can we express what we’re expressing now in ten years time. 

IA: How would you define your relationship? Julie first this time. 

JC: No! 

RS: Yes!

[pause]

JC: I would say…he’s my brother. He’s annoying, frustrating…sometimes he thinks he’s right when he isn’t but I smile anyway. But he’s very very talented. Sometimes I think he doesn’t realise that. I think I’m lucky to have met him in a way. Now if you say anything horrible about me… 

RS: You know when you’ve got a scab on your…no…when we met it was quite an important time for me. I’d massively changed direction in what I was doing. I’d sort of studied biological sciences and worked in that and did all sorts of things. I was teaching English for a while, stuff happened, and I was sort of lost. I did Laban for a year — not even a year, 9 months — and I got an audition for Candoco somehow. I don’t really understand how and I remember my technique teacher at the time — I’m going on a bit of a roundabout way here — was quite condescending about my auditioning for Candoco. But then obviously I didn’t get in, but met Julie and it was quite an exciting adventure, to challenge dance and what we were doing. I was quite bored of what we were doing at college. This was the first creative project that I felt co-ownership of. It wasn’t that we were really good friends…it was a really good gift to have that way into a friendship, and a unique friendship that’s bound together in this investigation. Physically of course we’re very close, and I think that opens doors, if we have that kind of relationship then you’re able to share more. It’s just got stronger and stronger, and more and more exciting. When you have really good friends, that becomes apparent really soon, it doesn’t take long.

IA: Could you talk a bit about labour? The energy and the investment in the physical. 

RS:  For me that’s something society wants to reduce. They don’t want you going out to your woodpile, chopping it and carrying it to stay warm. But what else can that bring you? What can labour bring you in a physical, tactile experience and engagement in the world with its materials? I get a kick out of our adventures. In life in general I often do things the difficult way…which is a constant kind of cursing myself but it always feels great when you’ve done it. I love that it’s just the two of us, and Julie’s PA maybe with a camera ‘Karen. Karen can you push stop?’

JC: She’s gone off to Hollywood now, she has. 

RS: I suppose it’s a bit of a social statement that we clearly engage in an amount of labour that is maybe primitive to some people. It’s technology. These blocks are a primitive technology. But what can you get from encouraging labour rather than discouraging it, which is where my head first goes. 

JC: I don’t know what you mean by labour. Do you mean the energy I put into the work or…?

IA: So if Robbie is describing himself as a blue arsed fly in order to set up the shot, if it takes four hours to set it up, that is an investment of time. What is that time like for you? 

JC: It’s totally different for me. If we’re setting something up physically I’m unable to do anything. So I’m sat and he’s running around doing everything. Sometimes that can make me a bit upset because I see him running around and I want to get up and help him. But I think it’s to do with my energy and I have to prioritise it as well. For my sake and Robbie’s. I’ve learned that I need to listen to my body more and I’ve started doing that now. That’s a really good thing. I still like to take risks…you know that log over there, I want to get on it. I still want to. 

RS: It occurs to me that I’m quite often busy around Julie attending to things, orbiting in a sense in and out and there’s a couple of things to say about that. What is going on in Julie’s body, and the effort involved isn’t always as apparent because there’s a different type of effort involved. People might not want to see the narrative of this privileged young man being physical around a disabled older woman…well tough luck, because that’s the way it has to be if we’re going to do this. If that’s not the desired easy narrative in current times; take time to talk to us rather than assuming. There are questions of consent, initiation and decision making. 

IA: Is Robbie doing this to Julie…

RS: There are moments of initiation. Sometimes when we’re doing the movements Julie will initiate something and we’re very careful with that. But you can take it to such an extreme you drive yourself nuts trying to cater to what everyone thinks. In the performance we just did, when I made that comment, ‘Look at that man doing something to that disabled woman’, it got a laugh because I think some people would be thinking that and it’s important to acknowledge that. If we can demonstrate our awareness of these things, it’s nice to be a bit provocative as well. It’s really good to talk about it to a third person, to be interviewed; it’s a good creative tool. 

IA: What are the things people are curious about? 

JS: I always say to people ‘Ask anything. No I mean anything.’ But people won’t. 

