Category Archives: #TENDERDANCE

‘Liquid Gold Is The Air’ video installation by Rosemary Lee with Roswitha Chesher, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh.

I’ve just spent some time in Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town in Edinburgh looking at Rosie Lee and Roswitha Chesher’s lovely video installation Liquid Gold Is The Air. It is in the form of a small, glowing, Northern Renaissance triptych, with a picture frame containing a central panel and on each side a narrower wing angled slightly forwards. With it emphasis on simple frontal perspective and on brightly coloured natural details, it is a bit like a Van Eyck altarpiece with its green garden landscape and angelic figures in red and gold. In Greyfriars Kirk it has been placed in a side chapel to the right of the main altar with a few rows of church seating – with their slots for the hymn book and psalter – so that people can sit and contemplate it. It is not a new work but has already been shown in other historic churches and cathedrals. It was filmed in an arboretum in Milton Keynes that had been planted using the floor pattern of Norwich Cathedral. The resulting garden is called a Tree Cathedral.

Liquid Gold Is The Air screengrab_ By Rosemary Lee & Roswitha Chesher

Typical of other pieces that I’ve seen by Lee, it strikes a delicate balance between very simple task-based but strong, clear, almost conceptual movements, and a humanistic sensibility that comes from the calm, almost meditative concentration of the community of dancers – ranging from young children to senior citizens – who support each other as they execute them together.

It doesn’t surprise me to find Lee has made what is a fairly explicitly religious piece. It is quite open in its religious affiliation. There is no overt Christian symbolism that I could detect, but a kind of abstract spiritual ambiance. For some research about dance during the First World War I’ve been reading about Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. When he was designing it, apparently, he was under a lot of pressure from the then Archbishop of Canterbury to include a cross on its front face, but Lutyens resisted, insisting that the abstract proportions of the monument would themselves create spiritual resonances. He himself at the time had been working in India and was interested in eastern religious ideas.

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Liquid Gold Is The Air is a bit like the Cenotaph in this respect. It has no specific religious message or any imagery that can be identified with any one organised religion. But, looking at it, it conjures up for me of all sorts of random associations. Some of it remind me of Gurdjieff’s The Movements in Peter Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men. I was reminded of bits of Tai Chi – for example two hands surrounding an invisible globe of energy. One strong recurring image is of triangular groupings of dancers holding up their palms as if to bless a central, favoured man or woman. These reminded me of the pyramids blessing the bride or groom in Nijinska’s Les Noces.

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The hands also made me think of one of my favourite pieces that Lea Anderson made for the Featherstonehaughs, Jesus Baby Heater. Anderson explained that the title referred to the fact that some of the dancers responded to the idea that they were reaching out towards spiritual energy, while others were implacable atheists and had to imagine they were warming their hands on an invisible electric fire. The fluttering gold painted palms in Liquid Gold Is The Air make a mandala around the central figure, and at these moments Graeme Miller’s sound score includes the sounds of birds as if the hands are angels’ wings.

 

The figures in red could be seen as resurrected souls in a depiction of the last judgement, but they could equally be Hindu sanyassins. The figures in gold could also be renaissance saints but their whirling dance is reminiscent of Sufi dervishes while their ankle bells could be those of a kathak dancer but might equally have been borrowed from a morris dance side.

There’s a man in a motorised wheelchair in one of the scenes, and one young black girl in another, but it is not a very diverse group of dancers, predominantly white. When you are creating with non-professional volunteers you have to some extent to work with what you’ve got, a skill that Lee has perfected over the years. What I appreciated about Liquid Gold Is The Air is to detect its evident ability to appeal to the high-church Anglicanism of the Norwich and Christ Church Cathedrals as well as to the members of the congregation of this histrorically puritan church. I imagine it could also appeal to inter-faith groups and to those like myself with no religious affiliation. Liquid Gold Is The Air uses movement to convey joy – a quality that, like gold, is currently in somewhat short supply.

