Review: Dance Umbrella - Wendy Houstoun / Nigel Charnock - Platform Theatre
The only two UK choreographers to have works staged in Dance Umbrella this year are Wendy Houstoun, who performed her own solo piece 50 Acts, and the late Nigel Charnock, whose piece Haunted by the Future , a duet, was his last completed creation before he passed away in August of this year.
I’m not inclined to count Jonathan Burrows who, despite being born in County Durham lives in Belgium, and whose curatorial influence on the festival this year felt continentally inspired. Most of the choreographers were from Europe or North America and philosophically the line up seemed geared toward exposing London audiences to ways of making dance that are more popular in these artistic milieus. This point in turn highlights in a way, another difference between Houstoun and Charnock’s work in comparison with much of the rest of the Dance Umbrella programme: it’s not conceptual.
From Burrows’ own work with composer Matteo Fargion to the copycatting of Fabian Barba’s A Mary Wigman Dance Evening and Hetain Patel’s video To Dance Like Your Dad, to Suderman and Söderberg’s percussive deconstruction of personal anecdotes in their piece A Talk and Mette Edvardsen’s invocation of form and event through repetitive language in her piece Black ; this year’s Dance Umbrella was like a choreographic laboratory in which content was filtered through formal processes, yielding serendipitously amusing or moving results. Not so with Charnock and Houstoun’s pieces, which were primarily visceral, emerging from the guts of their makers’ and possibly collaborators’ own subjectivities and serving this gut as their only master.
Although Houstoun’s piece is eponymously structured in 50 segments of action and expressive monologue, it is a piece about ageing and the title seems to be employed as a pun, indicating a dancer of a certain age more than a framing device slavishly adhered to in the making of the work. Houstoun displayed vibrant, even ironically youthful spirit and energy as she preached in polemic verse about the inequities of growing older in a medium focused on the young. She seemed to be murdering the paralysis that can be brought on by nostalgia as she methodically yanked out the tape from an old fashioned cassette.
After bursts of exertion, running around the stage, she took her own pulse as though checking to see if she was still alive. Then she amplified her own heartbeat with a handheld microphone, but holding it to other parts of her body as well so the thumping seemed to emanate from unlikely places, indicating that she was still full of life all over herself. The piece seemed like a throwback to 1980s style autobiographical performance art, and Houstoun’s sympathetic and honest performance laid bare her own frustrations with an art scene that would view her and her middle-aged body as obsolete.
Charnock’s Haunted by the Future was a jagged contemplation of sexual politics, played out with scrambling and hissing panache by dancers Talia Paz and Mike Winter. The piece begins with Winter dragging a kicking and cursing Paz into the space in a giant sack as though she were a stray cat he was about to hurl into the river. It ends the same way but with the roles reversed, and in between there is all manner of brutal vulgarity. Winter bemoans having married a Jew and the couple nastily scrap as though they might claw each other’s eyes out. Then blindfolding themselves, they grope at one another futilely trying to get gently intimate; scenographic symbolism for lovers star-crossed by their own myopic and obstinate resentment. Nostalgia plays a supporting role in this work as well; a dizzying, at times even a bit nauseating, channel-surfing soundtrack of mostly ’80s pop was so insistently present that it was like a kind of aural set piece.
The couple spoke to each other through handheld megaphones, sitting a great distance apart they asked “Do you love me?” and observed that “too much is never enough”. Despite it being programmed into the festival as an ostensible tribute, this piece is no elegy and in some ways it’s a bit jarring that this howl is to be the final word from Charnock, the influential teacher, mentor, friend and prolific artist to whom this edition of Dance Umbrella is affectionately dedicated. It wasn’t his final work. He was in the midst of Ten Men, an extract of which received an enthusiastic response when it was shown to promoters and supporters at British Dance Edition earlier this year – and which he was due to start work on in earnest next January.
There is a dark humour here but Haunted by the Future is mostly a rant, at the impossibility of peaceful union in a noisy world and the frustration resulting from the way we spoil things for ourselves and then blame the ones closest to us. There is a monologue in the latter half of the piece, a raw anecdote performed by Winter with spitting intensity about picking up a younger sex partner at the grocery store. When she shuns him for being too old he retorts bitterly that she’d be even more disappointed by his tiny penis, and kicks her out in favour of watching telly.
Under the circumstances we don’t want to read this as Charnock’s own voice, it being a kind of yucky way to fondly remember someone, but the invitation is undoubtedly there in the work. This quarrelling couple seem to be two sides of the same coin, different embattled aspects of one feisty personality. Given his propensity for provocation, Charnock may not have minded this reading in the slightest. He may have even relished the morbid discomfort of an audience watching such a sordid swan song.
Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a New Yorker in London studying for a PhD in Aesthetic Theory at Birkbeck College, University of London.
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