Dance: Try a Little Tenderness – International Dance Festival Birmingham

When I reviewed Canadian choreographer Dave St-Pierre’s Un Peu de Tendresse Bordel de Merde! on its Sadler’s Wells debut back in June last year, I described it as “not a show for the faint-hearted (nor for the flob-averse).” There seems little point in denying that the show contains two dozen naked Canadians, who at various points descend into the audience for some eye-socking full-frontal encounters.Portions of the work are decidedly biological, and anyone uncomfortable with dangly bits in their close proximity is unlikely to be comfortable with this show. There’s also plenty of hearty Gallic expectoration. But none of this stops Un Peu de Tendresse… being by turns hilarious, affecting and beautiful.

Critics at the London performances were sharply divided on the show’s merits. A few declared the show’s (literally) in-your-face
nudity offensive; the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts went so far as to call it “an assault on our values.” It’s hard to imagine many people in the 21st century still being offended by the sight of the human body, and it must be said that the use of nudity in this production is neither gratuitous nor titillating: St-Pierre’s naked characters are played as innocent ingénues, skipping gaily about the stage with the kind of free abandon that most of us have long since left behind.

Other detractors labelled the piece’s perceived shock-tactics tedious or hackneyed, pointing to shows (Hair and Oh! Calcutta among them) that displayed their performers at a time when nudity onstage was uncommon. For me, this objection also misses the essence of the production – the nudity is not designed to shock in the sense of senseless provocation, but rather to reveal the dancers in all their human vulnerability. Dancers appear not merely naked, but dressed in blonde milkmaid wigs that effect a total transformation of character from taciturn adults to pleasureseeking infants.

Many of St-Pierre’s nude scenes are uproariously funny, the blonde-wigged male characters flocking together to comment on the action in squeaky falsetto voices. Other sequences delve – often poignantly – into the tenderness of the title. A slapstick scene in which a bewigged gentleman tries repeatedly to take a running jump into the arms of his suitor ends in distressing failure; his raw nakedness leaves no hiding place for fear of rejection, fear of intimacy or simple fear.

One or two critics of the London show disliked being singled out by dancers in the scene where the performers romp among the audience, not so much breaking the fourth wall as smashing right through it in a move that completely removes the line between performer and audience. This was probably the scene that enjoyed the most walkouts, but is also absolutely key to the performance as a whole. By participating in this baptism of flesh, the audience identifies much more readily with the performers for
the rest of the show (critic Sanjoy Roy described this as feeling “tenderised” by the sequence).

Survive this scene and you’ll receive frosty congratulations from “Sabrina”, our sardonic onstage narrator. Sabrina comments on the frantic attempts at coupling around her with icy detachment; at times, she seems to function as a superdominant superego, demanding that we repress all pleasures into the bottoms of our psyches. Clothed, the performers submit to Sabrina’s will: gruff and stoic, the men silently rebuff their female partners and the women can do little to connect with them. Naked, the performers openly seek affection, attention and love like the giddy inner children they portray.

St-Pierre’s work is clearly indebted to the late, great Pina Bausch and her emotionally exposing Tanztheater; indeed, Bausch herself blessed St-Pierre’s dancers as “my illegitimate, pornographic children.” Illegitimate they may be, but I’d dispute the charge of pornography – Un Peu de Tendresse… is finally not a work about bodies or sex, but about human frailty, vulnerability and (the clue’s in the title) tenderness. Bring an open mind, a sense of humour – and if you’re in the first few rows, some kind of spit-protection.

Lise Smith is a dance artist and writer, regularly contributing to and a number of other arts publications.

Dave St Pierre Company // Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!
26-28 April //Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

Dance Review: English National Ballet – Beyond Ballets Russes (Programme 2) @ London Coliseum

Following last week’s mixed bag, English National Ballet continues their celebration of the Ballets Russes legacy with a second mixed bill of new and pre-loved works.

Balanchine’s Apollo is now 84 years old, but with its turned-in pliés and clean, unfussy lines it still looks strikingly modern today. Mr B’s trademarks are all there – the flexed hand details, six o’clock penchées and strong geometric arrangements – this time pressed into the service of a semi-narrative about the Greek god Apollo conducting three of the nine muses. Daria Klimentová makes light work of the detailed running steps in her solo as Tersichore; Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo has a nice combination of ballon and attack on his nimble yet muscular jumps.

ENB’s outgoing Artistic Director Wayne Eagling has made a name for himself in recent years as a loving reconstructor of lost and rare ballets; his Jeux is a recreation of a 1913 ballet by Nikinsky that uses tennis as a light-hearted motif for the games adult couples – and trios play. Two gaily-clad ingénues come skipping into the living room of a louche young Noel Coward-type, tennis racquets in hand; the young man (danced by Dmitri Gruzdyev) takes both ladies for a spin around the forestage ending in languid kisses for all. Breezy and effortlessly sensual with its carefree 1920s vibe, Eagling’s ballet unfortunately also illustrates what the company will soon be missing with his departure.

