Category Archives: contemporary dance

Parameters of dance innovation



The British dance artist and researcher Emily Claid has identified a weariness that sometimes occurs within contemporary dance that she calls ‘middle mush’. This, she wrote in 2006, is ‘the fixed, thick, solid place that dancing can become when movement is predictable and watching is endless … It is the dynamic I fear most in British contemporary dance’. The cure to this malaise is innovation.
Being innovative in dance is not just something done for the sake of it. It is more than just dancers trying to be different. Innovation is part of the processes of social and political change.

The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci explained the need for innovation in the notebooks he kept while in prison in the 1920s and 1930s, writing:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
but, he goes on, this nevertheless creates the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.

Gramsci’s interregnum is surely a relation of Claid’s middle mush. Gramsci’s idea has gained currency recently because it seems to describe the current state of disillusionment with austerity, and a widespread sense of the failure of neoliberal politics and economics.

Artistic innovation – including innovation in theatre dance – is a field that has a potential to respond to shifts in social experience. Artists can pick up on feelings that some aspects of contemporary life can no longer be explained by dominant narratives. Dancers can sometimes embody tensions between the status quo and what is actually happening before these feelings can be put into words. This is a phenomenon that the Marxist scholar and literary critic Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’. This, he wrote,

is firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it is based in the deepest and often least tangible elements of our experience. … Its means, its elements, are not propositions or techniques; they are embodied, related feelings. (1973, p. 10).

Innovative theatre dance has a potential to create a time space in which it becomes possible to express or draw attention to these embodied feelings. My aim in this video essay is to discuss three different categories of innovation that can be identified in late twentieth and twenty-first century theatre dance, sketching some of the ways in which these are rooted in social and political experience. These three are: path-finding, disruption, and claiming space for progressive alternatives.

Path-finding is discovering new ways of creating movement or choreography. One example of this is the development of Contact Improvisation by Steve Paxton and others. Another is Pina Bausch’s development of tanztheater. If I describe a piece by a choreographer as Bauschian, you probably know what I mean.

Disruption in dance often lies in saying no, in an avant-garde way, to conventions that up until then had been considered essential to the creation or performance of theatre dance. The best known example is Yvonne Rainer’s so called ‘No!’ manifesto from 1965, which begins ‘NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformaions and magic and make-believe’ and so on.
[no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved].
Rainer and her fellow dance artists in Judson Dance Theatre embraced this negativity in a way that was not nihilistic but was intended to unlock potentials for new kinds of aesthetic experience.

What I have in mind for my third category of innovation are works that demand an inclusive space within the centre ground of contemporary dance for groups or points of view that are hidden or marginalised. Examples here include works by queer artists, artists of colour, artists with disabilities, or elders still dancing beyond the age when it is expected that they should retire. I am also thinking of post-colonial dance works that intentionally dance back against dominant colonial ideologies and the expectations they produce, and works that take on European high culture by rethinking it with an African or Asian sensibility.

Dance works are often, of course, innovative in ways that touch on more than one category. For instance, the contemporary African dance technique that Germaine Acogny has developed is both path-finding and claims a space for progressive ideas. It draws on dance movements from West African vernacular and ritual dancing, codifying them into a comprehensive vocabulary and technique. By doing so, this way of dancing demands a space for African experiences, challenging assumptions that only white Western culture and society are modern while all others, particularly those in the global South, are still essentially trying to catch up.

In the rest of this video, I briefly explore some of the interconnections between these three kinds of innovation by briefly reviewing the context around Trajal Harrell’s well known piece 20 Looks or Paris Is Burning at Judson Church.

This work, first performed in 2009, takes as its starting point the thought experiment “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”.
 The twenty looks are the twenty titled sections of the piece.

LOOK 1 West Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 2 East Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 3 Old School Post-Modern
LOOK 4 American Casual Sport
LOOK 5 Sporty Contemporary
LOOK 6 Sporty Contemporary with a Twist
 and so on
[LOOK 7 New School Hokey Pokey
LOOK 8 Serving Old School Runway
LOOK 9 Serving
LOOK 10 Serving Superhero
LOOK 11 _________________
LOOK 12 Legendary
LOOK 13 Legendary Face
LOOK 14 Icon
LOOK 15 Eau de Jean Michel
LOOK 16 Basquiat Realness
LOOK 17 Runway Performance with Face and Effects
LOOK 18 Moderne
LOOK 19 Legendary with a Twist
LOOK 20 Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman ]

Directly or indirectly, these titles nod in the direction of the different categories and concepts presented in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. She filmed this in and around the Black and Latino, gay and transsexual drag balls in Harlem run by Paris Dupree.

