What do you think of when you think of 1950s Hollywood? I think of tap shoes, tumblers of whiskey and ice, the smoker’s husky voice and a world that somehow seems clearer for its very lack of colour. It is not, however, these iconic images of golden age Hollywood that Jackie O’Toole and her dancers embody in the first piece of the evening entitled Eve. Far from it. Instead O’Toole focuses on an image, no less ubiquitous in the popular imagination: that of the 1950s housewife or more specifically of the connection between domesticity and madness. Two years before the invention of the Barbie doll, in 1957, the motion picture The Three Faces of Eve dramatised the true story of a housewife suffering from multiple personality disorder. Torn between the two poles of good and bad housewife, Eve White and Eve Black, the central character, played by Joanne Woodward, is taken through a lengthy process of psychotherapy before finally remerging under the more stable guises of a synthesised character called Jane. The purpose of my extensive preamble is not merely a case of verbosity unchecked but an attempt to impress on the reader, before even touching on the choreography, the sheer ambition of O’Toole’s piece. The mysteries of the fractured mind oftentimes remain just that: a mystery. However, if there is any type of art best suited to exploring the elements of the human psyche which extend beyond the bounds of formal syntax it is those mediums which are furthest away from the everyday conversation we hear on the bus or over tea. Dance, music and perhaps even poetry provide just such a way into the expression of the unspeakable. But it is a hard act to pull off.
Dancing into this potential minefield O’Toole’s three dancers, in powder blue and lycra dresses, are introduced sequentially, beginning with the central character of the stable ‘Jane’ followed by Eve Black and Eve White. Jane spins across the stage and reaches up to the sky; while Eve Black’s movements are flirtatious and have a jazz inflexion reflecting the music which changes with each dancer. She plays with Jane while Eve White dances with a blank face, turning inwards; disappearing within her prescribed role: her goodness. Technically, Eve Black (Christina Suarez) stood out as the most accomplished of the three dancers. O’Toole and her dancers do vividly evoke the horror of trauma and there are ample clues for the audience to realise this is a piece concerned with both the troubled psyche and the psychotherapeutic process. Instrumental in this were the atmospheric use of audio excerpts from the film itself in which we hear Joanne Woodward reliving her childhood trauma and crying ‘Momma I don’t want to’ while at another point the stage is full of what sounds like the angry noises of birds and beasts in a menagerie. In addition to this, throughout the whole piece we hear the steady, authoritative tones of the psychiatrist as he guides Jane through her therapy.
In the end the problems O’Toole’s dance piece faced were the same as those the 1950s film were burdened by. While it was down to the exceptional performance of Woodward that the film managed to convince film goers that these three distinct personalities lived in one unified body without access to Saturday nights program notes I do not believe that O’Toole’s movement alone was sufficient to suggest that the three dancers on stage were in fact the different facets of one troubled mind. A piece of choreography must be self-sufficient and able to live and breathe independently of the program notes; it should be able to explain itself. Something as simple as having the dancers touch one another more frequently (in fact, there was hardly any physical contact between the three dancers at all) intertwining their bodies suggestively or merely encouraging a more symbiotic relationship between the dancers movements would have counteracted what were in fact three carefully sculpted and delineated characters that remained separate. In the end neither film nor O’Toole’s dance piece manages to poetically penetrate into the mysterious workings of Eve’s mind. Instead both the original film and Eve find themselves falling back into the gestures of melodrama. The dancer interpreting the central character of Jane repeatedly stands still her arms held up in horror as though in mime and writhes on the floor. Similarly Joanne Woodward screams and jerks her body in despair. In the attempt to speak the unspeakable language of madness this melodramatic interpretation seems more a case of reduction rather than enlightenment.
Ji Park and the dancers from Flexa Dance Theatre began the second instalment of the night in the dark. Before our eyes had had time to adjust and make out the three figures in white t shirts and black pants we could hear the sound of bodies falling. It is difficult to hear bodies falling against a hard surface with such weight without having some type of physical response in return. In sympathy the audience’s hearts were jumping, holding back that natural response to run to get or give the necessary help to those falling. But, at Jackson’s Lane everyone sat still, like criminal bystanders, and held their breathe. Domino-like the dancers ran back and forth to the front and back of the stage collapsing and recovering; running and collapsing again. In the dark, without any musical accompaniment, the sound was deafening. Soon, however a box of white light appeared on the stage and the first dancer slowly wobbled into vision as a bell is ringing. Taking slow shunting steps with her arms crossed and held away from her chest the dancer moved across the light in a style not seen since Tutankhamun while her torso wavered and buckled in sharp contrast to her rigid arms.
