Category Archives: #URBANSPACE

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.

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[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.

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[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’.

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[Grand Master Flash: screen capture from Wild Style]

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[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.

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[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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qjl7l

On Trajal Harrell’s ‘Hoochie Koochie’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, August 2017.

The first thing I found at the Barbican Art Gallery after I got my ticket was a scrum of people, over whose shoulders I got a glimpse of Trajal Harrell doing something repetitive and slightly ritualistic with a soup plate and spoon [part of The Return of La Argentina of which more shortly].

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I found a slightly better viewpoint but the piece ended shortly afterwards and everyone dispersed, most seeming to know just where to go. I didn’t and ended up with a few others watching a very leisurely solo, It Is Thus, in which a male dancer took vogueing movements and performed them very slowly and evenly with a lot of concentration on the gradual, deep articulation in the transition from one movement to the next. It was all executed in a strangely un-emphatic way, like a vogue version of Trio A.

Harrell’s now well known starting point for all his choreography was the question, what would have happened if voguers from the drag balls in Harlem had performed at Judson Memorial Church alongside members of the Judson group. I’ve been looking on line at interviews with Harrell who often points out that he’s not a voguer but someone who was educated within the Judson tradition which he think of in terms of minimalism and repetition. Minimalist vogueing like It Is Thus is a way of saying no to, and moving on from Rainer’s iconic pronouncement ‘no to spectacle’.

Some people stayed for a bit of It is thus and then walked away. In performative exhibitions like Hoochie Koochie this always seems to me to be in bad faith. If someone is concentrating on dancing like that – in a rehearsal or live – I feel I must give them my attention. But in an art gallery, one stays as long or as briefly as one likes in front of a painting and then moves on. That’s what people often seem to do with dance works in performative exhibitions. It must be hard for the dancers. But, on the other hand, I noticed here and elsewhere that people don’t seem to pay any attention to any artworks or projections on the wall or any sculptural pieces displayed alongside the performative elements. No one seems interested in the inanimate stuff, but are continually alert, keen not to miss anything live that’s happening.

What I’m describing here is the behaviour of twenty-first century consumerism. As markets get saturated with things to buy, they start selling us experiences instead, manipulating our desire for something new and different. And art galleries and museums are following or responding to this by exhibiting immaterial art, like Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. They’re doing what the market does, which is to capture excess surplus value. And, to be honest, we all recognise now that’s what always happened. That’s a key difference between the counterculture in the 1960s, of which the Judson group were a part, and the art scene today. People have no illusions any more about the possibility of escaping capture. The question is, while they are following and responding to the consumerist modus operandi, are they maybe also on another level doing something else that might not be entirely capturable?

When Jennie Livingstone’s film Paris Is Burning was first released in 1990 and was immediately ‘the’ thing that ‘everybody’ wanted to talk about, Paris Dupree – whose balls are referred to in the film’s title – and others who appeared in the film, suddenly felt ripped off. They’d let this white Jewish lesbian from Yale into the balls, performed for her and let her interview them for nothing. What they had been doing had been captured through vogue’s suddenly fashionable exploitation by Madonna and the big international music corporations. In 2017 we are all always already captured all of the time. Our data is mined by Google and Facebook and the other mega-rich tech corporations, and our personal communications harvested on an industrial scale in the name of the security of our homelands. To attempt to avoid capture is to run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention. What some of us need to understand better is how to pass.

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[still from Paris Is Burning]

I’ve been showing extracts from Livingston’s wonderful film to my wonderful undergraduate students more or less every year since the early 1990s. The ball walkers documented in it knew all about passing. As gay men and transsexuals, the film makes clear, the ability to pass can be a life-saving skill outside the safe community of the balls. There is an element within this skill that is fundamental to theatrical self-presentation in general – an ability to make the audience see what it is you are presenting to them in the way you want to be seen.

If it is unlikely that any of the black or Latino drag queens ever attended any of the concerts of dance at Judson Church, it is possible that the gay performance artist and underground filmmaker Jack Smith might have done. And some of the dancers from the church and some of their audience probably went to see the fabulously outrageous and shambolic performances that he put on in his downtown loft a few blocks south of the church.

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[Jack Smith. still from Normal Love.]