The vogue dancer who features most prominently in Livingstone’s film is Willi Ninja, whose career took off so that by the end of the film he had appeared in Madonna’s music video Vogue and gone on an international tour with her. Dorian Corey, an elder drag queen whose on-camera interviews offer a highly informative, wry commentary on the balls, remembers a time when Black and Latino drag queens used to go down town to compete in drag balls run by white impresarios. However good they were, they never won any prizes and felt unwelcome, so they started their own drag balls up in Harlem.

While there would therefore have been drag balls in Harlem in 1963, it doesn’t really matter whether or not people were already voguing around that time. Harrell’s clever proposition is to choreograph some movement sequences, that are based on the kinds of competitive categories at Paris Dupree’s drag balls, but which he has transformed into the kind of pedestrian, minimalist choreography for which Judson Dance Theatre became known.

I’ve already mentioned Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No!’ manifesto. Her minimalism arose from a critique of balletic virtuosity. A grande jété, she wrote, needs to be invested ‘with all the necessary nuances of energy distribution that will produce the look of climax together with a still, suspended extension in the middle of the movement’. Her choreography, however, needs ‘a control that seems geared to the actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions’.

Most of the 20 Looks in Harrell’s piece consist of tasks danced in the actual time they need without hiding the body’s actual weight and effort. Some of the Looks, however, like the ‘Runway’ walking, are done in a knowing way that transgresses Rainer’s stipulations ‘no to camp’ and ‘no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer’. But part of what is exciting about Harrell’s piece is the way it claims the conceptually sophisticated space of minimalist dance for the kinds of Black and Latino performers that walked the balls.

Returning to my three categories of innovation, I suggest that Paris Dupree was a socially progressive innovator claiming space for alternative identities and experiences. Willi Ninja was a pathfinder, Yvonne Rainer a disruptor, and Trajal Harrel a disruptor and a socially progressive innovator.

There is a quotation from the British socialist politician Tony Benn about political progress that can also be applied to innovation in dance: ‘First’ he said ‘they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’. The scene in Paris is Burning when Willi Ninja talks about his recent success reveals the moment when voguing was no longer mad or dangerous but was becoming monetisable.

My point is to try not to ignore or condemn the first signs of a development in dance that is troubling because it breaks with the middle mush of what is conventionally acceptable. Instead, where dance artists seem to be mining signs of still unarticulated shifts and changes, we need to do what we can to help and support the new that is trying to be born.

Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. 2nd November 2018, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre

Now That We Know is a 45 minute solo during which Matthias Sperling dances while giving a prolonged talk about his understanding of the relation between mind and body. During this he refers to recent developments in cognitive and neuroscience.


Because it starts in darkness, and because it is a long time before the lights are very gradually brought up, at first all we can hear is his voice. Is he moving already? It is a while before we begin to pick out a vague, whitish blur where his hands are gesturing. A couple of minutes later his whole figure is just beginning to be hazily distinguishable in the now twilit performance space. Finally we can see that he’s dressed in black, has a long straight black wig, dark glasses, and men’s flamenco shoes with square, block heels.

His monologue about what we now know about the neurophysiology of embodied existence is not delivered in a normal, everyday voice or that of someone giving a lecture. It is extremely exaggerated, deliberately over-emphatic, and modulated over an unusually wide range of almost musical tones. This has been given a reverberating echo effect through the sound system.

During the first few pitch black minutes, he speaks extremely slowly. In the dark, this echoing voice combined with the slow pulse in Joel Cahen’s sound design, has the kind of eerie power I associate with a séance or a popular mesmerism act, perhaps like one of those in Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black.

In a Q&A, however, Matthias insisted that he wasn’t adopting a persona but being himself. Slowing his voice right down at the beginning, he says, is part of a process of centering and becoming increasingly sensitive to the bio-feedback of moving and performing. Nearly all of what he says during the piece is in line with the kinds of things people can sometimes say during an image-based, ‘somatic’ movement class. There are however a few little bits of what he calls science fiction such as the repeated invocation to ‘extend your hypnotic organs’.

