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. 


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’. 


Resolution 2019: works by Vain, Minogue-Stone and Ben & Fred

Posted: February 13th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2019: works by Vain, Minogue-Stone and Ben & Fred

Resolution 2019: Works by Vendetta Vain, Elliot Minogue-Stone and Ben & Fred, January 29

Isabella Arboleda Tovar and Pauline Thuriot in Sighs, Cries and Lies (photo: Joon-Kim Young)

This year The Place has partnered with, among others, Jackson’s Lane, to cross-fertilize choreography with circus arts at Resolution. It’s a welcome initiative that hopefully develops the gene pool of both choreographic and circus expression rather than simply expanding the catchment area for Resolution’s artists. 

Vee Smith, who performs under the name of Vendetta Vain, trained at the National Centre for Circus Arts and Butterface is her first circus solo work. She is not the first to perform naked on a trapeze (though perhaps the first to do so at Resolution), but she approaches her performance with as little coyness and pudeur as apology. The title of her work is a derogatory noun for ‘an attractive woman with an undesirable face’, which is clearly understood to mean an attractive female body with an undesirable face. Vain makes this point quite evident by hiding her face, for most of the performance, under a muslin concoction tied loosely at the neck to which she attaches false eyelashes and a rude approximation of lips. But while our focus in Butterface is on the body and what Vain does with it, it is on our minds that Vain has focused her argument; the two don’t always acknowledge each other in the formation of her ‘message’.

There are two sets of projected texts, one that is designed to ease Vain into the performance as she enters behind two large feathers, and the other conveys the sexual animosity and stereotyping of the female circus artist as she performs on the trapeze. Because our eyes are watching her rather than the texts on the back wall, there is an argument that Butterface would benefit from Vain speaking the second set of texts while performing. It would give the taping together of her legs, for example, an edge of satirical wit over the comic absurdity of her actions. Vain’s choice of songs (FlawlessPaper Bag and She) show a natural sense of self-deprecatory humour and her subversive intelligence will not suffer fools. It’s a potent mixture.    

Elliot Minogue-Stone is a graduate of the incommensurable Orley Quick and the Hairy Heroines, inviting us in Sighs, Cries and Lies to ‘delve into platitudes, taboos, tangibility, big questions and odd sensations’ with the same lack of disambiguation he once brought to discussing big dogs and screwdriver heads. He takes an important step from performer to choreographer by creating Sighs, Cries and Lies on Isabella Arboleda Tovar and Pauline Thuriot who translate his sense of the absurd into another key. At first it’s a very low key, as the two bounce on to the stage in red shorts, white tops and trainers, arms enigmatically raised in front of their faces. But as Tovar begins to deck the stage in a wealth of props from a bright red shopping basket, the key begins to modulate. Sighs, Cries and Lies is not a work that can be defined by its external shape but by the paths that run through its apparent chaos, a physical grammar of associations and collisions that offer a fractured landscape of vulnerability. You make of it what you will; its meaning coalesces around a free association of props, popular songs, wit and repartee that Tovar and Thuriot weave into an emotional pattern that ultimately holds them — and us — together. 

Ben & Fred’s The Juggling of Science brings together two jugglers, Frederike Gerstner and Ben Nicholson, in a light-hearted introduction to quantum physics. The recorded voice of Professor Circumference introduces his two understudies with the tone of Listen with Mother but the principles in ‘possibly the most fun science lecture you could hope to see’ are staged rather than heard. Gerstner is a scientist in a white lab coat at her desk waiting for Dr. Dextrose (Nicholson), to arrive. With their wit and an ability to illustrate complex scientific notions like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the construction of an atom, dark matter and neutrinos through juggling, Gerstner and Nicholson have created a gem of crossover stimulation. The problem is that the crossover bypasses almost completely the choreographic nature of Resolution’s program. In his collaborations with Seeta Patel and Alexander Whitley, Sean Gandini has shown how the disciplines of juggling and dance can learn from and stimulate each other, but The Juggling of Science frames itself resolutely and unapologetically within science; it’s not a question of the excellence of the work but of the programming choices of this ‘festival of new choreography’.


