Review: Cloud Dance Festival - Showtime - Bernie Grant Arts Centre

Performance: 15 - 17 November 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Wednesday 27 November 2013

John Ross - 'Wolfpack' Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Reviewed: Sunday 17 November

Founded by producer Chantal Guevara in 2007, Cloud Dance Festival recently staged its 14th edition at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham. Dubbed Showtime , this was the first time that Guevara’s efforts have received public funding. There were several sideline activities, including a couple of dance writing workshops led by yours truly in conjunction with English National Ballet’s ongoing initiative Dance is the Word. But CDF’s primary function – and my reason for attending the final night – is to present dance.

There were, by my reckoning, 20 different short pieces on view including eight premieres and one UK premiere, plus second showings of three works. Along with a pretty ambitious programme there was the Bernie Grant itself, a fine venue in terms of the height and width of its stage vis a vis sightlines. What’s more, attendance was decent, especially for a Sunday evening, and there was a nice buzz during the intervals.

As for what was on offer, although not everything was a keeper I can’t say I regret having seen any of it. In any dance-watching experience there are always things to be learnt about an art form or one’s own tastes. Things got off to a disappointing start for me with Femme, a duet from Liverpool’s all-female dance company Taciturn. Facing upstage in black dresses, and initially sporting wigs like solidified whipped cream, Jennie Hale and Lizzy Ryder at first shimmied and finger-snapped close together to a dreamy pop track. Subsequently the pair fell and rose repeatedly in a self-absorbed fashion that made it deliberately unclear if their relationship was competitive or mutually supportive. Most interestingly, they leapt towards each other but always missed and instead crashed to the floor. The concluding section, set to throwback Latin kitsch, wasn’t trenchant or funny or lushly sensual but just a game of ‘oneupwomanship’ involving preening poses. My verdict? This was a missed opportunity, underdeveloped, lacking in boldness and too small-scale for the space.

Manuum, by TheMiddletonCorpus, was a floor-based duet of sorts by the trained gymnast turned dancer-choreographer Anthony Middleton. It featured him and a small, figuratively simple and wooden artist’s doll. A strong, precise mover with a penchant for rolling and sliding, Middleton (clad in tight cinnamon trousers and an unappealingly ordinary beige plaid shirt) manipulated both the doll and himself into various positions: raised, folded, twisted. The ultimate point, beyond any pleasure derived from witnessing an articulate body in motion, seemed to be the suggestion of some spiritual dimension or difference between man and object but I confess I didn’t feel much about it either way.

Moonlighting from Rambert (as had fellow company member Mbulelo Ndabeni the previous night), Kirill Burlov mounted the bill’s strangest, most mysterious piece. The main supporting ingredients of Untitled Work were dry ice, a club beat, infernal lighting and the violinist Satoko Fukuda. Initially appearing as an upright, ominously solemn figure in black fabric who briefly crossed upstage, she later returned and played her instrument. Burlov himself was a twitchy, monkish presence whose coat eventually flipped down, rendering him shirtless in a skirt. Throughout he seemed to be doing jerky battle with an unseen assailant or, possibly, himself. This was a first outing for a work of actively abstract symbolism. It had just about enough going on in it to make me curious how it might deepen and develop.

If Burlov’s ‘message’ was too muffled then that of Simfra Dance Company – aka the attractively adept Rambert Dance School graduates Francesco Conquista and Simone Donati – in Don’t Let Me Go was probably too explicit. I don’t mean sexually, although a case could be made that the pair were portraying lovers. Or maybe brothers. In any case their stage-filling movement language was intricately, intimately athletic and imbued with an appealing sincerity and warmth. What didn’t work were the bits of simultaneously banal and pretentious voice-over, an unseen male droning on about fear and aloneness and how these states can be countered if only one’s suffering and struggle is shared. Such an earnest, implicitly Christian philosophical stance seemed like an unnecessary straining for emotional significance.

