Review: Dance Umbrella 2013 - a round up

Performance: 3 - 20 October 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 15 October 2013

Trisha Brown

The budget ain’t what it used to be but to hell with that. The vibe given off by Dance Umbrella 2013 remains one of spirited determination. What I’ve experienced during just a week or so of this year’s programme seems 35 years young. It’s felt like a festival with something to celebrate and artistic discoveries to be made. I may not have loved everything on offer in a nearly three-week buffet of performances split between five key locations in King’s Cross or Stratford, but I’ve certainly enjoyed sampling the spread – writes Donald Hutera.

Alas, events didn’t start with a bang. Not that one needs to whimper over the opening night at The Place which was collaboration between the Canadian dancer-choreographer Paul-André Fortier and the equally mature American musician Malcolm Goldstein. But their work Vertiges, a minimalistic piece with a rather stringent air of carefully-structured semi-improvisation, was too dry and ultimately enervating.

Paul-André Fortier & Malcolm Goldstein

Pity, because Fortier is a potentially spellbinding presence as anyone who saw him dancing in front of Liverpool Street Station a few Umbrellas ago can attest. Here, clad casually in white, he was like a contemporary mandarin ascetic – tall and limber with a memorable death-mask face beneath a bald pate. You wanted to watch whatever such a striking fellow might do. And you did, even in an onstage atmosphere less rich and revealing than it might have been.

The show’s design was pretty good, and promising. An artfully random trail of light bulbs covered the floor, their illumination rising and dimming at various times. (Something more dramatic could have been done with this.) The backdrop, meanwhile, consisted of three conjoined plywood panels; apparently the original intention – to use the latter as projection screens – was, unfortunately, dropped. Another, simpler visual notion with Fortier close to the panels and casting shadows with head and fingers was over before it developed into anything.

As an advocate for the increased visibility of ageing bodies in dance I don’t want to knock Vertiges (rather a misnomer, that) too hard, nor downplay Fortier’s skill. The general set-up was that he danced (often in an agitated state) as Goldstein played the violin (ditto his sounds). There was probably too much twitching and scratching for my taste. At one point the men spouted Asian gibberish in a pseudo-kabuki style presumably meant to be comic; it was, instead, just an odd, forced bit of whimsicality. Better to recall Fortier weaving through space, only stopping wide-armed to emit big gulping breaths. Or, a little later, donning white stretch cloth over his black shoes and sliding softly and elegantly about sideways. Or, best of all, the two men sitting near each other and Fortier gesturing solemnly with eyes closed as Goldstein subtly played.

Usually Beauty Fails [pictured] at the Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martins, by fellow Canadian Frédérick Gravel, was far more of a blast. Positioned somewhere between a dance and music concert, and lasting one hour and forty minutes, the production justified its somewhat self-indulgent length by delivering an experience that was provocatively posey, playfully hip and decidedly fresh despite aesthetic debts (conscious or not) owed to Bausch, Vandekeybus and, in home-turf references Lecavalier and Locke. While toting up influences one should probably not forget Gravel’s mentor and fellow Dance Umbrella alumnus Daniel Léveillé, a choreographer rightly noted for using nudity as costume.
'Usually Beauty Fails'
Gravel is, however, his own smart, sensitive, postmodern animal whose work likewise succeeds on its own merits. The cast is composed of five dancers and two musicians, with Gravel himself joining in both activities and everybody initially in street clothes. The performance was split loosely into three sections, each centred by a distinct and lived-in duet. Perhaps this was an oblique nod to the Gravel’s charmingly halting, ironically funny early monologue in which he compares bringing a dance piece to a new location ‘like bringing a new girlfriend to a party’ – you never quite know how she’ll behave.

