Dance Review: Fringe at The Place, Sweetshop Revolution/Sue MacLaine

Dance is a small but sturdy part of the Edinburgh Fringe programme, with a growing number of dance makers opting to take work up to the world’s largest arts festival to nestle against stand-up comedy, cabaret and new drama. This year The Place previews six new dance works on their way up to Edinburgh; the third evening of Fringe at The Place paired a delicate biographical piece from dancer-choreographer Sally Marie with arresting autobiographical philosophy from Sue MacLaine.

I Loved You and I Loved You is a reflection on the life and work of Welsh composer Morfydd Owen, portrayed by dancer Faith Prendergast. Owen’s sex and humble social background challenged the conventions of the late-Edwardian music world; she was a celebrated pianist, singer and prolific composer, producing over 180 known compositions in the ten years leading up to her early death. Owen’s social life was no less turbulent: pursued by former politician Eliot Crawshay-Williams (Karl Fargarlund-Brekke), she chose instead to marry psychoanalyst Ernest Jones (Daniel Whiley), who may have been put a dampener on her unusual career.

Prendergast, Whiley and Fargarlund-Brekke all give strong performances. Whiley writhes himself into twisted contortions of self-torture, seemingly unable to reconcile the sexual theories of his mentor Sigmund Freud with his own repressed desires in an agonising monologue in which Jones appears to be trying to crawl out of his own skin; Fargarlund-Brekke’s character is more smoothly self-assured, but cracks in the confident surface reveal thwarted ambition and self-doubt beneath. Tiny, doll-like Prendergast first appears on stage as an embodiment of her own music, drawing notes from the piano (played by Brian Ellsbury) with a twist of the head and a stir of the arm. She whirls about her lovers with joyous abandon, soothing oil to the troubled waters of each man’s passions.

What I slightly miss from this engaging and beautifully-performed work at present is a sense of Owen’s own voice, her agency, her motivations for the choices she makes. Prendergast is the only member of the cast not to speak on stage; at present, she literally lacks a voice. The opening sequence sees her passed bodily between her two co-performers, as if she has no personal power at all. This initial impression runs quite contrary to the spirited Owen we see in later duets, but lingers in the mind even as we listen to the compositions and view the life and loves of a highly unconventional woman. I Loved You and I Loved You is presented here as a work in progress, and with further work in the studio could be a delicate, affecting gem of a piece at this year’s Fringe.

It’s not every dance theatre piece that contains the word “equivalence”. Theatre maker Sue MacLaine’s Can I Start Again Please, a philosophical investigation of the limitations of language in describing experience touching on Wittgenstein, theories of translation and child abuse, is an unusual and absorbing work. MacLaine and co-creator Nadia Nadarajah sit side by side facing the audience, a long scroll of text (a script? A set of instructions?) concertinaed between them. MacLaine introduces her putative subject – Wittgenstein – the Austrian-born linguistic philosopher whose most famous pronouncements include “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Nadarajah serenely translates MacLaine’s words into beautifully gestured British Sign Language (BSL), fluid as a kathak performance and mesmerising to watch. But it’s a rebellious translation: at times, Nadarajah sits still while MacLaine pauses for some description to be interpreted; at other times, Nadarajah translates MacLaine’s direct questions to her instead of answering. MacLaine worries about how her story will be received – can she assume the audience will know who Wittgenstein is, or must this be detailed to ensure understanding? Can we ever ensure understanding? MacLaine is uncertain, and allows this theoretical uncertainty to flit lightly between the earnest and the comical.

Over the course of fifty bold, gripping minutes, a harrowing tale of family abuse emerges – a lamp, a bedroom, a house, a family, an entire world made absurd and unreal by a process of childhood dissociation. We learn the BSL signs for “repression” and “suppression”, and the difference between the two is fascinating and provoking. Where MacLaine’s concerns about the capacity of language to convey her experience are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, the audience falls into a hush of appalled comprehension at the narrative of MacLaine’s trauma. MacLaine finds a way to articulate what has happened – a way to speak “whereof” – that demands only silence in return.

