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I journeyed to Resolutions at The Place last Tuesday (24 Jan) with a main focus on attentively watching MCDC’s’ Riah, and writing a review. Yet what I saw from Cindy Claes‘ Things Aren’t Always Black or White was too poignant to ignore, or reference in a paragraph or two.
Where to begin? This piece of dance theatre is the most thought-provoking, bold, boundary-pushing production I’ve seen since Lee Griffiths’ Behind Every Man (ironically at Resolution 2016). Ambitious in its narrative, Things Aren’t Always Black or White is an amalgamation of styles, brought alive through poetry; that tells the story of mass incarceration in the US. A 25 minute solo piece that both satisfied and frustrated many thoughts that popped up as it unfolded.
Is this Hip Hop Dance Theatre? Claes has an unbelievable mastery of the Popping and Waving techniques under the Hip Hop Dance umbrella. Her intricate power and control reminded me of Dickson Mbi’s untiltled solo at the Just Us Dance Theatre platform, also taking place in the very same building. Precise pops and contractions melting into fluid waves – the body roll a serious weapon of hers.
Yet there were glimpses of other styles, most notably Dancehall. This was the first time I witnessed Dancehall on a theatrical stage, with no attempt to have its usual light-hearted or upbeat vibe. It became an instrument to portray dark and sombre stories; and this was both a joy to watch and really uncomfortable to witness.
Is it then Dancehall theatre? Most likely. With a history already behind it, the concept has been on stage several times – with Claes attempting to define what it is (and teaching me a lot in the process).
I realised something. An idea of what dance theatre and Hip Hop dance theatre should look like had buried itself deep in my consciousness. If it’s not pure Hip Hop like that of Jonzi D or Boy Blue Entertainment or Zoonation’s long history of theatrical pieces, then it must be those who borrow from styles who have had a home in theatre for many decades. Think Contemporary, Lyrical, Ballet, or Tap appearing in the new generation of Hip Hop dance theatre makers – Botis Seva, Ella Mesma, Lee Griffiths, Joseph Toonga et. al.
Here before our eyes was one woman, doing something truly new and unexpected – a marriage between Dancehall theatre and Hip Hop Dance theatre. There was a light bulb moment. A refreshing witnessing of the new.
Using her own powerful text to tell stories, most notably that of Sandra Bland – an activist who died in police custody after being arrested in July 2015 for a minor driving offence – Claes appeared to have overcome the issue that always presents itself in these instances. Poetry being overpowered by movement or being a distraction from the movement. Claes transitioned from monologues to sectioned solos, using a blend of piano music and distinct hip hop inspired songs, with beats and rhythms her body followed tirelessly.
Yet something was missing. Perhaps it was the ratio of choreography to freestyle – skewed in favour of freestyle. But that did not take away from the narrative or the execution of the moves. Perhaps it was the length of the three stories, framed by three rectangular lights on stage. “With careful edits, Claes could have a piece of dance theatre as powerful as its subject matter,” said Eren Whitcroft in her review. But it could become even more powerful, as the fervent performance received a standing ovation. Described as “beautiful and sincere”, “sophisticated” and “phenomenal” by audience members.
Things Aren’t Always Black or White was a reassuring piece of theatre. Reassuring because of its acknowledgment of the roots of Hip Hop – music and dance. A tool for socio-political commentary of society in turbulent times.
Hip Hop. Dancehall. Spoken Word poetry. All on one dark stage. On one body. It was revitalising. Cindy Claes is revitalising.
I must confess. I approached this evening with a dormant bias towards MCDC’s (Michaela Cisarikova Dance Company) piece Riah. Having witnessed its birth at a triple bill in Longfield Hall last year, I was mesmerised by the great concept impressively envisioned on stage. It was new, it was raw, and it was ambitious.
‘Riah creates a world in which a person’s hair stores all their memories. Imagine having the ability to look at a single hair and view the memory attached, or pull that hair out and erase the memory for good.’
“I liked the image of hair, it’s very visual and dynamic,” Michaela Cisarikova told me last week. “There was a brief for an application to create something on the theme of memory, and that was the point where I started to cross the two together.” And that imagery was very clear on stage. Cecilia Berghäll, as Riah, dons a long chiffon scarf on her head, with flowing strands symbolising hair. The opening imagery is of her planted in a headstand under a spotlight. The other eight dancers converged around her, representing memories in beautiful white-laced black costumes, each tugging at the strands and interweaving through space in groups.
I’m always intrigued by how dancers translate their choreographer’s movements. Having seen MCDC’s dancers last year, and also working with Cisarikova individually (she was invited to showcase a solo extract performance of A Love Story at an event I curated), I became more aware of the techniques and execution behind her movements. As the dancers, sat in a line along the strands of hair, began a staccato like phrase – vibrating and freezing – I could only picture Cisarikova popping (Hip Hop dance technique) during A Love Story. A vibrant texture of movement that I felt, in comparison, was not truly emulated by her dancers. A minute distinction with a big impact.
Cisarikova spoke of a harmonious creative process when we first met last year. She “encourages her dancers to share their individual techniques and practices” in order to reach a “collaborative and versatile creative process”. Perhaps this is merely a different translation on different bodies. Regardless, there was something missing.
Graham Watts remarked that the “movement quality of choreography” was “in need of an edit”, and I must agree. Cisarikova’s Riah was a large scale production, and with that comes the troubles of synchronicity and the definition of movements. The choreography was lost in large ensembles, losing power at times or moves left unfinished in the rush to reach the next count. The ‘what’s-next?’ phenomenon.