Ji Park’s piece, like Jackie O’Toole’s began within the context of an ambitious pretext. However, Park’s piece depends on a very abstract contextual structure as opposed to the cinematic narrative of Eve. Entitled Gaia after the greek goddess personifying the Earth, Park’s program notes root the inspiration for the piece in Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. Carson’s book was so influential in the 1960s that the issues raised in it (apocalyptic future, pesticides, technology’s domination of nature) have become so diffused that they are now part of a wider social discourse surrounding man’s relation to nature and climate change. However, Park is not content using movement to merely explore the tension between man and nature but intended to use Gaia to develop the different movement qualities of the body’s physiological systems.
I am unconvinced that there was enough subtlety in Park’s movement vocabulary to actually embody the different physiological systems and even if she was, I am unsure how an endocrine system would really dance. However, in capturing something of the relationship between man and nature Park is successful. There was, threading throughout the different movements, a continual juxtaposition between sensuality and bestiality with elements of sexuality emerging somewhere in-between. At one point in the piece the two of the three dancers crouch on their two legs and try to bite themselves, as though feral animals while a single dancer stands at the front of the stage and moves her arms and legs in gentle wave like curves. Park’s choreography moves from the ridiculous, at one point a dancer seems to perform the classic ‘I’m in a box’ mime, to the tender. Towards the end of Gaia a dancer crawls on their bottom to the centre of the box of light and lifts a single arm and hand out to the side as though trying to feel the warmth of the sun having come in from the dark covering the rest of the stage. Finally the dancers break out into gibberish as they bounce around the stage on their haunches pointing into the air as though expressing surprise at the world around them or having just awoken.
Park’s piece was not as a theatrical experience particularly enjoyable to watch. I felt at times the strain and effort to be experimental transcended the choreographer’s visual sensibility: how interesting the movement and shapes made within the frame of the stage actually were. Dance is a visual art which should be visually interesting. It is not a solely cerebral exercise.
Ji Park’s involvement in the Transient Dance Theatre’s piece ‘Transience’ earlier this year seems to me a more hopeful indicator of what this young choreographer could be capable of. The piece which begins similarly to Gaia with dancers running, without falling, across the stage combines a more interesting verbal element (using 30 synonyms of the word transience and two excerpts from Calvino) with movement and acting. Ji Park in her program notes described Gaia as a series of several short scenes. For me, Park’s own words summarise the central weakness of the piece; that regardless of the maracas; creaking door sounds created by the violin and eco-overtones Gaia remained a series of experimental scenes which neither cohered together nor made up more than the sum of their parts. Ji Park and her dancers should however, take heart from the words of John Ashford in Time Out recently, and know that they are going in the right direction towards the experimental theatre and performance work so needed in the world of British dance.
Starting her solo with a series of slow step turns across the back of the Jackson’s Lane Theatre Gwenny Rose began her exploration, in dance, of what the future holds for her. Wearing black leggings and white knee pads Rose set her piece What holds to soft rock. Her use of space seemed limited to the diagonal or across the length of the stage while a clear balletic influence could be seen in her choreography by the repeated use of fouétte pirouette turn. She also seemed keen on juxtaposing held, static positions with moments in which the music raced on.
Sadly, for Rose however the meditative questioning of ‘What holds’ in her future is too flimsy a premise to sufficiently hide the fact that there are no ideas in this piece, not in terms of the movement vocabulary nor in the original premise itself. These musing upon the future holds would be better placed and more suited to a diary entry in a journal than anything substantial enough to fill the stage at Jacksons Lane.
The strong beat of Alex J Steed’s mix and the dim lighting on stage; the neon tutus and ripped lace leggings combined with the fact that all the dancers on stage were wearing black masks made the masquerade ball in honour of Juliet’s upcoming nuptials seem less like high society and more like a bacchanalian celebration. Despite the black bodices and flimsy nighties there was, however, a distinct balletic feel to the choreography: penchés; arabesques; dégagés; and multiple high balletic lifts were used to sweep partners across the stage. This classicism was combined with a variety of other styles including the tango and when all the dancers danced in unison or canon, their movements combined influence from both street dance and musical theatre.