Resolution 2019: works by Cisarikova, Green and Harris-Walters, January 25

Posted: February 3rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2019: works by Cisarikova, Green and Harris-Walters, January 25

Resolution 2019: works by Cisarikova, Green and Harris-Walters, January 25

All the works on this evening’s Resolution program begin with cogent ideas that have strong emotional integrity. Michaela Cisarikova’s I Love Myself, Do You? examines the duality of identity and self-worth, Sara Green transforms her own experiences of major spinal surgery in Burnt Out and Dani Harris-Walters traces a journey in search of fatherhood in Happy Father’s Day. Both Cisarikova and Green use striking imagery at the start of their respective works while Harris-Walters uses his presence alone to reveal his biologically-inspired choreographic exploration. While each beginning holds promise, in a Darwinian sense Harris-Walters is the only one to keep that promise throughout, ensuring its survival somewhere in our choreographic imagination.

What happens to a work that begins well but trails off in interest? Where does the interest go and why? Ideas in choreographic terms are argued primarily through the body and visual imagery, working with music as an emotional and rhythmic support. Each of this evening’s works places the body in a central role; Cisarikova suggests ‘the old Cherokee fable of two wolves fighting within you’ by the initial entangled embrace between herself and Jenn Vogtle; Green divides her persona into four performers each shaking off their oversized jackets as a metaphor of disintegration, while Harris-Walters takes us through his own body’s encounter with the process of procreation. It could be argued that Harris-Walters has an advantage by using text; without it the physical component would not add up to much of an argument, but it is the way he gleefully pairs text with gestures and unassuming hip hop sequences that engages the imagination of the audience. Borrowing from his own material, this process of engagement is like a mating ritual that depends on the maintenance of stimulus for its successful outcome. 

I Love Myself, Do You? opens on a billowing swathe of greenish gold parachute silk suspended diagonally from an upper corner covering much of the stage. In the middle of the silk is a hole through which Vogtle is supposed to rise in the dark on the shoulders of someone hidden underneath but a premature lighting cue finds her on her way up a little unsteadily and the magic is lost; it is on such small details that the fate of visual imagery depends. More importantly, for its overpowering spatial influence, the silk seems to have a relatively small impact on the work’s concept; Cisarikova joins Vogtle in the centre opening for a duet, seen from the waist up, that has a sculptural quality of both a physical and a psychological battle, but when the silk is later withdrawn its significance is called into question. Simeon Miller’s lighting makes clever use of silhouette projections inside the silk that present alternative identities, but when Anna Guzak slides out from under the silk, her role in the duality of good and evil seems superfluous. Ross Allchurch’s score accompanies the work but is not sufficiently anchored to keep it together. 

In Burnt Out Sara Green, with assistant choreographer Sara Kaspersen, sets out to translate experiences and memories of surgery through the filters of illustration (Simon Gardner) and music (Burnt Outby Jamie Jay and Carlos Posada of Low Island). The opening sequence, with costumes (and perhaps makeup) by Auriol Williamson and strong (unattributed) lighting, holds the space together in a tight theatrical form that has emotional clout, but as the four performers (Olly Bell, Steff D’Arcy, Orion Hart and Murielle Werthauer) disperse the space dissolves into a long improvised freeform section like a series of filmic takes all joined together and superimposed. Perhaps Gardner’s creative input may have helped us decode this section, but watching performers in various permutations trying to scale the back wall on the open stage has limited allure. Green has already worked with Low Island on their music videos but their relationship is quite different here, more complex and less well defined. 

The beginning of Happy Father’s Day is almost accidental, rather like the meeting of a sperm and an egg around which the work revolves. But Harris-Walters hooks us unerringly into his monologue with allusions and an imaginative acronym of Seven-Up while identifying himself not only with the gang leader, Tess Tyrone, but as the biological hero of the story. Once the penny has dropped, he is fully in charge of the stage, and whatever he does uncannily insinuates or illustrates his path. The image that remains is the final one, where after a caterpillar-like spiral trajectory towards the centre of the stage his head slides into the spotlight of conception. Mission accomplished.


