The Place

Cindy Claes shifts boundaries in dance theatre

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.

MCDC’s ‘Riah’ at Resolution 2017

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.


‘Riah’ in full flight. Photography by Charlotte Levy Photography

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.

Behind Every Man at Resolution 2016

The gender (in)equality debate in dance has been heating up as of late, and it seemed appropriate for choreographer Lee Griffiths to add to the dialogue. Behind Every Man, performed at The Place by The Company on January 23, hoped to do just that.

“It’s an issue that you have created! We’ve created! Feminist. Pro women. Strong women. All women. No women. One woman. One man. All men. Strong men. JUST men or Just WOMAN.”