Ian Abbott at Dublin Dance Festival 2019

Posted: May 25th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Festival, Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott at Dublin Dance Festival 2019

Dublin Dance Festival 2019, May 15-17

Dublin Dance Festival 2019
Oona Doherty and Valda Setterfield in Inventions (photo: Ewa Figaszewska)

Dublin Dance Festival 2019 is the penultimate edition under the curational control of Benjamin Perchet. Now in its 15th year, DDF is Ireland’s premiere contemporary dance festival, something akin to London’s Dance Umbrella: a city-wide festival with multiple partners and scales of work and a mixture of local and international guests. Sitting alongside Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas, Colin Dunne & Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Session, and Liz Roche’s I/Thou is a trio of works on consecutive nights that ask questions around gender and age. 

La Natura Delle Cose (LNDC) by Virgilio Sieni is a problematic work. Created in 2008, LNDC features four male dancers (Ramona Caia, Jari Boldrini, Maurizio Giunti, and Andrea Palumbo) and one female dancer (Nicola Cisternino). According to the program ‘Sieni draws inspiration from the great poem De rerum natura by Roman philosopher Lucretius to explore “The Nature of Things”, portraying a character moving through the entire cycle of life in one hour. In a performance of overwhelming beauty, five dancers offer a counterpoint to what Lucretius believed to be the chief cause of unhappiness: the fear of death. Moving as a single body, they create a rich visual poem that presents the masked character of Venus at three stages of life. First as an eleven-year-old girl, she moves with graceful fluidity, borne aloft by the four male dancers. Later she explores the world as a two-year-old baby and finally she is an eighty-year-old woman, her descent complete.’  

The reality is you have four men controlling, manipulating, positioning and restricting a female performer, pulling her legs apart, marking their hands on her body, and pawing her in three 20-minute scenes as she wears the masks of a teenage girl, a toddler and an 80-year-old woman. Cisternino is a gifted mimic, embodying the physical traits and stereotypical movements at all three stages of life; we see the toddler tantrum through rigid legs and resistance alongside the grace and subtle flow of the older body. There might be an alternative way to view this work as there was a little skill in not allowing Cisternino to touch the floor as the men caught, lifted and carried her around the stage in the opening scene. However, female bodies on stage are always political; what you do with them and how you frame them is a choice. When you choose to cover the female performer’s face for the entire performance while the men remain unmasked and give men total control, you are adopting a position of male power. The lack of awareness from both the choreographer and the festival that the work can be read in this way is startling; my response was not in isolation as conversations with other audience members across the festival identified levels of discomfort with and questions about the work presented. 

Inventions by John Scott/Irish Modern Dance Theatre was considerably less problematic in its portrayal of women as it gave space for and a gift to Valda Setterfield and Oona Doherty; supported by Mufutau Yusuf, Ashley Chen and Kevin Coquelard, Inventions is ‘a new Bach-inspired dance work’ that ‘weaves new stories into an old ballroom setting, echoing the memory of dances past. In a series of duets Inventions focuses on two contrasting couples, one falling in love, the other falling into an abyss.’ Scott’s work is made in response to a tricky period in his life and the text and physicality has an urgency and clarity to it that come from a place of truth.

As a 60-minute suite of duets/solos with the occasional group moments we can smell the abyss, the rage and despair alongside the possibilities of redemption and hope. Scott has assembled five performers who are magnetic, engaging and infinitely watchable creating an environment in his studio that has unlocked something; to see exceptional dancers perform well is a moment of rare joy. 

At the age of 85 Setterfield is the anchor, orchestrating a sense of calm amongst the emotional debris left by the others; Doherty is an exceptional presence on stage, part wolf, part shark, part hawk and there is an internal menace and trauma that is married to an exquisite technical control. In her duet with Chen towards the end of the work, they slam, run, fly, hold and compete with each other; even though Chen is taller and heavier there is no doubt that the power lies with Doherty. 

Ensemble by Lucy Boyes and Robbie Synge is the result of a practice seven years in the making after Boyes challenged the status quo of the type of bodies people expect to see doing dance; with a startling bias towards bodies that are ‘professional’ and under 30 there is a dearth of middle-aged and older people on stage and in the mainstream media. Opening with a tightly choreographed 15-minute section we see Synge, Judy Adams, Angus Balbernie, Hannah Venet and Christine Thynne deliver an intricate set of floor work and knotted walking patterns to a driving score mixed by Matthew Collings. The remaining forty minutes comprises a series of duets between Synge/Venet and Adams/Thynne/Balbernie which foreground the ability and personality of the dancers. 

Ensemble is refreshing for its lack of artifice; we see the dancers on the side of the stage, wiping down, taking on water and waiting for their stage time. This isn’t an engagement or outreach project for older people, but a quietly radical space where bodies come together to transmit joy, lightness and an authenticity that is infectious and demonstrates how different bodies can tell a different story. It immediately subverts societal expectations of what bodies in their 60s and 70s can achieve with a demonstration of strength, intimacy and togetherness.


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.