Resolution 2019: Works by Lizzie Klotz, Katie Boag and Anthony Matsena

Posted: January 26th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Resolution 2019: Works by Lizzie Klotz, Katie Boag and Anthony Matsena

Resolution19: Lizzie Klotz, E14 Dance Company and Matsena Performance Theatre, The Place, January 19

From left to right, Lizzie Klotz, E14 Dance Company and Anthony Matsena

The quality and effectiveness of the evening’s Resolution 2019 program at The Place, like many such evenings at this annual event, are defined by each choreographer’s response to the imposed time limit of (roughly) 20 minutes. It’s a notional limit that can be interpreted as a full work (the choreographic equivalent of a short story), an extract of a longer work that may or may not have been created or an essay in choreographic ideas that has the potential for elaboration. There seems to be one of each this evening. 

Lizzie Klotz’s Fawn is a carefully structured work that fits neatly into its 20 minutes; it’s an exploration of fawning ‘as an instinctive response to fear, threat and failure.’ By nature fawning has meaning only in relation to a person who is the object of the fawning, but Klotz paradoxically explores the emotional phenomenon in a solo for herself; Fawn thus draws a parallel between the act of pleasing oneself on stage and the performer’s desire to please the audience. The catalyst for Fawn is a ribald catcall in the street directed at Klotz’s ass that she recalls in high-pitched excitement at the beginning of the show and in an initial repeated sequence across the back of the stage she appears to relish featuring her admired physical aspect prominently. Fawn is structured in musical form, with an introduction of muscle-tone preening on a red carpet, the opening sequence facing away from the audience followed by a playful central theme, with feather headdress, stick-it note pad and microphone, of parsing the word fawn into its many meanings. Klotz then compliments individual members of the audience on how amazing they are and recapitulates her initial sequence. This time she faces front, whereby the gestures of self-satisfaction become a form of reverence. It is not exactly fawning, but the desire to please is evident and the applause at the end is a mark of its affect. As with To Suit at Resolution exactly three years ago, Klotz has created a miniature that is both succinct and subtle with a generous element of sass that sheds light on the vagaries of our emotional dependency.

It’s perhaps just as well we are directed to the bar before E14’s Danube for the contrast between the first two works is extreme; Danube is on a trajectory from somewhere bleak towards somewhere unimaginably dark. Choreographer Katie Boag has devised individual variations for six dancers (Nora Fancsalszky, Gintare Geltyte, Ashley Goosey, Agata Olszewska, Rikkai Scott and Loren Whyte) around a central theme of vicious separation and segregation, but instead of moving out from the theme the variations are drawn inexorably into it like a black hole, intensifying the visceral sense of suffocation. By fusing her work with Oskus Urug by the Tuvan composer and throat singer Radik Tyulyush, we are taken a few tones lower into an ever-descending underworld. While Tylyush’s sound is traditional, Ashley Goosey’s and Jack Hobbs’ original score is hauntingly contemporary to the point of synthesized gunshots that recall the event to which the work’s title refers: ‘The Shoes on Danube Bank’, a chilling memorial to the Jewish community of Budapest during World War II. The heart of Boag’s work, however, spreads from this specific horror to the very heart of darkness in a concentration of brutal imagery that lasts much longer than its 23 minutes. 

Matsena Performance Theatre’s duet, Lies To Be Truth, with choreographer Anthony Matsena and Cher Nicolette Ho, is a theatrical form of esoteric ritual in which the intense physical relationship between the man and woman is strikingly unfamiliar. If there is a degree on entrapment, Ho proves more than a match to the web Matsena appears to weave around her; in terms of sheer physical power, she gives as much as she gets. Matsena’s idiosyncratic gestural vocabulary is inwardly focused, his voluble, expressive hands performing an almost spiritual narrative to his body’s arcane machinations, but the tension builds between the two people until the need for a resolution becomes as urgent as the desire for water when parched. When it comes, however, it is disappointing in its saccharine romanticism as if all that had gone before was a fiction. It certainly didn’t feel that way; both the material and the committed spirit of performance require a less artificial ending — or indeed a further development of ideas — than that imposed by the notional time limit. 


