Category Archives: #TOUGHTHEATRE

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.

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[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.

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[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.

The Reluctant Dramaturg

1.

Since April, I’ve been travelling regularly down to London to Jacky Lansley’s Dance Research Studio. I’ve been part of the team in an R&D project Jacky has been leading called Crossing Paths. This culminated in the showing at the beginning of November of a work in progress About Us at the Siobhan Davies Studios.

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[Fergus Early, Vincent Ibrahimi, Ramsay Burt and Roswitha Cheshire watching film of Ingrid and Max MacKinnon at the Dance Research Studio. Photo Sarah Covington]

I have been involved in a few projects over the last few years where I’ve been an extra eye in the studio, observing new work being made and joining in conversations with dancers and choreographer about what they were doing. This time Jacky wrote me into her project as its dramaturg. I am, I realise, a reluctant dramaturg. Early on, when I was meeting some of the dancers for the first time, I said something about not really knowing what a dramaturg is supposed to do. Lucy Tuck wryly observed that every time she has worked on a project with a dramaturg they have always said that. (I have made a mental note not to say that line again.) And it has made me reflect on why I don’t have very good associations with the title dramaturg.

I should quickly say that I have enormous admiration for some very clever people who have worked as dramaturg on dance projects – including Bojana Cvejic, Bojana Kunst, ‘Funmi Adewole, Myriam van Imschoot, Maaike Bleaker, and André Lepecki. But I’ve nevertheless been disappointed by others who have given this title to what they do.

Several years back, at a time when the idea of a dance dramaturg was almost unknown in the UK, I went to a lecture in Brussels given by one. What he said was, in effect, that while the choreographer worked with movement qualities, steps, and pathways around the performance space, he developed the work’s conceptual basis and its overall structure. I remember thinking that he seemed to see his role as the truly artistic one while the choreographer was more concerned with technical problems. Choreographers, in my experience, were themselves responsible for, and already doing, the kinds of things he seemed to think he was doing. He seemed to me to be trying to make a job for himself that was already well taken care of.

Continental European theatres who commission new dance works, as part of the agreement, sometimes attach their resident dramaturg to the project. On a couple of occasions recently I have felt that he or she was working as a quality controller on behalf of the theatre rather than being genuinely committed to the creative process. At a showing or run through in the theatre of a work which I’d seen parts being created in the studio, I’ve found myself having to help the choreographer defend the work and explain what it was about while the theatre’s dramaturg worked through his notes making one critical comment after another.

I always feel incredibly privileged when I’ve been invited to be in the dance studio and make some contribution to the creative process. But these negative associations around dramaturgy make me hesitant if people give that title to something I might sometimes be offering. Having got that off my chest, here’s some reflections on my very positive experience working on the Crossing Paths R&D project.

 

2.

This is how I’d explain the project. We’ve been exploring the in-between spaces of dance and theatre, and music, film and other art forms. A central concern is the physicalisation of dramatic material, with experienced performed who have the knowledge of how to emotionally embody movement. Sylvia Hallet is developing pieces of sound from recordings of personal stories participants have shared with Jacky early in the process, and these are also the starting point for movement explorations. Esther Huss, Fergus Early, Ursula Early, Ingrid MacKinnon and Vincent Ibrahimi have all developed particular personas that relate to their individual stories. Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi didn’t have a story, having taken over some of Lucy Tuck’s material when the latter had to leave the group for another commitment, but also developed her own persona.

In rehearsals I’ve attended, Jacky has been bringing together and exploring resonances between different bits of material, often overlaying it with Sylvia’s soundscapes. Roswitha Cheshire has recorded some of the resulting material on film, and in the later stages of the project we were exploring live movement in front of projections of these films.

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[Esther Huss, Vincent Ebrahim, Ursula Lansley and Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi. photo Sarah Covington]

So what did I do during the project? I tried to go into it with as few preconceptions as I could manage. And I didn’t want to try to make a job for myself that was already well taken care of. I joined in with the warm-up at the start of the day. I learnt some of the movement material. Occasionally, when needed, I became an extra body during an improvisation, or filled in marking material for someone who was missing that day. I talked to Jacky a lot about what was going on, and posted regularly on a private blog set up for the project. And I ended up in some of the film shown during the showing so that I too had my persona in the piece.

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[From the left: Jacky Lansley, Ramsay Burt, Fergus Early, Vincent Ebrahim, Esther Huss, Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi and Sylvia Hallet. photo Sarah Covington]

3.