IA: It’s like ‘Oh, is he touching your bum when he’s pulling you up…’

JC: Yeah, and ‘Is it OK that he does that to you?’ But they don’t. They still don’t…but I’d love it if they did.


Diaghilev Exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

Posted: April 11th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Exhibition | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Diaghilev Exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

Diaghilev Exhibition, Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, March 29

Diaghilev program
A Ballets Russes program with a costume design by Picasso

Since his death in 1929 a great deal has been written about the influence of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the subsequent history of ballet, and major exhibitions like the one presented at London’s V&A in 2010 made available its vast collection of photographs, costumes and programs from the Diaghilev era. Just recently a private collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) in Wiltshire contacted the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum to see if it would be interested in displaying his personal collection of Ballets Russes ephemera accrued over more than half a century. The resulting exhibition — the first time it has been seen in public — is like entering the inner sanctum of a devoted collector, a personal and idiosyncratic ambience that curator Philippa Tinsley has thoughtfully reproduced. If there are few recognizable thematic threads running through the collection, Tinsley has not tried to impose them in the exhibition; the fascination for dance enthusiasts is in the unexpected treasures that the collection’s apparent randomness reveals. At the same time, the display offers those with a more superficial knowledge of the Ballets Russes an opportunity to deepen their understanding vicariously through the passionate eye of an erudite balletomane. 

The collection provides a vivid understanding of the passions Diaghilev’s company aroused and continues to arouse while at the same time giving a tantalizing glimpse of what items might still remain of that glorious era of ballet in private hands. Some of the objects on display, such as photographs and costumes, reveal their value at first sight; others, such as programs illustrated by the likes of Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, and albums of photographs like the rare Studies from the Russian Ballet by E.O. Hoppé and Auguste Bert (London: Fine Art Society, 1913), are treasures whose value is hidden under the cover: one wants to be able to leaf through them page by page, but understandably the preservation of the material overrides the ability to handle it (perhaps a next stage might be to digitize the collection and to make it available online). 

With careful timing and within the same space the Worcester City Art Gallery is also hosting a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition, Matisse: Drawing With Scissors that features 35 lithographic prints of cutouts from the latter part of the artist’s life. Henri Matisse was one of many artists who worked for Diaghilev; a photograph of him fitting Alicia Markova’s body suit with cutout shapes for Massine’s ballet Rouge et Noir beautifully synthesizes the seamless connections between the two shows. The adjacent rooms and their complementary exhibits reveal an approach to curating that is both unassuming and welcoming, giving visitors a chance to take in the displays at their leisure as if they, too, were in the shoes of the collector appraising his collection. Tinsley has also provided a context to the exhibition in the form of the 2005 film, Ballets Russes, directed and produced by Danya Goldfine and Dan Geller, played on a screen of domestic proportions in the corner of the room with three cinema seats from which to watch it. 

This Diaghilev exhibition is a wonderful achievement that highlights the importance of an art institution like the Worcester City Art Gallery at a time when funding is ever more scarce and the likelihood of cuts ever more daunting. But well-crafted and distinctive exhibitions like this, no matter how intimate, are what give value to the ideal of making a public display of a private obsession.

The exhibition Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Matisse: Drawing With Scissors runs at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum until April 27.


Protein Dance in Border Tales at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival

Posted: April 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Protein Dance in Border Tales at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival

Protein Dance, Border Tales, Ramallah Municipal Theatre, April 7

Border Tales
Yuyu Rau aloft with the cast of Border Tales (photo: © Sebastian Marcovici)

This is the first of a series of articles and reviews from the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival to which I was very kindly invited by its director, Khaled Elayyan and his team.

Following the appearance of Protein Dance in LOL at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival in 2012, the company’s artistic director, Luca Silvestrini, returned to the region as part of his research for a new work on the subject of refugees and identity. As he writes in the program note, ‘I’ve travelled across England, Slovenia, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Palestine and India and learned that there’s a common, complex and unresolved space between people. This emotional, sometimes physical, sometimes socially awkward space is strongly influenced by a restless collision of cultures, traditions, religious views and political interests. I see this space in between as a border, the outer part of all of us; a fragile partition that defines who we are and perpetuates a yearning to belong.’ 

