Review: Idan Sharabi & dancers / Claire Cunningham - Dance Umbrella at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 16 & 17 October, 2015
Reviewed by Rachel Elderkin - Monday 19 October 2015

Claire Cunningham 'Give Me a Reason To Live'. Photo: Ben Nienhuis

Reviewed: 16 October

Dance Umbrella, London’s annual international dance festival, draws together a range of contemporary dance artists in a showcase of 21st century choreography. As part of this year’s programme, Sadler’s Wells presented a double bill with works by Israeli dance artist Idan Sharabi and Glasgow based performer Claire Cunningham in the Lilian Baylis Studio.

The UK Premiere of Sharabi’s Ours, a duet created with dancer Dor Mamalia, is based on a series of interviews Sharabi conducted asking people what home meant to them. The result is an entertaining conversation related through speech and movement.

A recorded voiceover by Sharabi opens the piece, a continual flow of speech where one idea runs headlong into the next. It’s rare that you get an insight into a performer’s thought processes and often you find yourself paying more attention to the soundtrack than the action on stage, catching at the connections within Sharabi’s nonsensical, but madly logical, stream of consciousness.

The movement is naturalistic, the choreography evidently based around the words we listen to, whether Sharabi’s or those of the Joni Mitchell songs which repeatedly crackle into play. Their actions catch at words and phrases with a perfectly timed precision that is often humorous and this gives the work a light-hearted touch. Later their movement builds into longer sequences but always the intention of what they want to relate is direct and clear. Sharabi and Mamalia have a playful relationship and their movement is as much a conversation between themselves and their audience as it is a dance. Ours offers an honest and open insight into its performer’s feelings; this is choreography created not just to dance but to speak.

Claire Cunningham’s Give Me A Reason To Live begins with an exhalation, something between a breathy, shaky note and a mournful wail. Her head buried into an upstage corner, her body leant against her crutches, she creates an angular, awkward image. The piece takes inspiration from the work of Hieronymous Bosch, in particular his use of beggars and cripples as symbols of sin, and there is a touch of the surreal in the images Cunningham creates as she moves herself through a series of tests. For the first half of her performance she barely turns around, relying purely on the difficulty and intention of her actions to hold the attention. It’s a slow process. The movements are repetitive, the inverted angles of her body emphasising the physical effort of her work.
Cunningham’s performance is a test not just of her body, but of a personal inner strength. In its strongest moments this is intense to watch. It evokes empathy and draws you in. However at others it feels performed rather than real, and there a vital connection is lost. Without that connection the piece becomes laborious. At one point she undresses and it feels all too familiar, an act repeatedly seen in contemporary work. Undressing is, more often than not, a private act and there is something daring about doing it on stage, an open challenge to the audience. However, when seen so often it rather loses that impact and not always is it well integrated, even necessary.

For a good few minutes you will Cunningham to give you a reason as to why she’s doing this. As she works through the immediate vulnerability and self-consciousness of standing on stage in her vest and pants she allows the audience to witness not only a slow build to strength and confidence but an intimate and exhausting battle to simply stand upright. In Give Me A Reason To Live undressing provides an easily accessible metaphor for this struggle.
As Cunningham backs upstage she begins to sing, a haunting melody from one of Bach’s choral cantatas. Here, hovering mid-air, supported between wall and crutches, image, intention and emotion connect to create one of the strongest moments of the piece.

Give Me A Reason To Live is a very personal performance, to the point of being self-indulgent – at times it feels that Cunningham is working more for herself than her audience. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She is clearly not a performer who ‘Who looks to create something easy or conventionally beautiful; her intention is to make her audience think about what they are watching and through testing herself so openly before them she finds a way to achieve that. Give Me A Reason To Live is bold and straightforward; this is a performance, this is my work, this is me – take it or leave it.

Dance Umbrella continues at venues across London until 31 October.

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dancer and dance writer. She has written for a number of arts publications and regularly contributes to theatre site Twitter: @Rachel_Elderkin

Photo: Claire Cunningham in Give Me a Reason To Live by Ben Nienhuis

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