Review: The Experiment - Female Choreographers Collective - Laban Theatre

Performance: 23 April 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Monday 29 April 2013

The Female Choreographers Collective (generic image)

What’s matters most, the dance itself or knowing the gender of whoever created it? And after acquiring this knowledge, what assumptions do we make about what we choose to see or how we then perceive it? These are the some of the issues underlying The Female Choreographers Collective, an organisation formed last autumn ‘to promote, support and build the profile of female choreographers in the UK.’ Holly Noble says the initiative has already attracted over 450 individuals who, like her and FCC co-founder Jane Coulston, are ‘in the pursuit of equal representation in the arts.’

The FCC’s debut project The Experiment is a bit of a socio-cultural game. The novel gist of this one-off evening was the presentation of six short dance pieces unmoored from the names and genders of any of the choreographers. It’s a literally half-baked concept in that any conclusions to be drawn from the questionnaires filled out by audience members both before and during the show won’t be made public for a few months yet. (Noble and Coulston aim to repeat the entire process in a number of other UK cities.)

I’m not about to second-guess the fruits of the FCC’s eventual findings, nor do I care to wade into current gender politics as a means of evaluating how well they’re framing the debate in dance. (Suffice to say that applying analysis based on a male/female binary, as seemed to be the case here, could be construed as immediately reductive.) Ultimately I can only respond to what I saw: a mixed bag of dances by a group of choreographers who’d fall into the ‘emerging’ category. It may have been (mildly) interesting to be completely in the dark about the makers’ identities but, now that I know (all credits are now posted on the FCC website), I doubt that it significantly alters my take on any single dance’s efficacy.

I would’ve likely pegged Cindy Claes’ curtain-raiser Is my whining winding you up? as the work of a woman even if I hadn’t remembered the piece was recently shown at Rich Mix. The giveaway was as much the subject matter as how it was handled. As voluble, coffee-guzzling mates Claes and fellow performers Andrea Queens and Natalie Bailey used text (including initially fragmentary references to fathers, boyfriends or sons) and Jamaican dancehall moves to underline swathes of gender disparity. The result was sometimes theatrically naive but marked by a would-be comic vitality that might’ve come across more effectively in a less conventional and distancing setting. What was most intriguing was less the feminist content than the rowdy, jiggy and undulant dance accompanying it.

Alfie Smith’s The Hanging was a swift mini-drama for bare-chested lads in tight jeans, but youthful eye-candy was hardly the point. In high-flown, stylised fashion six young men ganged up on a seventh, forcing him into making a fatal decision. Something about the way the male-on-male violence was handled suggested the hand of a same-sex choreographer, but if I’d gotten it wrong would it have mattered?

That’s what happened with Behind the Smoke. I incorrectly wagered that this duet was made by a woman. Was it because it was about a relationship, or more that I didn’t really bother to deeply ponder something that felt pretty immaterial to me? In any case, Travis Knight (cited as choreographer) and Natalie O’Brien stripped down to flesh-coloured underwear and each proceeded to measure, trace and ‘discover’ the other. These attractive dancers acquitted themselves nicely in a semi-abstract study of tactile intimacy that was so careful about not coming to any conclusions that it ended up a tad bland. Still, there was some subtle skill here. (Here’s a question not intended to pick on Knight but, rather, to remind myself that we’re in an age when dance-makers sometimes credit dancers as co-devisers: what did O’Brien contribute to this work, and how do such considerations muddy discussion of a gender divide?)

For me the night’s highlight was Man Down. Topped and tailed by a voice-over that instantly apprised us of the thematic territory (soldiering in Afghanistan), John Ross performed this powerfully pacifist solo with the sort of controlled passion that more than hinted that the dancer himself was responsible for it (ditto the excellent soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails amid a stream of buzzes, throbs and half-heard male vocal commands). Ross’ core kinetic language – slides and brief knee spirals, rolls, leaps, lobs and intense looks, plus urgent, precise hand signals and a simple, to-die-for backbend – betokened combat without ever losing track of dance. Man Down may seem small-scale, but it has sufficient scope and maturity to warrant another viewing. To his credit, Ross conveyed clearly and strongly the sickening drama of war.

After that everything else seemed anticlimactic. Having said that, I didn’t mind Wrecking Ball Dance Company’s Even the Devil has Demons. Fuelled by a head-bobbing score featuring tracks by Kasabian, Primal Scream and The Chemical Brothers, it had drive. Choreographer Caitlin Barnett was one of five dancers shifting between contrapuntal patterns and unison, all in a contemporary/street dance style constructed round the physicalisation of monstrousness. The performance needed more atmosphere and a shot or two of real danger; like some horror films, it tipped over into silliness underlined by a weirdly slithery, pseudo-sexy passage about two-thirds of the way through.

That Yuyu Rau and Elena Zaino choreographed themselves in Invisible Presence was something of a no-brainer – yet another indication that The Experiment was, in large part, as much of a standard showcase for young talent as something more cogent or telling. Initially shrouded in dry ice and silhouetted in bright light beamed downstage, Rau and Zaino spun, undulated and twitched round each other to a soundtrack of chords, buzzes, clicks and birdsong. Adept movers, yes, but the work wasn’t distinctive enough to stop my attention from drifting.

Although it was a middling programme, I’m not sorry The Experiment happened as it can instigate food for thought and discourse. I’m also glad the FCC exists as a platform that will, with any luck, help widen the playing field. But when it comes to increasing opportunities for female choreographers, is it the industry gatekeepers – producers, presenters, programmers – who need more prodding or the artists themselves? Discuss.

More about The Experiement on The Female Choreographers Collective site

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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