This notion of an ‘unresolved space between people’ has gained in relevance since Border Tales was first created in 2013; its implications have taken on a heightened relevance with the Brexit issue alone. Watching the performance recently in Ramallah adds a level of poignancy because of the continuing illegal expulsion of Palestinians from their former homes by ‘settlers’ of an occupying, predatory state, forcing them to live as refugees in their own country (what an odd irony that EU citizens seeking to remain in the UK are required by the Home Office to register for ‘settled’ status). Choosing to program such a work in Ramallah is evidence of the uncompromising view of the festival organizers that the dance body is not only personal but political.

Silvestrini’s cast — Temitope Ajose-Cutting, Eryck Brahmania, Andrew Gardiner, Anthar Kharana, Stephen Moynihan, Yuyu Rau and Kenny Wing Tao Ho — is a microcosm of society in the UK’s current post-colonial makeup. Andy (Gardner) throws a neighbourhood party to which they are all invited; his pivotal role in provoking their tales of social and cultural assimilation through his cheerfully blithe ignorance of their mores — and his willingness to ascribe to them stereotypical qualities — demonstrates the devastating vulnerability of multiculturalism (see also Lloyd Newson’s treatment of this topic in DV8’s Can We Talk About This?). There is, however, no calculated offence in Andy’s buffoonery; like the traditional clown, he holds up a mirror for us to check our own tendencies.

By using the cast’s self-deprecatory awareness within his satirical framework Silvestrini disabuses us of some of the more ingenuous barriers to mutual respect and understanding. Within this framework he allows his cast to clarify their own feelings and values in both text and dance and particularly in the latter — to Kharana’s uplifting musical accompaniment — we begin to see a communal self-expression emerge within a multi-cultural group. And while the perspective of Border Tales is distinctly British, the depiction of a ‘restless collision of cultures’ can be recognized in any society where immigration, whether forced or welcomed, is an acknowledged strand of government policy. One reason Silvestrini has revisited Border Tales is what he sees as today’s ‘more divisive and intolerant co-existence’ that underpins much of the current Brexit debate. Andy devises a simple skipping pattern for his guests to the refrain ‘in and out, in and out’ to which he adds with a gleeful laugh, ‘Leave, remain, leave, remain, open the gates, close the gates…’ His mood of benevolent gaiety is nevertheless tested when Wing asks for his advice on how to become ‘more English’. Andy has no advice to offer so Wing begins to copy him, at which point Andy pushes him back with the incensed injunction: ‘Don’t take my job away!’

When all the guests have left at the end of the party, a confused and overwhelmed Andy sits down next to the cheerfully buoyant ‘welcome’ balloon to ponder, like the audience, what has just happened. How you react to his pathos depends on where you stand on the causative history of British colonial policy. Border Tales can be seen as a damning critique of British mentality, a sympathetic appreciation of immigrant struggles and a superimposed series of finely honed, well-paced tales that attempts to resolve ‘the space between people’. But when, as a UK citizen, I read about how the British government set up the establishment of Israel under the terms of the Balfour declaration in 1917 only to turn away from the continuous dismantling of its spirit; how it left the Indian empire to its fate in 1947; how it has recently treated the Windrush generation of immigrants and how it is in the throes of trashing its relationship with Europe, Andy’s role offers a salutary reflection on what constitutes our ‘borders’. 


Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato in The Idiot at Print Room at The Coronet

Posted: April 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato in The Idiot at Print Room at The Coronet

Saburo Teshigawara + Rihoko Sato, The Idiot, Print Room at the Coronet, March 27

Teshigawara
Rihoko Sato and Saburo Teshigawara in The Idiot

The filigree hands, the clarity of imagery, and the silence of the movement; the light flickering like an old film, the layers of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Chopin and Schubert, the delirious dance and gesture: all these impressions remain vivid after seeing Saburo Teshigawara and Rihoko Sato in their adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In many ways it is a perfect match for the intimate auditorium of Print Room at the Coronet, an eerie evocation of the past carefully reconstructed, superimposed and reduced to its essentials. 