I’ve now seen Now That We Know a few times. As an audience member, I have found the effect of witnessing the piece quite mesmerising, and I have to admit to tuning out and then back in once or twice. As I’ve indicated, it develops very slowly, almost imperceptibly, although there are changes from one distinctive sonic pulse to another, and different ranges of movements and postures for different parts of the piece.

now-that-matthias-sperling-leaning-floor_Photo-Foteini Christofilopoulou

[Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.]

Sometimes he kneels on the floor with his legs folded beneath in an unusual way, or he lies spreads out on his side propped up on an elbow. At other times he stands with his weight shifted seemingly right off balance with an added precariousness because of the block heels.


[Matthias Sperling, Now That We Know. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou.]

There is always an evolving relation between the line between his two feet, the one through his hips, and the one stretching between his hands. His hands themselves move smoothly through fascinating sequences of crisp gestures. Sometimes these are like those of saints in passion on a Baroque Spanish altarpiece, sometimes like angels in joy in an Italian early renaissance fresco. They evoke gestures that seem to bear the weight of histories and cultural memories.

This highly considered and exquisitely executed verbal and movement score is what makes Now That We Know more than just a performative illustration of simplified scientific ideas presented in an “accessible” and “artistic” way. It creates a space for an altered state of consciousness that might perhaps be useful for research into cognitive and neuro-scientific exploration.

As an audience member who retains a small residue of the knowledge of science I acquired at school many years ago, Now That We Know makes me think. And of course it encourages me to do so with my whole being and not just with the soft grey matter between my ears and behind my eyes.

Trailer for Now That We Know.

[Declaration of interests: Matthias Sperling is undertaking doctoral research at De Montfort University with a bursary from the Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and I am one of his supervisors. Also I received a press ticket from Sadlers Wells Theatre.]

Brocade. Roberta Jean, Edinburgh Fringe 17-8-2018

I saw Roberta Jean’s Brocade during Nottdance in Nottingham in March 2017 and found it so interesting that I decided to see it again here in Edinburgh as part of Dancebase’s Fringe programme. It had made such a strong impression that I’m sure I could have described it if asked, and yet when I saw it again last night there was lots of it I didn’t remember at all. Obviously pieces change and develop but when I looked at a couple of videos on Roberta Jean’s vimeo channel I found the very bits I’d forgotten and initially thought might be new. So maybe this is the sad reality of gradually forgetting? Or perhaps it is just that some dense, subtle pieces need more than one viewing?

Dhqs_JfXcAA42D2.jpg large

What I did remember: the dancers’ footfalls rhythmically skipping down the channel of performance space with the audience seated in two long rows across from one another. The long slow unison initial repetition of a simple skipping on the spot, establishing a pace, rhythms and energy. Then beginning to travel one way down the channel at the same pace, with again lots of repetition. Gradually complicating itself, different rhythms, different spatial paths, slow, or quiet, or fast and headlong,, sometimes in the channels behind the audience as well as the central strip, and so on. In an interview on the Sadlers’ Wells blog, Roberta Jean explains: ‘Brocade is choreographed as a loom of movement weaving by and around an audience. As an audience member, there is something joyous about experiencing these fleeting moments on a continual loop that stretches down a catwalk. You can feel us move the air around you’. The image of weaving really captures what the dancers are doing, creating a dense texture of varying rhythmic, spatial patterns.

Spaces: The most obvious difference between Nottingham and Edinburgh was the venue though each was in a very atmospheric non-theatrical location. In Nottingham it was in an abandoned industrial space in the building in which Dance4 is based. In Edinburgh it was in the domed Council Chambers of Edinburgh City Chambers, an C18th Adam building on the High Street that was expensively embellished by the City Council in the late nineteenth century with lots of ornate Victorian mahogany panelling. In Nottingham and I think elsewhere, the dancers had an old worn noisy metal floor installed for most of the runway, and the spaces around us had a dusty, gritty patina. The runway was longer in Nottingham than in Edinburgh. The Council Chamber has a tight old sprung wooden floor which was suitably noisy and a carpet at one end so that when the dancers passed onto it their footfalls became muffled. The room was not blacked out. There was a wonderful view across the roofs of Waverly Station to the Scott Monument and Princes Street. For most of the piece, the lighting just came from the windows and the room’s light fittings, and only towards the end, when it was darker outside, were the room lights replaced by theatrical lights, instantly changing the atmosphere of the piece.