I’ve been a fan of Avatâra Ayuso for a few years now, and the two pieces she presented at CDF gave me no cause at all to retract that regard. Created with and for the excellent Rambert dancer Estela Merlos, and featuring an anthropologist and a dramaturg as key collaborators, Balikbayan was inspired by investigations into (but not restricted to) ‘Filipino female migration’ along with (as listed in a programme note) such concepts as alienation, identity, culture shock and hybridisation. I don’t much mind whether or not I could easily discern this heavyweight content in the (un)finished piece. What I do know is that Balikbayan – and I’ve no idea what the title means – was highly accomplished, especially for something billed as a work-in-progress.

It began with Merlos in effect fragmenting her body via punctuating blackouts. Here she was with head and torso (or, just a bit later, only her lower limbs) jutting out of the wings, and there crawling downstage while looking over her shoulder. Upstage she shot one leg into the air and then two, like antennae. She exited, returning encased in a tiered yellow costume (thank you, Marta Jiménez) scarred with ordered half-moon slits – rather like a rubbery cheese-grater. Turned inside out it was black and, like Burlov’s coat, became a skirt held up by wrist straps but eventually falling to Merlos’ ankles. In the closing section she raised and clapped her hands, skipped about in different directions and slapped her thighs. It’s worth noting, too, that throughout we intermittently heard a female voice make pronouncements in a foreign tongue, ending with a loop of the untranslated sound-word ‘nah.’

Balikbayan was an attempt to give expression to the contradictions and conflicts inside Merlos’ stage persona and, by extension, other women as well. As a living presence she was complex and troubled (yet not in an obvious way) but at the same time possessed an innate, primitive power. For me, as a supporter of Ayuso’s work, it was interesting to see someone else embody a temperament and sense of rhythm that heretofore has seemed unique to her.

After a break Ayuso herself danced the solo Dalcroze. Named after Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, the Swiss composer and educator responsible for a method of experiencing music through movement called eurhythmics, it felt like a postscript to Balikbayan . Initially seen with her shadow looming behind her, and using taiko drumming as soundtrack, Ayuso was like a seductive yet forthright modern-day high priestess/warrior, at first concentrating on the motion of her upper body and then her legs. As an exercise in rhythm it was consistently intriguing if inconclusive.

Ayuso x 2 was a hard act to follow. In any case I found it difficult to connect with Jo Meredith’s Chimera , a piece of barefoot formalism strung out as a lyrical quartet of brief encounters dotted with allusive (not to say cryptic) pseudo-poetic text. Attributed to Sean Damian Bruno but spoken by one of the female dancers, these utterances shaped up into a skewed and vaguely annoying lecture on the theme of illusion. The dancers, meanwhile, hurried on and off as if in pursuit of some quite consciously elusive meaning.

The evening climaxed with Wolfpack by John Ross, a recent winner of the New Adventures Choreographer Award. (His reward? To spend a year or so being mentored by Matthew Bourne, culminating in a showcase of his work unveiled at a London theatre to be confirmed) Conceived as a virtually non-stop boys’ night out, Ross’ quartet commenced with a jokey bloke’s tableau but by the end had come full circle with unexpectedly thoughtful ambiguity. The cast – two refreshingly bulkier fellows, another slightly-built and a tall one – gave themselves over to the material with an almost mock-*Shechter* abandon. Kinetically this translated into quick, deceptively fickle moves set to clubby tribal beats or a Celtic jig. There was also fat jiggling, barking party animals in half-masks and a conga line. The whole enterprise was more than a little rough round the edges, the build-up of its comic rhythms not quite yet fully sustained. Still, drawing on a laddish mix of hip hop and pop culture, Wolfpack was a patently engaging crowd-pleaser marked by humour, a whiff of danger and an undertow of melancholy. It’s as if Ross wants us to remember that no matter how invincible they might like to think they are, most young men are not Superman.

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

Photos: Camilla Greenwell & Arnaud Stephenson, courtesy Cloud Dance Festival.

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