In distilling Dostoevsky’s complex novel to its emotional essence, Teshigawara has articulated the elements of his choreography — the body, the lighting, the musical collage and the costumes — as a poet articulates language or a painter colour to form a complex unity of expression. In using his body Teshigawara seems to bypass it, concentrating on the breath inside him and the air around him to sculpt his images. His body seems to perform with its own gravitational field suspended slightly above the dark floor which is what creates the impression of silence while the thrust of his gestures — or their retraction — creates the sound. Sato is deeply attached to the earth — the waltz is her domain — creating a contrasting dynamic in the performance that is elusive and yet sharply focused. Perhaps this is what Teshigawara meant when he said, ‘I knew it would be impossible to create a choreography taken from such a novel, but this impossibility has been key to our approach in creating something completely new.’

The central character in the novel, Prince Myshkin, is, according to Dostoevsky’s biographer Avrahm Yarmolinsky, ‘a man caught in a tangle of mad passions, yet preserving a childlike purity and sweetness…’ and as the novelist himself wrote, his aim was to ‘to depict a completely beautiful human being’.It is evident when we see him that Teshigawara has taken on the humble radiance of the prince’s qualities as well as the darkness of his epilepsy and has made them manifest without the literary preoccupation with plot; they have become a dance. We see him at first alone, fashionably dressed, making polite introductions to a room full of people we cannot see; we know they are all there but Teshigawara’s focus is solely on the meekness and innocent purity of Myshkin’s gestures. When he comes into contact with the dark, willful passion of Sato’s Natasya Filippovna — a woman who has known degradation and carries those wounds within her — we see a flickering narrative in which it is clear he falls in love with her but the meeting sets off an emotional maelstrom within them both that becomes the choreographic material for its tragic resolution. 

Teshigawara’s choreography embraces Dostoevsky’s dilemma of placing a hero who is saintly to the point of being simple within a society that is awash in the corruption of values. Yarmolinsky suggests the novel is autobiographical, that the image of Myshkin is ‘a light in the darkness to Dostoevsky, a shield against the powers of evil in his own soul’. In Teshigawara’s hands, light and darkness become a powerful theatrical metaphor that unite the lighting, the musical score and the costumes — Sato is in a long black period dress while Teshigawara wears a dapper white summer outfit —to portray Dostoevsky’s existential struggle with Imperial Russian society. At the beginning we hear a tremulous violin concerto over a murky stage where shadows scurry ominously like rats until the darkness suddenly recedes to reveal the childlike figure of Myshkin in a bright downlight bowing gracefully and offering greetings to the invisible guests; the entire background of the novel has been painted in these two brief but consummately crafted scenes. The subsequent tale of compulsive infatuation pits Myshkin’s serenity against Filippovna’s stubborn inability to accept it and ends with Myshkin sitting on the floor, as in the novel, with the body of Filippovna in an adjoining room. The performances of Teshigawara and Sato are, like everything else in this production, meticulously conceived and delivered with a passion that hides their construction under a rich, seamless canvas of emotions. 

While scholars may disagree on the literary value of Dostoevsky’s novel, Teshigawara’s choreographic rendering is an utterly compelling poetic vision that is nothing short of a masterpiece in its own right. 



Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland

Posted: March 30th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland

Mark Morris  Dance Group, Pepperland at Sadler’s Wells, March 21

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland (photo: Mat Hayward)

In May 1967 The Beatles created a ground-breaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick. In his book White Heat, Dominic Sandbrook described it as a ‘continuous stream of sound, its studio banter, steam organs, sitars and even farmyard barking, and its combination of cartoonish psychedelia, circus vaudeville, driving rock music and gentle ballads’ that was immediately hailed as an ‘imperishable popular art of its time’. Fifty-two years later it is difficult to hear its freshness in the context of its first outing, and yet it clearly forms an integral whole — one of the first concept albums — introducing the alter-ego Edwardian brass band with wit, colour and a musical daring saturated in the contemporary zeitgeist. In 2003 the magazine Rolling Stone placed it at the top of its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. 

