There is nothing egotistic about the People Show Studios whatsoever; despite it being home to the UK’s longest-running experimental theatre company People Show. The handful of square meters that makes up this goblin’s cave, set in a side road off Bethnal Green Road is all at once charming and nostalgic. Its size indicates that this was not the first choice of venue to house such a fast-growing dance festival but it does the trick on a cold winter’s night. The disco décor running the Green Room and cabal of public trying to squash into these cosy quarters keeps me amused until Chantal Guevara, Cloud Dance Festival’s director and producer, signals for us to fill the rafts.
First up is a group which formed in 2008: Diciembre Dance Group, the brain child of Lucía Piquero. The House of Bernarda Alba is a depiction of the original play by Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca and centers on the events of an Andalusian household during a period of mourning.
This all-female household cocooned from the outside world comprised of two short white walls upon which were set Spanish fans for props – the fans as close to Andalusian Spain as the audience were going to get. The small box space of the theatre did however present for the ideal claustrophobic setting for this brood and acted as a metaphor for the state of a country in which love was suppressed and political control absolute. The piece starts with Adela, the youngest sister, played by Alejandra Baño, singing an eerie song a capella, but this moment of touching beauty is quickly disturbed by the entrance of the other dancers who enter the space and continue with Baño, to string together a series of weighted movements, kneeling, collapsing and pulling at each other’s black dresses, entering and exiting the space far too often for my liking. They play out this drama using a mixture of pedestrian and dance-like movements but there is something about the energy of these bodies in the space that doesn’t quite work. The series of brief encounters between them never really end; they seem just to fade out. There is not the violence or daring athleticism that I crave and this makes me wonder why such sensual simplicity as the singing at the beginning of the piece was used in the first place. With no later contrast, it becomes bleary and weak, even dishonest.
The audience seemed thrilled then to be greeted next by the arrival of a handsome American, poised downstage in a smoking suit. Sophia Hurdley’s Callas is a compacting of references, exploring the life of Maria Callas and her affair with Aristotle Onassis, using a series of images which run into one another through their connecting elements.
Set in the 1950’s and on silver screen, the interviewer Mr R.J Murrow, a believable American broadcast journalist introduces us; ‘Good Evening Madame Callas’, and pushes the audience immediately into a dreamlike state, as Callas appears on screen, a figure of drawn features, red lips ...
Hurdley adapts the dance idiom into a dramatic context in Callas throughout, later introducing another character, Jackie Kennedy, to join the duo in a controlled ensemble where she is at one point knocked down by Onassis! The characters are well grafted and their costumes fit well with the 1950’s theme. However, her theatrical montage of scenes does more than just revisit history in a colourful, playful way. Through the clever use of lighting, props and space Hurdley creates impressive imagery and situations whereby the viewer may also feel like a character. Parody and cultural reference (the American flag and 50’s Jazz score) are used in equal effect to comment on human relationships, namely manipulation as the audience are left feeling exasperated. These characters have lent themselves to the time, shape, space and motion of our own memories and relationships. Hurdley has a lot to work with here.
Next up, and perhaps the highlight of the festival, is Lîla Dance, with a creation by Abi Mortimer and Carrie Whitaker: Here, Still Here, Still, a solo piece performed by Whitaker. The piece explores experiences anchored in body memory and how the body participates in those memories. It is emotional and immediately offers a dynamic transcendence of physical limits with Whitaker morphing on the floor, creasing her body, perforating parts and breathing life into her stomach muscles like one’s own God.
This obdurate creature is shifting weight like a hydraulic press, arms as levers increasing the force, legs folding, communicating and pinning their digits into the ground. It is both wonderful and painful to watch such vulnerable disassembly of identity. As she pulls at her limbs like reins to her torso or collapses to the floor on her ankles, then calves, the movement becomes loaded with metaphor and story and we see the floor as an aid in realising her movement more fully. The dark music by Doug Evans slips accelerates and grits and presses for the audience member to become sensitive to the space.
As the audience are immersed in the juts of movement, virtuoso movement and the sheer dedication that Whitaker has for her art, constantly changing plane, dimension and direction, a voice is heard; ‘I’ve been burning bridges’, ‘I’ve burnt them already’.
