Review: Commissioned Works

Apologies everyone, it’s been a long time since you heard from the headtail connection. I have a number of new posts in process: a summary of the response to my last post, a review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference in Athens, a look at a recent dance and disability case to name but a few… but it seems apt that I should start off by putting my money where my mouth was, and reviewing the graduating year at TrinityLaban in their program of newly commissioned works.

Lea Anderson opens the show with FLICK – a danced reconstruction of four works for film. As always Anderson manages to be bang on trend without ever resorting to the ennui of stereotype: her lime-green androgynes dance themselves and the camera, panning, tilting and layering through club dance and the American moderns. Long-term collaborator Steve Blake plunges us deep into electronica, and the dancers rise to the beat in dynamic and geometric unison. A rather abrupt ending leaves us guessing, rather than satisfied.

From behind the camera a people’s yell of “TAKE RESPONSIBILITY” begins Matthias Sperling’s new work: 17 Manifestos Manifested. Proposed as a graduation celebration come life-plan, from the audience it looks like a savvy expression of political illegibility. Manifestos cross and overlap, some realised with delightful literality, some obscured in the abstract of post-modern improvisation. Ingvild Marstein lies splayed on the floor giving love to the environment, while around her dancers attempt to “call your mum,” “make art with responsibility,” and “be patient.” It’s a great and funny game, although the point is somewhat lost when it all resolves into harmonious unison in defiance of real-world experience. Hope for the future maybe?

Stephanie Schober adds to the playful atmosphere of the first half, with getting-to-know you games, acrobatics and flying sheets of paper. At its best, the work has an easy legibility of movement and rhythm, although to my mind it itches for a gallery transplant and time to really explore itself. Schober deserves credit for her easy handling of such a large cast, drawing on the creative potential of hiding and revealing, while giving us plenty of new ideas to mess around with.

Pools of light and stillness characterise Charles Linehan’s work, and A Quarter Plus Green is no exception. Among the five works featured this one alone “does” gender: male and female bodies falling into partnered pairs just too often for coincidence, but is noticeable only because no-one else tonight is doing it. Pairs overlap, shift and merge, the dancers twisting, falling and never quite coming to an accommodation with themselves or each other. Strange shapes tease from just outside the light, and while the dancing is mature and sophisticated, it makes an uneasy conclusion as a night as a whole…

…Which is why I’m finishing my review with Forest for Little Man: Homage to Tarkovsky by Marie-Gabrielle Roti, for me the stand-out work of the evening. Rotie’s work draws on Butoh practices, and the dancers show tremendous commitment to the unfamiliar aesthetic demands. The work shifts geologically, and you are in constant dancer of losing yourself in one moment while others evolve unseen around you. Lighting by Genevieve Giron adds another layer of art to this dream of a landscape landscape. The first sweep of the dancers to a tremulous forest is breathtaking; the slow fade upstage will break your heart. The final tableau shivers and strives without coming to rest, but finally providing the ending I’ve been looking for all night… and as the curtain comes down I remember to breathe again.

I’m tempted to look at the whole night as a reflection on the state of British dance, but more importantly I want to congratulate this year’s graduates, who can look back on their achievements and greet the professional world with pride. They’ve got style, they’ve got moves, they’ve got commitment and they know how to move you and how to rock. Their dance is big, it’s open, it’s generous, it’s artistic… and despite my love of closure, it’s definitely not done.

Commissioned Works runs tonight at the Bonnie Bird Theatre in Greenwich. More information and tickets at: http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/whats-on/dance-events/dance-showcases-0

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A Rebuttal

As this post is currently averaging 100 readers an hour, I would like to add that this article represents solely my own views, and not those of TrinityLaban or any other institution.

 

I remember the day I finally lost my temper with “named” company auditions. It was the day I saw this: “Candidates selected for the second round of the audition will be expected to spend the subsequent week in rehearsal with the company, following which a final selection will be made.” Think about that for a minute…. So I can only audition for you if I can take a week off of work without notice? How many dancers do you think that’s actually feasible for? Or rather, what kind of financial support system do you need in place to even go to that kind of audition?