On the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary, choreographer Mark Morris chose to celebrate it with his production of Pepperland that recently landed on the Sadler’s Wells stage as part of a Dance Consortium tour. Morris may well have felt that his own quintessentially post modern eclectic approach to dance — mixing pop cultural references with highbrow culture and merging genres, styles and dance vocabularies from classical ballet to contemporary dance, folk and music-hall — would prove a suitable match for the album’s own mix of genres; his past works like L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, All Fours and Crosswalk have an exhilarating, colourful dynamic and an intellectual vibrancy that has become his trademark.  

Pepperland opens on a spare stage marked by an electric blue backdrop that changes to lurid green, orange and pink for subsequent numbers. Designed by Johan Henckens and lit by Nick Kolin, the set also includes a low, static line of crushed silver foil mountains across the back of the stage that flicker in the changing light. The bright colours match and contrast with the stylishly sixties costumes (replete with sunglasses) by Elizabeth Kutzman. The dancers are initially introduced by taped announcement as some of the celebrities and historical figures like Shirley Temple, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Floyd Patterson in Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s album cover collage. Morris’s approach to gender is fluid and his grasp of mimicry exquisitely camp as the dancers parade in the dazzling light of a Hollywood set before joining hands in a Morris folk circle that coils on itself and then unfurls. It is already clear that the Beatles have taken a back seat to Morris, just as Ethan Iverson’s arrangements of the music for a jazz septet have little in common with the original album apart from the tunes; he includes some but not all the tracks and intersperses them with his own compositions. 

Morris’s movement and imagery flow effortlessly from 1960s dance floor steps to classical ballet, from Hollywood films to Broadway musicals, but his propensity for quotation has a sense of déjàvu; the references do not come from the diverse canvas of allusions that made the Sgt. Pepper album so conspicuously original but from Morris’s own works. Pepperland barely extends beyond the self-referential — and perhaps even the self-reverential — dulling the pace and invention of the work to a curiously one-dimensional continuum in which the punch and pun, the brashness and edginess of his earlier works are gone.

Morris is lauded as a musical choreographer but his translation of the textual imagination of a song like A Day in the Life borders on a game of charades on a summer’s day and renders not only the imagery of Pepperland but its musicality literal to the point of banality. Like the reprisal of the opening theme of Sgt. Pepper at the end, Morris finishes as he begins with a folk circle but unfortunately we haven’t traveled very far in between. 

Paul McCartney had suggested the idea of an alter-ego band for the new album to allow the Beatles to detach their celebrity from the creative process and reduce the risk of imitation. Morris, it seems, has no such inclination; he invokes his own renown so freely in Pepperland that his creativity becomes a parody of itself. 


Ian Abbott at Bristol International Digital Arts Festival

Posted: March 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Bristol International Digital Arts Festival

Bristol International Digital Arts Festival, Bristol, March 9

YAYAYA
Ultimate Dancer in YAYAYA AYAYAY (photo: Abigail Denniston)

Submerge, the producers of Bristol International Digital Arts Festival, have curated a timely programme that ‘questions what it means to belong, what happens when objects, people and communities fracture; and how you bring them back together.’ Taking place in multiple spaces around Bristol for the first ten days of March, I sample works from Duncan Speakman, Ultimate Dancer + Robbie Thomson and Guillaume Marmin with a commonality of how the body is centred when surrounded by digital anchors.

Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then is one of the early works framed under the Ambient Literature banner, a two-year, AHRC-funded collaboration between UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham that was established to investigate the locational and technological future of the book. Speakman’s work self-describes as ‘a book and audio experience that uses a mixture of evocative music, narration and field recording to bring you stories of changing environments, from the swamplands of Louisiana, to empty Latvian villages and the edge of the Tunisian Sahara.’ 

Moving my body through the city of Bristol, I encounter cartography as choreography bringing fresh perspectives and alternative awareness to architecture, obstacles and people as I navigate in and around them. All the constituent parts of dance are present; there is music, there is a body (or bodies), there are movement instructions and there is (lots of) space. By any other means this is a dance work. As I listen to the audio histories and read the accompanying book I am making decisions about where to go, what to see and placing my own markers across the city; it’s an embodied experience, it hangs around, it leaves its trace in and on you.