So, if I have been a dramaturg – malgré moi – maybe that role in the end comes down, in my case at least, to one of writing about the project from the inside, telling its and our story. When we tell personal stories about ourselves, we are talking about what we’ve done, what difference we’ve made through our actions, what traces have been left behind us.

Karen Blixen recounts a story she was told as a child. A man, who lived by a pond, was awakened one night by a great noise. He went out into the night and headed for the pond, but in the darkness, running up and down, back and forth, guided only by the noise, he stumbled and fell repeatedly. At last he found a leak in the dyke, from which water and fish were escaping. He set to work plugging the leak, and only when he had finished went back to bed. The next morning, looking out the window, he saw with surprise that his footprints had traced the figure of a stork on the ground.

By plugging the leak, the man helped everyone who benefitted from the pond. He didn’t think what he was doing, just got on and did it. At the end of the anecdote Karen Blixen asks herself: ‘When the design of my life is complete, will I see or will others see a stork?’. Telling and performing our stories to each other and to others helps us all to see the patterns and shapes that our actions have made and how these have made their own singular contributions. This is how I understand the new title About Us.

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[Jacky Lansley, Esther Huss and Vincent Ibrahimi. photo Sarah Covington]

All through the project I’ve been thinking about how what we’re doing relates to the uncertain times we’re living through. As dramaturg I’ve been trying to put some of this into words – in studio discussions, and through writing. Even before the Brexit vote, there’s been a sense that the complex interlocking systems we live in are perilously unstable, and that there are parallels between a need to find new alternative ways of doing things both in the studio and in the wider world. It is about breaking out of the limitations of what is only possible. Are we perhaps choreographing hope when we research new ways of making connections that are interdisciplinary and interpersonal, and that are about not closing down borders and not fearing differences?

 

 

Juncture at Yorkshire Dance, 1: ‘Wallflower’.

I only managed to attend one day of Yorkshire Dance’s Juncture festival, curated by Gillie Kleiman. On the Saturday that I was able to get to Leeds, there was a really packed programme. Talking to people who’d been there for a couple of days, I sensed the festival had gathered a momentum – people referring in conversations to pieces they’d seen earlier in the week, or things that had come up during previous talks.

I got to the Yorkshire Dance building by 11am for a talk on dance and politics. Then in the afternoon I saw Nicola Conibere’s Assembly, going on from it to see part of a five hour durational version of Quarantine’s Wallflower, and then, in the evening, I saw Immigrants and Animal’s new Double Penetration version of Laura Laura. I had wanted to see Assembly and Laura Laura, but only booked for Wallflower because it was on. I knew nothing about it and it was a big surprise for me.

I only know about Quarantine from their website. They seem to me to be a project-based theatre or performance company with a northern focus who work on projects in an experimental way but do so in ways that can engage diverse communities (rather than the usual dance or drama audience). Wallflower‘s premise was an attempt by each of the dancers to individually remember every dance they’d ever ance and try, during the run of the piece, to reconstruct it. I’m guessing the Quarantine creative team deliberately chose particular performers for Wallflower and brought them together to create it since they all have such different backgrounds.

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[Jo Fong. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

I must have been seeing Jo Fong dancing with various companies – including Extemporary, Rosas, DV8, Rambert – for 25 years or more. The other performers I didn’t know. My guess is that James Monahan comes from a drama background while Nic Green from live art? Sonia Hughes is a writer and dance-floor queen. She was a formidable presence performing while sitting with the audience having got a leg injury dancing the night before. There was one more dancer who I guess was there because Hughes couldn’t dance, but she was not listed in the programme. All the dancers sat in the audience when not actually presenting their memories of a dance or of some other movement event.img_2104-705x400

[Sonia Hughes, James Monahan and Jo Fong in Wallflower. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

A lot of the time I was there, the performers remembered parties and clubbing, so danced to a variety of different kinds of music, including rock, motown, punk, funk, soul, indie. There were also bits of remembered contemporary dance. Jo Fong danced to Steve Reich’s Piano Phase remembering, I assume, a few phrases from De Keersmaeker’s Fase. Sometimes these bits of choreography were performed full on, sometimes marked. Those with some formal dance training remembered ballet and contemporary classes, and there were bits of folk dance and Irish step dancing.

