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Flash Journal, 11-3: Deep Brown Sea
Carol Brown Rides the Tech Wave

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2006 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Carol Brown Dances, as one of the more innovative companies featured in this year's Dance Umbrella, and one that requires a more intimate space due to its exploration of live dance and digital technologies, was aptly shown at the new and inspirational Siobhan Davies Studios October 12 - 15. Opened last year, this novel dance space, in a renovated 19th-century school building, is an impressive and distinctive piece of architecture. As well as providing a home for the Siobhan Davies Company, the new building, funded by the National Lottery and local taxes, has quickly become a low-cost resource for Independent Dance, an artist-led training organization dedicated to the ongoing development of professional dance artists, as well as for the wider dance sector. It's the result of a collaboration between Davies, a leading British choreographer who dreamed for years of having her own building, and architect Sarah Wigglesworth. It has been designed with the utmost sympathy and flexibility for dancers' needs and consequently is a warm, welcoming and stimulating place for them to be. Its quirky modern features, such as a bright yellow column in the foyer and sky blue plastic panelling in the upper studio, combine successfully with many of the original features, such as the old bashed-up brick walls.

Carol Brown's "SesUnSea," which I saw October 14, was performed in the larger of the two Davies studios, built on what had previously been the roof, with a ceiling which contains twisting ribbons of wood and curving walls of pale wood panels. When you enter the studio (whose windows were blacked out for Brown's performance), the arks of wood above make you feel cocooned within the rib cage of a huge animal. (During the day, plenty of light passes through the wooden arcs and the big windows.)

Brown, whose work explores the experiences of bodies in space through performance installation and the architecture of dance, inhabits unconventional spaces with ease and comfort. For "SeaUnSea," she collaborated with architect Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, with whom she's worked since 2003. Together they have set up an interactive environment. Thomsen sits at her computer and constantly tweaks the visual imagery which is projected onto two large screens above the dancers. What we see on the screens is a mass of multiplying shapes and forms, like ink on blotting paper, constantly spreading, disappearing, then growing all over again. When the dancers, Marina Collard, Anna Williams and Matthew Smith enter the performing space, the visual imagery, the colored shapes which begin to take on the appearance of a living organism, tracks their movement; so it appears to follow the performers as they dance, reacting to their changes of direction and tempo, continuously metamorphosing into new shapes and forms. What we see on screen seems to be responding to what's happening on stage. We can also see faint ghostly outlines of the live bodies on the stage picked up by the camera and similarly projected onto the screens, which adds a human dimension to the visual imagery. Neither the space nor the dancers are encumbered by wires or sensors, allowing the audience to engage more freely with the live choreography. What works well is when the dancers connect with projected patterns. This they do by watching what appears on screen and performing movement that, captured by cameras monitored by Thomsen, will then influence the direction, speed and texture of the clustering shapes. Sometimes the live movement is very slow and voluptuous, at other times it is fast and knotty, but always the dancers have a lucious, fluid and grounded quality; while they share a vulnerability in their movement, the presence of the technology is so unassuming, so sensitive to what the dancers are doing, that we could forget it is there at all.

The effect that is created through the combination of dance and digital imagery is highly emotive and even visceral at times. Thomsen's patterns resemble growing organisms, swarming insects, unfurling blossoms, rapidly spreading coral reefs.... Images from nature and the restless, timeless sea and the busy life it contains are conjured up, as well as developing embryos and multiplying cells. But so are metaphors of illness and disease. The organic (the live movement) and the toxic (the images generated by Thomsen's computer) share this environment in which nothing is fixed and everything is unstable. The different colors which appear on the screens are enhanced by Michael Mannion's lighting design, while an oceanic sound-score by Alistair MacDonald helps create a sense of shifting emotional states -- love, grieving, anger, yearning and provocative memories.


The Sargasso Sea, with its rootless seaweeds, is the inspiration behind both the live performance and the digital imagery in "SesUnSea." The ocean has figured largely for Brown during this year's Dance Umbrella, as she also directed a project for young people which culminated in an installation event, performed alongside Merce Cunningham's "Ocean," which opened Dance Umbrella on September 21 at the Roundhouse, a massive, circular London venue. The installation-event, "Deep & Beneath," was a response by several groups of young people to "Ocean" and inspired by some of the working practices and methods used by Cunningham and John Cage for years. In Brown's work, images generated by software programs such as Life Forms were combined with photography and video alongside live performance. "Deep & Beneath" featured as a sort of sub-cultural aperitif to "Ocean," with audiences invited into a small, circular, dark, womb-like basement, 30 minutes before the large-scale performance of "Ocean" began upstairs. Both the space and movement were explored by the young people through using chance and random procedures, thus cultivating an atmosphere of surprise and expectation. Because of the maze-like design of the basement, used imaginatively by the performers, the audience had to be guided around the space in order to see the many aspects of the installation. It was an intimate and touching event in which the young performers described through dance, song, text, digital and photographic imagery their own heart-felt experiences of swimming through the large urban sea of London. The soulful, very personalized take on what the ocean stands for to a group of inner city kids provided a reassuring tonic to the impersonal and infinite ocean upstairs, as depicted by the Merce Cunningham company.

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