Hoochie Koochie – Trajal Harrell: Barbican Art Gallery, The Barbican, London, 23 July 2017

London is voguing

Pouching Tiger, Hidden Rag On. A solo from Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. Photo by Getty Images Europe

There’s a ballet by Alexander Ekman called Cacti that basically takes the piss out of critics trying to misguidedly pin meaning onto a choreographers intentions. I felt I was being sucked into the same trap with Trajal Harrell’s performance exhibition Hoochie Koochie at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Like many living choreographers Harrell talks (or writes) a good game. The white walls of the gallery are bedecked with literary paragraphs detailing context and inspiration, and they reference all the right names from the world of postmodern dance. As this is essentially a retrospective, that’s fair enough, you’d expect the equivalent if you went to a Duchamp exhibition.

Harrell’s primary focus is the world of voguing, a dance form that sprang out of the Harlem dance halls in the 1960s, and its relationship with the postmodern ideas of Judson Dance Theater who were simultaneously rejecting the existing practices and theory of Modern Dance. Although there are similarities between the two in the assertion that anyone can be a dancer, there are mostly huge contradictions, especially in the areas of glamour, camp and make-believe transformation. So many contradictions, in fact, that you wonder why Harrell continues to define his work against what Judson Dance Theater is not. It was 50 years ago, man, give it a rest.

The exhibition itself is cleverly laid out by giving each of the 14 works its own separate space. Sometimes just one performance is happening, at others, three or four across the gallery. It’s not a massive room, so everything’s easily accessible (sometimes you even find yourself accidentally walking into a performance) and the sound of a new piece of music is invariably the herald of another work starting elsewhere.

It’s the frenetic bursts of several things happening at once that are the most exciting; such as the rampant voguing of Let’s Get Sick scampering across the whole gallery while a statuesquely Grecian solo to P.J.Harvey hovers in one corner and the erotic tension of the yarn-linked The Untitled Still Life Collection unwinds in another.

Harell’s longer works don’t really survive his relatively limited choreographic expression – generally speaking, the ideas seem to be on the walls rather than in the movement – but the catwalk exuberance of In the Mood for Frankie was entertaining for a while. Hoochie Koochie is definitely something to take your brain along to, although whether that’s enough, I’m not sure.

Hoochie Koochie runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 August 2017. It only opens from Thursdays to Sundays though, so it’s worth checking the opening times on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Barbican, Trajal Harrell | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tanguera: Sadler’s Wells, 21 July 2017

Fight night

Suits you Señora. Tanguera, photo by Stefan Malzkorn

Most tango shows designed for the theatre operate on a fairly abstract basis. There’s usually an element of sleazy love but essentially they’re a long line of episodic dance sequences with no connection to each other. When you get a good one, it’s a fantastic experience.

Tanguera has been rolling around the world now for 15 years and takes the unusual step of following a narrative. It tells the story of Giselle, a beautiful young French girl emigrating to Argentina in the early 20th century who, within one minute of setting foot on shore, falls in love with a docker and then inexplicably walks off with a pimp.

It’s quite interesting for half an hour or so, as choreographer Mora Godoy uses the more aggressive aspects of tango to explore male manipulation of women in the dark underworld of prostitution. As the story progresses though, the characters don’t develop – the baddies remain cliché-ridden baddies and the goodies are irreproachable. Giselle at the end of the story is the same naïve angel she was when she arrived, despite the extreme violence and deprivation she’s been subjected to.

This may not have mattered if the dancing had been allowed to breathe. The performers were excellent – quick fast feet and a tremendous glide to their steps – but every time a duet was beginning to flourish it was interrupted by yet another fight scene. There were also about ten too many slow-motion sequences highlighting something important happening. And the ending is botched – I remain unsure whether they died or not.

Still, Valeria Ambrosio’s staging looks good, the costumes are just what you want and the (mostly hidden) band are terrific. There’s also a decent singer playing a character on stage, but she seems a bit random to a non-Spanish speaker like me – maybe she’s relating events? There’s some very good dancing to see, especially in the encores, but the overwhelming feeling at the end was one of frustration about what might have been.

Tanguera runs at Sadler’s Wells until 6 August 2017 and tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

ETM: Double Down – Dorrance Dance: Sadler’s Wells, 12 July 2017

Down at heel

What a seven-strong Wii team looks like. Dorrance Dance in ETM: Double Down. Photo by Hayim Heron

In some ways, it’s hard to fault Dorrance Dance’s show ETM: Double Down. The achingly hip New York-based tap dance company have seven outstanding tap dancers that provide an inexhaustible supply of beats, rhythm and joie-de-vivre. They’re joined by a couple of excellent musicians and an ingenious method of using feet to provide further music.

Traditionally, street tap dancers (or hoofers) use wooden soundboards to amplify the sound of their shoes. Dorrance Dance have taken this a step (ho,ho) forward by building lots of small trigger boards wired up to electronic software; whenever these highly mobile trigger boards are stepped on, they create musical notes and sounds. This means that the score is frequently being created by the choreography, and vice versa.