Smith knew about passing. His essay on the 1940s Hollywood B starlet Maria Montez begins:

At least in American a Maria Montez could believe she was the Cobra woman, the Siren of Atlantis, Scheherazade etc. She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe. Those who could believe, did. Those who saw the World’s Worst Actress just couldn’t and missed the magic.

Passing is about making the spectator believe in magic. Some of the pieces I saw in the time I was able to spend in Hoochie Koochie didn’t use any obvious vogueing movements but drew on the kinds of expressive modern dance movement vocabulary that Rainer, Paxton and their fellow avant-gardists reacted against. Harrell seemed to me to use these modern movements in an unrelieved minimalist way inflected with a butoh-like intensity. I’m thinking of Creon’s Solo and one or two other of Harrell’s Greek pieces. Again it seemed that people would watch for a bit and then leave in the middle. You could say that, here as elsewhere, I believed in what the dancer wanted me to believe while others, who lost interest and moved on, couldn’t, and missed the magic.

As I said earlier, when I entered the gallery, Harrell was in the middle of his solo The Return of La Argentina, one of his many references to dance history in general and Butoh in particular. I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ohno performing a series of short solos, together with other solos danced by his son Yoshito, at the Japan Society in New York in December 1999. Kazuo was then 93. Yoshito was 61 and lurked in the wings while his father danced, rushing out at one moment when his father stumbled and seemed about to fall. The father’s entire performance was extremely shaky, including the extract he showed us from the signature work about La Argentina that Tatsumi Hijikata made for him. This drew on Ohno’s memories of seeing her perform in 1926. He was 20, she was 36. As with Maria Montez, Kazuo Ohno believed and thereby made the people in the auditorium at the Japan Society believe that the fingers and wrists and legs of this 93 year old man were not shaking uncontrollably but performing the movements of a young Spanish star at the height of her fame dancing with joy.

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[Kazuo Ohno in Remembering La Argentina. photo: Emídio Luisi]

Kazuo Ohno was wearing a white hat with faded flowers in it and a white lace dress, all rather distressed. Harrell, in his solo, was wearing shorts and t-shirt and holding a dress (that I later read was by the legendary Japanese couturier Reu Kawakubo). The dancers at Paris Dupree’s balls who competed in the high fashion categories were supposed to have ‘mopped’ their designer frocks. I don’t know if Jack Smith is one of Harrell’s points of reference but parts of his solo seemed to me more Smith than Ohno. But that’s not quite fair. It could be both, just as the 93 year old Japanese man could be himself and a younger woman and somehow, magically, make you believe in the joy he still shared with someone he had seen 73 years previously. Harrell too, in one section of this solo, seemed to project joy.

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[Trajal Harrell in The Return of La Argentina. photoTristan Fewings, Getty images]

I was fascinated by Hoochie Koochie and stayed as long as I could before I had to rush to catch my train for the long journey back to North Yorkshire. I now realise there were longer, more recent pieces and older acclaimed ones in the exhibition that I missed. However from what I did see, it was great to see this kind of conceptually intriguing work danced by such strong, skilled and sophisticated dancers. And when I got home I went to the bookcase. That is what a lot of the interviews with Harrell and reviews of his work almost encourage one to do. So I found my copy of Jack Smith’s writings and also something by Judith Butler. Not her well known essay ‘Gender Is Burning’ about Livingston’s film, but, to check out something about Harrell’s Greek pieces, Butler’s lectures about the first of Sophocles’ Theban plays reprinted in Antigone’s Claim.

To make my point, I need now to make a brief digression into the story of Antigone. She was one of Oedpius and Jocasta’s children along with her sister Ismene and her brothers Polynices and Eteocles. After Oedipus realised he’d committed incest by unknowingly having children with his own mother, he blinded himself and left Thebes. Polynices and Eteocles succeeded him to the throne, agreeing to each be the king for half the year. But when Eteocles’ six months were up, he refused to let his brother take over. Polynices went off, came back with an army, and, in the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed. The new king Creon – Jocasta’s brother – decreed a law that, because Polynices was an enemy of Thebes, no one should bury him on pain of death. Antigone promptly scattered soil on her brother’s body and then admitted to Creon that she’d done so and thus had broken his law. It was, she said, the law of the gods to respect the dead and bury them. After this, you know it is going to end badly. And here’s the thing I was trying to remember after I saw Harrell’s Greek pieces. In Sophocles’ play, Creon announces ‘No woman is going to lord it over me’ and later adds ‘I am not the man, not now; she [Antigone] is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free’.

