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.


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.


Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Posted: March 10th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ultima Vez, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ultima VezMockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 1

Ultima Vez Mockumentary
Flavio d’Andrea, Anabel Lopez and the cast in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour (photo © Danny Willems)

Since he started his Brussels-based company, Ultima Vez, in 1986 the prolific choreographer, filmmaker and director Wim Vandekeybus has sought innovative approaches to dance and theatre beginning with his first work, What the Body Does Not Remember. One might say that he has established choreography as a form of discourse on a wide variety of subjects that preoccupy him — myth, belief, faith, subconscious desires, dreams, life and death. (In May the Brighton Festival will be presenting his latest work, TrapTown, that questions conflict and freedom). As in modernist architecture’s mantra of ‘form follows function’, each production takes on a form that grows out of the subject but Vandekeybus nonetheless remains true to a physical movement vocabulary that embodies tension and conflict, risk and impulse, intuition and instinct, passion and endurance. In his recent work, Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, presented at Queen Elizabeth Hall, he draws on the different cultural traditions of his seven performers — Anabel Lopez, Maria Kolegova, Jason Quarles, Wouter Bruneel, Yun Liu, Flavio d’Andrea and Saïd Gharbi — to create an ironic, perhaps even caustic documentary of salvation.

In an era of unprecedented migration with its underlying plurality of faiths, Vandekeybus broadens the scope of Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour to include any religious remit that promises the kind of salvation where utopia and dystopia are interwoven. The set with its circular centre conceived by Vandekeybus and Meryem Bayram describes a nondescript place reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in which three men and two women have been saved as the ‘chosen ones’ and as in Stalker, there is no way out. It is into the midst of this circle, dominated by a transparent halo-like ceiling, that Bruneel, a big-bellied, lusty western psychologist in orange safety overalls, suddenly appears: his ‘corpse’ drops through the halo and lands with a thud on the ground. His body is ‘still warm’ and the community, already conversant with the notion of a saviour and convinced he is a sign of divine intervention, revives him. Ironically Bruneel’s unexpected arrival sets off a cacophonous dispute about belief, death and preparations for the next life. Even if the location of the space is indeterminate, we learn from Bruneel that the world as we know it is in a state of disintegration, suggesting this is a purgatorial staging post; hence the importance of signs that might lead to a possible way out.  

The internal conflicts, cultural differences, and encounters between the characters are played out as physical and verbal commotions against a rumbling score by Charo Calvo in which Vandekeybus’s characteristic muscular idiom articulates their grief, desires, hopes and sense of resignation. Although a spoken text devised by Bart Meuleman and Ultima Vez predominates as the main expressive form in Mockumentary of a Contemporary Saviour, it is the heightened physicality of both voice and body that unleashes the full dynamics of the contradictory forces within the community. Lurking close to the surface of the bonds that tie the seven people in their precarious existence is a violence that threatens to destroy them. 

Vandekeybus’ timely reflection on the power of belief is based not so much on the presence but rather the absence of ‘the child’. We learn that Lopez is a mother whose son has died; early in the piece she is addressed as Martha. Gharbi, a blind seer who represents spiritual clarity, suggests she has to let go of her dead child if she wants him to forgive her. The deliberate conflation of her personal salvation with the biblical Martha’s acceptance of Christ’s resurrection is further corroborated when her son, once freed from her motherly love, is lowered down into the space like an effigy and immediately recognized by the community as proof of the saviour’s existence. Armed with this conviction they clamber enthusiastically over the audience to proselytize in their respective languages till they make their exit through the auditorium doors, leaving the blind Gharbi on stage communicating with the sound of his clicking fingers alone. Vandekeybus thus ends his provocative interrogation of faith with Gharbi’s quiet, meditative gesture that in its simplicity elicits a response from the audience without any misplaced belief or truth assigned to it.  

Mockumentary of A Contemporary Saviour is a reminder from continental Europe of the robust role choreography can play in philosophical debate. In this country we are not familiar with it being used in this way and it pushes hard, if uncomfortably, against a prevalence of aesthetic movement that risks limiting the art form’s full development. 