Can I Start Again Please is a brave work, not only because it deals with an emotionally difficult topic but because it deals with its subject in an unapologetically rational, even academic manner. Dance theatre pieces that muse on formal and functional equivalence in language may be few and far between, but MacLaine’s warm, engaging manner, the frequent humour and the beauty of the staging mean Can I Start Again Please is inviting rather than alienating, even for those in the audience that lack large quantities of translation theory in their research backgrounds. An accomplished piece of theatre that deserves to do well in Edinburgh.

Originally published at www.londondance.com

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Dance review: Compagnie DCA Philippe Decoufle, Contact, Sadler’s Wells

Contact image Bettina Strenske

Philippe Decouflé is the French theatrical magician who has previously brought to life an encyclopedia of imaginary animals (in Codex/Tricodex), delved into the secret life of shadows (Sombrero), and created the delightfully bonkers opening ceremony for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. His works are hard to classify, straddling the boundaries between dance, cabaret, comedy and contemporary theatre with a healthy dash of stage artifice and visual trickery.Contact, a show about sixteen performers putting on a very loose adaptation of Faust, is no different in this regard – a melange of skits, spectacle and silliness sprinkled with moments of genuinely breathtaking beauty.

Contact opens with a fluid solo for dancer Eric Martin. Dressed in a spangled tailsuit and coiffed to look just like Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Martin glides bonelessly across the forestage with a sliding variation that’s equal parts Broadway jazz and the new streetdance style of floating. As other company members filter in behind him, the pulsing sounds played live by musicians Nosfell and Pierre Le Bosfell ramp up from sparse synth percussion to a richer full-bodied soundtrack.

Contact makes mesmerising use of its cast’s many talents. Julien Ferrantishows himself to be as adapt with a countertenor vibrato as he is dancing the lindy hop; Violette Wanty joins circus-trainedSuzanne Soler for an aerial duet on bungee chords; and the exotically limber Sean Patrick Mombrunowinds himself athletically into a small box as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Lines between disciplines are blurred; musicians join in sections of dance, dancers erupt into song, and everyone is swept into the comic dialogue between the refreshingly older performers Stéphane Chivot andChristophe Salengro.

Decouflé has a similarly boundary-blurring approach to movement, with nods toMGM musicals, lively partner dance and Bauschian parade all in the choreographic blender. A lengthy dance-battle sequence recalls West Side Story; a thrilling corde lisse solo for Soler finds the acrobat whipped around at terrifying speeds (for me; clearly Soler herself has no fear). Dance scenes are frequently accompanied by live-captured video effects designed by Olivier Simola; the live action onstage is blown up onto the back wall, looped, inverted and fractured into kaleidoscopic effects that recall Busby Berkeley’s bathers in glorious technicolor.

If there’s a criticism to be made about Contact, it’s that the loose narrative of a troupe performing a strangely modified version of Faust isn’t coherent enough to frame the work effectively, and towards the comic vignettes occasionally distract from the otherwise hypnotic dance sequences. There’s a definite drop in energy towards the end as well, with the last twenty minutes feeling decidedly saggy; a sequence articulating a mathematical proof of God suffers either from sound problems or lack of rehearsal, as the unison is less taut here than elsewhere in the show for both speakers and dancers.

Overall, however, Contact is as full of strange delights as the company’s previous outings. Bizarre, otherworldly and beautiful – in other words, business as usual for the Gallic maverick.

http://www.sadlerswells.com

Originally published at londondance.com

Dance Review: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Ahnen, Sadler’s Wells

Image: Bettina Strenske

Tanztheater Wuppertal has a notably devoted following and, to some extent, viewers will already know what to expect from a Bausch work. A large, dominant stage set by Peter Pabst that frames, hinders or becomes part of the action; beautifully-performed gestural processions; loosely-connected vignettes; Marion Cito’s gorgeous costuming. These elements are all present and correct in Ahnen, but with an added element of strange chaos that doesn’t belong to her most famous works.

The first ten minutes of the show seem deliberately calculated to put the audience’s collective head in a spin. Bright lighting; a loud burst of German electropunk; characters strutting across the stage in a bizarre mélange of costumes that includes manga cats, kilted punks and animated hats like something out of a Magritte painting; a woman dumping wheelbarrowloads of bricks at the back of the stage; a woman attacking a concrete block with a pneumatic drill. Overlapping action and unexplained occurrences on stage are a pair of Pina hallmarks, but the frenetic rate and the dizzying randomness of events made me wonder if Bausch had popped across the border in 1987 for a trip to see one of her young Belgian contemporaries – Alain Platel, perhaps, or maybe Wim Vandekeybus.