DU16 Quarantine 3 Photo Simon Banham.jpg[Sonia Hughes. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

The music came from a DJ (who changed each hour) who was sitting at a table with laptops and other equipment at one end of the performing space which was arranged in a traverse stage format. Dancers requested tracks, sometimes without remembering their name but just humming them in a way that reminded me of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Sometimes performers talked through personal memories – one dancer, as a teenager, had had a television that was right up against the foot of her bed and at night lay watching it with her foot on the ‘off’ button ready to turn if off if her parents peeped in to check she was going to sleep. Another remembered a scary encounter when he was with a group of friends out late who were held up at gunpoint by a gang and robbed.

The cast took it in turns to be the archivist and write a brief record of each dance in a big hardback notebook. They changed over, I think, once an hour, and at one moment we were told exactly how many thousand dances they had remembered since the first performance in Groningen last year, and how many hours and minutes this had taken. On a table on the way to the exit was a typescript ‘The Index’ which listed each dance up until today’s performance.

I turned up an hour after the performance had begun and stayed two and a half hours. Because I’d been late it took me a while to work out what was going on. Audience members came and went. Sometimes we saw high energy dancing, sometimes there were great stories, a bit of karaoke or a party piece. But there were also lulls and quiet moments. I suspect there were some fixed, rehearsed moments that they always did during each performance, and some kind of running order for these key moments were spaced out during the performance with room between for new, impromptu memories.

Performers paced themselves to last the full five hours. And they seemed to be supporting each other, chatting together and commenting on what they were doing, sometimes standing in for someone in the past or becoming an extra body for a re-enactment.

Although they were all from such different backgrounds, they empathised with each other. They too had felt something like that, or had done something like that. Sometimes they laughed at cultural references I didn’t always catch. Because I became immersed in the piece because it went on so long, I too somehow felt myself being drawn into the sense of community that the piece was generating.

The dancing itself often looked and felt quite spontaneous and rough though actually there was some wonderful dancing that is still fresh in my mind as I write this review a week later. This roughness seemed to give an ‘accessible’ feeling to the show, but there was nothing superficial to it.

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[Nic Green. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

Memories are powerful stuff. Memories are something that we share with others who were there with us at the time or that we told someone about just after it happened. I don’t think I have many memories that no one else has, things that I never told to anyone. Memory is both personal and collective, and we can sometimes adapt or revise our memories so that they conform with what others, who were also there, insist happened. There must have been occasions when I myself have insisted that my own memory is better than someone else’s.

There is something particularly poignant about some performers’ struggle to remember a movement sequence that has almost gone, the detail already irretrievable but the feelings that accompanied it still lingering. Memory’s failure, a reminder of mortality, and preparation for dying.

But one of the wonderful things about trained dancers is their ability to remember long complex sequences of moves which they can bring back sometimes ten or fifteen years later with the help of the original music, or diagrams or words in a notebook, photos, or snowy video tape. Magically, if at the right moment the other dancer in the piece is in the right place behind them, even that can bring back muscle and spatial memories. Dancers’ acts of remembering are for me sources of hope.

There were moments when the archivist looked at what they’d noted down and gave us a brief summary of what they felt were the highlights from the previous hour. These summaries magically brought dancers and spectators together in a collective act of remembering that was quite special. And to think that I almost hadn’t book for Wallflower … hmmm.

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?

Simon Mayer ‘Sons of Sissy’, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, SPRING festival. 20th May 2016

There is something endearing about male dancers’ clumsiness. It proves their normativity – women dancers are generally more precise so that men’s almost unintentional clumsiness somehow shows that they’re just men. At the same time, this clumsiness constitutes a failure to live up to the unachievable ideal that men are somehow conditioned to think they should strive to attain. That ideal, of course, functions to maintain normative white heterosexual privilege. Clumsiness can undermine this, and can point to the persistence of other ways of performing masculinity. Sorry for this long, theoretical introduction, but this for me is the context for my response to Simon Mayer’s Sons of Sissy. Much of this piece is so odd that it is difficult to discuss it without first giving some description of it.

While some of the dancing that Mayer and his three male fellow performers execute was sometimes a bit rough and clumsy, their musicianship was immaculate. It began with them singing and playing Alpine folk music on two violins, an accordion and a double bass.

Mayer was wearing an ambiguous costume that could have been a folk costume skirt and blouse but also read as female drag. There was something very slightly exaggerated about the way they played with each other, an edginess that hinted that Sons of Sissy would be more than just folk music. And sure enough, this section ended in discord and some moderate trashing of their instruments.

Each subsequent section also ended in discord. Each built slowly, taking its time to gradually become more intense: lots of stamping precise rhythms; pirouetting that was actually quite beautiful but somehow seemed clumsy because of the harsh shouts that served as cues to start them.

