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Flash Review 2, 9-30: One Big Umbrella
Dance Umbrella Turns Silver, with a Little Help from its Friends

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2003 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Dance Umbrella celebrated its 25th anniversary Sunday with a glamorous gala at Sadler's Wells, one of London's oldest dance venues. Started by the heroic yet humble Val Bourne, who is remarkably still its artistic director, this autumn contemporary dance festival has grown and flourished in both companies and audiences. Dance Umbrella boasts the work of (now) prestigious national and international companies who have been nurtured over the years by Bourne herself, who treats her artists like cherished family. As it was movingly pointed out during the gala by choreographer Richard Alston, who performed in the first Dance Umbrella, Bourne has always loved dance, has always programmed only what she really loves and only what she thinks an audience will love. And, he hastened to add, she has usually got it right.

The gala aimed to represent the spirit of DU with short pieces from nine choreographers: Alston, Trisha Brown, Wayne McGregor, Bill T. Jones, Charles Moulton, Mark Morris, Siobhan Davies, Shobana Jeyasingh, Matthew Bourne and William Tuckett. The odd one out was definitely Tuckett, who is a principal character artist of the Royal Ballet, but then again the evening saw a large embracing of the ballet world with dancers from the newly refurbished Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet, and the Royal. This for me was less a reflection on the eclectic spirit of Dance Umbrella than of the recent craze of contemporary choreographers being invited in by ballet companies to make work for them. Personally, I don't think this work looks good, particularly that of McGregor; on classically trained dancers, his interesting sharp angular style is reduced to a virtuosic display of high leg extensions and pointe work. I also fear that this ballet bug will just morph individual contemporary styles into ballet.

Luckily, the work of artists such as Brown in "If You Couldn't See Me," Morris in "Serenade" and Jones in "Ionization" restored my faith in the future of the festival, as did the comical brilliant ball passing in Moulton's "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing." Charisma, wit and a sense of history abounded in each.

Special highlights for me included Davies's "The Swan," a solo for a male dancer and a duet performed to a gripping piece of text by Caryl Churchill ("She Bit Her Tongue"), and McGregor's solo and world premiere "Xenathra." Davies's work is just so unpretentiously beautiful and honest, particularly in Sunday night's context, and McGregor's work always looks fascinating when performed by himself. His way of moving is so alien and cyborgian that he seems to extend the parameters of what is possible in contemporary dance.

The curtain fell amidst shrieks of laughter on the camp comedy "Spitfire" by Matthew Bourne, a piece for six strapping men in their underpants based on underwear advertising, which had been lovingly reconstructed from the far and distant past.

Behind the silver balloons and the clinking wine glasses you could sense the nostalgia for a time when contemporary dance really seemed way out.

But while the evening was not without its disappointments, what came over clearly was a deep respect and admiration from both audience and artists for Val Bourne and what she has done for dance.

Dance Umbrella continues through November 8.

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