A similarly appalling lack of empathy for the practicalities of the non-celebrity dance world was displayed yesterday, when three major choreographers got together to slam the quality of UK dance training. Hofesh Shechter, Lloyd Newson and Akram Khan publicly announced their ongoing disappointment in the rigour and technique of dancers emerging from England’s three top contemporary dance schools.

But…. Hofesh Shechter isn’t looking for recent graduates…. Neither is Akram Khan. Lloyd Newson would famously prefer you to have a northern accent than for you to have had any kind of dance training whatsoever…. So really, are these the guys we want to be listening to about UK dance education? The guy who, for example, decided that his apprenticeship for graduating students required them to leave their degree two months before completion?

The triumvate compare TrinityLaban, Northern and The Place unfavourably to P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, as well as to contemporary conservatoires in the United States. What they seem to have forgotten is that this is a comparison of apples and oranges: the MAJOR difference between these UK training schools and those in other countries (especially those stateside)… money. The UK programs are government funded, and you don’t have to pay private tuition fees to get in.

I’ll speak to TrinityLaban, because I was a student there in the past and I teach there now. I got through Laban with no financial support other than a UK government student loan, which covered my tuition, housing and expenses (with the help of a weekend job). While I was going through my degree, they lost nearly three quarters of their government funding. Three quarters. And they’re STILL providing a world-renowned education for nearly 100 students a year. Now, living in the US, I can walk into pretty much any contemporary dance audition I choose on the strength of where I trained. Undergraduates in colleges over here are thrilled to bits to come to Laban as foreign exchange students – and so they should be!

Being a government-funded program means your curriculum must be validated by an external university, which means you have to divide your time in a particular way, and use your money to certain ends. A macrobiotic lunch provided every day – as they do at P.A.R.T.S. – is simply not in the budget. Two dance classes a day, however, with internationally recognized professionals, a substantial theoretical program, movement analysis, opportunities to choreograph and to dance in rep. by Rosemary Butcher, Wayne McGregor, Martha Graham, Richard Alston, Jose Limon and others… that we can do.

And think about who we’re doing it FOR. I argue that the student population at Laban is more diverse than that of all three of those other dance companies combined (ish). They don’t have an age limit. They don’t weigh you. They don’t require you to have had a particular kind of private training. In fact if the big three got anything right it’s the fact that early dance education in the UK is patchy, and poorly funded. But we’re taking in students from community dance programs, BTECHs, hip-hop, after school ballet… and turning out internationally successful artists.

Because we are turning out internationally successful artists. Maybe not the kind who go to one company, and are one kind of dancer for the rest of their careers, because in the contemporary financial climate that kind of career is simply not an option for the vast number of recent graduates, and to train only for that kind of platform would be an exercise in futility. There are not enough companies available who have the funding and jobs for the number of dancers graduating each year, and pretending otherwise is to fail as educators.

But our graduates are in those companies. And they’re independently funded choreographers. And they’re photographers. Teachers. Therapists. Physical Therapists. Company Mangers. And again and again and again they’re dancers. The kind of dancers they want to be.

Take me, for example. By the end of my first year out of Laban, I was paying my rent and bills from freelance dance work. I was a qualified Labanotator, so I could (and did) restage repertoire for other companies. I was a university lecturer in dance by the time I was 23. I’ve presented at international conferences and been paid to dance in more countries than I have fingers. This is the success that TrinityLaban trained me for.

I’m angry with what was said about dance training yesterday. Not least because I have to introduce my students to the work of those choreographers. And one quick google will teach them that they’re not wanted. That they’re not good enough. That three big names with no investment in the higher education system have decided in a blanket statement that the UK is doing it wrong. Is dance really only for the rich kids, who can afford to pay for private schools and leave without a degree?

Perhaps before we listen too seriously, we can pay attention to the teachers, educators, and leaders of dance education who can give a more rational perspective on the matter. Who have consistently demonstrated a commitment to the employability and success of UK dance graduates. What about letting the students have a voice in talking about what they need?