Following the three stories of the three maps in three parts of the world, I encounter physical boundaries, global narratives of change and porous edges. Where do we go? Why do we go? Ambient Literature could be a description of a type of score; it’s non-invasive, like an anti-sat nav. Rather than prescribing your route, it rewards you irrespective of your coordinates or navigational hunger. The idea of split attention is in play as you have an aural narrative consistently feeding your ears and a visual safety narrative that makes sure you do not to die by vehicle as you choreograph your way through the city. Although your body is engaging in an outward journey it also attempts to play an internal, introspective channel. It gives you 70 minutes to wander physically and intellectually in a terrain that might be familiar or unfamiliar. 

It Must Have Been Dark by Then could be the digital offspring of Wrights & Sites’ A Mis-Guide To Anywhere from 2006 and Rider Spoke by Blast Theory from 2007. You set beacons across the city (to which you will return afterwards), but it is slightly clumsy as you have a GPS device in one hand and an A5 book in the other to read chapter by chapter while you’re given instructions. You are never left alone quite long enough to get lost in another world; there’s a gentle interruption every three or four minutes and I’m left wondering what would happen if you were to take it and stretch it out to 140 minutes instead of 70, let yourself wander and get lost in the city and its narratives. But it’s an enjoyable time in the drizzle of Brizzle and how many dance works actively submerge the body whilst covering a political position and leaving an emotional residue?

Ultimate Dancer + Robbie Thomson’s YAYAYA AYAYAY self-describes as a way to  ‘Challenge your perceptions and immerse yourself in a sensory performance that teases your imagination. YAYAYA AYAYAY is an ultra-terrestrial temporary dance…In 2015, Ultimate Dancer went into a darkness retreat for five days — a purpose-built room isolated from all light and sound. Ceremonial darkness as a shamanic tool is a classical method for accessing vibrant unconscious and super-conscious states.’ 

After we make our glacially slow and fumbling way into the darkened theatre I still manage to scrape my shins even though there are white-gloved ushers to guide us. Not a speck of unnatural light permeates the stage or auditorium but luckily our seats are marked by tiny squares of white tape. Our entrance into the auditorium bleeds into the opening fifteen minutes of audio-only performance; it is a rare position to be left alone with our thoughts among a hundred strangers in the darkness (but aware of other audience members who are having conversations about Yaya Toure and Dining in the Dark). 

YAYAYA AYAYAY is a date with deprivation, an active heightening of senses with the removal of the audience body. It is so well constructed that when hundreds of tiny white stones erupt out of the air and land on the floor, I stare at them…and keep staring at them. They are the only data points for my eyes and they look like they’re moving, an army of micro maggots pulsing to white noise. Where am I? Am I gazing up or down at a constellation of stars from a galaxy? My orientation is skewed.

When we see the body and performative choreography of Ultimate Dancer it feels insignificant in comparison; seeing them twitch, swarm or grind across the floor doesn’t match the power of the previous effects. Other works by Ultimate Dancer (Louise Ahl) — For now we see through a mirror darkly and Holy Smoke — suggest there are few artists able to match her intensity and unswerving drive in the pursuit of such a radical practice. It may not always be enjoyable, likeable or even palatable but there is a rigour and commitment to the shamanic and eerie choreographic practice that marks the Ultimate Dancer as an original choreographic voice in the UK night sky.

Licht, Mehr Licht is an installation by Guillaume Marmin constructed as a dark corridor 4 metres wide by 12 metres long that is empty except for dozens of pin-thin paired lights. They create lines of light at floor, shin, waist, head and overhead levels within a mild haze in which the audience can walk, sit, stand still or wait. Imagine a roofless shipping container with ghostly lines of light flickering and pulsing to a pre-programmed light sequence across a 12-minute score. It’s an insta-friendly spectacle and with a limited capacity there’s a 20-minute queue to get into the gallery. With children dashing about trying to eat light beams this digital playground pulses with sound and reminds me of a glitch-riddled, Blade-Runner-stained version of Waltzing Waters but without the water.