English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

Posted: January 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

English National Ballet, Manon, London Coliseum, January 19

ENB Manon
The Second Act of ENB’s Manon in Mia Stensgaard’s design (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

In 2013, the first full year of Tamara Rojo’s artistic direction, I saw English National Ballet’s Alison McWhinney and Ken Saruhashi in the Emerging Dancer Award. Almost six years later to see McWhinney take on the title role of Manon in ENB’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s work with Saruhashi as her brother Lescaut is one of the many privileges of seeing and writing about dance over a number of years. Although it was Nancy Osbaldeston who won the award that year, I wrote at the time that ‘My heart went out to Alison McWhinney, whose ethereal tenderness in Giselle — she will save many a young man from an early death and will make them all eternally repentant — and her lovely line and poise in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique are a joy to watch.’ The arc of McWhinney’s artistic sensitivity arguably extends to the final act of Manon where having played all her demi-monde cards Manon finds herself in a redemptive endgame with the ever-faithful Des Grieux (Francesco Gabriele Frola). McWhinney casts aside all risks in this demanding duet and receives from Frola the unbridled passion and devotion of an equally liberated partner. It is utterly thrilling and deservedly brings the house down.

For Frola this final act of Manon follows a fine thread of characterization — and its technical counterpart — throughout the ballet. He takes the elegance of MacMillan’s choreography and makes his character and reasoning grow naturally out of it; the coherence of his interpretation remains as lucid as the line of his arabesque. It is McWhinney who in those first two acts does not entirely enter into the complexities of Manon’s character, which in turn hampers the freedom with which she approaches her interpretation of the choreography. The final act shows what she can do when the emotional line is clear, but she has not yet embodied the mercurial changes in circumstance Manon faces — and their inherent contradictions — between the prospect of a nunnery, Des Grieux’s love and Monsieur GM’s cloying wealth. 

At the same Emerging Dancer Award in 2013, I noted that ‘Saruhashi has prodigious technical ability but wears his emotions close to the skin, giving an impeccable if somewhat inscrutable rendering of Don Quixote and unwinding only slightly in the all-too-brief Patrice Bart solo, Verdiana.’ It is interesting to see these qualities persist in his interpretation of Lescaut. Dressed in black he stands out as someone already deeply inured in the demi-monde and cynical enough to pimp his own sister. He is sharp and calculating, drawing in his power like a sword but when it comes to his drunken cavorting solo he can’t unwind enough to blur the edges of his technique; he approaches it with too much…calculation. It may be invidious to suggest a comparison but Irek Mukhamedov’s interpretation of this solo — seen online in rehearsal — illustrates just how a prodigious technique with fine comic and musical timing can be married to drunken intent.

Among some fine character roles like Michael Coleman as the Old Man and Fabien Reimair as the Gaoler, there is another interpretation that illustrates Stanislavsky’s maxim that there are no small parts. Francesca Velicu (a finalist in the 2018 Emerging Dancer Award) is one of the courtesans at Madame’s house of ill repute in the second act. It is a stage awhirl in pastel colour and racy activity, but Velicu’s inspired antics among her peers attract attention throughout the melée like light on a filigree pattern, drawing us away momentarily from the main characters before we focus once again on their primary narrative. This is exactly how anyone in the room at the time (and we are all there) would experience the breadth of the moment.

While the choreography in this revival of Manon is all MacMillan (rehearsed by some of the luminaries with whom he worked), the sets and costumes belong to the Royal Danish Ballet’s production designed by Mia Stensgaard. While one had the sense that Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets were performing alongside the cast, Stensgaard has a more subtle approach, abstracting the scenes with gently moving panels that furnish just the right amount of period suggestion to go with her elegant wigs and finely tailored, colourful costumes. It’s a stylishly minimal production that frames the dancing beautifully while Mikki Kunttu’s cinematic lighting makes the space of each successive scene almost palpable.