The story that Milo Miles, the director of Pangaea Dance, and his company are in fact trying to interpret is quite complex; full of same sex passions denied and yet erratically indulged in by the characters. While it is simple to substitute the female Romea for her male original it is the treatment of Mercútch which I found confusing. Mercútch, dressed in a long blonde wig, yellow nightie and red garter belt, toys with a sexually confused Tybalt. Finally, Tybalt pulls his blonde wig away and reveals Mercútch as a man and the entire chorus leap upon him in horror. It is the chorus, who throughout the piece stand along the side and stroke and pet one another, consumed within their own narcissistic worlds that really add to the atmosphere of the piece as a whole. However, on reflection I found it a strange contradiction that a world which seemed so taken with disguise and gender ambiguity would turn so quickly and violently against the one that was ‘revealed’. A subtler approach might have emphasised Mercútch’s own sense of humiliation and vulnerability without a mask.
These are minor quibbles, however, in what was overall a raucously enjoyable dance piece which revelled in its own theatricality and display and as such drew the audience into a world of its own creating where questions of coherence or kitsch become irrelevant.
Daniela B Larsen and Robert Guy’s collaboration in This House Smells of Ghosts could not have been more different from the four pieces which preceded it. Where the four previous choreographers favoured ambitious, philosophical contexts or, as in the case of Milo Miles, sheer spectacle: Larsen and Guy, dressed in casual jeans and lumberjack checks, provided a subtle and intricately studied portrait of a relationship between a man and a woman. Their This House Smells of Ghosts demonstrated that the subject of the everyday and its low key movements can be every bit, if not more, revelatory than the most intellectual of precepts.
Initially playful the couple hold each other’s hands and face the audience as though introducing themselves at a party. They play with one another’s legs and won’t let go; they push each other’s heads down to their knees. At one moment their play goes too far and they withdraw from one another, blushing and embarrassed. They use the weight of their own bodies against one another to manipulate, pull, drag and tumble in, over and around each other. At moments in the piece their tangled legs and feet make a more unified body than the three dancers who attempt to embody one character simultaneously in Eve. From playful, their movement becomes intimate and Larsen lands on top of Guy laying there sleeping; they take each others hand and dance slowly looking closely at one another. Unlike other choreographers (sometimes in the work of Kim Brandstrup for example) there is never a sense of voyeurism while watching the couple. They often stop and face the audience holding hands as though we, the audience, were friends asking for a photograph.
Most crucially, Larsen and Guy build a vocabulary of movement which is repeated with different emotional inflexions and dynamics as the piece progresses and builds towards a climax. This gives This House Smells of Ghosts a tight structure which is affective and emotional rather than narrative. The same movements change under the weight of different feelings. Larsen grabbing Guy’s arm and holding it; or pushing each other’s head to their knees is at first playful then tender and finally angry. Violence fills the very same movements which had a moment before expressed their intimacy as they play for dominance over one another. Guy pulls Larsen in towards his body only to repel her away from him; the struggles become darker and the entwined limbs seems less like lovemaking than strangling.
Audio records made from Frank Warren’s series of books containing the fruits of a community art project and website in which people from all over the world sent confessed their secrets anonymously on the back of postcards provide one element of This House Smells of Ghosts soundtrack. Secret confessions rang across the theatre such as ‘I’m a beautiful person who happens to be full of rage.’ or ‘I feel so lonely I could die’. The piece ends with the final recording of a postcard confession ‘I’m not waiting for Prince Charming on a white horse’ while Larsen dances alone and Guy stands there watching her.
The chemistry between the two dancers was breathtaking and in many ways the relation between these two characters, their sideways looks, and cheeky grins became as substantial as the movement itself. Daniela B. Larsen, particularly, is a very experienced dancer having performed at The Place’s Resolution! for several years running as both dancer and choreographer and having worked for, among others, with green bean dance and Marc Brew Dance Company. I sincerely hope that both Larsen and Guy continue their collaboration in the future. There were a few occasions where I wondered whether the recordings could verge on the trite but with a small amount of editing to the volume of recorded ‘secrets’ played I think this piece would be something special indeed.