Because when choreographers this important think it’s ok to pull a stunt like this… things need to change.

 

 

 

Edit: I have been asked to clarify that this post was not intended at a critique of P.A.R.T.S., which also produces phenomenal dancers, and makes every effort to award scholarships.

Events between a place and candy: Two reviews of spring in New York

“Event,” Robert Swinston and Compagnie CNDC Angers

It begins with a ripple of silk. Thirty or so panels in white, brown, pink yellow and red tossed out into the air as if an unseen dancer had suddenly run behind.

Perhaps, in that moment, much of what needs to be said about Merce Cunningham’s work has already been said: elegant, random, playful and vivid – evocation without signification. And the dance is just beginning.

Initially I was wary of Robert Swinston’s Event at the Joyce, a combine of various Cunningham repertory works on the Compagnie CNDC-Angers, or at least I went with my reconstructionist head on and a lot of questions to ask. What was he trying to do? Was this a Merce Cunningham work or a Robert Swinston? To what extent would he play on the (to my mind) very particular performance circumstances implied in the combination of “Cunningham” and “Event” in the same program?

The silk, to some extent, put my mind at rest, as did the sumptuous score emanating from John King and Gelsey Bell, tucked into the bottom left corner of the auditorium. The music existed, a crystalline thing of its own, creating synchronous moments with the movement of the stage and yet never narrating, or making the textual experience overly rich. And still, the dance is just beginning.

The eight dancers slowly form a diagonal line across the stage, rising to demi-point as they join hands to arrive en tableau. The opening of the piece says “duets” perhaps too loudly for my taste – with an emphasis on paired relationships and partnering, and more than a passing focus on centre stage. Several sequences are screamingly slow, while others sneak into virtuosity even as you admire the ease of their flow.

But over time, everything relaxes. Solos and group sections flourish in counterpoint, the technique and the dance settle more softly into each other. This is the repertoire of Cunningham’s I best enjoy: the play within the smaller things, the trio with linked arms who gallop and jump in parallel around the space like children, without at all becoming childish. I am particularly drawn to Flora Rogeboz, whose timing has both a softness and a surety, and who cannot help but smile as she yet again arrives to make the connection to her partner just so.

It is not an uncommon practice to take sections of Cunningham pieces and make of them something other, the wonderful Bride and the Batchelor’s exhibition played on a similar theme in London’s Barbican, but Event succeeds uniquely in being a work, and the works, and the work simultaneously. It is watchable in and of itself; to those in on the joke the individual pieces of repertoire come smiling to the light; the whole reassures you that the project of Cunningham, and Swinston, is out there, alive and well.

The silk panels by Jackie Matisse blow over Anna Chirescu in a delightfully unchoreographed moment of interaction. The dancers fill the space, prehensile feet flicking the floor, grasping it to bounce rhythmically in fourth position, the lights go out… and yet the dance is just beginning?

“between a place and candy: new works in pattern + repetition + motif.” Is a new exhibition at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar. The title comes from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who sought in her prose to “articulate a conscious presence where writing recreates itself anew in each successive moment.” …I must confess that for weeks I have been calling the exhibit “between my brain and candy,” so I excited was I by the number of elements in the event description that promised to render the experience absolutely delicious.

I was not disappointed. While individually distinctive, each work deeply explores some facet of pattern, repetition and/or motif, bringing an harmonious sense of curiosity to the collection. Resonant is the impression that pattern is both natural and human, micro and macrocosmic, its investigation fruitful, rich and yet strikingly simple. Mary Judge’s Bacio takes inspiration from decorative architectural motifs to bring us geometric flowers with the aged patina of stone, while Kerry Law’s Empire State Building Series draws back and watches a single building over time, using the stability of architectural repetition to track an ever-changing perception of the New York sky.

Many of the pieces have a vibrant kinetic energy, frequently through the play of optical illusion: the simplest of patterns, such as Joan Witek’s Massai confounding our mind’s attempt to render them static and comprehensible. Meanwhile the work that is most conceptually movement-oriented, Julia Gleich’s Combinatorics: a study of infinite or countable discrete structures becomes a meditative contemplation of atomic space, and the variation in cellular replication: a dancer’s feet tracing pathways like electrons around a nucleus, the gesture at once always the same and yet never duplicated.