The English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Orlando Jopling make listening to Martin Yates’ arrangements of Jules Massenet’s music as much a pleasure as watching the ballet.


The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

Posted: January 2nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Film, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Bolshoi Ballet 2018 Livestream of The Nutcracker

The Bolshoi Ballet, The Nutcracker, Livestream, Brighton, December 27

Margarita Shrainer and Semyon Chudin in a scene from The Nutcracker

For the nine years I danced in Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens I performed The Nutcracker so many times — from mid-December to early January every year — that the ballet has become synonymous with Christmas. Even thirty years later the association is so specific that it’s enough for me to hear a few notes of Tchaikovsky’s score to be immersed once again not so much in seasonal celebrations but in the sensory atmosphere of the theatre at that time of year. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ production by Fernand Nault was a colourful retelling of the E.T.A. Hoffman story with lots of children in the first act playing themselves at the Stahlbaum Christmas party and even more playing mice in the ensuing battle with the toy soldiers. The company dancers played elegant, but far too young parents in Act I before the women rushed off to change for the Snow scene while the men fought on against the mice; we were all back for the divertissements in Act II. The memory of that particular production is so engraved on my mind that it has been difficult to watch another Nutcracker with any objectivity. 

Many productions present The Nutcracker as a ‘fun-for-all-the-family’ entertainment, an association that has given Tchaikovsky’s score, despite itself, a false superficiality. The invitation to see the live streaming of Yuri Grigorovich’s 1966 version for the Bolshoi Ballet has broken that spell. The performance was broadcast live on December 23, with a reprise the following week. Directed by Isabelle Julien for Pathé Live, it gives you in effect ‘the best seat in the house’ while also offering glimpses of the dancers warming up on stage before the curtain. In the intermission Katia Novikova interviews the great ballerina Ludmila Semenyaka about Grigorovich’s vision for The Nutcracker and the role of Marie she once danced; she talks with her eyes and hands as if the wonder of discovery is forever embodied. 

Grigorovich’s staging interprets the narrative as Marie’s journey from childhood to adulthood. As explained in Novikova’s introduction, Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker was influenced by the death of his beloved sister Sasha; it has been suggested that the character of Marie came to embody his feelings towards his sister. Grigorovich’s treatment restores the score, played here by the Bolshoi orchestra under the baton of Pavel Klinichev, to a sense of self-worth without betraying the spirit of Marius Petipa’s exacting storyline. The principal characters — Margarita Shrainer as Marie, Semyon Chudin as the Nutcracker and Denis Savin as Drosselmeyer — weave in and out of the two acts as characters whose paths are integral to the entire story rather than as observers or instigators of their own entertainment. At the same time Shrainer’s identity as Marie in both acts lends a sophisticated choreographic continuity between them in which her sense of youthful anticipation and fulfillment is entirely believable. Chudin has a younger alter-ego as the Nutcracker — unfortunately unattributed in the program — whose diminutive, articulate body is played with, fought over, damaged and repaired before giving his life for Marie in the battle against the Mouse King (Alexander Vodopetov) and his army of mice. It is only after seeing the guests depart ‘outside’ the house that we return inside to see the limp body of the Nutcracker under the tree slowly awaken as the Prince. The simplicity and gravitas of this transformation both in the music and the choreography matches the sublime yet deceptively simple opening of the grand pas de deux in the second act; both are moments that indicate clearly this is no longer a children’s ballet but a sophisticated paean to youthful metamorphosis. The national dances Petipa had sketched as divertissements become in Grigorovich’s scheme a metaphor for the richness of cross-cultural exchange. 

Grigorovich’s collaborator, the late Simon Virsaladze, was responsible for the original designs of both set and costumes. He plays with the sense of scale, using the grand Stahlbaum home as a visual reference from which the environment in subsequent scenes grows ever larger as part of a psychological framework rather than a purely visual one; his sense of colour and period costume creates a unity with Grigorovich’s choreography and Tchaikovsky’s score. 

