Review: Local International at Stratford Circus

Performance: 13 march 2010
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 15 March 2010

Showing as part of the venue’s annual Dance Currents season, East London Dance’s Local International promises to showcase the best of female choreographic talent in an evening offering everything from ballet to breaking.

World history provides the focus for the opening piece: the shooting of unarmed schoolchildren attending a peaceful, organised protest in Soweto on 16 June, 1976 became the target of international condemnation and a turning point in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Alesandra Seutin’s *1976* _takes a personal perspective on the events of that day, following the journey of two unsuspecting young girls on their way to school. To a spoken narration by a female survivor of the uprising, two of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s female dancers skip and skid across the stage, shimmying in low, wide, Africanistic postures and piggybacking each other in a joyous evocation of innocence. The mood changes suddenly; now the dancers are lit by a stark projection of images from the riots, the narration describes the horror of the shootings, and the girls watch in shock and disbelief, unable to tear their eyes away from the happenings offstage. The final, harrowing moments of the piece darkly recall the earlier games of leapfrog and piggyback as one dancer struggles to carry the other, now lifeless and prone, away from the scene. With its hopeful closing message that the events of 16 June would galvanise the South African people into action for change, _1976 is a powerful meditation on the Soweto uprising.

Another piece by Seutin, *Frusted*, closes the programme. Made in collaboration with Vicki Igbokwe (Uchenna Dance) on five members of Seutin’s own company, Vocab Dance, Frusted lacks the clear and focussed purpose of 1976. The highly physical combination of Afro-contemporary and urban movement is full of obvious symbols of angst and frustration – dancers twist, jerk and struggle against themselves in quick, contained motions – but what they are railing against so energetically is unclear. “I’m running – constantly running,” cries one dancer repeatedly. “Is it me, or is it them?” We never do find out.

In Buddhist mythology, an Apsara is both the performer of classical temple dance, and a shape-shifting nymph, a being that transforms according to context. Yiphun Chiem’s _*Apsara* _picks up on both ideas; at once a brilliantly hilarious deconstruction of B-girl posturing, and a chilling description of her family’s flight from the Khmer Rouge genocide, it’s a highlight of the evening. With the disarmingly beautiful, fluid hand gestures of classical Khmer dance, Chiem conjures up images of arrest, torture and killing in Cambodia. Arriving in Belgium, the performer takes refuge in the image-heavy culture of Hip-hop. Chiem’s deflating of B-girl persona (baggy jeans, bottle of water, mannish strut) is impeccably observed and uproariously funny. Searching for an identity that fuses her Cambodian past with her current European life leads Chiem to bring together gongs and breakbeats , temple dance and funky footwork. It’s an absorbing combination, from a confident and accomplished performer.

The search for diasporic identity also informs Funmi Adewole’s *The Sleep Walker’s Dream*. Without music, Adewole roams the stage juxtaposing children’s playground games and African dance, nursery rhymes and charged monologues. Adewole’s liminal work plays on the brink between two states – laughter turns easily into sobbing, Africanistic movement into wild spasms, playtime into political platform. Moments of cartoon comedy, as where Adewole plays a game of Granny’s Footsteps across the stage with some impressively articulate pelvic wiggling, sit uneasily against denunciations of black women who adopt their “grandmother’s prayer beads” as a totem of cultural identity. With sensitive editing, The Sleep Walker’s Dream could be a provocative dissertation on the complexities of racial identity. As it stands, it’s overlong, too wordy, and lacking in direction.

Ex-*New York City Ballet* dancer Antonia Franceschi completes the programme with her commission for Ballet Black, *Kinderszenen*. A series of variations playing homage to the great and good of ballet choreography, the piece is set to Allan Shawn’s piano suite Childhood Scenes. The technical workouts are pretty enough, despite a few wobbles here and there, but the piece rather coasts along until the choreographer begins to channel Balanchine (under whom she trained at NYCB). The arrival of Mr B’s signature style, all swivelling hips and vigorous battements, brings to the piece a humour and zest that was previously lacking. A super-sexy pas de deux that ends with the female ballerina hanging inverted from her partner in a wide split recalls McMillan at his athletic best; but too much of Kinderszenen is formal, formulaic and lacking in fun.

The range of styles and themes is welcome, but overall Local International is something of a mixed bag in terms of quality as well as variety. A sharper programme would better serve both the artists and East London Dance’s diverse audiences.

*Dance Currents runs until 24 April at Stratford Circus. More info: www.eastlondondance.org

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