Here’s Judith Butler’s commentary on these lines.

Antigone comes, then, to act in ways that are called manly not only because she acts in defiance of the law but also because she assumes the voice of the law in committing the act against the law. … [Creon] expects that his word will govern her deeds, and she speaks back to him, countering his sovereign speech act by asserting her own sovereignty.

Creon’s performative speech is to make the law by announcing it. Antigone asserts her own sovereignty by the performative act of scattering soil over her brother’s body. I’ve already mentioned Creon’s solo which I saw in the ‘Solos and Duets’ corner of the gallery. Another piece I saw there, Wall Dance from the evening length piece Antigone Jr, was based on the dialogiue between Antigone and her sister Ismene at the opening of Sophocles’ play. Rereading Butler reminded me of the ways in which Antigone and Creon trouble gender norms – Antigone acting like a male, sovereign law-maker, and Creon as someone feminised by her defiance.

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[Creon’s Solo. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

There is a lot of gender troubling in Harrell’s work. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these are queer pieces, but pointing out how they problematize heteronormativity. There are the men dancing material drawn from the ball walkers who were performing like women on the runway of a fashion show. Then there is Harrell dancing with a Japanese designer dress, citing a solo by an old Japanese man who was dancing the role of a young woman. It is a generally accepted convention in some Japanese theatre forms that experienced male actors perform female roles. In an interview, Harrell points out that, in the Greek theatre of Sophocles’ era, men played female roles. So the role of Antigone would have been played by a man, as it is in Harrell’s Wall Dance.

Wall Dance is probably the piece I most enjoyed in the exhibition. It consists of two men walking rhythmically back and forth, one a few paces behind the other, along a horizontal track in front of a wall. Occasionally one would make a vogue gesture and the other might respond. From time to time, without missing a beat they somehow manage deftly to change so that they walk towards each other but turn before they meet. In the play, Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother’s corpse and Ismene in effect tells her she’s crazy. I saw Wall Dance performed twice while I was at the Barbican and it seemed to me to be partly improvised around a tight structure. Mostly they just walk, quite minimalist, but it is somehow also electric. It is a sort of battle with each intensely aware of what the other is doing, braced to respond gesture for gesture, inflection with inflection.

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[Wall Dance. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

Reading the notes afterwards I found that Harrell was also thinking of the duet in the film version of de Keersmaeker’s Fase where the two women also perform a minimalist stepping sequence repetitively while going back and forth along a horizontal track in front of a wall. The more I find out about Harrell’s work, the more I appreciate his dance literacy – the range of references on which he draws and the smart, ironic but convincing and sometimes moving uses he makes of them.

I’ve talked a lot about the identity politics in Harrell’s work because that’s something I’m always interested in. But I don’t want to imply that that is what his work is all about. There is an inclusive diversity in Hoochie Koochie that hints at a transnational circulation of cultural values. One last example: Harrell has been working on material about Dominique Bagouet, the much loved Cunninghamesque French choreographer who sadly died of AIDs related illness in 1992. But Harrell is learning French and is only working with information about Bagouet that people tell him in French. (Félicitations! quelle bonne idée!) What, Harrell asks in Ghost Trio, might have happened if Bagouet had met Hijikata late one night in a New York bar?

There is a need to embrace diversity on this international scale and be open to wider frames of reference about planetary needs. Hoochie Koochie offers spaces for looking outside our usual frames of reference by making us believe in the expanded range of possibilities that the dancers offer, and see the magic.

 

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?

 

 

Swarm Sculptures

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This beautiful photograph by Mike Huxley is of the second version of Lucy Suggate’s Swarm Sculptures that I’ve seen – this time in the Gallery at the Vijay Patel building at De Montfort University. Last week I stood with a colleague right up close as the performers began to sway slightly and then build up to rocking and then gradually peel off and disperse around the gallery space. Thrilling.

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.

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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?

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.