Review: Ignition Dance Festival - Rose Theatre, Kingston

Performance: 2 July 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 11 July 2016

Ignition Dance Festival - Salah El Brogy. Photo: Gigi Giannella Photography

Salah El Brogy: Letting Go | Jane Coulston: Rife | Cindy Claes: Things aren’t always black or white | Sally Marie: The Looking Boy | Estela Merlos & Thomasin Gülgeç: bedum bedum

Thanks to the nice people at Dance West, I can now tick Kingston’s Rose Theatre off my bucket list – and it was entirely due to an enticing roster of exciting choreographers (both emerging and emerged) in the world of contemporary dance. My long journey from North London proved to be well worth the time and effort.

This was the third iteration of the Ignition Dance Festival with five works that were themed around the idea of disorder, although that penny didn’t drop with me until I was tipped the wink by someone else! Each work was introduced by a brief filmed interview with its choreographer who explained the context and purpose with varying degrees of clarity.

The most complete and rounded dance theatre came in the opener by Salah El Brogy, an Egyptian performer and choreographer who was formerly with Akram Khan Company. My experience of his work to date has been shaped by its visceral, uncompromising responses to some mighty global themes. But, in Letting Go here was an entirely new – and intensely personal – side to his creativity in a self-performed solo that was an expression of the love turned to grief that comes with the loss of a loved one, in this case, El Brogy’s father.

It was hard-hitting, featuring imagery of migration and an eclectic musical soundscape; and yet, still beautiful in its poignancy, not the least in El Brogy’s ability to use a robe (or kaftan) and other discarded clothing to represent the soul of his father. With the skill of an origami expert, he swiftly assembled the clothing on a small upright chair in a way that suggested the spiritual essence of a human form. His moral I took to be the statement of life being a two-way ticket, which leads inevitably to the son becoming the father. This was a work that needed little in the way of props or set but one that packed a mighty impact.

Jane Coulston’s Rife was the second work that I have seen that takes for its inspiration the so-called dancing plague (a spontaneous eruption of mass dancing mania that began in Strasbourg, in 1518), following on from the work by The Ashes: Dance Collective (entitled The Dancing Plague) that appeared at The Place, in January 2015. The mania allegedly caused people to dance until they dropped dead; imagery that is also suggestive of the “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” dance marathons that were prevalent in the USA during the depression.

Coulston eschewed a medieval context for her adaption, dressing her three dancers in shorts and shirts (reminiscent to me, at least, of boy scouts) that were much more suggestive of the dance marathon than the dancing plague. Rife was rife with fun. There were strong moments of humour and I was introduced to the hitherto unknown concept of the “slut drop”, which to me is a dynamic plié with attitude! It was also physically challenging for the performers (Daniel James Greenway, Roxanne Mortimer and Alex Sturman) and Coulston paced the work well; punctuating fast, unified movement with periods of stillness in which the only sounds were the performers’ heavy breathing. Occasionally, I had difficulty joining up the dots (although perhaps the sequences weren’t meant to be holistic) and the ending just seemed to drift away.

Cindy Claes was the only performer or choreographer previously unknown to me and I was very impressed by her silky movement language, using hip hop, krumping and dancehall as the choreographic building blocks in Things aren’t always black or white. Her take on disorder was the most severe, focusing on the all-too-topical issue of police brutality (by implication, in the USA) through a series of scenes that were underpinned by voiceovers from prisoners and victims. Lighting strips indicated the constraints of incarceration. It was powerful stuff, strongly performed by a charismatic dance artist, and full of impressive dramatic changes. The only downside lay in the occasional loss of momentum in breaks between the scenes.

Sally Marie’s dance theatre is generally at the edge of innovation and she introduced the first surprise by having her brief – and barely audible – introductory film spoken from behind a closed and billowing curtain. Unfortunately, The Looking Boy suffered from a technical hitch midway through and it didn’t really recover. Anthony Daly Luna – a recent graduate from London Contemporary Dance School – was a fluid, absorbing dancer (apparently wearing his old school uniform as a costume) and he deserves credit for an angst-ridden performance that held the show together, including ad-libbing both movement and expression over the technical hiatus.

While Marie’s experience created impactful choreography, the musical mix was perhaps too diverse and too frequently changed; a factor that – as with the preceding work – provided for an uneven structure. In the closing Q&A, Marie explained that The Looking Boy was about layered preparations for murder but I confess that this intent completely passed me by.

Having started in the intimate space of a father/son relationship and then veered away to the generality of police brutality, mass incarceration and murder, the programme ended back in a domestic setting. It could have been a day in the life of former Rambert dancers Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç, partners on and off stage. Their experimental work, bedum bedum, was full of humour and intensely intimate, turning the stage into their personal playground; the action layered in sequences of apparently random associations that formed a kind of road trip without the pair leaving home. It brought together live aural and film feed from an onstage laptop, to which Gülgeç is eventually taped, while Merlos escapes to walk along the beach.

Across the whole programme, cultural references were as diverse as they could be. Coulston’s piece is suddenly broken by Greenway screaming at the audience “Why Don’t You Like Me?” in an overt reference to the one-woman play about menstruation that features in an episode of Friends; while bedum bedum features brief extracts from Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de Souffle with the unmistakeable presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo. In the Q&A round-up, curator Donald Hutera confessed to recognising one reference, but not the other (I leave you to guess which) and I suspect that few in the room would have got them both!

Vocal text featured in all five works, with various degrees of impact, occasionally over-used but providing an effective overarching structure in the final work, with verbal ticks and indistinct shouted phrases representing Tourette’s syndrome, of which Gülgeç has battled a mild form throughout his life.

At one end of the spectrum, Claes explained that her solo had been reworked several times, previously, while other works seemed to be in an early stage of evolution. Each piece had considerable merit and all deserve to be developed further. I hope the choreographers get that chance.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, 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 and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Gigi Giannella Photography

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