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Letter from London, 7-5: Social Dances in Critical Times
Zeroculture's Black Thing; Havana Rakatan's Son & Fury; Williams on Dance on Film
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2007 Josephine Leask
All Together Now
LONDON -- For many, June in England conjures up strawberries and cream, Pimms, outdoor festivals and tennis; but this June we've had severe flooding, terrorism and a new prime minister. While the first two are deeply distressing, the third one is, possibly, good news. So far Gordon Brown, with his unflinching response to the attempted terror attacks, his straight talking, steely gaze and his controversial cross-party search to find the best MPs for his cabinet, has surprised the country. Brown's dour Scottish character is diametrically opposed to predecessor Tony Blair's, so we will, undoubtedly, be seeing an end to the ex-prime minister's faux touchy-feely style of "sofa government," the slick sound-bites and the smooth spinning. Brown tells it how it is. It's very early days, but maybe, just maybe we can trust this man.
Here in rainy London, where, until yesterday, the government had raised the 'current threat level' to 'critical,' the highest, indicating 'an attack is expected imminently,' and with police sirens screeching incessantly, there is a weary sadness around. However, in true British character, people seem to be grumpier about the weather than anything else and even that is not keeping them indoors. On the night before the discovery of the first car bomb, June 28, I went to the South Bank Centre to see "Find Me Amongst the Black" by Zeroculture, in which the skills of director/choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller, writer Parv Bancil and designer Kit Monkman were combined to create a cross artform-performance. I was drawn to the work because of its content: a classic love story with complicated racial identity issues set in present day racially tense, multi-cultural Britain. The story goes like this: Asian girl falls in love with Afro-Caribbean man. Her possessive brother doesn't like it and beats her up. She finally dies as a result of her mother culture's paranoia, her host culture's negligence and her own unhappiness and confusion. Unfortunately, the whole package sounds much more gritty (so-called "honor" killings, a black Romeo and Juliet theme, Asian sense of isolation) and promises more on paper than what we actually see on stage.
The story is told through dance, mainly of the South Asian variety, text, and film, and while each component is strong enough in its own right, when placed together they lose their power to communicate. Gestural movement follows the text far too literally and is thus often reduced to empty actions, while the film component, abstract graphics of urban landscapes, skies, moons and train stations, is slick and technical but more distracting than meaningful. The performers, themselves of mixed identity, have stunning individual qualities but some of them look awkward dancing the Indian classical steps, particularly when they juxtapose these with jazz, contemporary and hip-hop styles. For me, the most thought-provoking relationship is that between the brother, played by Rashpal Singh Bansal, and sister, played by Seeta Patel, before their violent encounter. His possessive, incestuous attitude towards his sister and her affectionate ridiculing of her brother and detachment from him are conveyed by minimal 'avoidance' contact movement and pre-recorded dialogue which is simple and sincere. A great score helps to give the work its distinct Asian identity, but while this group of A-list artists has created a highly topical piece of dance-theater, the impact it should make is somehow flattened by lapses in performance and content.
Cabana in Havana
When the days were sunnier at the beginning of June, my love of Cuban music took me to see the Cuban modern dance company Ballet Rakatan, with its UK premiere of "Havana Rakatan," at Sadler's Wells's West End venue, the Peacock Theatre. While there is not much left to the imagination in these large-scale, flamboyant, toe-tapping shows that are rather more geared to crowd pleasing than to portraying subtle insight into the dance and music forms concerned, the sheer vibrance and talent of the performers was intoxicating.
Watching a cast of Cuban dancers and musicians who probably earn next to nothing give more than 100% of their energy to a wealthy Western audience is a humbling experience. The dancers, trained in contemporary, Cuban and Latin styles, and hand-picked by director and former dancer Nilda Guerra, who founded Ballet Rakatan in 2001, take the audience on a rapid tour of Cuban musical history. "Havana Rakatan" is designed to illustrate how every dance and music style has evolved in Cuba from its fusion of African and Spanish cultures; Flamenco, Yoruba and Afro-Haitian rhythms as well as jazz, mambo and bolero culminate in the sophisticated modern-day style Cuban Son, the foundation of salsa, played by the sensational Son band Turquino.
The first act is dedicated to Cuba's African slave ancestors, who lay down the foundations of so much of country's modern-day music and dance. These dances are seeped in ritual and high energy and begin with a celebration of the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba, the first slaves to be brought to Cuba, with the dancers wearing tribal regalia -- huge colorful costumes and surreal headdresses. Following the Yoruba festivities we hear the distinct drums and drumbeats from the Congo and then witness the quieter mysterious prayers and rituals of the Dahomey tribes, from what's now the Republic of Benin in West Africa. After some traditional rural folk dances, the act culminates with "El Manisero," a feisty number sung by principal vocalist Geidy Chapman which conjures up the smells, noise and movement of the rumbustious streets of pre-revolutionary Havana, where decadent wealth and filthy poverty were united by music and dance.
In the second act the company illustrates with even more energy and considerably less costumes the dance explosion that occurred in Havana from the 1920s to the 1950s. This was a time in which dance form after dance form was being pioneered in the casinos, dance halls, cabarets and beach clubs and music began to be played by the signature instruments of salsa, the tres, guitar, trumpet, bongo, guiro and voice. Here the dancers embellish familiar dances/music styles such as the rumba, cha-cha-cha, mambo, bolero, and Latin Jazz to give them a modern spin. Much of this act is just too much like "come dancing" for my liking, with endlessly body revealing or skimpy, tacky costumes, unsubtle "oom-pa-pa's" and over-the-top performances, but when we finally arrive in the salsa section, it is worth the over-stimulating wait. While salsa combines most of the styles mentioned above, somehow the clear steady beat of the son and the less showy, more sophisticated movement is a joy to watch. My attention was drawn back repeatedly to the musicians and singers, who dance salsa as they make music, without frills, and with such dignity, fluidity and rigor that I am spellbound.
Williams Wins over Wapping
If central London got to be too much at times over the last month, a trip out to Wapping in the East End to see dance film-maker Margaret Williams's retrospective at the Wapping Project proved to be an affirming and positive experience. The exhibition covered the formidable territory of dance films produced during the past 25 years of Williams's career, and included works made especially for the camera, adaptations of existing works and documentaries. Some 23 hours of film, played on a loop on four different screens at the impressive venue, a former hydraulic pump station, allowed viewers the opportunity to dip in, and out, of some memorable visual material. What came across most emphatically is how Williams has managed to etch out a niche in film making that is not too commercial or 'MTV' in style. Improvisation, multi-camera work, great locations and a vivid imagination are some of the factors that have contributed to her success. Her close collaboration with choreographers such as Lea Anderson, Victoria Marks and Jiri Kylian resulted in cutting-edge dance programming, largely for Channel 4, which I think was some of Williams's best. And her adaptations of ballets by choreographers such as Kenneth MacMillian, Cathy Marsden and David Bintley show how ballet can be translated effectively by the medium of film.