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Flash 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 Real

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 dance festival.

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 behaving badly.

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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