[The domed ceiling of the Council Chamber]

What I had forgotten: I’d only remembered the running, skipping journeys along the runway. I’d forgotten solos where dancers made subtle, elongated shapes with their arms that twisted them around in complicated ways that threatened to put them out of balance as the choreography turned them to face different parts of the room. Intriguing combinations of shoulder and elbow joints momentarily described shapes that almost made me think they had more joints than ordinary people. Angharad Davies’s atmospheric violin solo, I really should have remembered. One moment that struck me was when the precision of the dancers’ rhythmic footfalls in combination with some energetic violin playing reminded me of beautiful footwork in a Scottish reel (maybe because I was in Scotland?).

What I’m taking away this time: the individuality of each of the dancers but the strong feeling of a cohesive group and the perfect unison of their rhythmic footfalls; the solos; the musicality of the rhythm patterns; and the headlong energy of the women noisily careering along the runway in the warm mahogany glow of the domed council chamber at dusk.

Roberta Jean’s website:

Akram Khan’s ‘Xenos’ and the traumatic past.

Here are some thoughts about Akram Khan’s Xenos which I have just seen at Sadlers Wells Theatre on a visit to London.

Before going to the theatre I went round the Rodin and the Greeks exhibition at the British Museum. This included some full-size studies for one of the figures in his great sculptural group The Burghers of Calais alongside the final work. The burghers are giving up their freedom in return for the safety of the people in their town, each showing their fears in different ways. Some of their gestures and the emotional atmosphere theses generate resonated strongly with AK’s dancing in Xenos. His intercultural fusion of Kathak and Western contemporary dance is one that merges the poetics of Sufi singing with the expressive tradition which Rodin’s sculpture exemplifies.


[Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais]

The starting point for Xenos is the presence of Indian sepoys in the European battlefields of the First World War. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘On the Concept of History’, writes about blasting ‘a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history, blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework’; when this is done, he suggests, one can recognise ‘a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’. Xenos blasts marginalised memories of the contributions that Indians made during that war out of that period into our present consciousness. It uses music and dancing, and a small amount of text, to present a philosophical, poetic meditation on death and the meaning of existence.


[Akram Khan in Xenos. photo Jean Louis Fernandez.]

On the tube afterwards back to where I was staying, the man opposite me was reading the Evening Standard whose sensational headline story was about a deadly incident in the Belgian town of Liège where two police officers had been killed, their murderer had taken a hostage and then been shot dead by police special forces. With Xenos still in my mind I found myself thinking about the trauma of being caught up in a situation like that, how paralysing fear can be, how it must leave no space for anything except how to survive. But wasn’t that also the kind of situation that faced the Indian sepoys on the western front that AK had been exploring in his solo. Xenos did more than just blast marginalised figures and experiences out of the oppressed past. It opened up spaces, 100 years later, for feelings about mortality for which no space had existed in the midst of the traumatic experiences of the battlefield.

Germaine Acogny’s ‘Somewhere at the Beginning’

Germaine Acogny’s 2016 solo Somewhere at the Beginning (À un endroit du début) which she created with Mikaël Serre, was the highlight of this year’s Let’s Dance International Frontiers festival in Leicester. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece in which Acogny looks back at the events of her life, her combative relationship with her father Togoun Servais Acogny, and her feeling of connection with her grandmother Aloopho who died two years before Germaine was born. Aloopho is the name of the famous open air dance studio with clean raked sand and a modernist canvas awning at the school École des Sables in Senegal that Germaine founded with her husband Helmut Vogt. Dancers come to the school from across Africa and around the world to take classes in Acogny technique and contemporary African dance. Germaine is widely known as ‘la mère de la danse contemporaine Africaine’.


[photo by Thomas Dorn]

Somewhere at the Beginning explains why Aloopho is so important to Germaine, while at the same time giving audiences a personal view of Germaine’s experience of the history of colonisation and decolonisation. It is also a strongly feminist work and reflects on the relationship of francophone West Africa with Europe today. Indeed it is a piece commissioned by a group of French theatres and institutions and in many ways is made for black and white European audiences.