Time to stop whingeing and do something?

Here’s a list of some of the things that seem to me to restrict independent dance artists in the UK at the moment

  • lack of sufficient, appropriate financial support
  • institutional systems that prioritise reach, engagement, and impact so that artists end up trying to meet agendas set by funding bodies and producers rather than their own artistic priorities and needs.
  • a dearth of physical space in which to make work, and then a dearth of opportunities for showing it and, in particular, a lack appropriate and supportive ones for untested new ideas.
  • a discursive vacuum, a lack of outlets for artistic discussions around innovative dance practices (choreography, performance, training etc.) thus inhibiting the development of a context for its reception and dissemination.
  • internalised restrictions, things that one perhaps doesn’t even recognise one refrains from thinking, let alone doing, for fear of making waves or going out on a limb. How easy is it for example to challenge ideologically contaminated assumptions about artistic freedom and individualism?

These thoughts came to me after two events I attended on the same evening in the final week of Dance Umbrells 2016. These were the talk Body Politic 2016: freedom of movement. How does a climate of censorship affect art? and a performance of Gala by Jérôme Bel.

Can one call the restrictions I’ve outlined here censorship? I associate censorship with the Law, something about which I don’t claim to have much understanding. The idea of censorship brings to mind legislation around the distribution of violent or pornographic material. One recent prominent example of this kind of body politics (though not one mentioned in the Body Politic event) was the case where Pandora Blake made a successful legal challenge against the Audio Visual Media Services regulations. She has pointed out that these, in effect, favour porn made for heterosexual male customers while banning video of practices relating to female pleasure and to those of sexual minorities (see https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/jun/06/feminist-pornographer-wins-right-reinstate-sadomasochism-website-pandora-blake and http://pandorablake.com/blog).

Natalia Kalinda of Belarus Free Theatre (http://www.belarusfreetheatre.com/) who was one of the speakers at the Body Politic event, talked about making live performance work in Belarus and how to tackle the abusive censorship in that country. She went on to point out, however, that in her opinion arts funding systems in the UK are comparable to censorship in countries like Belarus because financial pressures can be as restrictive as political censorship.

Jamila Johnson-Small, also on the panel, spoke about what she perceived to be a problematic when she performed or, as she put it, made an exhibition of herself. She read from a blog in which she asks herself ‘how do I not climb into a cage of my own making’. (https://jamilajohnsonsmall.wordpress.com/2015/06/04/on-silence-and-invisibility/) She talked about the constant physical negotiation of institutional systems, and of how to work within them without being taken over by them.

What kind of freedoms do such negotiations offer? That was the thought I took with me to Jérôme Bel’s Gala which I went on to see after the talk.

Gala reminded me of Bel’s Disabled Theatre which I saw during Dance Umbrella 2015. In the former the cast are made up of people who are autistic or have downs syndrome, while the cast of Gala includes a range of people ranging from pre-teens to someone who I thought was 70 or over, BME people, people with disabilities, and gender queer folk. A few were professional dancers or performers while most were untrained amateurs.

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[Gala, Dance Umbrella 2016, Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou 2016 from The Guardian]

In both pieces the participants seem to have been given tasks to perform which they then execute on stage on their own one after the other, with some group material at the end. I remember Bel saying last year that, in Disabled Theatre, the performers were free to do whatever they wanted, and that he couldn’t have made them do what he wanted if he tried. In Gala I assume there was a similar intention to give the performers freedom to do whatever they want without interference. The programme notes that they each chose their own costumes.

Whereas Disabled Theatre received quite a mixed reception, Gala seems to have been well received (see Judith Mackrell’s review for example). I’ve met people who loved it. The people I found myself sitting next to at Sadlers Wells had seen it at the Bernie Grant Centre and liked it so much that they’d come back to see it again. Interestingly they weren’t even regular dance goers. There was a standing ovation the night I saw it. But (did you sense there was a ‘but’ coming?) I felt uneasy about Gala.