I was gratified to see textiles emerging as a theme within the selection of works. While obviously generative, practices of knitting, weaving etc have only recently begun to be deemed creative, and their inclusion in several pieces added another layer of repetition to the overall design. Fiber arts, with their cultural link to the feminine, offer a hint of transgression to fine art practices, a challenge to the hierarchy of the traditional gallery; in this exhibition we do not forget that the canvas itself is an act of pattern.

The public opening of “between a place and candy” was bustling, making it hard to get as up-close and personal with some of the works as I’d have liked. My personal favourite, Libby Hartle’s Untitled #21 (Arrow) requires a close in viewing to truly appreciate the finesse with which graphite shading has been applied to create the concentric diamonds of the collage – I urge the viewer to take the time to find the units of the pattern, and consider them as individuals even as each work is enjoyed as a whole. In my mind the gallery becomes a living dialogue with the artworks: people stepping in and away, moving on to repeat the motif, recreating the experience of the works anew in each moment of changing space, between this place and candy.

Exhibition runs through June 12th 2015 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery

A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.

Example:

Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.

Example:

Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.

Example:

Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.

Example:

….

From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

Improvisation and Vernomenology.

Improvisation is a key component of Practice as Research. Improvising allows the body to explore creative habits, to discover new ones, to juggle around an idea until some understanding of it is reached within your kinaesthetic intelligence. I am totally fine with all these pieces of information.

In fact, I love improvisation! In my work with Rosemary Butcher I would improvise with deep and particular focus on a given stimulus for up to half an hour without pause, and I would be as happy as a clam. I’m a blues dancer, which is social dance form relying entirely on improvisation, and a good contact improv jam is one of the happiest places for me to put my body.

But I’m also an improvised talker, and that’s where Practice as Research begins to have a problem with me.

Vida Midgelow talks about Practice as Research as a process of liquid knowing: knowing built on a foundation of experience that runs through your whole physical system, without needing conscious cerebral processing; as if the verbal brain were a pot-holed by-road through a washed-out ex-industrial (and horribly over-hyphenated) town, which you could avoid simply by taking the physical super-highway.

I agree with her about so many, so many things! That life is a constantly improvised process! That knowledge is emergent! That immediate, instinctive knowing draws on and bounces off the world and keeps on learning as it goes – the idea is glorious! …But then she explains that “Coming to language is a significant process,” (versus the simplicity of improvised movement), and I wonder why it has to be that way.

You, and I, have a liquid brain.

That is, the knowledge we hold verbally is based on the whole-body experience of our improvised lives, and we should not under-privilege* the capabilities of that expression. A great deal of care is taken in academia to be careful with our words: to treat them as if they were all automatically conclusions, whereas in fact they are as ephemeral as dancing. In the era of technology this is doubly the case: I wrote the introduction to this article three times before I started, all of it denied to you with a swift brush of ctrl+z. Yes publication, yes transcription, yes digital archiving, but those are the outcomes, not the production of emergent linguistic knowledge.

To borrow a phrase from Candace Feck, language is “shaped at the point of utterance.” We have poetic and artistic forms dedicated to the idea that improvisation can occur at the end of a pen; and yet I feel like I struggle to find a place for that which occurs between lips and tongue in the scholarly world. To phrase this in terms of multiple intelligences, I am a discursive thinker who needs words to play in the space before I choreograph them into any kind of structure in my head.

So, practice as research, I’m totally with you on the subject on the subject of knowledge produced via improvisation… how do you feel about the knowledge that words can dance?

 

 

 

*It’s unusual to claim that verbal expression is in a situation of being under-privileged. Written language certainly experiences a high degree of privilege in almost any environment, but lived-experience oral histories often do not. In the current climate of dance studies, physical knowledge often also enjoys privilege over that which can be expressed verbally. My thanks to Lucas Weismann for requesting this clarification.

A dance blog for the thinking body.