Review: Triple Bill for ages 8 - 12 - Unicorn Theatre

Performance: 28 & 29 October 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 3 November 2014

Sébastien Ramirez & Honji Wang. Photo: Nika Kramer

For the first time this year the annual Dance Umbrella festival showcased work specifically for children, including this challenging Triple Bill at the Unicorn Theatre, one of the most innovative and exciting venues for children’s theatre in London. The bill was meant to be exclusively for children aged 8 to 12 years old; no grown-ups allowed. So my youngster and I had to catch the one matinee performance at which adults were admitted. The pieces were introduced and talk-back sessions in between the performances facilitated by The Place’s Peter Laycock. An excellent compere who I have seen in action before with a young audience, Laycock is great at explaining, listening and moderating a productive discussion with kids. The comments were so colourful and astute that I was definitely wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at one of the kids-only shows.

The choreographers pulled no punches with these works, and all three of the pieces seemed to abstractly address the themes of social hostility, exclusion and even violence that can be a part of growing up. It was nice to see young people confronted with dance that could have easily been presented for an adult crowd and the comments they made were evidence that they were up to the challenge.

Wayne McGregor’s offering was in fact an excerpt from his piece FAR, made for a mainstream audience and abridged especially for this performance. Second on the bill and the biggest name among the three choreographers, it was the most elaborately produced but thinnest in terms of content beyond showy video game-esque aesthetics. A pulsing wall of lights mirrored the sleek undulating insectoid and intermittently classical modern forms of McGregor’s Random Dance company, and there was a sex-infused animalistic quality throughout that gave it a slick commercial feel. In the discussion the kids picked up on the fact that the dancers weren’t wearing much (my own kid’s only comment was that he could see all their bottoms) and that “when the boys came out they were doing something to the girls, getting the girls” ; an older child commented that it was “violent” and then quickly qualified, “but in a good way.”

First up on the bill Hege Haagenrud’s How to be Alone was the only work that was obviously made for young people. Three female dancers in tops with animal heads printed on them, pushed and shoved each other amid a forest of hanging light bulbs. There was a ‘you’re-not-my-friend’ quality to their swiftly changing alliances and snubs, but also a nod to the intensely felt love that characterises juvenile friendship; a girl put one of the dangling bulbs down the front of her top so it shone through the fabric like a glowing heart; they chewed gum with lip-smacking camaraderie, and watched each other intently throughout with suspicious but desirous looks, always wanting to be a part of the game, but ever wary of rejection. Haagenrud’s forthrightly abstracted, moody and playful work clearly spoke to the audience. Many of them spotted the theme of bullying and one picked up on the “disguises” the girls wore to try to fit in with the group; a mum in the audience commented that the dancers reminded her of the squabbles between her own three girls.

A hip hop duet AP15 by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang, rounded off the bill. My boy asked if Ramirez was “trying to be sneaky” as he slunk across the back of the stage behind Wang, all robotic twitches and stealthy slides. Once they finally confronted each other their relationship became a complicated dialogue of rapid exchanges and wounded retreats, full of sharp, often physical attacks; Ramirez ran full tilt and leaped at Wong’s neck, clotheslining her with his leg into a fierce backbend. Other moments seemed like skittering, tentative romantic proposals or the more standard cocky posturing of b-boying street dance. We didn’t get comments from the children after this final piece but they went wild with genuinely hearty applause and cheers, an obviously ringing endorsement.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2014

Photo: Sébastien Ramirez & Honji Wang by Nika Kramer

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College. Find him on Twitter @jeffreyGordonB

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