The abundant energy of the performance and one or two suggestions of nervous effort may have been because Grigorovich was reportedly in the audience that night. For the 610th performance of a work he created 52 years ago, it retains its freshness and appeal but more importantly recalibrates the drama of Tchaikovsky’s score in relation to Petipa’s synopsis. 


Kamala Devam Company: Ankusha and Other Mysteries at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Posted: December 12th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Kamala Devam Company: Ankusha and Other Mysteries at Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Kamala Devam Company, Ankusha and Other Mysteries, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, December 1

Franco Conquista, Kamala Devam and Tamzen Moulding in Ankusha (photo: Vipul Sangoi)

Kamala Devam has a lot going for her and she is making the most of it. Ankusha and Other Mysteries, presented at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, is an ambitious program of five works, four of which she has choreographed on herself or on her company, and the fifth is the 2013 film, The Art of Defining Me, which confounds the political box-ticking of cultural assimilation in which she is inevitably caught up. As she quips in the film, she’s the ‘white pinup girl for Indian dance in England’. As a child of California Hippies she began learning bharatanatyam at the age of five and has reached a level where she can command the stage in a classical solo. She also studied western contemporary dance so inevitably her style blurs the edges of both techniques; this is what makes her fascinating to watch. The energy and motivation of a contemporary arm movement will suddenly make an appearance in the course of a bharatanatyam solo, and in contemporary work her clarity of gesture derives from her classical training. 

The opening work of Ankusha and Other Mysteriesis a case in point. Less of Meis a solo Devam created in 2014 in which she ‘reflects on the space she has inside her’ following surgery to remove a cyst. Sitting on the floor facing away from us, she seems to tell the story through her expressive back while using text to provide her thought processes. It’s a gem of a work that explores her disbelief in losing an internal growth only to find the body is still miraculously fully functional without it. It is reminiscent of Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal; both works are concerned with deepening the psychological and somatic understanding of the body as an expressive medium while using the body as the means of investigation. 

Seeing the short film, The Art Of Defining Me, directed by Devam and Seeta Patel, in the interval between Less of Meand Devam’s bharatanatyam solo, Jati-Swara-Leela, is to watch the very fluid question of identity first in satirical theory and then in practice. It says a lot about the pioneering work of Patel and Devam that five years after the film’s launch its influence can be felt in the programing of such works as Patel’s Not Today’s Yesterdayand Devam’s Ankusha and Other Mysteries.

In the great Indian tradition of the intimate, often improvised connection between dancer and accompaniment, Jati-Swara-Leelais graced with three accomplished musicians on stage playing a composition by Prathap Ramachandra: Danny Keane on cello, the versatile Pirashanna Thevarajah on percussion and Swati Seshadri as nattuvana. Choreographing on herself and costumed by Martina Trottman, Devam naturally inhabits the traditional style and at the same time suffuses it with contemporary sensibility; for all her refinement of bharatanatyam gesture and pose, she employs a spatial awareness and attack that redefines the form in her own image. 

The title of the next work, Babushka vs. Renaissance Man, points to another amalgam of cultural identity but despite the geographical allusions Devam describes it as ‘a choreographic investigation into the meeting points between the movement cultures of popping and kalaripayattu, a South Indian martial art’. The solo, set on popper Kamila Lewandowska, extends Devam’s choreographic evolution by negotiating a dialogue between two separate dance forms on a body that is not her own but it’s a more artificial composite than Jati-Swari-Leela where her intrinsic ability to channel two forms is entirely organic. It also raises the question of what you do once the two dance forms have met; Devam has made the introduction and Lewandowska’s body engages in the conversation but the choreographic form of Babushka vs. Renaissance Man remains too self-consciously contained to fully develop the relationship. 