Deliberately messy to hide their artistry. Traditional dance steps, folk rhythms, but with an underlying tension that eventually snapped when one of the men fell to the floor. A second moment of discord.

All four were by now tired and out of breath and took their time changing at the side of the stage, pausing before going on. At the end of this they were all naked and remained so for the rest of the piece.

Four white naked men danced a traditional-looking circle dance. To this was added body percussion whose repeated slaps on upper thighs and abdomen left these glowing red. While the folk rhythms hinted at mountain peasant culture, the spanking hinted at metropolitan gay tastes, nothing explicit, just hints and ambiguities. But when it became obvious that two of the men – standing closely face to face – were going to embrace one another, the audience became very quiet and alert. Soon another moment of discord arrived with whips, ropes, chain, and a bunch of Alpine cowbells dropping with repeated crashes to the floor.

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Then back again to the violins accordion and double bass, yodelling and more syncopated body percussion. This time it seemed ridiculous when performed by these sweating, naked bodies. And more ridiculous too when two of them men started doing little vigorous jumps that had been carefully devised to keep their penises bouncing up and down in rhythm. Then at the end, the four men, instruments put aside, faced each other in an inward facing square, singing quietly in close harmony.

I don’t think that Sons of Sissy mocked Alpine folk culture. What might have seemed normal in a straightforward, traditional dance and music festival was definitely queered. In doing so, for me it posed questions. With the fortress that the European Shengen area is in danger of becoming, what is the place of these white male rituals that seem to have survived within traditional dance? Why do we hold our breath when we think we are about to see two naked, sweating men embrace? Why is it so painful when these male rituals end in discord, in men in physical or emotional pain?

Clearly Sons of Sissy is about masculinity, and sexuality. But I think it is also resonant because it draws attention to what, for some, might represent an uncontaminated source of European cultural identity. Sons of Sissy manages to make this source seem very strange indeed.

 

 

Nicole Beutler, ‘6: The Square’, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, SPRING festival. 19th May 2016.

 

This is, I understand, the second in a trilogy of pieces coming out of Beutler’s interest in the Bauhaus. As the title suggests, there are squares in the scenography – on the floor, in the backdrop and lighting design – and square formations continually emerge in the choreography which, of course, also includes an American Square Dance section.

The idea of a square conjures up notions of robustness, stability, plain clarity, and solid predictability. In the early C20th, geometrical abstract painting, including work by artists associated with the Bauhaus, seemed to suggest an optimistic embrace of the potential of modernity to create a better life. A nice little booklet that Beutler’s company, nbprojects, has produced about 6: The Square, mentions Malevich who condensed the western painting tradition to a simple black square for a famous exhibition in Moscow in 1915. Its pure form was a portal into a purer more intense future.

In Europe in 2016 with neo-liberal austerity, the on-going migration crisis, terrorist threats, uncertainty about Brexit, and so on, the optimistic certainties about modernity that inspired artists 100 years ago seem strangely remote and unbelievable. That’s what I felt Beutler’s The Square is exploring.

The cast of dancers are diverse. Sometimes their costumes hide this; an early section has them dancing in semi darkness all in loose black hoodies. Later their differences are emphasized. Four pairs mark out geometrical transformations of the points of squares, but each pair seems paradoxical: a hippy with a man in a business suit, a sikh with a b-boy, a woman of colour all in black and a headscarf – not quite a burka – with a woman in a sort of cosplay European folk costume with flowery skirt and lacy apron. Types rather than individuals, yet somehow failing to be the kind of universal everyman and everywoman of the modernist theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. And that’s surely the point.

The American square dance sections are danced with an easy flowing precision that I imagine was not at all easy to achieve. It is a modernist version of square dance in which all the little flourishes, the whoops and individual expression are missing. They effortlessly rotate in walls of two that become four and then eight.

To one side, with a microphone, is Deborah, an English performer, who is the completely superfluous ‘caller’. The dancers need no directions and she is just offering superfluous encouragements and then a rather awkwardly pointless monologue that is sad and meaningless. At least she’s trying.

The tension between the universal, abstract geometric qualities of the dancing and the underlying problematic emptiness of the monologue seems to be at the heart of 6: The Square. Why have we lost the faith in progress that underlay the work of the Bauhaus and artists like Malevich? And how do we go on trying to make sense of things in current circumstances? In the end 6: The Square seems to have a strongly positive energy. It certainly got its first night audience on their feet applauding. Something light emerging out of the darkness of our dark times.

 

 

 

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