Most of the previews and reviews of this solo that I have found on the internet mention how old Germaine is, as if it is remarkable that someone her age is still making and performing such challenging new works. My response to this is that she is exactly the right age to dance this piece. I’m sure there are younger dancers who would love to be able to perform in this resonantly powerful and deeply emotional way, but they would just not have either the experience or the maturity to dance it convincingly.

The central dynamic of Somewhere at the Beginning is Germaine’s accusations against her father Togoun. She was born in Dahomey (now Benin) in 1944. Her mother died when she was six and her father, who must have been clever, was picked out to train to be part of the French colonial administration. He and Germaine moved to Senegal when he enrolled at the École Primaire Supérieure William Ponty in Sébikotane. At this time, there were close links between all the French colonies in West Africa so that students at Ponty came from several different francophone countries to receive an elite education. As a French West African governor at the time pronounced, the aim of Ponty was to ‘take its inspiration from the purest French traditions while plunging its roots in native life’. Art historian Joshua Cohen points out that its role was to cultivate ‘a group of school teachers and administrators who could function effectively as mediators between colonials and their majority population’.


[Germaine and Togoun – screenshot]

Togoun became a colonial administrator. The solo begins with Germaine reading from his autobiography while a photograph of him wearing an impressive militaristic uniform and peaked cap is projected behind her. He also wrote a popular children’s book Les Récits d’Aloopho, parts of which are also read out during the performance. Germaine’s chief complaints against Togoun are that he converted to Catholicism, renouncing the African spiritual beliefs of his mother Aloopho, and that he never gave her Aloopho’s two sacred copper knives. Aloopho was a West African Voodoo priestess. Execution of her sacred duties would have involved singing, storytelling and dancing, a kind of African total theatre. When Germaine was born on the Christian festival of Pentecost, she tells us, a dove settled on the windowsill of her room every morning for a month. The women looking after her and her mother took this as a sign that she was the reincarnation of her grandmother Aloopho. Several times during the piece she tells her father forcefully ‘je suis la mère de ton mari’ (I am your wife’s mother).

mere de ton mari

[la mère de ton mari – screenshot]

The solo narrates Germaine’s task, as a modern African woman, of realising a decolonised African identity through repudiating everything her father stood for, and reconnecting in a modern way with the African knowledge and experience of his wife’s mother and with the African natural environment as a whole in which this knowledge is grounded. In the performance this environment is represented by a recurring projection of shimmering images of Baobab trees.


[Aloopho’s knives: photo by Thomas Dorn]

If the journey from Aloopho to Togoun is the story of cultural colonisation through the internalisation of European, Christian values, then the journey from Togoun to Germaine is one of decolonisation through reconnecting with West African culture and beliefs in a modern, secular way. Germaine’s choreography, like the dance technique that so many dancers have now learnt from her, is one that is aligned to the idea of negritude. Léopold Senghor, poet and first president of Senegal and in the 1970s Germaine’s patron, was one of the founders of the negritude movement which is a largely francophone phenomenon. It posits a common African aesthetic underlying the artistic production of African peoples in the region if not across the continent and African diaspora as a whole. The notion of the nation state with demarcated borders is, after all, a legacy of colonialism. As such, negritude responds to a modern need for decolonised sensibilities. However it is by no means an aspiration to return to a simpler wholesome uncontaminated pre-colonial state of grace, but a modern, abstracted and secularised revitalisation of what are again recognised as valued cultural forms and traditions.

While Somewhere at the Beginning draws on these forms and traditions, it does so while using them in an unmistakably contemporary context. There are videos by Sébastien Dupouey of provincial Senegalese scenes in the present day. A man, driving a van down a dusty country lane reveals his somewhat patriarchal attitudes towards women and marriage. At an all women social event there is dancing and laughter. We listen to one of Les Contes d’Aloopho in which Tiviglititi, a court functionary who keeps repeating an inconvenient prophesy about the King’s death, is placed alive in a sealed coffin and set to float down the river. At the same time we are shown a video of a small, overcrowded fishing boat in rough seas carrying African refugees across the Mediterranean that seems in constant danger of sinking. Another shimmering handheld video that seems to refer to Aloopho’s fairy tales shows Germaine in a distinctively West African headdress walking towards the fairy tale castle in Disneyland Paris. Contemporary experience, Germaine is telling us, is one of fragmentation and disjuncture, whether from an African or European point of view.