Russian sensation Vadim Muntagirov delights with his athletic, preening Handsome Young Man from Le Train Bleu. Clad in Chanel beachwear, a beaming Muntagirov rattles off the solo’s bag of tricks – handstands, somersaults and multiple tours en l’air – with consummate ease. The brief variation is only two minutes long but it brings the house down.

Suite en Blanc, an exhibition ballet created in 1943 by former Ballets Russes principal Serge Lifar, showcases the company’s strength in depth. Yonah Acosta, winner of ENB’s recent Emerging Dancer award, dances a buoyant mazurka with a lovely musicality; Laurretta Summerscales makes a dazzling series of pirouettes and posé turns look effortless. The corps, resplendent in white tutus for the ladies and black Cossack pants for the men, are sometimes little more than moving backdrops for the soloists, but their ensemble performances are clean and poised. Light and frothy as a well-whipped meringue, Suite en Blanc is the crowning confection of this delicious evening.

Beyond Ballets Russes Programme 2 (Apollo, Le beau Gosse, Jeux and Suite en blanc) played at the London Coliseum. More information and booking at


Originally published at

Dance Review: ROH2 New Dance Commissions at Linbury Studio Theatre


T.S.Eliot, in the essay Hamlet and his Problems, borrowed the phrase “objective correlative” to describe a chain of events in a dramatic work that both makes sense of the action and evokes an emotional response in the audience; in other words, a reason for use to care about what the character does. It’s  a rather good essay, and one I wish more choreographers woud take a glance at from time to time.

It’s not that any of the works presented in the ROH2’s mixed bill are weak in craft terms; indeed, all three are well-made and serve a clear vision from the choreographers concerned. It’s just that there’s no clear reason for us in the audience to care about what happens on stage. When Helka Kaski wanders across the forestage with a yearning gaze in Laïla Diallo’sHold Everything Dear, it’s readable in that we see the travelling, the longing, the lack of closure, but there’s no sense of why it’s taking place or why that might matter. Similar issues haunt all three works in the programme, a sort of graduation showcase for the first three artists working on the ROH2’s Choreographic Associates scheme.

Sarah Dowling’s Remote imagines a future in which people are unable to experience or express emotion unless told what to feel by their televisions. Three ancient-looking cathode ray tubes show brief fragments of cartoons, musicals and reality shows interspersed with directives on how the body experiences joy, tears and anger: jaws clenched, chins lifted, torsos contracted and muscles contorted, which the dancers enact to order. It’s in many ways a clear vision of its subject, a nightmarish progression from our current dependence on television and its ability to manipulate our emotions. Performers Elisabetta D’Aloia, Kath Duggan and Jake Ingram-Dodd jitter and giggle at their television screens, left motionless and bereft when the signal is removed.  But with viewers in the real world turning away in droves from the manipulative reality shows that she critiques here, the imaginationless future that Dowling projects is implausibly bleak; and Remote’s premise is ultimately too slight to sustain our interest for its full length.

Laïla Diallo’s piece about migration and transit, Hold Everything Dear, is full of beautiful and intriguing images – a woman walking along a bench leading nowhere, collections of travellers surrounded by suitcases, a man staring into the audience with something that might be hope, or curiosity, or resignation. Images wash over us – still tableaux, little exchanges between the performers as they pass one another, and Letty Mitchell repeatedly finding herself wrapped up in packing tape –  at a meandering pace and with no resolution or purpose. It’s not of course necessary for a piece, even one about journeys and migration, to go anywhere; but the more Diallo’s piece avoids a sense of character or place that might resonate with the viewer, the less we care.

Freddie Opoku-Addaie’s Absent Made Present begins with an interesting idea about manual craft and the human presence manifest in objects made by people. The craft bit is represented by two dozen hanging lumps of clay swung about the stage by Opoku-Addaie’s four perfomers; the human presence by some nicely animated contact work. Accompanied by an entertainingly Greenwich Village score (played live on, among other things, half a tree trunk) Hian Ruth Voon sheds a mask of dry clay into a waiting bucket; maskless she is free to duck and dive among the swinging clay balls. There’s a playful and accessible piece about making things work here fighting to get out, but long minutes of repetition and heavy layers of concept weigh Absent Made Present down.

There’s always a place in dance for the conceptual, and new work is in no way obliged to be simplistic or simply pretty; but almost three unrelenting hours of high-concept angstiness would wear down almost anyone. There are problems that mere craft, however adept,  and performance, however capable, cannot solve in art; I do think Eliot might have been onto something.