It’s very clever and full of inventive methods of presenting the art form, and yet, and yet. This may be a personal thing but beyond the technical brilliance of the dancers there’s very little else going on. Tap doesn’t emote a great deal; there’s little variation in the noises shoes produce and the cold electronic sounds of the trigger boards seemed to underline that fact.

Also, the sections that did capture my imagination, like the sparring session with the timbales players and the line of trigger boards lined up to look and sound like a piano, were invariably cut short, whereas the many improvisatory solos meandered on for what felt like an eternity.

In choreographic terms, the more thought-out approach of the ensemble routines worked best. Bizarrely though, despite its unparalleled connection to the music, the choreography often didn’t work in tandem with it. When a singer was introduced in the second half, smooching out slow, soulful melodies, the dancers were still going hell for leather in front of him.

There was also a hip-hop dancer boosting the ranks but she didn’t add a great deal to proceedings, popping up every now and again to show how many times she could twist her waist in the wrong direction. In a way, she kind of embodied ETM: Double Down; too many ideas being thrown at it, with nothing fully developed.

That all said, plenty of people in the audience loved it, so maybe tap is just not for me. I’ve seen a few tap shows now and not really enjoyed any of them so perhaps I should just admit defeat and add it to my ‘tried but failed’ list, right after Riverdance and flamenco. Hmm, I can see a pattern developing there – is there a word for a fear of noisy feet? Tippytappyphobia or something?

Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down runs at Sadler’s Wells until 15 July 2017. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Dorrance Dance, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coppelia – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol, England, 1 July 2017

All dolled up

Definitely worth booking. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Coppelia.

Peter Wright’s production of Coppélia for Birmingham Royal Ballet is a fine looking thing. Peter Farmer’s scenery and costumes are extremely attractive and the whole thing is put together with a breezy cohesion. And when you have someone of the calibre of Céline Gittens gliding around on stage in the lead role, you’re really on to a good thing.

She’s a naturally elegant ballerina with a poise and grandeur that’s hard to resist. Swanilda’s no princess, however, so would Gittens be able to pick out her earthier qualities? Sure she could. She was whimsical, funny and extremely dangerous when throwing books around. The act II robotics weren’t a problem either; in short, she was a joy to watch.

She was aided very well by Tyrone Singleton as her beloved Franz. He grasped the knockabout humour with ease, was an exasperating flirt and his dancing was cheeky when required but otherwise strong and powerful. Together, he and Gittens have a seamless rapport and their grand pas was terrific.

The other main character, Dr Coppélius, is a tricky one to pull off; often sleazy and invariably unlovable. Somehow, through a gentler interpretation perhaps, Michael O’Hare managed to make him fairly sympathetic; a figure of loneliness rather than a manipulator of naivety.

The last act has no story to speak of but instead features the extravaganza of classical dancing that is the Festival of the Bell. It was all danced well but special mention goes to the long-limbed Yijing Zhang’s beautiful Prayer, William Bracewell’s very impressive Call to Arms, and the corps’ for the pretty arrangements that opened the act. Furthermore, the orchestra, freed from the confines of a pit and almost sitting in the front row, sounded great. It was a very enjoyable night.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bristol Hippodrome | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MC 14/22 & Emergence – Scottish Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 10 June 2017

Corps blimey

Looked at from any angle, Crystal Pite’s Emergence is damned good

A double-bill of half-naked bodies. Angelin Preljocaj was the first to capitalise on the lack of budget for shirts, putting his 12 men in long black skirts instead. MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) is a bruising piece, full of uncompromising aggression and fierce fighting. Oppression and abuse of power appear to be at the heart of things and it makes for a hard watch.

Weaker individuals are consistently singled out by others and subjected to painful-looking beatings – the violence is extremely convincing and brilliantly choreographed. There’s also an interestingly blurred line between sensuality and brutality, and the section where everyone freezes regularly into angry ‘Last Supper’-type tableaux is brilliantly done. Yet, despite all this, and despite a terrific performance from the entire cast, MC 14/22’s episodic structure and heartless soundscape creates a heavily disjointed and empty feeling. That may be deliberate but it meant it was difficult to want to engage.

Crystal Pite’s Emergence had just as animalistic a premise and was also encased in a strange sound world, but the extraordinarily relentless spectacle made it a far more gripping watch. Manufactured for 30-odd dancers, small groups scurry away from the ant-like mass, limbs crackle and twitch, bodies contort and derange themselves. Quite how or why this community of nervous beasties operate is never clear but a sense of impending menace hovers loosely around.

Unbelievably good when working with large ensembles, one of the secrets to Pite’s eye-boggling choreography appears to lie in her attention to detail. For instance, there’s a short section where a large part of the cast are lying spread-eagled on the floor, twitching their fingers to insect-like clicks; it’s not simply the volume of bodies that brings it alive but the way she makes your eyes run unwittingly from one figure’s fingers to another’s.