The final work, Ankusha, moves in another direction in which Devam develops the action through three performers: herself, Tamzen Moulding and Franco Conquista. An ankusha is an elephant goad but Devam suggests it’s symbolic connotation as the Hindu god Lord Ganesha directing souls toward their destiny and keeping them on track. Ankusha keeps the vast theme of fate intimate in the way the paths of the three performers wrap tightly around and over each other, but while the philosophical idea is clear the acrobatic authority of Moulding and Conquista, who are both circus performers, too easily governs the narrative elements. Nevertheless Devam is clearly taking the lessons of Ankusha to push — and pull — the boundaries of her work in a direction that arises from her own unique identity. 


Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio

Posted: December 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio

Eva Recacha: Aftermath at Lilian Baylis Studio, October 25

Eva Recacha

Eleanor Sikorski and Charlotte McLean in Aftermath (photo: Jackie Shemesh)

How do you choreograph ennui? Eva Recacha has tackled it in her latest work, Aftermath, which was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells as part of its 20th anniversary, and received its world première at Lilian Baylis Studio. As a state of mind, ennui is not about what ishappening but about what isn’t, which had become a central concern of Recacha after becoming a mother and experiencing the ‘social isolation that can accompany this new role.’ Dancers have to move in order to think and prolonged inaction is akin to a slowing down of creative brain activity. Recacha has called Aftermath an ‘ode to pointlessness’ but this is perhaps as much a self-deprecatory acknowledgement of her starved creativity as it is a challenge to define her subject. In a post-show talk she described her transition from choreographer to mother as one in which she had no time for creative work and no sense of when that time might become available; beyond the celebration and excitement of motherhood it was for her a period of tedium that caused a feeling of inadequacy. Aftermath derives its keen sense of the absurd from trying to put a finger on the malaise she felt.

The opening is set somewhere in the stillness of the mind, in the heart of tedium itself. Kaspersophie’s set design is clearly not a domestic scene; it’s more like a clinical laboratory for the study of tedium with white walls, a couple of chairs (one upturned), a pile of toilet rolls, and red arrows on the floor to stimulate some kind of direction. The two patients are Charlotte Mclean, who lies prone and lifeless like an accident victim and Eleanor Sikorski, who although alive and sitting on a chair staring at the audience, lacks evident motivation. Time passes in a series of blackouts (part of Jackie Shemesh’s clinical grammar of lighting) and the only sound is piped birdsong (part of Alberto Ruiz Soler’s musical motivation). Recacha must have been aware that as long as there is life there is still energy, however small. It comes from Sikorski’s voice and while the message is bland — a series of statistics about ambition — there is something in its sardonic delivery that wakes up Mclean. It’s as if Sikorski is the idling conscience and Mclean its flattened ego. Once a connection has been made, however, the level of energy ramps up with the conscience changing from ignition to vituperative encouragement (“Stick to it, for fuck’s sake!”) until Mclean breaks out in an unintelligible rant.

Having established this desolate territory of the mind, Recacha is ready to recognize its positive value and sets out to challenge its engulfing presence with a generous dose of humour; Aftermath is thus both an uplifting narrative of internal psychological combat and its end product. Her highlighting of the toilet roll as variously a sculpture, a projectile, and a banner is an apposite metaphor.

Sikorski’s conscience is a fickle figure at best, pulling back her encouragement when Mclean’s creative energy is beginning to flow again, disdainfully tapping her green nails on the white chair beneath her pink dress until Mclean calms down (we learn later from Sikorski that the colour pink makes people calmer). But to function she also needs Mclean; it’s a love-hate relationship that sees their mutual dependency assuaged and exacerbated in oscillating fashion. It’s perfect casting with Sikorski as the acerbic, calculating wit and Mclean as the mercurial creative force; their two trajectories start on a fragile thread and fuse together to the point of familiarity and mutual admiration.