I felt that the idea that the performers were free to do whatever they wanted was illusory. Its attraction as an idea comes from the idea of freedom that underpins the individualism encouraged by the consumer culture of C21st capitalism. I thought the performers in Gala were completely controlled by the rational system that Bel had devised. They were obedient, always performing their tasks faithfully without embellishment, event in the ‘Michael Jackson’ themed section when the audience’s laughs and cheers must have tempted some of them to add a little extra embellishment while they were still on stage.

The structure of Gala could be compared with that of a tv show like Britain’s Got Talent albeit with a more avant-garde aesthetic. In Johnson-Small’s terms, the work allowed the performers to climb into cages of their own making. Giving Gala a standing ovation seemed to me to be giving a stamp of approval to a system as totalising and controlling as that of most of our increasingly precarious working lives under neoliberal austerity.

And it is that system that people like Natalia Kalinda point out we need to resist.

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I like a good whinge or rant but realistically that is not enough (Eeyore has always been one of my favourite characters). Somehow we need to do something. But what? well, I don’t have a real answer to this but just some suggestions, ones that comes from a workshop by Paul Mason that I attended at the Momentum fringe conference The World Transformed during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool last month.

What Mason said there seems to be based on a recent blog he wrote Find each other and act! Twelve principles for a neo-Bevanite left (https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/find-each-other-and-act-dd566b812732#.lyabzjtae) Here are extracts from some of these principles that we might think about translating into tactics suitable to the needs of independent dance artists.

  1. Understand what’s really happening.
  2. Exercise free speech.
  3. Form affinity groups.
  4. Emulate social movements.
  • Resist in a way that forces those in power into a “decision dilemma”
  • Think of every action in three parts: prepare, act, reflect
  • Design actions either to communicate or to achieve concrete goals
  • Act in a way that reframes the story; re-set the narrative
  • Be peaceful, funny and human
  1. Link to the wider progressive movement.
  2. Learn new ideas. Or teach people.
  3. It’s their media but it’s our voice.
  • Populate the media. The letters pages, radio phone-in programmes, audience Q&As, vox popsthey are all spaces [in which a] radical voice needs to be heard. (…)
  • Create waves through social media. The newspapers and TV are important because they maintain a monopoly of distribution. The internet breaks that monopoly. Social media, no matter how heavily policed and distorted by algorithms, is an important tool in our fight for social justice. It can bring to the palm of everybody (i) truth (ii) undistorted arguments (iii) periodic calls to do something.
  • We need our own media. (…) The point is not to make propaganda. It is to report the news fairly, in a way the mainstream media will not do. In the short term we need a way of aggregating the content produced by small alternative media; professionalising what they do … (selected extracts from Paul Mason’s blog)

Is there a way of adapting Mason’s programme that might offer potentials for dealing with the restrictions I outlined at the start of this blog post?

Jamila Johnson-Small ‘I ride in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere’ 8-10-16, Rich Mix, Dance Umbrella 2016.

DIFFERENT WAYS. My immediate response to Jamila Johnson-Small’s I ride in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere was how many DIFFERENT WAYS there are into it. J J-S could be dancing in a club (while there are still any left https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/07/london-nightclub-fabric-close-permanently-licence-revoked-drugs) and, if you knew the right place to go, you could hear something like the sound and music of her piece coming from a sound system like the one from Gentle Energy that is stacked up like a monolith on one side of the stage.

[a different sound system from the one in ‘I ride in colour’. photo from http://gentleenergy.co.uk/]

BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM. What makes it look like a monolith is the beautiful, dolmen-like rock sculpture, by Joey Addison, that stands on the other side of the stage. You’d be more likely to come across that in an art gallery. And J J-S’s dancing is also quite minimalist. It is constructed from repeating cells which only gradually change and shift. Like Keersmaeker’s Fase or Lucinda Child’s Dance, there is no development, but instead a steady level of intensity in which details gradually build into a network of choreographic textures. All these different LAYERS seem in sometimes contradictory TENSIONS with one another (layers that are more like vacuum-formed, cross laminated timber than the concentric skins of an onion).