After a while the pace settles down, but the action itself continues flitting from scene to scene without even the loose connecting theme that binds so much of Bausch’s other work. A woman with a painted face grates a stick of soap into powder onto a rug; a man appears bound with an orange in his mouth, and is given a wet-shave by a fellow cast member; somebody mops a walrus at the back of the stage. There’s a helicopter, and a dog. A man sits silently in front of a microphone with a tutu wrapped around his head; others stack bricks, wind wool and tie ties repeatedly. One man instructs another to literally jump through a hoop placed against a wall with painful-looking results.

Pain is otherwise notable by its absence here, in stark contrast to last week’s bleaker Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört. The mood is light, if relentlessly odd; Bausch’s works are usually abstractedly dreamlike, but Ahnen is more overtly surreal than any I recall to date. There’s a feeling of global wandering – the soundtrack lurches from African drumming to Monteverdi via Ella Fitzgerald and Japanese pop – and the desert evoked by the giant (and undeniably phallic) cacti seems less of a physical location and more a place of the soul.

Ahnen is certainly a peculiar kind of fun, and there are endless surprises and sweet highlights throughout – from hilarious running translations of Bizet arias to a seated ensemble section for hands (perhaps a little touch of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker creeping in there) – but it’s hard to say what it all adds up to. The title suggests only the most hazy of clues: as a noun ‘Ahnen’ can mean ancestors (for anyone looking for connections to last week’s show it’s part of the term ‘Ahnenpass’, the document used in Nazi Germany to prove Aryan heritage) or, as a verb, to guess, intuit or suspect. Portions of the show seem to hint at a sense of wandering identity, a search for heritage, an attempt to fit in among the cacti; others seem to veer more towards a sense of guessing, intuiting, feeling without understanding.

A technical hitch with the fire curtain towards the end of the second half had the audience wondering if this was another (deliberate) strange intervention in a landscape of strange interventions – tribute, certainly, to the commitment of the cast in maintaining this most peculiar of atmospheres. Described by Artistic Director Lutz Förster as “completely crazy” and by The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell as “Bausch on speed”, Ahnen is undoubtedly an oddity among the Bausch back-catalogue but an enjoyable one all the same.

Photo: Bettina Strenske

Originally published at www.londondance.com

Feature: Dancers’ Pay Debate

Chaired by Hilary Hadley (Equity) with Nicholas Keegan, Flora Wellesley Wesley; Shanelle Fergus, Dancers United

#DUKfuture, Laban Saturday 11 April 2015

Dancers’ pay has been identified as a challenge for both the subsidised and the commercial dance sectors recently, with social media campaigns such as #paythedancers highlighting the prevelance of low-paid and unpaid work across the industry. This well-attended panel debate explored some of the background to pay issues for dancers, and outlined actions dancers can take to ensure they are paid properly to work.

Independent dance artist Nicholas Keegan introduced the work of the recently-formed Equity Freelance Dance Network, a group founded to improve standards and empower the varied community of freelance dance artists working in the subsidised dance sector. One of the aims of the movement is to instigate a change in dancers’ mentality, explains Keegan: “Dancers are both workers and artists, and we need to move away from the image of an artist working for the love of what they do.”

At present, Arts Council-funded companies and projects are required to pay dance artists at least Equity minimum wage – which does not mean that this always happens in practice; and even National Portfolio Organisations that pay union rates rarely have Equity contracts with their dancers, meaning there is little protection for the dancer in cases of cancellation or injury. According to recent data, only 20% of professional dancers last year were able to live on money earned solely through dance work, and only 15% warned a full living wage. “The responsibility for implementing change is not solely Equity’s,” says Keegan, “it is all our responsibility.”

Why do dancers take on unpaid work? Commercial dancer and co-founder of Dancers United UK Shanelle Fergus explains that few dancers enter the industry in the hope of sitting around on the sofa at home. “Everyone wants to be busy and dancing and improving their CV. If the choice is working for nothing or doing nothing, most will work for nothing.” Unfortunately, this enthusiasm to work leaves dancers open to exploitation, with commercial video shoots and TV spots regulary enticing dancers to come and work for free in the hope of improving their profiles.

