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Flash Review 2, 8-3: Cultural Currency
Royal Opera House goes Contemporary for Summer Collection '04

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask

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LONDON -- As part of the Royal Opera House 2 program which presents dance that is more diverse and experimental than what is seen on the main stage of the Royal Opera House, the Summer Collection '04 offers a season of innovative contemporary dance which takes place in the large, beautiful Clore studio at the top of the Royal Opera House. The first half of the season, entitled "New: Currents," platforms culturally diverse work by British-based artists originally from other continents, and tends to draw on classical, folk, martial arts and other cultural forms from across the globe.

The program on July 20 featured several artists who are established names amongst the London dance community; for this night, each presented a solo which was firmly rooted in personal experience of a particular cultural art form or martial art. The first artist was Jean Abreu, with "O Lungo Drom," a deeply sensitive solo inspired technically by Brazilian capoeira, but with a subtext which explored migration and identity. At the beginning Abreu walks quietly into corridors of light, which spring up in different areas of the stage, as if he is navigating the space. In this opening section, there is a lot of stillness, waiting, sensing and testing out fragments of movement before he goes into a substantial dance section which builds momentum gradually and powerfully. It is here that Abreu displays the spongy, light, fast athleticism that we associate with capoeira. He does not perform only the showy moves and balances from Brazilian capoeira but rather adopts the weighted springy quality of the art form and applies it to speedy turns, lunges and arm gestures.

Abreu has a wonderfully sensuous movement style; compactly muscular, he moves with a grounded gracefulness, drawing on many diverse dance forms. The choreography is intelligent and sensitive to its subject: migration and the uncertainties of living amongst other cultures. You can see him actually thinking on stage -- every action has significance, with nothing thrown in purely for effect. The movement calms down towards the end of the solo, and the shadowy corridors of light appear again. Migration is a never-ending, always insecurity-making process, full of arrivals and departures and soul searching, but this Brazilian-born artist remains unruffled and confident wherever he is.

The next artist was Dutch-born Ellen van Schuylenburch, who has earned an impressive international profile, having performed with Netherlands Dance Theater 2, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Karole Armitage and Michael Clark, among others. For New: Currents, however, she created a solo, "Silence," which fused her Western contemporary dance background with her experience of the Keralan martial arts kalaripayattu and chhau, studied during a residency in Trivandrum, southern India. Van Schuylenburch is well know for her virtuosic technique, so it was interesting to see her perform in a very different style, much of which consisted of a series of postures executed while sitting on the floor. The movement is very sculptural, very contemplative and still, but also brittle, as she has a mesmerizing air of vulnerability about her. It is strange to see her balletic articulation, turned out pointed feet and sinewy strength fused with the directed but meditative moves of the kalari-inspired martial art. The overall impression one takes away from "Silence" is that van Schuylenburch has made this solo relevant to her life ten years further on and there is something tragic yet resolved about it.

Finally, Jacqui Chan performed a solo which used her background in Noh theater and story-telling. While Chan, who is of Chinese descent, has had a career which has included dancing, choreographing, and acting, it's her interest in the story-telling tradition of Noh theater and the purity of the Samurai warrior tradition that is explored here, in "The Incomparable Couple of Sendai." Dressed in traditional Samurai costume and accompanied by her director John Martin tapping on a drum, Chan tells a charming story of a lapsed Samurai warrior and his heroic wife, executing some clean and striking moves to illustrate her tale. Her narrative is as effortless as her movement, uncluttered by melodrama or ego, and it is riveting.

What was so great to see in this program was really brilliant technical dancers not displaying their usual skills but rather taking the audience with them on a collection of uniquely personal journeys into wildly different cultural idioms besides western contemporary dance.

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