National Dance Company Wales in Awakening at Riverfront Theatre

Posted: March 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on National Dance Company Wales in Awakening at Riverfront Theatre

National Dance Company Wales: Awakening, Riverfront Theatre, Newport, March 1

NCDWales
NDCWales in Afterimage (photo: Rhys Cozens)

Opening their Spring 2019 season, Awakening, in Newport, National Dance Company Wales offers ‘three unique dances to amuse and amaze’. With two premières — Fernando Melo’s Afterimage and resident choreographer Caroline Finn’s RevellersMass — alongside Marcos Morau’s Tundra from 2017 we are welcomed with a five-minute pre-show speech by the new artistic director, Fearghus Ó Conchúir, outlining his support for the ‘brilliant performers’ on stage alongside the plurality of what dance can be and the benefits it offers to our communities, stages and studios across Wales.

Tundra is a 30-minute work for eight dancers that ‘tears pages from the Russian history books on folk dance, mass parades and revolution, revitalising old ideas with renewed meaning. It’s as mesmerizingly beautiful as it is robotically precise.’ If you’re going to self-define to these high expectations then you have to have the skill, discipline and technique to execute; unfortunately the NDCWales dancers do not. 

With an air of religious menace in the opening scene we have eight bodies smoothly and footlessly hovering about the stage in competitive Japanese walking patterns, their bell skirts covering their feet as they glide across floor in formations of treacle. This is followed by an attempt at choreographic precision that sits somewhere between a multi-part canon, a pedestrian domino rally and a kaleidoscopic image but executed by more than a quarter of the company surprisingly poorly for a national organisation. If a work demands such a degree of precision and musicality then dancers cannot be one or two beats behind or five degrees out of alignment, especially when Joseff Fletcher’s back-lit lighting exposes and emphasises the exact site of legs, arms and torsos. The discrepancies draw our attention because only five bodies are adhering to the choreographic instruction. Choreographically it is a work full of illusion that succeeds in the front-to-back cluster as we see bodies slowly tipping off balance like pendulums and then reversing back to centre. It’s visually clever and would be more satisfying if it were better rehearsed.

Afterimage by Fernando Melo is a 20-minute work for six dancers that uses the effect of Pepper’s Ghost to make figures appear and disappear in this look at loss, memories and sliding door moments. It describes itself as ‘a journey of fleeting images; of appearance and disappearance. Mirrors are used on stage to form a unique theatrical experience where the past and the present collide with a poetic and creative style of dance.’ Sat at table with two chairs we see encounters between pairs of people who move on and off stage, in and out of light delivering letters from beyond the grave or from another time. Melo’s regular artistic team of Shumpei Nemoto, Yoko Seyama and Peter Lundin make the company look great. It’s a study of simple movement and a bundle of what-ifs that match the stillness, mood and reverence that the work demands. 

However if you’ve seen Melo’s work before, Afterimage is essentially a recycling/stitching together of three of his previous commissions for other companies: If walls could speakLes Enfants du paradis and Pepper’s Ghost. We have the same table, the same chairs, the same mirror, the same mood. As a choreographer for hire this is not unusual; with any commission what you’re getting is a time-limited licence for an existing product and a name that enhances your own brand and gets you into new touring territories.

Finn’s Revellers’ Mass ‘delves into a world of ritual as an unlikely group gathers for a dinner party, where etiquette is put to the test. Curious choreography and characters are inspired by historical paintings.’ Finn’s première for nine dancers is a presentation of Dionysian revelry. There is excess, but for a 30-minute portrayal of a rousing banquet it is just too clean and dainty; no one is letting go. I lack a belief in what is being presented because the dancers don’t appear to believe in what they’re doing: artifice leaks out their bodies and faces. Revelry has to be embodied, as Gareth Chambers showed in his Excess at Chapter last summer where he explored revelry’s sweaty and transgressive relationship to ecstasy and pleasure. Throwing together movement, a hotchpotch of soundtracks, multiple lighting designs and a water-filled trough on stage smacks of choreographic masking. And we need to talk about the ending which cheapens an already lightweight work.

Do I believe in the dancers? Do I believe in what they’re being asked to do and are they able to deliver it? In Afterimage yes, in Revellers’ Mess and Tundra, no. If the financially safest and largest dance company in Wales is presenting apolitical, light, under-rehearsed entertainment at the opening of their Spring season, what message does that send to the rest of the ecology? NDCWales receives a similar amount of public subsidy and operates at a similar scale to Scottish Dance Theatre but the difference in the quality of dancers and choreographic choices is marked; when you’re in receipt of the highest public subsidy the critical lens should be at its sharpest. This triple bill has been inherited by Ó Conchúir (he came into post late last year) and it will be interesting to see how the company moves forward under his artistic leadership. 


Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place

Posted: March 5th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place

Yukiko Masui and Léa Tirabasso double bill at The Place, March 2

Masui-Tirabasso
Publicity images for Léa Tirabasso and Yukiko Masui’s double bill

In a well-curated double bill of works by two choreographers each creates a context for the other. On the surface and in their treatment of their respective subjects Yukiko Masui’s Falling Family and Léa Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life of an Octopus are quite different, but each is based on a personal experience about the nature of life and death. The subsequent self-questioning creates a bridge between the works that allows us to confront mortality in ways that, as Masui writes, are ‘simply not expressible in speech.’ While Masui takes us into her Falling Family with a heightened sensibility that creates feelings of empathy, Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life Of An Octopus leads us through the confusion and corrosion of life’s breakdown with a confrontational performance that ends up counter-intuitively expressing an exhilarating sense of joy. 

Falling Family builds on the metaphor of dominoes; different arrangements of coloured tiles are used throughout the work while the four performers — Julie Ann Minaai, Annakanako Mohri, Daniel Phung and Yumino Seki — demonstrate within a loosely defined family structure their support for each other, their interdependence, and their disorientation and vulnerability when one of them is no longer there. As Masui writes, the work ‘taps into the dark, conflicted, emotional space that cracks open when we encounter a loved one’s illness, mental breakdown or even death.’ 

The subtlety of Masui’s conception reflects the passage of time in meticulously constructed moments that suggest rather than define until metaphor and narrative become so intimately entwined that they coalesce. She introduces us to the members of the family one by one in separate sections delineated by Ben Moon’s lighting and Ezra Axelrod’s spliced snippets of Japanese conversation. As the work unfolds, relationships begin to overlap and then build up in a choreographic layering in which the characters move with a resigned sense of self-control that their use of articulate gesture further refines; Mohri’s opening hand gestures of everyday life in Moon’s precise downlight sets the tone for the entire work. Seki’s quiet presence is the one that starts to retreat into itself; Axelrod’s score becomes plangent in its final evocation of drama, leaving Mohri — reflecting perhaps Masui’s own response — challenging fate in a final, uplifting solo of rage against the dying of the light. 

The visual contrast between Fallen Families and Tirabasso’s The Ephemeral Life Of An Octopus is marked. Nicolas Tremblay’s high-voltage lighting keeps the levels high on a white stage littered with black microphone cables while the subtle hues of Giulia Scrimieri’s costumes are replaced by bright splashes of coloured swimwear for the four extrovert performers: Caterina Barbosa in Prussian blue, Alistair Goldsmith in pink, Joachim Maudet in green and Rosie Terry Toogood in bright orange. Stark juxtapositions abound, perhaps none more so than that of the romantic third movement of Brahms’ second piano concerto with the flagrantly staccato, animalistic contortions of the performers (Gabrielle Moleta is listed as Animal Transformation Coach). But given the work is informed by Tirabasso’s own experience with ovarian cancer, such contrasts are not as virulent as might appear; the romantic notion of life that Brahms lays before us has no place in it for the contemplation of disease. 

Tirabasso’s metaphors derive from philosopher Thomas Stern’s essay, The Human and the Octopus, in which he takes his own illness as a starting point for discussing the relationship of mind and body, quoting on the one hand from Proust who sees the mind with which we identify as trapped inside the body of an alien — an octopus — and on the other from JM Coetze for whom the flesh of the body and its susceptibility to pain is an incontrovertible reminder of our humanity. In The Ephemeral Life of an Octopus, Tirabasso uses the dance body as a thick brush with which to paint these conflicting notions. 

Corrosive metaphors of physical breakdown are not unfamiliar in art but there is an undercurrent of wit in Tirabasso’s choreography, in her choice of music (including an original composition by Martin Durov), in the colour and light of the production and in the relentless play of healthy bodies in a compulsive setting of dis-ease that negotiates a path between spirit and flesh, between intellect and play that taken as a whole borders on an unequivocal celebration of life.