“Dance is a profession where you are continually paying – for class, for physio and the gym, to eat well – and the least we should be offered is pay for work,” says Shanelle. “If you go on a shoot, even the runner is being paid – dancers should not be asked to dance for free.” Working with Equity, Dancers United UK have already succeded in improving the pay and contracts on shows including the X Factor, as well as persuading producers to pay dancers on music video shoots.

Independent dance artist Flora Wellesley Wesley acknowledges that it’s not uncommon to take on a certain quantity of unpaid work at the very start of a career, especially when working with friends on unfunded projects, but believes a bigger problem arises when funded projects still expect dancers to come and work for little or no money. “When I see callouts for dancers where the pay isn’t right I’ve starting sending it to Emmanuel at Equity who is in charge of low and no pay work. Because of the scarcity of work and the keenness of dancers – big production houses can get away with these callouts but I think it’s unacceptable.”

Wellesley Wesley also called on funders and commissioners to take part of the responsibility for dancers’s pay – commissions going out to artists for small sums of money mean that there is little funding available for makers to pay their dancers with. “Commissioners and funders and industry bodies need to be clear-sighted about the issue,” she says. “A £1,000 commission will pay two dancers for a week – so commissioners need to understand that and deal with the numbers properly.”

The message of the panel was that change needs to happen at all levels of the industry – dancers need to take responsibility for the work they take on, funders need to work with artists to make sure dancers are properly paid, and producers need to ensure they’re not expecting dancers to work for less money than other professionals engaged on a project.

More info: http://equitydance.org

Report & photos: Lise Smith “Twitter: @lisekit“https://twitter.com/Lisekit

Originally published at www.londondance.com

Feature: Dance To The Music – contemporary dance in music video

You might not look to pop video clips for your contemporary dance kicks – but in fact, as Lise Smith points out, techniques, choreography, styles and ideas from contemporary dance have been a distinctive influence on the development and direction of music video.

Popular music and artful contemporary dance have rarely been easy bedfellows. Chart music might be uniquely capable of getting the masses moving every weekend in social spaces from ballrooms to warehouses, but contemporary choreographers working in the theatre tend not to look for musical accompaniment from popular sources. Classical and neoclassical compositions, avant-garde and electronic soundscapes, natural sounds and ambient noise have all soundtracked works by choreographers from Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, but rarely has pop music (by which I mean any popular form rather than purely synth-based bubblegum) been given serious choreographic attention. Think of dance and pop together and (depending on your age and powers of recall) you’re more likely to think of either the choreographic oeuvre of Flick Colby and her various troupes on Top of the Pops, or of fresh-faced youngsters in lycra dancing a synchronised number behind a lip-synching singer on MTV. Neither example is likely to be mistaken for sophisticated contemporary dance.

Look beyond these overarching norms, however, and there are pockets of choreographic brilliance to be found on music television. Artists with an interest in performance have pushed at the boundaries of the promo video and its creative possibilities almost as long as the form has been with us, bringing contemporary dance and choreography to audience numbers undreamed of by theatre choreographers.

Before we dive deeper into some of these four-minute gems, let’s take a quick look at how music videos became the vital part of music promotion and consumption they are today.

Read full article at www.danceumbrella.com

Fiery Footwork, Flashy Fingers: Akram Khan And Israel Galván  

The always-watchable Akram Khan has been delighting audiences with his innovative combinations of kathak and contemporary dance for over a decade. No stranger to collaboration, this period has seen him work with artists as diverse as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Sylvie Guillem and Juliette Binoche. This latest duet pairs the British choreographer-performer with flamenco superstar Israel Galván in a performance that puts the shared roots of kathak and flamenco through a blender to create a new and sometimes dazzling form.

The silence in which TOROBAKA begins brings new meaning to the phrase “hushed expectation”. UK audiences are expecting something spectacular from the superbly inventive Khan and the number of Spanish voices overheard in the foyer suggests the pull Galván has on his home audience. The performance begins with a clapping of hands and a slapping of bare feet on the floor, rhythmic kathak cycles broken up with intricate flicks and taps drawn from flamenco. Rapid whirling spins from Khan’s vocabulary are broken apart with syncopated body percussion from Galván’s, the two swooping into bull-like charges and matador swishes.