But I must always return to this dormant bias. As what drove me to admire Riah was augmented – the full exploration of the concept.
This production transformed into a very cohesive narrative of a girl battling with her memories (the heavily bearded Nick Harman heralded the main role last year, making for an abstract piece). What we witnessed was the highs and lows of this character, with an underlying playfulness present throughout – well portrayed by Berghäll. We saw Riah flinging her hair playfully side to side, and the memories (dancers) after following the same pattern, transformed into a conflict under an aggressive techno-like score. It was as if the memories were battling for dominance; to be focal in the protagonists’ mind.
There was also an air of confusion. Highlighting this was a moment where Riah, facing two memories in a reverse ‘V’ formation, began a series of different interactions. Wearing a smile, she would lead a phrase which one memory would replicate in sync, and wearing a disorientating sadness, would follow a phrase led by the other memory. Gone is the blanket playfulness, and in comes individuality in the memories; showing the struggle of being in control and being controlled.
Imagery was Riah‘s strength. There’s a recurring intricate unwinding of the hands in a loop, as if untangling hair, that not only is created by the hands, but a certain hollowness in the chest, creating a hunchback-like figure. My last review described a certain moment as the peak of Riah. And so it remained. A visceral showing of the individual memories, after being plucked, coming to life in beautiful flowing yet rigid movements, encircled by strands of fabric – now fluorescent under a blackout. Riah, wielding a flashlight, explored each memory as if attempting to reconcile with them. Perhaps with an element of regret after the aggressive plucking of hair. A want to remember.
Riah has grown. Undoubtedly. No longer just an abstract piece, but a neat, complete, narrative driven production. Perhaps losing its edge at times, with the need to be a piece of dance theatre – substituting its former visceral nature for a more beautiful and elegant one (though elements of the visceral remained).
What Riah is, however, is a new and re-birthed imagination of an old idea; deserving its own acclamation. A roller-coaster of rediscovery – through red aggression and blue hues – and a coming at peace with a turbulent mind and memories.
Quite the long winded title, but the focus of this news round-up in July is that of a particular dance critic doing something odd yet very forward-thinking.
Dance critic Donald Hutera presented “The Women GOLive” festival in Oxford over four days (July 13 – July 16) – a dance festival to showcase women of the dance industry.
The festival featured artists of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and experiences, including Oxford’s Cecilia Macfarlane, Ana Barbour, Anja Meinhardt and Susie Crow, as well as international names such as Ffin Dance, Maria Vivas and Arunima Kumar.
The Oxford Times quotes it as being “an enormous undertaking”, with reviewer Emily May praising the venture. She said: “Even after only viewing one evening of Women GOLive festival, one can only conclude that it is a platform that defies categorisation. Hutera’s selection of contrasting works, incorporating different disciplines makes for an intriguing showcase of talent that has been neglected by the mainstream arts scene.” – Read the full review here.
There is an obvious lack of coverage in mainstream publications surrounding the gender equality debate in the arts. From conversations with dance critic Luke Jennings, we identified that there is an imbalance in mainstream media in regards to female choreographers’ coverage.
He said at the time: “What that reflects is not any bias on behalf of the press, it simply reflects the fact that more male choreography is happening at a National press coverage level. You can’t just ignore the best work and the most important work in favour of obscure work in order to correct a gender imbalance. Because that’s not doing your job as a critic or a journalist.”
That point still remains sadly true. Even recent big hitter events The Bench and Big Dance QT failed to be covered and reported by large scale mainstream media publications – with The Stage arguably being the exception.
So should journalists and critics take matters into their own hands? As Donald Hutera’s Women GOlive attempts? Perhaps it’s simpler than curating festivals and shows. Looking beyond the headliners of main buildings showcasing work is a start. Looking outside the box, towards independent artists as well as companies. It’s worth a ponder. A movement only gains (and keeps) momentum if enough people know about it outside the concentrated bubble of activists and artists.
“Where are the female choreographers?” The age old question resurfaces, this time on the lips of the Royal Academy of Dance.
Taking responsibility as a leading building in the industry, RAD began a choreography project aimed at “the next generation of leading female choreographers”, aged between 13-22 years.
At this time, it appears to have been a one off event, but signs suggest the project could become a frequent endeavour. Here’s to hoping more buildings take on the task!
Update from last month’s Big Dance Question Time post:
Six action points from the event were identified:
Implement strategic equality quotas with Boards, funders, Associate Artists and artistic programmes
Diversify programming teams to ensure programming of strong diverse work.
Lobby trade organisations and industry stakeholders, raising the issue of gender inequality wherever possible
Provide continued support for women artists through increasing profile, mentoring and networks
Individuals in a position of influence to ‘cheerlead’ the cause for equality via selection panels, Boards, advisory bodies and networks they may be part of
The mantra that emerged for women in dance was ‘Do it yourself, but don’t do it alone’
Plans to execute these action points include a meeting with the Mayor’s Office and One Dance UK over the coming month, stay up to date with the developments via Dance Umbrella’s mailing list here.
A diverse cast of people converged on London’s City Hall on July 6 to partake in Dance Umbrella and Big Dance’s gender debate. (more…)
It’s that time once again and it’s been a bit of a quiet month. But it looks like the beacon has been passed onto Dance Umbrella to continue what seems to be the most active year for the gender inequality debate.
Man Up. A saying itself quite charged with issues of gender prejudice. Though I suspect it was chosen for that very same reason.
Dance Umbrella is introducing yet another debate on the topic – Man Up: The Gender of Choreography. Is it time for quotas? (more…)