Lîla Dance has definitely burnt its bridges with the past and has begun to edit itself so sternly and develop such a sense of courage that it can only move forward with its craft now.
As the festival livens, and the space gets hotter, the audience are met with Sezdrenah Dance Theatre and their piece ‘Free me out of existence’. The theme here is complex; a new existence within one soul, a magnified projection of characteristics, moods and egos taking place to illustrate a once dormant consciousness.
As this consciousness manifests itself in three beings, the audience are greeted first by a man in white, lit downstage in a sharp single source of light, then by three more in long black leather trench coats that stalk and caper about the landscape, like characters from a cheap spook film. It’s moody and spiritual and the music suggests murky waters, paddles smacking the surface. There is a focus on breath, as the men develop a motif; popping their chest in sync with a heartbeat. This movement takes them forward and back and down into the ground as the three men in black leather trenches, kick at the man in white, teeth a-grit, eyes glaring – they are his demons. When a screen appears and a projection of a white figure moving like a poltergeist emerges, the audience have two options - to run with this theme or to distance themselves from the complexities of it all. I did the latter.
The audience might have felt like they were involved in a cheap Hollywood fright night even more, with the next offering from Sol Dans, who were premiering their new piece Groundlings. This piece beared instant resemblance to Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinenen’s Next of Kin with its haunted dancers adopting an array of characters from crazed heroine to tribal beast. The all-female cast, complete with the hackneyed backcombed hair and face paint look came across as ludicrous, hilarious and unfortunately rather wet.
The theme was pure and literal escapism which seemed to ricochet back in on itself, with the dancers trapped throughout. Trapped namely inside the labyrinth of choreographer Melody Squire’s bad dream, but also by a flimsy cling film border behind which most of the action takes place. Bottling their concoction, and probably for the best, they shuffle and twitch behind this screen, untangling themselves from one another to a score of jazz music by sextet Sayag Jazz Machine. They are dressed in white tunics and portray the image of either an overworked housewife gone wrong or that of a child experimenting in play.
Nexus Dance is better, like a palate cleanser. Their two solos, ‘Of Nothing’ and ‘They Who Have Wings’, are short and charismatic. Performed to live music and choreographed by Sian Hopkins, the dancers and musician became as one and their movement filtered, changed and provoked that of the others, whilst at the same time remaining separate. It was pleasing to the eye and the set up of just a single dancer in the space with the musician gave an aura of privacy, the audience’s preying eye like a pin prick to this bubble of thought. The group’s focus around the connections between different people’s communications of internal experience within a common framework leaves much to be worked on. This was like a short animation, a project, a work in progress; they have a nous that needs to grow now.
To end this eventful night, Guevara managed to haul in Ballet Black at the last minute, and boy are we grateful. Martin Lawrence’s Pendulum is an inspiring duet that careers between ideas of combat and intimacy. The set and costume is kept simple, flattering the dancers and uniting them in this silent, internalized affair. It is raw and intense as long limbs extend and collide and the couple embrace and part. Along with an amplified heart beat as part of a score by Steve Reich, the movement weds together notions of heroism and death. Statuesque silhouettes are studded along the way, with dancer Cira Robinson lifting Jazmon Voss in a kinetic vocabulary of spins, leans, turns and tussles. The odd balletic step blends with bold contemporary moves and despite nothing conventionally literal about what they do, the shapes and forms that Lawrence uses reveal colossal feeling.
Covent Garden-based Ballet Black was set up to give performing opportunities to black and Asian dancers in London, but their mark on this weekend’s festival is one of new choreography. This is a technically sound piece and testament as to how far the company has come since its beginnings in 2001. The only snag with the piece is that its coupling is so harmonious and resolute that we never really get to see the individual identity of each dancer come to light. Nonetheless, working with pure dance is refreshing and an example for those companies in the line up whose tendencies involve shocking through melodrama and trifling of characterisation.
All praise to Chantal Guevara, not least for finding this wonderful treasure of a venue in the East End to house such varied dance, but more importantly for her incredible anchoring of talent and support of emerging artists. If the festival were to have its own home there is no doubt that it would gain a more principal slot in today’s art scene. Watch this space.
Reviewed by Victoria Hill for Cloud Dance Festival