The opening duet reveals interesting contrasts between the two master performers; while Galván’s fleet footwork matches Khan’s step for step, his upper body is wilder, looser and less precise than the serene Khan’s. It’s only when the Spaniard steps to the side for an eccentric solo of hip-snapping, ferocious foot-stamping and incredibly rapid finger-clicking that his flame comes fully alive. Galván is an electrifyingly sensual performer when given the opportunity to own the stage. It’s an opportunity Khan gives generously, allowing Galván the lion’s share of the stage time — a decision that will perhaps disappoint fans who have primarily come to see the British artist perform.

An international troupe of musicians provides a soundtrack melding Carnatic ragas with Hispanic harmonies, and quickfire mnemonic syllables with lusty Spanish counting. There’s a great sense of camaraderie onstage, and the work feels like a passionate exchange of ideas — intermittently brilliant, rough around the edges and sometimes lacking in substance.

None of which seemed to bother the ecstatic crowd at Monday night’s premiere. TOROBAKA doesn’t quite offer the sublime alchemy of Zero Degrees or Sacred Monsters, but it does offer a rare chance to see two compelling performers pushing the boundaries of their respective forms.
Originally published at www.londonist.com

Le Patin Libre – Vertical Influences, Alexandra Palace

Le Patin Libre in Vertical Influences

When Le Patin Libre first skated their way into London last year with The Rule Of 3 they brought a contemporary, spangle-free vibe to an artform more often associated with cheesy grins and tiny slithers of sequinned chiffon. With their deliberately pedestrian vocabulary, deceptively effortless unison and high-speed gliding, the Canadian troupe made skating as cool as the ice on which it’s performed.

Vertical Influences, a special commission for Dance Umbrella, returns the group to London as a quintet. The work is more studiedly abstract than their previous outing; instead of Rule Of 3’s character-driven narrative we have a series of formal vignettes with the focus firmly on the body in gliding motion.

There’s a loose theme of tribalism versus individuality; the five begin skating in almost martial formation to a heavy drumbeat that demands synchronicity. One by one, figures from the group break away into solo excursions that are almost always reabsorbed by the group again; the remaining four either fall into unison behind the breakaway soloist, or physically drag him or her back into the group. By the end of the show, the ensemble sections have lost their brutally syndicalist overtones and become a gentler, more graceful union.

Anyone expecting death spirals and triple salchows is likely to be disappointed; Vertical Influences is much more about gliding in elegant interleaving formations, speed-skating in slow motion, and clever footwork in thrillingly precise unison. There are occasional jumps and pirouettes woven into the movement material, and which greatly excited the gentleman seated next to me in the first half, but these are by far the least interesting thing about the performance.

Perhaps the most exciting moments come in the second half; with the audience seated at one end of the ice rink itself, the skaters hurtle towards us out of the blackness at electrifying speed, swerving away at the very last moment. The skaters glide like a well-oiled machine, unblinking as they advance on us, unflinching as they swerve away. It’s a gripping moment that only gains power in repetition.

Long-time company member Pascale Joidin brings an expressive athleticism to her UK debut. Bambi-legged Samory Ba is still the longest-limbed man on ice, a physical attribute used to both daring and comic effect in a second half solo that sees him flinging himself around his own legs and scampering across the rink on all fours. Choreographer Alexandre Hamel suffers from a few Wednesday-night wobbles in the first half, but in the beautifully-polished second half all is well.

With clear movement influences from hip-hop and b-boying as well as circus and dance theatre, Vertical Influences is a fresh, ice-cool take on contemporary figure skating. It’s great to see the troupe back in London, and it’s great to see Dance Umbrella branch out into new venues and new artforms in the name of introducing contemporary choreography to broader audiences. Keep your scorecards at home; this is best enjoyed as a piece of dance theatre that happens to be performed on ice, rather than an ice dance show.

Continues at Alexandra Palace until Friday 31 October (6.30pm & 8.30pm)
www.danceumbrella.co.uk

Originally published at www.londondance.com