In contrast to the sometimes lengthy program notes provided for Saturday night’s performances, Taciturn’s cryptic and humorous description of their piece was a refreshing read. In their own words, Hang your coat up, and stay a while consisted of ‘4 Tops, 3 Jens, 2 Bobs, 1 Dance… and Michelle’. There was, in fact, more to it than that and their humility goes some way to further endearing what was already a piece full of charming touches and sweet melodies.
Taciturn’s piece began with four female dancers, in knee-length flower dresses and multicoloured cardigans, sauntering towards the front of the stage and introducing themselves in an informal, chatty way to the audience. At one point in their introductions and initial descriptions of themselves one of the dancers expresses a desire to exchange her cardigan for the pink one worn by her friend. The cardigans and their borrowings and swappings between the four girls provide one of the central mechanisms around which the dance is structured. They argue over who should wear which one and the movement of the piece is also tied to the cardigans themselves. The dancers pull them tight as they pace the stage; they cover their faces and hide under them; they lift them up like wings and entangle each other in one another’s sleeves.
The second important structural element in Hang your coat up, and stay a while is the audience interaction which consisted of monologues and conversations between the dancers while facing the audience. Language and the spoken word played a prominent part at Cloud Dance Festival’s Saturday night performances. More than half of the performances on the night used the human voice in some way either in the form of audio clips from films, recorded ‘secrets’, the dancers themselves speaking in gibberish, or the sound effects simply produced by a voice amplified (as in Dam Van Huynh’s piece which I review below). Dance is supposed to be one of the mediums that penetrate beyond the confines of language and yet for most of the choreographers at Cloud Dance Festival the spoken word, the pure voice and the audio clip were needed to supplement and add to the meaning of the movement itself. Is this an indicator of the lack inherent in their own choreographic vocabulary or a symptom of a certain lack of confidence that dance cannot in the end speak as well for itself as the voice can?
All four of Taciturn’s dancers are good technically and confident on stage and as a way of experimenting with and devising new movement vocabulary the use of the cardigans is clever. However, ultimately it is not enough to make the piece as dynamic or thought-provoking as some of the other performances on the bill. For Hang your coat up, and stay a while the peripheral touches, which had little to do with the dance and movement itself: the cardigans; informal interaction with the audience and the wonderful music of Bob Dylan save Taciturn from what could have been a banal offering and ensured that the piece was thoroughly enjoyable, if somewhat light, viewing.
Both the choreographer and dancer in Cloud Dance Festival’s penultimate performance are seasoned, successful performers. Dena Lague has an impressive CV which includes work in film, dance, theatre and opera including a role in Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands. Similarly, Kerry Biggin the soloist in Lague’s Just Take Five has also worked for Bourne and as one of his favourite principals she can turn her hand to almost any character. Biggin is used to having the stage to herself and in Just Take Five she plays an overworked woman in New York. By day she serves coffee to strangers and by night she sits alone in her apartment listening to the radio.
The piece begins with Biggin standing at the front of the stage wearing a red and white striped apron pretending to serve coffee after coffee, gesturing in the empty air and pining after handsome customers. The use of such a long and potentially uninteresting mime scene was a risk on the part of the choreographer, however, Biggin has enough stage presence to pull it off and her shaking hand and forced grin, seething and miserable inside, is transfixing. Biggin then returns home to her empty apartment and turns on the radio to a station playing Jazz. Slowly, as she listens she begins to tap her foot, her posture straightens and she begins to smile. As the music begins to enliven her body she begins to move and use the space of her apartment more freely. She also begins to express a sexuality that has hitherto been hidden behind the apron she wears everyday. As swing music plays from the radio Biggin’s character’s new lease of life ultimately results in her stripping down to a black satin nightie and writhing on the floor captivated by the sound of the music.
The piece is, essentially, homage to the transformation powers of music and jazz in particular. However, despite Biggin’s sparkling stage presence there is little substance to this piece. It feels rather like the movement a director might choreograph in a theatrical setting in which the dance is not the sole focus. And while Lague writes in her performance notes that the change in the character of the woman when she starts to dance signifies the moment when her ‘inner self is finally realised’ I find this a rather overambitious description of the momentary release represented by numerous hip shakes and bottom wiggling.
According to a quote on his website Dam Van Huynh is ‘Inspired by everyday life and people’ and while Larsen and Guy’s This House Smells of Ghost did take inspiration from pedestrian movement and the everyday, Van Huynh’s Sudden Change of Event seems instead to inhabit the world of cyberspace. If this is the everyday, I would like to know where it is that he has been living of late!
Dressed all in grey five dancers (three male and two female) including Van Huynh himself, walk onto the stage at Jacksons Lane and begin to set the stage for their performance; the final performance of the evening. This is the only piece of the evening to indulge in a full stage set and Yann Seabra’s minimalist design is a delight. A steel box/cage without walls is brought forward and placed at the edge of the stage, four grey steel panels cover the back wall, there is a computer and keyboard in one corner and a microphone in another. In turn each dancer puts an outreached hand into the empty air within the steel cage while the rest of the dancers take it in turns to demarcate the dance space with grey electric tape. After the space has been marked a female dancer steps inside the open box and begins to dance. The dancer performs slow movements on bent knees twisting her torso, contracting the rib cage and reaching her arms in the air. Accompanying her movements come the startling sounds of the amplified brittle staccatos of gasps, spits, chokes and sighs all coming from the mouth of a woman standing behind a microphone at the corner of the stage. As the female dancer in the cage moves and the lady singer gasps and moans the cage is rotated slowly around her and they all move slowly backwards. This initial image is striking. Bathed in light the young blonde dancer looks like a beautiful statue and the adoring men that rotate the box might just as well be rotating the plinth on which she is mounted.
With concentrated reverence the cage, which dominates the stage, is slowly moved around from one side to the other throughout the piece. Virtuoso piano scales and synthesized music accompany the female singer’s isolated sounds, which are almost like a deconstructed version of ‘scatting’, but neither can take away from the prominence of this human voice which in such a guise sounds so far from human.
The dancers often grip their stomachs and their movements are birdlike at points while the female dancer who begins the piece inside the cage repeatedly snakes across the stage in jagged lines on her back using her elbows and lifting her upper back to drag her body along the ground. At one point a male dancer touches a female dancer yet this moment of tactile connection instead seems as though he is unscrewing or re-bolting her shoulder. As the piece nears its climax, lights swell behind the four grey panels lining the back of the stage. The dancers dance with a frenzy convulsed sympathy together and in unison as the lights gradually lower and finally the tape which dictated the limits of their performance space is ripped off the floor.
Van Huynh, who is a very good dancer himself, and his dancers rarely touch one another and it is clear that this is a limbo world where connections between people are mediated and disrupted by either the structure of the cage, the boundary lines traced on the floor or by the jolting movements of their own bodies and the fracturing sounds in the air. Everything is brittle in this world.
Sudden Change of Event is, according to Van Huynh’s programme notes, an exploration of ‘the fragility of momentary events’, and his attempt to capture the way that individuals constantly have to respond to stimuli and the activity in the environment around them is very effectively realised by his combination of angular and jarring movements with the discomfort produced by the dissonance of the human voice choking and spitting into the microphone.
Throughout the festival I have been fascinated by the way in which choreographers perceived their own work, stated their intentions in their program notes and how the finished product, which must fend for itself on the stage, related to these initial inspirations and dreams. The critic can only really compare notes and stand back to assess whether the aims have been achieved and if not whether something entirely unforeseen, and nonetheless miraculous, has been created instead. Choreographing dance is never mathematical; the amount of numerals put in does not necessarily guarantee a multiplied outcome. Whether or not the vision stuttered at points or the ambitious philosophy framing the piece sagged at the corners did not for one moment overshadow the sheer force of the creative energy that was evident; both in the limbs of the dancers and in the spinning minds of the choreographers whose hearts and thoughts were always visible, and in one way or another laid bare, on the stage at Jackson’s Lane.
Finally, I feel a real need to add to the chorus of compliments that have deservedly already directed themselves towards the benevolent and omnipresent Chantal Guevara, the festival’s founder. In this economic climate and with the challenges facing funding for dance in this country Guevara’s sheer tenacity and downright cheek in producing such a successful and productive festival with no funding whatsoever is something to be seriously appreciated and supported.
Reviewed by Erin Whitcroft for Cloud Dance Festival