Mikaël Serre explains that he and Germaine decided to introduce parts of the ancient Greek tragedy of Medea into Somewhere at the Beginning. This produces two moments of extreme emotional intensity. Whereas the Greek Medea takes her revenge on her husband for taking a second wife by killing her own children, this African Medea begins by auctioning them. Who will give me a Euro for this baby? she repeatedly asks in French, gesturing to us in the audience. Because we in Leicester up until now have been following the spoken French text on the sur-titled translation above the stage, this was at last a moment when we could look directly at Germaine while she was talking, and understand exactly what she was doing. There was some laughter at her engaging performance … and yet. She had just been talking about Gorée, a little island off the peninsula that is now the capital, Dakar, but which was settled by Europeans and was from the C15th to the C19th a port for the embarkation of slaves. It only occurred to me afterwards that this Medea was holding a slave auction.


[photo by Thomas Dorn]

Later in another emotional climax, Germaine flings a feather cushion forcefully and repeatedly to the floor saying it is her children until it bursts spectacularly in a cloud of white feathers. All the while she shouts accusatorily at her father. The video projections and Fabrice Bouillon’s sound score prolong and intensify this painful moment building to a climax and then finally ebbing away. Sometimes screaming can be a necessary, symptomatic expression of the violent legacy of colonialism and slavery.

bird masquerade


Following this a strange, masked, bird-like figure appears. It is like something from a picture by the surrealist artist Max Ernst, or from an African masquerade. Germaine sloughs off this costume and begins slow, repetitive ritualistic movements that still maintain the former intensity, marking out anti-clockwise circuits of the stage as she stoically moves on beyond her anger and pain. Finally a resolution through movement is offered to the intense performative experience that Germaine offers through her solo. It is one that asks us in the audience to face up to the disjointed nature of contemporary life expressed through the exemplary energy of a dancer strong enough to confront it with a lifetime’s knowledge and experience.



On École Primaire Supérieure William Ponty, see Joshua Cohen (2012) Stages in transition: Les Ballets Africans and independence 1959 to 1960. Journal of Black Studies 43(1) pp. 11–48.

Rhythm machines old and new.

I recently watched a short made-for-television film of Boy Blue Entertainment dancing Emancipation of Expressionism. I’d seen Boy Blue last summer perform Blak Whyte Gray at the Edinburgh Festival. I thought the company was impressive but, maybe because I was sitting too far back in the theatre, I didn’t find the choreography particularly exciting. Emancipation of Expressionism, in the short film that Danny Boyle has made for the BBC, seemed to be more ambitious in terms of its choreography.

[Danny Boyle’s film of Boy Blue’s Emancipation of Expressionism]

Dancers form blocks, moving in unison, out of which each dancer seems to emerge for a brief solo moment before sinking back into unison again. Often two very different blocks share the stage dancing moves with contrasting qualities. Sometimes a tight group performs clear, low key gestural material while another explodes across the stage beside them acrobatically. At one moment one side of the stage, lit in blue, contains a tight knot of angry dancers rhythmically punching the air while on the other side, in white light, dancers progress in a line out of the wings with softer more lyrical movements. It is like a symphony of movement.


[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

Watching it I found myself thinking about the way Boy Blue use hip hop movement and comparing it with my memories of break dancing in the 1980s. Somewhere in my room an old VHS tape of Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style is gathering dust, but it was easier just to look on youtube where I found I very useful extract from it.

[extract from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style]

For the Rock Steady Crew who appear in it, break dance is a solo form, whereas Boy Blue, in comparison, are an ensemble whose unison execution of their hybrid vocabulary of street dance moves is immaculate.

Boy Blue have developed a vocabulary drawn from a wide range of styles – breaking, popping and locking and related robotic moves, waves, bits of crumping, waacking. No vogueing however as their choreography is formal and abstract, tells no stories, throws no shade. The Rock Steady Crew are all individuals each with their specialities, pulling out sensational new moves they’ve just been perfecting at home. At one moment in Wild Style, two dancers crouch in the same crab-like pose mirroring each other briefly before bouncing up lightly to go on dancing, jamming with one another, not competitively, but egging each other on to do more tricks.