No-one captured the scowling energy of the piece quite like Sophie Martin in the prologue; it wasn’t just that she didn’t look human anymore, more that she just wasn’t human anymore.There’s a couple of softer, more balletic moments in Emergence (including a duet beautifully danced by Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Victor Zarallo), but they look oddly out of place. This is a work where the pointe shoe stabs the floor rather than floating across it. A great piece of dance.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Angelin Preljocaj, Crystal Pite, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zero Point – Darren Johnston: Barbican Theatre, The Barbican, London, 26 May 2017

Lots blunt

Ah, there’s the point. Darren Johnston’s Zero Point. Photo by Taisuke Tsuru

An awful lot of preparation went into formulating Zero Point. British choreographer Darren Johnston initially developed the idea through a Research & Development project at the Barbican in 2014, then he took on a residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi and, while in Japan, also traversed the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage trail. The resulting performance apparently takes on board ideas as diverse as rebirth, quantum physics, the transcendental nature of passing time, the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’, symmetry and transient locations, Zen Buddhism, reinterpreting sacred spaces through digital technology, the transformation of physical space to create immersive environments, and so the list goes on.

The only thing that was readily apparent in the actual performance was the transformation of physical space. Johnston is also a visual artist and, based on this evidence, this is where his talent mainly rests. The division of the stage by lines of light was excellent, as were the projections that traced patterns everywhere; in particular, the electronic static beamed onto two dancers looked fantastic and gave off a mysterious sense of the blurred images of early television.

The actual choreographic content that lay behind it wasn’t great however. The list of Japanese dancers was of an astonishingly high quality (NDT, The Forsythe Company and The New National Theatre, Tokyo, were just some of the Companies represented in the nine-strong cast), but beyond a superb sense of controlled balance, they seemed underused. There was a lovely long uncurling solo for one of the ladies (everything was so dark it was impossible to distinguish who was who) and several other sequences started promisingly, but on the whole, the slow, reflective movement never got near the intended trance-like state – there was too much of a cold disconnect between performers and audience for that.

Tim Hecker’s music didn’t help much either. The drama of the opening organ chord was never recaptured and the squashy electronica that followed it had a tendency to billow up into over-portentous melodrama.

It felt like Zero Point would have worked better in an art gallery space, an environment where you’re free to move around, dip in and out of things, and select your own viewpoints. On stage it seemed to get lost in its own baffling concept and relied too heavily on its audience to give it meaning. It was an interesting try though.

Zero Point runs at The Barbican Theatre in London until 27 May 2017 and tickets can be found on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Barbican, Darren Johnston | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Emerging Dancer 2017 – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 25 May 2017

It’s an emerge and see

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winners. Rina Kanehara and Aitor Arrieta are two for the price of one.

Although English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2017 contest ended in a tie between Rina Kanehara and Aitor Arrieta, it wasn’t actually that big a surprise as there was very little to choose between any of the six finalists. Some of them showed better in the classical and some in the contemporary but none shone in both – I’d have found it almost impossible to pick a winner, although I broadly agreed with the judge’s decision.

For me, the Classical pas de deux part of the programme won it for Kanehara and Arrieta. The opening pair of Isabelle Brouwers and Emilio Pavan looked more accomplished in their performance of the Paquita pas de deux, especially regarding Pavan’s partnering, but Kanehara and Arrieta had more zing in their dancing. Despite a bit of over-enthusiasm at times, they showed glimpses of raw potential in their more adventurous approach – Kanehara was a particularly exciting tambourine-tapping Esmeralda.

Madison Keesler and Guilherme Menezes were kind of hamstrung by having to dance the pas de deux from La Sylphide. Bournonville’s more subtle style made it hard to compete with the flashy bravura fireworks of the other two pas de deux on display. If Menezes had been able to show off some big lifts and other party tricks, then he would surely have won the competition because his contemporary solo was head and shoulders above the rest.

Sebastian Kloborg’s Flight Mode was a witty little number concerning a RyanAir flight attendant acting out the on-board safety instructions. Menezes’ dancing was sharp and precise and his expressive comic timing was brilliant. The other five contemporary works were much of a muchness really, although Emilio Pavan showed some excellent balance in Kirill Burlov’s Proprioception and Kanehara some marvellously swift changes of momentum and deft placement of body weight in Raimondo Rebeck’s Blind Dreams.

For further entertainment, last year’s winner Cesar Corrales came out after the interval and knocked out a ‘bring-the -house-down’ Don Quixote pas de deux with an impressive Katja Khaniukova. Then the Award-winners for 2017 were announced by Tamara Rojo in frock of the night (a resplendent 1950s-style shiny gold flared skirted extravaganza). Clearly neither Sarah Kundi (Corps de Ballet Award) or Georgia Bould (People’s Choice Award) knew they were going to win – Kundi was on the verge of tears as she gave an impromptu speech and the delightfully astonished-looking Bould simply announced she was ‘overwhelmed and confused’ and handed the microphone back to Rojo.

Kanehara and Arrieta both looked rightly happy with their victory – it’ll be interesting to see how they develop in the Company from here. If you fancy what they look like right now, you can watch the whole of the Emerging Dancer 2017 competition by clicking on this link which will take you to the live stream of the whole event, something I highly recommend.

Gerard Davis

Posted in English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment