Review: GOLIVE - at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Performance: 26 September 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 1 October 2013

Declan Whitaker's 'Duet'. Photo: Brian Slater

Performance reviewed: 26 September 2013

For all kinds of boring reasons, I was unable to get along to the Lion & Unicorn Theatre (above a very friendly pub in Kentish Town) until managing to catch the 21st of 24 shows (held over consecutive evenings in September) in this inaugural GOlive Festival, curated by the well-known and well-respected dance writer and critic, Donald Hutera. I must learn to be quicker off the draw since the next few days were spent in regret of missed opportunities. Given that the theatre above the pub is called the Giant Olive and this was a celebration of live performance, I love that the Festival’s title points ambiguously in both these directions: so this is “Go Live” to some and “g-Olive” to others!

It occurred to me that in one swoop, Mr Hutera must be challenging the hegemony of The Place as the largest contemporary dance festival. I’m not minded to count up all the productions across the 24 sessions and unlike The Place’s Annual Resolution! festival, many – if not most – of the works at GOlive got a second crack at a performance: the point being that for a start-up enterprise, this was a significant effort and achievement.

Inappropriate though it surely is to make any sweeping generalisations about a 24-date festival on the basis of a single viewing, I’m going out on a limb to say that the curatorial role seems to have had a beneficial impact on the balance of the programming. The one I saw gelled excellently with six diverse pieces made and performed by skilful artists, exhibiting a strength and maturity that places all of them some way along the career development path. What’s more is that the works all came from very different genres, including pure dance, narrative and one performance that contained no dance at all. Although since the performer walked as she talked who can say if there was no choreography involved!

The opener – Young Man! – by Carlos Pons Guerra for DeNada Dance Theatre is a clever, Hispanic riff on Roland Petit’s classic ballet, Le Jeune Homme et Le Mort. We first encounter the young man – intriguingly played by a girl – lying alone on a bed, smoking, in a dingy room. Eventually, as in the original, she is joined by a temptress, an agent of seduction, and they perform a duet of intense sensuality, which expands into the use of anything close at hand for sexual gratification. The two performers (Sabrina Ribes Bonet and Victoria da Silva) get sexier than a horny butcher’s dog with a chorizo sausage and a complete haunch of cured jamón. In fact, it will be hard to look at the trotter end of a leg of pork in quite the same way again.

Young Man! has a great retro Spanish soundtrack (arranged/edited by Luke Wilson) and although there were a couple of transitional pauses between segments of the piece that seemed to last longer than they should, it worked effectively in this intensely intimate environment (the theatre is a small “black box” room with an audience of around 60 up close and personal to the show). It was funny, sexy, poignant and a clever twist on a classic ballet.

Up next was another female duet, made and performed by Helena Webb and Emelie Wångstedt. The lights came up to the recording of R Kelly singing “I believe I can fly” with the duo balancing horizontally via their stomachs on a pair of stools, in superhero flying mode. Action in The Flying Project progresses into communal paper-aeroplane flying (audience members each had one under their seats) and bird-themed charades prompted by clues on the aforementioned papers. I began by mentally dismissing the R Kelly sequence as a harmless piece of fluffy juvenilia but – rather appropriately, given the aeronautical inspiration – my opinion took off as this engaging, funny and unpredictable work developed, carried along by a notable chemistry in the comfortable, comic interactions of its two co-pilots.

Rachel Mars was responsible for the non-dance element. She also stood in for Hutera – on a rare night off to review a performance elsewhere – as the host for the evening. Her skit entitled Helen Mars and Gertrude Ederle Go To Sea was an exercise in PetchaKucha; a mechanism, apparently invented in Japan, to take the tedium out of architectural PowerPoint presentations. The trick being that only 20 slides are allowed and the presenter only has 20 seconds to speak to each one before it automatically moves onto the next: thus I can confidently state that (allowing for a brief introduction) Ms Mars’ act was no more than seven minutes’ long. Her positioning of the first woman to swim the English Channel as a potential, heroic role-model for her non-swimming mum to emulate was charming, surprising and consistently full of wit and gentle humour. I loved it and I hope that Rachel Mars is a star-in-the-making since on this one-off viewing she appears to have carved a unique niche in an overcrowded comedic zoo.

If humour characterised the first half, dance came to the fore after the interval, with three very different expositions of pure movement without any obvious narrative intent. Firstly, through Customers Five ***** Hotel, being an improvised, interactive and seamless performance of consistently refined quality from a quartet of experienced dancers. They interpret in real time the random sounds of tuneless music played live by two musicians (woodwind and percussion). Ranging from fluid and smooth to grotesque and spiky, their movement was never clumsy.

This was followed by a brief male-female Duet, choreographed by rising star Declan Whitaker, still an undergraduate student at London Contemporary Dance School. The cool, classy feel to his contemporary ballet style is very reminiscent of Richard Alston’s choreography and I will be surprised if they don’t end up working together at some future time. Danced with a sensual feline quality by Emma Dyverfeldt and Riccardo Tarocco, this was a piece made all the more memorable by its brevity. Choreographers with years of experience often forget that less is sometimes more but it seems to be a concept that this young man has already embraced.

The concluding work was the most courageous – which is odd when an earlier performer had to simulate making love to a ham – and also momentarily the most infuriating. Hanna Wroblewski’s largely floor-based solo – _My Heart Became This Monster) – was a marathon of effort, but given the layout of the theatre, and the low light employed for her performance, it was hard to see her from the back row. However, brief tantalising glimpses showed elusive fragments of the undulating landscape of her naked back (her muscles shifting like sands wafting in a gentle desert breeze). It gave the feeling of a deconstructed performance to my eyes whereas those seated in the front row would have had an altogether starker vantage point. Wroblewski succeeds in creating a character made of flesh but not necessarily human, a mermaid perhaps (the image reinforced by her naked upper torso and long skirt with trailing strands). Her doleful, deep brown eyes possessed a pleading timidity that emphasised this creature’s vulnerability. Here was a performer without inhibition, clearly comfortable in a complete surrender to her artistry. I loved it; and, on reflection, perhaps even more because I couldn’t see it all.

It is hard to generalise on the basis of seeing just one in 24 shows but I can say without hesitation that The Lion & Unicorn is a great venue for small-scale dance. Here were six works, each with considerable merit, sitting well together, all earnestly and skilfully performed; a sum of parts that led to an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening. If only I had discovered it several nights earlier: I would certainly have been back for more. Hopefully, this will not be the one and only festival in this venue and I can’t wait for it to GOlive again.

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 in the UK.

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