[screen capture from Wild Style]

There is a rough, excitingly unpredictable, improvised quality to their dancing that makes them exciting to watch. The dancers in Boy Blue are individuals as well but dance together as a close-knit group. They are superbly rehearsed and almost effortlessly synchronised; but what is exciting about their work comes from the choreography, the lighting, and crucially, of course, from the interdependence of their dance and the music.

I was going to say that just as Boy Blue follows on in the movement tradition that the Rock Steady Crew did so much to establish, there are also continuities between Grand Master Flash’s scratching and mixing and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music. Kodwo Eshun, however, rejects the idea of continuities, genealogies and inheritance in black music, arguing instead that a ‘fluidarity’ is ‘maintained and exacerbated by sound machines’.


[Grand Master Flash: screen capture from Wild Style]


[Grand Master Flash scratching: screen capture from Wild Style]

Dancers, musicians, and the music they scratch, mix, and sample all combine together to make a rhythm machine. Eshun says scratching isn’t just an effect or a rhythmic accompaniment to the music but part of a process of rhythmic layering. The Rock Steady Crew and Boy Blue aren’t just dancing to the music. Their aim is not a musical visualisation or a subtle interpretation that makes us hear the music differently (although that does of course happen). Being part of a community that is dedicated to this black cultural form requires total solidarity with the musical rhythm. The dancers are the rhythm, totally committed to hearing it and faithfully receptive to it, sensitively responsive to its subtle shifts and changes. This commitment to the rhythm machine is what unites the artists in the extract from Wild Style with Boy Blue.

What the machine does is to recombine found material – different styles of dance move, different musical tracks, and different aesthetic sensibilities. I’d like to call it a fusion, although I know this is a much contested term within the street dance community. The music for Emancipation of Expressionism includes ‘Til enda’ by the Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds which itself combines, or is a fusion of, techno rhythms with the plaintive melodic sensibility of Nordic music (to me it sounds a bit like Arvo Pärt or a folk lament with techno rhythms). ‘Til enda’ gives a melancholy colouring to the choreography, which allows the dancers to express a strong sense of yearning.


[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

The title Emancipation of Expressionism suggests this yearning. But it also hints at an emancipation of street dance, an assertion that when lit, costumed, and well rehearsed it has a right to the same serious consideration as other forms of contemporary dance. And of course emancipation, like jubilee, has particular resonances for people whose ancestors suffered slavery. They are dancing a yearning for a joyful, brilliant future at one with the eloquence of the rhythm machine.


quotes from Kodwo Eshun (1999) More Brilliant Than The Sun. London: Quartet Books

details of original broadcast

New Contemporary Arab Dance Performance, DanceBase, Edinburgh Fringe, 19th August

This was a mixed bill with pieces from four choreographers: Farah Saleh, who is Palestinian but has recently moved to Edinburgh, who has collaborated with Salma Ataya from Ramallah; Yassin Mrabtifi, who is living in Brussels; and Samir Mkirech from France. I’ve already written about the end of the programme – where the audience were all made to fill out landing cards – in a previous post about a talk at Summerhall on The Geopolitics of the Arab Dancing Body. All of the artists in this programme seem to be working in experimental ways to explore ideas that – in one way or another – are in response to questions about identity politics or the political.

Salma Ataya and Farah Saleh’s La Même is about Arab women wearing headscarves, burkas etc. I’ve known Saleh for a couple of years and, to be honest, when she came on at the beginning of the piece with Ataya I hardly recognised her. This was because while Ataya wore a singlet and had her hair down, Saleh was wearing a top that covered her arms and a headscarf that completely covered her hair and folded round under her chin. Look at any medieval or renaissance painting and that’s how all European women seemed to dress at the time; but now it is associated in western minds with what a former prime minister David Cameron called being ‘traditionally submissive’.

[photo: Ataya and Saleh]

The dance material that Saleh and Ataya performed consisted of a series of quirky gestures smoothly assembled into neat, flowing sequences that included a lot of rolling on the floor, and wiggling limbs and other body parts in unexpected ways. They are certainly not in the least what one might expect from an Arab contemporary dancer – but, as soon as I write this, the question ‘why not?’ arises, and that in a way is part of the dancers’ point.