And just how did Gravel’s dance behave? The principal movement vocabulary (tightly turned steps and slamming rolls strung together with a stuttering, broken rhythm) possessed a jerky, slouchy yet intense neo-baroque cool well-matched to the music (clubby modern rock supplemented by one sweetly anachronistic folk-type tune, attributed to Stéphane Boucher and entitled Something chimes in me ) and illuminated mainly by big, high banks of light (although I could’ve done without the alienation effect of blindingly bright lights in our eyes). One of the duets featured partial nudity as a means of questioning intimacy, hinting that touching someone is not necessarily knowing or connecting with that person. One of the dancers in that duet was Francis Ducharme, whose birthday it happened to be on the night I saw the show. (I know this because fellow dancer Jamie Wright got us all to sing to him just as the applause was dying down.) They were all fine, but I want to point out Ducharme’s rivetingly rough, raw solo in the piece’s home stretch as being particularly representative of what made the entire evening work as well as it did.

Back at The Place there were two duets: the Netherlands-based Flemish choreographer Jan Martens’ Sweat Baby Sweat and, from Sweden Gunilla Heilborn’s This Is Not A Love Story [pictured]. Martens refers to his as ‘a modern mating ritual’ for Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel, clinging to each other in their underwear through a series of heroically controlled and intimate balances. Think slow-motion gymnastics with an erotic undercurrent negated by mechanical functionality. The dancer’s squatting embraces and trained but trembling muscles eventually gave way to an extended kiss, their ravenous lip-locking maintained as they moved. It’s a gimmick others (including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) have used before. I didn’t mind that, or the sometimes lulling, not to say dull, soundtrack of low-key industrial hums and buzzes or pseudo-celestial mewing. What I did object to was the work’s final section, with Ligtvoet and Michel separated but both rocking on all-fours in a gradually dimming light to a lyrically banal and interminably repetitive neo-folk ballad (by Cat Power). Was Martens trying to say something about obsessive love, or the boring sentimentality propping up the clichés of coupledom or…something else? Whatever his aim was he lost me and, in the process, undercut a lot of the piece’s very genuine value.
'This Is Not A Love Story' Heilborn’s piece began with the theatrical equivalent of literature’s clichéd dark and stormy night, with fog and the sound of thunder and lightning-like flashes of light and glimpses of the collaborative dancers Johan Thelander and Kristina Viiala hauling each other about like corpses against blurry, stage-filling film imagery of fields and roads. From this emphatically Gothic beginning this curious, dry-witted and delicately desultory waif of a performance scaled itself down into something oblique, laid-back and measuredly tongue-in-cheek – an anti-romance, if you like, and judging by both the show’s one and title. I liked it, albeit with a few hard-to-pin-down reservations. I liked the way Heilborn and company both utilised and sent up the streak of melancholy in the Nordic temperament, and the sometimes slightly maddeningly affectless delivery of text (rather a lot of it there was, too) especially by Viiala, and the soft-sell of her and Thelander’s highly apparent shared dance talent.

Other Dance Umbrella artists pushed the envelope even further. Consider Bulgarian soloist Ivo Dimchev’s Lili Handel (presented at the Platform). Nearly naked save for heels and pearled crotch, and with his/’her’ powdered flesh, shaved head and grimacing, dolled-up face, Dimchev’s titular alter ego was an imposingly androgynous figure of desperate ecstasy, extremity and ennui.
'This Is Not A Love Story'
He/’she’ trills in an operatic falsetto; dons an explorer’s hat and, positioned in a kind of side-saddle on an armchair anchored centre-stage, pedals to nowhere while snarling like an animal; tries to drink his/’her’ own faux breast milk; repeatedly slaps his/’her’ own rump because there’s no one else chasing him/’her’; in the name of beauty prances about while wielding a white ribbon on a stick; fellates and fists a battered French horn; and auctions a small vial of his/’her’ own precious blood for a sum of £20 in cash. Both refined and crude, like a Francis Bacon painting tipped over into demented camp tragicomedy, this gilded Lili was pathetically and unforgettably ‘out there’ – as if he/’she’ had stumbled late and ill-prepared into his/’her’ own mercilessly private salon. My only cavil was the exclusionary amount of time Dimchev’s character spent trying to persuade a man in the front row on the opposite side of the auditorium to go out for a beer, and thereby liberate him/’her’ from the prison of the performance. And yet there was, too, a kind of dogged integrity to this episode.

