Review: Avatâra Ayuso/ AVA Dance Company - Provisional Landscapes - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 & 25 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 28 November 2014

AVA Dance Company 'Provisional Landscapes' choreography by Avatâra Ayuso. Dancer Estela Merlos & A. AYuso Photo: Pau Ross

Performance reviewed: 24 November

Avatâra Ayuso already has a reputation as a powerful, charismatic dancer, especially notable for gracing the work of Shobana Jeyasingh, but she is beginning to gain traction as a choreographer and film director and we can now add artistic director to that list since this programme – in the surprisingly spacious, yet still intimate, surroundings of the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells – marks the launch of her company in the UK.

Ayuso epitomises the new European ideal. Spanish by birth, she trained in Mallorca, Madrid, London ( London Contemporary Dance School ) and Dresden and her commissions have taken her as far afield as Croatia, Azerbaijan, Taipei and Tokyo. Although this is its first sighting in the UK, AVA Dance Company was actually formed in 2008, with initial roots in both Spain and Germany. To add to these far-flung points on the globe, Ayuso is now an associate partner in the Creative Academy Slough.

Despite the potential influence of The Office (also set, of course, in Slough) and its fictional boss, David Brent (and who could ever forget his dance), it is Ayuso’s homeland of Spain that shouts the loudest throughout this evening’s programme. Most of her artistic collaborators and four of the all-female cast of seven (including Ayuso herself) hail from that country and this event was part of Spain (NOW!), a London season of Spanish contemporary arts and culture.

This inaugural British programme comprised three live dance pieces and a film. The company’s production values are already first-class, ranging from a well-designed programme to simple and effective visual stage effects. This collaborative creativity was further enhanced by input from a dramaturge and an anthropologist. One gets the distinct impression that here is a director who will leave no stone unturned in her quest for the complete package.

And it was a large stone – which turned out to be a roughly-shaped block of chalk – that provided the only stage embellishment for the opening work, Balikbayan, one of the evening’s two premieres. This was a marathon solo of significant intensity, performed by Estela Merlos (already well known for her work with Rambert, in particular) who appears to be a lone woman stuck in some primeval wilderness.

It opens with the memorable image of Merlos as a kind of human chrysalis, with just her legs and lower torso protruding from a sack of ruched, mustard-coloured material. Initially, it looked as if she were trying to pull a tight-waisted flamenco skirt over her head, with her head and arms still stuck inside. Eventually, after an ordeal, Merlos managed to release herself from this outer skin, now wearing a tight nude-coloured one-piece costume of shorts and bra-top, joined together by a thin, front panel.

The programme note told me that the title is taken from the Filipino Tagalog language, roughly meaning to “return home” and that the work was inspired by the itinerant experiences of emigrant Filipinas. This modern-day context seemed at odds with my perception of a visceral, prehistoric setting. Merlos covers herself in chalk dust from the “rock” in the course of a marathon solo that required significant physical endurance and consistent expressiveness. Her feet are extraordinary, beautifully ached and pointed at all times to create a pleasing overall line.

The film that followed had been made by Ayuso in the city that was obviously so good she name-checked it twice. Created with support from the Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Fund, Tokyo Tokyo is a brief and enigmatic, rooftop flirtation with three barefoot women wearing black kimonos. It provided a pleasant, if rather wistful, divertissement after the emotional intensity of the opener.

If these two episodes took us from the Philippines to Japan, OneSquareMeeting brought us back to an inspiration from the City of London. This duet focused on the diverse issues of space with the two dancers (Julie Ann Minaai and Blair Tookey) occupying, consecutively, a series of small, oblong spaces defined by Ayuso’s own lighting design. They began with a kind of all-body twerking, shaking imperceptibly at first but accelerating in intensity (Tookey, in particular, is brilliant at the slighter end of this spectrum, appearing not to move at all, while tightly controlling her body tremors). In the final sequence, they balance along the edge of the lines made by the light as if trying to cling on to their area (which, I guess, is how many Londoners feel about their personal space).

The final work – and the other world premiere – was the piece that shared its name with the overall programme. Provisional Landscapes was also the longest element (at 25 minutes). Costume was again significant to the visual impact; with the five dancers wearing face masks made of mesh (looking not unlike the facial covering of a fencing mask, without the white surround) and Marta Jiménez Salcedo is clearly a designer with an effective flair for costuming dance works. Tanja Rühl’s lighting was also a significant enabler of the choreographic impact.

The masks add to the sexy, seductive sense of mystery about these five women. They are on a journey back and forth, to and from somewhere, but it seems best not to try to work out where or why. Ayuso’s choreography is equally difficult to pin down stylistically and if one were to have told me that the three dance works here were each choreographed by someone different, I would not have argued otherwise. Variety is a key requisite of the theatrical experience, most of all where non-narrative dance is concerned, and – on this evidence – Ayuso is clearly intent upon not “pigeon-holing” her work. There is, however, one label that sticks since shouting Spain (NOW!) seems to sum up this cosmopolitan woman’s immediate relevance as a significant figure emerging from Spanish contemporary arts and culture. I hope to see much more of her work in Britain, whether dancing, choreographing, film-making or directing programmes, particularly if they maintain the excellence achieved by this debut.

Main photo: Pau Ross _Provisional Landscapes

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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