In the middle of this first section, they sat side by said and Ataya asked Saleh ‘why did you buy it for me?’ – the ‘it’ unspecified but obviously a headscarf. The answer came ‘you’re not young any more and all your friends already have one’. Then Saleh, completely straight faced blew a raspberry, and then another and went on blowing them. Ataya joined in clicking with her tongue in counterpoint. I realise this was mouth percussion, and it became the music for the next playful, intriguing series of movements. Ataya wrote ‘myself’ in English on paper fixed on the back wall and then, I presume, the same in Arabic script while Saleh danced a surprisingly balletic sequence along a diagonal across the stage to a well known tenor aria from Carmen.

Gradually, as the piece progressed, the two women put on more and more layers of cover, each time repeating the entire sequence of movements exactly the same with the same dialogue, mouth percussion, and aria. But somehow the movement looked different. I noticed different things in the dancing with different costumes. When, towards the end, they both wore full burkas with only a slit for their eyes, I saw the pirouette turns differently because their full length black tops, veils, and skirts were all flying out centrifugally. The material of their costumes flowed so beautifully that I thought it must be silk.

La Même in French means the same. They are the same people under all these veils and covers as they were at the beginning, dancing the same movements, less hampered than one might imagine by their increasingly voluminous costumes. Ataya and Saleh’s piece, which I guess has been made with both Palestinian and European audiences in mind, is drawing attention to something that is designed to hide the female body. Through dancing, she opens a light-hearted, safe space for further reflection.

Yassin Mrabtifi’s piece is called From Molenbeek with Love. Molenbeek is an Arab district of Brussels, just across the canal from the town centre. It was recently in the news as the place in which some of the terrorists responsible for the Bataclan massacre in Paris had lived. A few months after this attack, I went to a dance performance in a venue at the top of a huge warehouse in Molenbeek and wandered home through the area on my own quite late at night; and, to be honest, it all seemed very familiar, far from the hostile hotbed of radicalism that the tabloid press made out. For me it was just like being in parts of Bradford or Leeds where I lived for some years.


[photo: Yassin Mrabtifi]

Mrabtifi’s piece is slow and meditative. For much of the time he does things with a long silk ribbon on a short round handle – I don’t know the right name for this prop, but it is something I associate with Chinese dance spectacles. Mrabtifi meditatively rolls the stick around, winding the ribbon onto it in different ways. I began to think he wasn’t even actually going to fling the ribbon into the air and make the ususal spiralling shapes with it. In the end he did but with surprising, almost melancholy intensity – not at all the pretty spectacle I associate with this prop. This piece is a work in progress. It had an interesting atmosphere and challenged some of my preconceptions and expectations in a good way, and Mrabtifi is a strong, interesting performer. It might be that I missed something crucial, but ultimately it wasn’t quite clear to me where it was going.

Samir Mrikech’s Not Found had a great opening. Mrikech marched boldly into the studio wearing shoes, a white shirt, and an impressive, tailored suit jacket above track suit trousers. He stopped and stood proudly and confidently, his smiling face gazing not quite at us but somehow above and beyond our heads. A very familiar photograph of Emmanuel Macron from one of his election rallies was then projected, filling the wall behind him and an involuntary chuckle rippled through the audience, in recognition that despite Mrikech’s tracksuit trousers, a matching sense of entitlement being projected both on stage and screen.

The popular classic, Ravel’s Bolero came over the sound system as another photograph of Macron took the place of the first one, then, after another pause, more. Hollande, Sarkosy, then gradually back through a list of past presidents to De Gaulle. Then Cameron, May, Merkel, Trump, heads of state from Africa, Asia and around the world.

Mrikech’s movements, like the Bolero, started in a quiet, minimalist way. There was an occasional slight shift in the torso or shoulder, or a click of one heel. Each change, however, was sharply defined, like a body popping contraction. The music goes on repeating the same short theme in an almost imperceptibly gradual build up to the rich sonority of full orchestral, and the movement became bigger and more powerful. I didn’t notice when his shoes came off but he removed his jacket with a flourish, and when a little later he took off his shirt he was by then more like a male stripper than a head of state. Both of course have big enough egos to put themselves out there in public – think of Putin bare-chested photo ops. Since it was Louis XIV who used his own ballet skill as political tool, it was good to see a French dancer of, I guess, North African heritage, using choreography in such an engaging way to deconstruct the gestures of political power.