Review: mapdance - Rich Mix

Performance: 10 May 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Wednesday 15 May 2013

mapdance 2013 'Undoing Undone', by Yael Flexer Photo: Chris Nash.

Watching the latest touring programme from mapdance, the MA student performance company at the University of Chichester, was sometimes frustrating. Co-artistic directors Yael Flexer (Bedlam Dance Company) and Detta Howe (Ginger Dance Theatre) have assembled a bill designed to stretch the skills base of their current all-female crop of nine dancers. At the same time they’re trying to engage a range of audience members – that is, experienced watchers as well as those who may be new to contemporary dance. Alas, I wasn’t always as engaged as I might’ve wished to be. Partly, I suspect, it’s a case of the vagaries of personal taste and temperament (rather than expectations, an important distinction) versus mapdance’s need to test the levels of versatility and discipline of its young dancers.

Explaining what I mean is probably best achieved by picking through my responses to the dances themselves. First up was Flexer’s Undoing ‘Undone’ a revamp of a work dating from 2009. As a long-time fan of hers I was surprised how hard I found it to warm to the piece. Following Alys North’s brief, slightly brittle spoken introduction she and her cohorts, all clad (by Florence Hendriks) in neat combinations of burgundy, grey and black, launched into a generally swift, well-considered arrangement of slices, scoops, lunges, spins and kicks – the kinds of actions dancers often do, used here to convey something about the connections between them and, according to a programme note, us. And Nye Parry’s soundtrack – Arabic and Hebrew texts plus radio channel-surfing underscored by both pulsations and pensive chords – was a not uninteresting aural backdrop.

As with each of the three short, full-company dances presented pre-interval, the cast (all, with one exception, blonde and Caucasian) functioned more as a team than distinct individuals. They looked fit and capable. Most of the time they had in place what I call ‘the mask’ – a rather rigid look of concentration/composure dancers often adopt that betrays little or no emotion. This observation coloured my perception of a piece that was essentially humourless – abstract dance, after all, can be quite a serious business – but never less than efficient.

Next came Charlie Morrissey’s All of this is possible. Here the cast sported, courtesy of Hendriks, white button-down shirts above orange trousers with thin black belts. Initially they stood gazing silently, perhaps internally, before slowly shifting downstage; there, attended by clenching and quivering, each seemed to inflate with air. From an all-in-a-row position they migrated into a kind of flock imbued with a follow-the-leader tension, although who was actually leading was ambiguous. They hunched over as if praying (I heard the whispered words ‘Stage one…stage two…’), hung forward, arched back and jumped about before, eventually, edging away upstage.

I’ll concede that Morrissey’s work had an air of mystery but, really, what was it about? Again, the programme provides assistance. In it the dancers are described as ‘a sorority for the exploration of neglected phenomena – watch carefully, and be converted.’ But, uh, to what exactly? Here was another dance ostensibly directed at us but, crucially, without seeming unduly concerned about truly connecting with us. As I remarked to a friend, ‘I think only dancers, or dance insiders, would care about this.’ This dance insider hardly cared at all.

Set to a non-intrusive commissioned score by Sellotape Sounds of what sounded like strings, drums and guitars, Jorge Crecis’ Labyrinth of Hewara, scarcely countered my feelings of detachment. This time the cast, all in blue shifts (by Holly Murray), intermittently redistributed many white juggling balls: placing them in piles, plopping them down in neat rows and using them to create a labyrinth. Or, rather, the dancers themselves apparently (thanks once more, programme note) were meant to be the labyrinth.

Huh? A fancy concept, that, but it meant nada to me. What I saw was possibly a study in cookie-cutter conformity. A couple of times the dancers, facing upstage, swayed – all alike, in symmetry, sans complexity. Twice, I think, Jenna Owles stood downstage mouthing unheard instructions to others moving in rote-like formation. Rebecca Ankers grabbed at an increasingly effortful solo, ‘the mask’ in place and perhaps even purposely so. It’s worth mentioning North again, briefly astride a few of the others’ backs as if surveying territory. Eventually the pace doubled as the movement waxed sporty, random, even chaotic – suggesting, perhaps, a breaking out of, or through, circumscribed routines. Fists were held anxiously to mouths (all at the same time, albeit in slightly different ways) but the stream of unison gestures remained fast.

Glimpses of the dancers’ personalities were subsumed by what I guess should be called a choreographic vision. Fair enough; it’s the choreographer’s job to impose order upon what he or she has created, and it’s this that dancers are traditionally meant to serve. But I couldn’t help but wonder where the magnificence inside these young women was. Where was their creativity or, beyond them, the wildness of the inexpressible that art sometimes manages to harness? Where was revelation, let alone revolution? What I saw and experienced was something well-constructed yet also vaguely formulaic, and more or less guaranteed to help produce little dance-machines.

Whether that was or wasn’t this work’s point, it certainly seemed a by-product of the evening’s first half. It was the late Nigel Charnock who came to my rescue, post-interval, with XX. Charnock was one of the UK’s most fearless, unabashed choreographic voices. Flexer says this dance, premiered last year, was in content and style something of a warm-up for his Ten Men. Can’t say; didn’t see it. What I do know is that it was the one piece on the bill that mattered to me. Why? Because of its breakneck energy, ironic vulgarity and voracious vitality, and an unapologetic, almost desperate yet liberating desire to hit us between the eyes, in the heart, the gut or lower down and, when possible, all at once.

Even at its most obvious, or when making a bee-line for cheap laughs, Charnock’s material retains a disarming potency. Dressed (by Murray again) like schoolgirls in black shorts, white shirts and ties, mapdance’s members were finally allowed to go ape to a soundtrack that hopped (but not carelessly) from girl-group classics to classical music (Bach, Mozart) and back again to pop. In a headlong display the dancers sniffed, licked, leapt, screamed, gurned and gorged their way through a deliberately rough, messy layering of mime and movement that could be accused of flaunting a slightly warped, goofy yet right-on feminist viewpoint. Sometimes they channelled the crude, brute behaviour of exaggerated male stereotypes, but they also incarnated the latter’s abused victims as when jerking, slapping and falling about to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. Similarly, a fragment of Goffin and King’s He hit me and it felt like a kiss was no throwaway musical choice. (Recorded by The Crystals in 1962, this overlooked gem still packs a punch in terms of gender politics.) The theme of ‘hold me, slug me but, dammit, notice me’ spilled over into duets set to baroque music, while Amy Winehouse’s rendering of To Know Him Is To Love Him had a poignant undertow especially in light of her (and Charnock’s) premature death.

XX climaxes by segueing from a passionate gestural interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnet My love is as a fever into an ecstatic free-for-all to the frantic rhythms of Elvis Presley’s Bossa Nova Baby. Would I have valued this dance, which is at times a tad choreographically blunt, as much if Charnock were still alive? Maybe, maybe not; certainly on this programme it was a welcome relief. Anyway, whether or not it’s vintage Charnock, it’s an invaluable reminder of how keenly he’s missed. You can catch mapdance in XX as part of Greenwich Dance’s 20th Birthday Cabaret on Friday 17 May.

More on mapdance


Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites

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