With its cross between The Private Life Of The Brain and Monty Python, Aftermath is as much an exploration of ennui as a picture of the divergent elements of artistic endeavour. For a choreographer who has experienced motherhood, perhaps the two are conjoined.The press release for Aftermath explains that ‘during the making of the show, Recacha carried out an outreach program for mothers and their small children, immersing herself again in that period of early childcare and its impact on the mother’s sense of identity and agency.’ While it must have taken Recacha back to the sense of tedium that inspired Aftermath, the Sadler’s Wells commission has given her an opportunity to move forward into the studio and to find within her own experience material for a work that in its level of craft, its wit and absurdity, shows no sign of creative lethargy.


BalletBoyz: Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall

Posted: November 18th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BalletBoyz: Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall

BalletBoyz, Young Men at Wilton’s Music Hall, November 14

BalletBoyz

Matthew Rees in a clip from the film of Young Men (photo: BalletBoyz)

BalletBoyz’ artistic directors, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, decided early on that Young Men would be ‘a slightly abstracted version of soldiering and war’ rather than having a philosophical or political stance, and that it would avoid any identification of one side over another. The original 2014 stage production with choreography by Iván Pérez, music by Keaton Henson, costumes by Katherine Watt and lighting by Andrew Ellis was commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Sadler’s Wells before morphing into a film that premiered on BBC2 on Armistice Day 2017. Now, at Wilton’s Music Hall, the two productions have been combined to mark the centenary of Armistice. With the stages of development so closely following the timeline of the First World War the directors’ claims of abstraction are problematic.

Since 2000, BalletBoyz has made a name for itself as a company of male dancers. While the age and physical qualities of these young men are close to those who set off from the platforms of Victoria Station with such eagerness to get across to France to fight for their country, they never quite separate the soldier from the Boyz with the exception of Matthew Rees who plays the role of a young sergeant with more than a hint of authenticity; had he not joined BalletBoyz he would have completed his first stage application to join The Royal Marines. Playing a sadistic parade-ground sergeant he anchors what narrative there is with his erratic and threatening behaviour that might now be ascribed to battle fatigue. Pérez, whose choreography for the original stage production was adapted for the film, uses Rees as the tension that holds the small company of seven young men together, but the effects of fatigue — from the highly physical routines on the parade ground and no man’s land to the scenes in the misty trenches — have an aesthetic rather than a psychological value. He takes military actions, whether it’s drill, shell shock or dying on the battlefield, and smoothes them into balletic exercises. It’s the choreographic equivalent of singing commemorative hymns, an attempt to bridge the gap between the unknowable experience of the trenches and peacetime civilian life.

One of the characters in Timothy Findley’s novel,The Wars, is a mother who has just seen her son leave on a troop ship. She walks out of the sermon in church the following day in a moment of acute incomprehension: “What does it mean – to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?” One hundred years on it is a question that is still unanswered.

In another commission from 14-18 NOW, They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s film of the First World War offers a salient explanation. Footage of training, battle conditions and the Armistice from the archives of the Imperial War Museum has been digitally enhanced to bring the action hauntingly to full colour and speed. The commentary throughout is from soldiers who were involved in every aspect of the fighting. At the very end, as one soldier tries to re-find his place in society, he observes that nobody is interested in hearing about the war; nobody wants to know.

So if Young Men sets out commemorate the war, what aspect is it commemorating? Youth would be an obvious answer; the enthusiasm in the country to sign up for service galvanized a generation of young men from all backgrounds. For many survivors war was the crucible in which their maturity was rudely forged but for those who died or were maimed, it was the devastation of youth. The youthful culture alone of BalletBoyz, as conveyed in Young Men, is clearly incommensurate with the range of experiences in the trenches.

In the program, Nunn and Trevitt write of their wish to acknowledge ‘the tenacity and great courage of women’. Elizabeth McGorian and Jennifer White join the company for both the film and the stage performance as, respectively, mother and sweetheart of Bradley Waller’s character. Their presence broadens the emotional palette of Young Men, but the superficiality of the male material gives McGorian and White little scope for the development of tenacity and great courage beyond their token roles.

With a commemorative stance that values entertainment over substance, what is left of Young Men is an aesthetic approach to war that is little short of a romantic myth. The project is thus complicit not in remembering but in forgetting what happened to an entire generation of young men — not once but three times.