Marcelo Evelin is an experienced Brazilian choreographer with strong ties to Amsterdam, and who uses his company Demolition Inc. to work across a range of disciplines. Staged at The Place in a square pen lit (but usually dimly) by fluorescent white lights, Suddenly Everywhere Is Black With People was his UK debut. Spectators were free to move where they wished outside it, or inside with a cast of five naked dancers of both sexes whose bodies were blackened with a mixture of charcoal and cooking oil. Initially moving in a stomping whirlpool cluster to a rumbling soundtrack, this frightened/frightening entity eventually fell to the ground like fog made flesh before rising and separating into listless, zombie-like individuality. The group reunited in strife, pulling on each other in a shared misery underpinned by a seething, ravenous and almost fornicatory tenderness. All of this occurred over the course of just under an hour, culminating with the cast staring at us staring at them until they vanished (and each no doubt heading for a long, hot shower). Both the sound and lighting men were part of the show, blackened and naked and occupying separate platforms just outside the pen.

'Suddenly Everywhere Is Black With People'

As a social and aesthetic experiment of potentially huge metaphorical resonance, Suddenly… definitely had its moments whether of connection, dislocation or disregard. It was strange and probably strong stuff not necessarily conducive to easy, instant processing. I’m glad I saw it.

I can say the same about the Trisha Brown Company but for completely different reasons. Currently facing a major transitional phase, the company presented a trio of works in The Platform that stretched across more than three decades. My reaction to Astral Convertible, a dance dating from 1989, was even more positive in light of having just seen Wayne McGregor | Random Dance Company’s Atomos at Sadler’s Wells the previous evening. In lieu of the latter’s grandiose noodling around, and too many false endings, Brown gave me felicitous and human-scaled clarity at a digestible pace. I could see just about every shape the nine dancers struck, while sensing the interlocking purpose behind each one. The Robert Rauschenberg designs can be off-putting, with dancers in metallic silver unitards (and an unappealing pleated webbing between the women’s legs) and flashing automobile headlamps on the smallish scaffolds dotting either side of the central performance space. Still, I suspect I absorbed more information about the body and how it operates in space and time – and often on more than one level at once – than I did at Wayne McGregor’s work.

'I’m Going to Toss My Arms...'

Made in 2011, I’m Going to Toss My Arms – If You Catch Them They’re Yours [pictured above] may well be Brown’s swan song. Nine dancers again, this time in papery harlequin tops and bell-legged trousers that are shed and blown away by as many industrial-sized fans grouped on one side of the stage. Underneath the cast wore bathing costumes, mostly bright red or green. There was nothing hurried or generalised about this piece. The dancing, weighted yet casual, was set to a subtle, memory-charged score by Alvin Curran marked by howling wind (or is it wolves?), rippling yet spare piano and children’s echoing voices. The dancers sailed through it, making glancing contact before moving on again.

Sandwiched between these two half-hour pieces was 1978’s Watermotor, a three-minute wonder danced by Samuel Wentz but based completely in Brown’s unique signature style. Slinky yet precise, it was over almost before you knew it.


Finally, a few words about the younger generation. Dance Umbrella 2013 generously offered a curatorial platform of free performances, dubbed Fringe, to Bellyflop, a collective who exercise their creativity as both independent performance-makers and highly subjective critics. I caught a few pieces presented in the Platform’s studio space. They included Terminal, a short solo fashioned by Jamila Johnson-Small aka Immigrants and Animals for the silky dancer Mira Kautto (moving like a kind of high-style but unsettled super-heroine), and Road Postures [pictured] , a promising and somewhat character-based abstraction created by Roberta Jean in collaboration with Stephanie McMann.
'Road Postures' Image: David Stewart
I also enjoyed the amiably ramshackle Fringe Cabaret, where the bill ranged from Kenneth Tharp’s (The Place) re-creation of a piano improvisation born more than a quarter-century ago on a rainy afternoon in Hong Kong to Irish dance martinet Saorsie NÍ Bháin (aka Sarah Blanc) comically coercing audience members to help her stage an off-the-cuff extravaganza.

Dance Umbrella continues until Sunday 20 October 2013

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

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