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Review, 11-18: It's Raining Dance
At Dance Umbrella, Wei Holds a 'Rite,' Kuroda Throws a Temper-Tantrum,
and Brown Moves through the 'Changing Room' of the Virtual and the
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask
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LONDON -- The joy of
Dance Umbrella and its dense programming, which runs for the better
part of two months, is that while it might not always present work
that is that special or riveting it always contains some real gems.
For this year's edition, I'll concentrate on the following performances,
which suggest the diversity in programming within this contemporary
Shen Wei Dance Arts
performed Wei's minimalistic but fast and furious "Rite of Spring,"
to Igor Stravinsky's music, and the UK premiere of "Folding." While
performed in a theater here -- Sadler's Wells, where I saw it October
12 -- "Folding" could be just as well suited to an art gallery.
It is a remarkable piece of art, which merges design (also by the
choreographer) and movement into a strong visual whole. The backdrop,
a rendition of a hand-painted 18th-century Chinese watercolour,
serves as a stunning surreal background against the red and black
clad dancers. The piece takes its name from the action of folding
and the dancers are elegantly draped in folds of material. Their
whitened faces and Sci-fi cone-shaped headdresses give them another
other/outer worldliness quality.
The pace of the choreography
is slow, meditative and sculptural. Butoh springs to mind, as the
whitened figures move in Zen-like motion like participants in some
deep meaningful ritual. The accompanying score of Tibetan Buddhist
chanting and the soft melodies of English composer John Tavener
make watching "Folding" into a religious experience. The dancers'
final disappearance into the dark, walking up what appear to be
steps, is the final miracle. It's a visual feast for the eyes and
food for the soul even if you are an atheist; one leaves the theater
feeling a refreshing sense of calm and momentary peace.
One would be hard-pressed to find a greater contrast with Wei's
"Folding" than Japanese choreographer Ikuyo Kuroda's angry female
sextet "Side B," seen at The Place October 19. Her all-female company
Batik depicts a group of cross little girls enacting a series of
hysterical tantrums. While some of the visual elements of this work
are intriguing, such as a beginning in which a dramatic red curtain
raised slightly above the stage reveals only the legs of the dancers
and we are tantalized by their stamping and gesturing, when the
curtain finally rises we see little more of these young women. Their
faces are obscured by their long black hair and movement designed
to avoid any confrontation or connection with the audience. Their
endless stamping and lifting up of skirts or high-pitched squealing
becomes irritating, as it is so disembodied. Rather than gaining
our sympathy over why these women are angry with the world, or by
drawing us into their individual personalities, their behavior through
the relentlessly impersonal choreography is more like spoilt children
The work which really stood out for me in Dance Umbrella for its
boldness and imagination was "The Changing Room," from Carol Brown
Dances, seen November 5 at Greenwich Dance Agency. Choreographer
Carol Brown and architect Mette Ramsgard Thomsen transport the audience
into another dimension, a world of virtual and real bodies in their
challenging and creative work performed as an installation, around
which the audience promenades, guided by Brown herself. Different
performance areas are demarcated by one large screen and several
smaller screens onto which a 'virtual body' or 'avatar' is projected.
The virtual body, central to the work which is created by a technique
called contour tracking, feeds off the dancers' movement. It is
a mesmeric swirl of colour, circular in shape, that takes on different
forms and resembles a pulsating sea anemone, a mutating cell and
even a developing embryo.
The performance by Brown
and two dancers, Catherine Bennett and Delphine Gaborit, takes on
the style of a lecture-demonstration in which the choreographer
explains in poetic metaphorical language how they have worked as
live bodies with something that is not tangible or organic. In her
performance text she talks about the limitations of the organic
body and how the virtual body could be something that does reach
perfection, as it extends the possibilities of the physical body,
"following our contours like distant geography." The most poignant
and indeed emotive moments in the work are the points of connection
between the dancers and the virtual body -- for example, when the
dancers trace or touch the fluctuating presence on the screen or
dance with it from a distance, retaining, still, a sensitivity,
a constant awareness of this 'other.' Likewise, the virtual body,
while visually powerful, never dominates the live action, but rather
has a symbiotic relationship with it. Movements are adapted to activate
the virtual presence; it can only feed off certain movements or
dynamics and this poses limitations on what the body can do physically
as well as offering other potential.
A theatrical quality
is established by the frequent costume changes of the three dancers,
Michael Mannion's lighting and Jerome Soudan's score. Shanti Freed's
costumes feature white fitted tunics which can be stretched into
all kinds of shapes, thus extending the body like a second skin;
baroque fashion accessories such as a white fur coat, a red satin
glove and red stiletto shoes; and white underwear stripped down
to reveal the muscle and flesh of these live bodies. Soudan's rich
musical text, combining electronic sound and collages of classical
music and monks' chanting, further wraps the work in more layers
of meaning. The dancers look at times like high priestesses in a
Sci-Fi film, or sometimes like Replicants but never like ordinary
dancers. The lighting design, white space and screens, the text,
choreography, sound, costumes and appearances of the virtual body
transform the space into a cocoon-like research laboratory, an interface
where different worlds meet, where each element/component co-habits
or even merges. However you interpret it, "The Changing Room" is
about a 'meeting,' and the three women performers are like pioneers
on the verge of discovering a brave new world. The last image that
we are left with is the virtual body diminishing slowly and softly,
the child of these women inventors.
"The Changing Room"
was the result of nearly two years of experiment and research. Thomsen,
an architect working in new media and virtual environments, worked
closely with Brown on how to mix realities -- that of the virtual
and the live -- and developed a way of working with experimental
choreographic systems which was based on Brown's interest in merging
new media with dance-theater. Another enlightening aspect of "The
Changing Room" is that it deals with women's bodies, and suggests
birth and creation, which is refreshing in the field of new technologies,
so often dominated by men sitting behind computers.
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