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[photo from http://www.stockpholio.net/view/image/id/8892850691?_escaped_fragment_=Cross-Laminated%2BTexture%2B2#.V_pVVNyr-HE]

AGAINST EXPECTATIONS. At first and for longer than one might have EXPECTED, there are just the sounds – a mash-up of words and voices with an EMERGING beat, no dancing yet. It’s advertised as a solo, right? So why do one, two and then a third dancer – who’d all been hanging around the bar outside before the doors opened – get up and dance along to the music with J J-S? They make a diagonal BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM, each in their own PRIVATE spotlight. Each moves in their own singular way and their moves are often more extended and maybe have more energy than hers.

ARENDT. ‘A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden against the light of publicity in a real, non-subjective sense’ (The Human Condition p. 71). In I ride in colour… for the first half of the performance J J-S wears a very chic, black hoodie. Clothes are shed revealing other tighter, brighter layers underneath. J J-S rises into sight from a darker ground, doing so slowly, never fully revealing herself as an integral whole, but always as a subject in process of EMERGING. Addison’s rock sculpture looks as if it is made of crumpled sliver foil but, when lights shine directly at it, its interiority EMERGES effervescent like mother of pearl.

DENSITY. The rhythms, the increasingly elegant and clearly articulated steps and gestures build up a DENSITY that is, at times, almost hypnotic. And at one moment I thought some singing had a slightly African feeling. J J-S’s sensitivity and responsiveness to changes in the music and sound score could perhaps be thought of in West African terms – the good dancer listens and is always alert to what is happening with the drums. But if I suggest this, it is only as one LAYER of my reading, one that exists in TENSION with a multiplicity of others (including yours).

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[Fabric. Photo: Alamy from The Guardian.]

URBAN. Paul Mason writes: ‘I have a strong hunch that the city is going to be the primary venue of change […]. Cities have stopped eviscerating their centres; young, networked people want to live right in the centre  – sometimes two or three to a room  – because they understand the city is the closest the analog world comes to a network. The city is where the networked individual wants to live – at least for some of their life, and for some of their working year or week’ https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/postcapitalism-and-the-city-6dda80bc201d#.yg90kqgkf ) I ride in colour… begins with a mash-up of voices talking about London streets and neighbourhoods. The music and dancing could be called URBAN, and when J J-S and the other three dancers each fall into the groove of the music, they are part of a swarm moving together in roughly similar directions as part of this URBAN network. At a different level, another kind of aesthetic networking is happening through the tensions in between the layers of sounds, images, moves, qualities, energies, vibrations.

In DIFFERENT WAYS, PRIVATE but EMERGING, J J-S dances the TENSIONS of the URBAN BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM, and rides in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere.

SPRING performing arts festival, Utrecht

I’m here till Sunday afternoon with some of our students who are part of the Spring Academy. I’m going to try and write some quick reviews of work while I’m here. In the early 1990s I was a freelance dance critic for the Yorkshire Post asked to write occasional reviews of performances which their main critic couldn’t cover.

In those days one had to phone in and dictate a review word by word, vocalising the punctuation, and do it by 10.45 pm. This was before mobile phones. Then I’d go to bed, wake early and go out to the corner shop, buy the paper and re-read my review. No time for much reflection, just fast and dirty, but with a set word limit – 200 words, sometimes 250, and once or twice the luxury of 300 words.

Here in Utrecht I’m not giving myself a word limit, but am going to try and write quickly soon after the performances and see how much I can cover.

The festival has invented some intriguing hashtags INCLUDING: #NEWYOUNG #EDGYDANCE #URBANSPACE #TENDERDANCE #TOUGHTHEATRE #NAKEDTRUTH which I can’t resist using.

festival website springutrecht.nl