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Letter from London, 12-13: Regime Change
Dance Umbrella Widens the Tent; CanDoCo Steps Out

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2007 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Commissioned by the South Bank Centre, CandoCo's program for its 2007/8 season performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall consisted of two diametrically opposed works, one by Rafael Bonachela and the other by Arthur Pita. The program marked the huge breadth of the mixed-ability company's expertise in its ability to take on Bonachela's "And who shall go to the ball," with its tricky use of technique, and Pita's "The Stepfather," which presents a demanding theatricality. It also marked the last season under Celeste Dandeker, retiring after 16 years as artistic director. "Celeste has used her inexhaustible energy to pioneer the appreciation of disabled dance," South Bank Centre director Judy Kelly noted in a moving tribute which opened the September 25 performance.

Pita's piece is a black comedy directly inspired by the anarchic band the Violent Femmes, in particular the tune "Country Death Song." Notwithstanding a bleak plot revolving around teenage angst and the horrors of growing up in a provincial hillbilly society where having daughters instead of sons is regarded as a curse and sex outside of marriage punishable by death, the work also has a humorous slapstick quality. Costumes and striking makeup create characters which look like they might have stepped out of a union between the Adams Family and Little House on the Prairie. The dancers' particular strength is that they are highly expressive, so a work of this melodramatic nature looks utterly convincing.

Bonachela's "And who shall go to the ball" is intense, fast and visually vivid. Scott Walker's music, played by the London Sinfonietta -- surrounding the stage with an imposing line of double basses -- is electrically charged and nervy, as is the choreography. Layers of movement unfold at incredible speed, as the dancers slice through the darkened space on a stage which looks like an empty ballroom washed in red light, and complex kinetic information pours from their bodies. When they partner one another, the performers become knotted arrangements of twisted limbs, sharply outlined in their red and black costumes, then suddenly breaking apart. During moments of stillness, they lie scattered on the floor or perched on strangely sculpted chairs which, together with the wheelchairs, decorate the stage like modern sculpture.

CandoCo's main achievement is that it has experimented, polished and refined the art of blending disabled dancers with non-disabled to such a sophisticated level that it is nearly impossible to spot the difference. Instead you start noticing a whole new vocabulary of possibilities.

One Big Umbrella: Boivin Digs, Maliphant goes to the movies, and Clark weds Stravinsky

Under the new artistic directorship of Betsy Gregory, who was Val Bourne's assistant director for many years, Dance Umbrella had a subtly different look this year. There was more emerging talent and more diversity, both in the ages of the artists and the type of work, as well as a definite fondness for site-specific dance. Gregory's preference seems to be for presenting dance that crosses artistic boundaries and appeals to a wider and more varied audience. My choice in selecting the following three works intends to reflect this broadening of the Dance Umbrella repertoire.

We turned up at the Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank on Saturday October 6 to witness a man, Philippe Priasso, dance a romantic duet with a mechanical digger. However absurd this balletic meeting between man and machine might sound, the duet choreographed by Dominique Boivin for his Compagnie Beau Geste was a moving and enlightening event. "Transports Exceptionnels" explores the relationship between a gigantic metal body and a small soft and flexible man. One follows the movements of the other. The precision of the machine is impressive as it stops and starts, as it speedily rotates or raises its bucket like a giant claw high into the air or skims it over the ground.

Priasso interacts with the machine, climbing onto the apparatus and suspending himself from various parts of its mechanical anatomy, balancing gracefully while it spins him round like a merry-go-round. Both respond with evident care and sensitivity; if Priasso falls out of the bucket, or gets left behind on the ground, the digger slows down, comes back to him and scoops him up, like a loving dinosaur. They have their little disagreements as well; there's a curious tension between the two performers which is like a frisson between two lovers, the attraction of opposites, the sublime and the ridiculous. Pathos is added to the duet by the music, which includes a recorded melange of operatic favorites sung by Maria Callas. And, of course, due credit goes to the driver of the digger, William Defresne.

"Cast No Shadow," a film and dance collaboration by choreographer Russell Maliphant and film-maker Isaac Julien, seen at Sadlers Wells October 4, illustrated how live dance can be put on stage alongside film with varying effects. ŠJulien is a powerful craftsman, whose films are allusive and suggestive but never fixed in their subject matter. As a British-Caribbean artist, he explores black identity in much of his work but in a hauntingly indirect way rather than in an overtly political manner. In "Cast No Shadow," the dancers from Russell Maliphant Dance Company, who appear both in the films and live on stage, in front of the screens on which the films are projected, represent transient characters, wandering and searching nomads crossing wastelands and deserts. The first film. "True North," uses the frozen tundras of Iceland, while both "Fantome Enrique" and "Small Boats" explore the desert, villages, temples and ocean of Senegal.

Layer upon layer of meaning unravels through striking images which are caught on camera and which, while often ambiguous, nevertheless remain etched in memory, such as that of a black woman, Vanessa Myrie, trudging across frozen ice-fields, frequently stopping to look back and recounting snippets of an autobiographical story. Or the teasing character in "Fantome Afrique" who dances through the empty corridors of a deserted temple and suddenly vanishes, then repeatedly reappears in different locations, leading us somewhere but never arriving. Each film conveys multiple memories and unfinished stories. The eye of the camera roams, catching its subjects by etching them against the intense brown and reds of the landscape of Africa or the mesmeric whites and greys of Iceland. The quiet on/off presence of the dancers who appear live on stage during "True North" is subtle and sensitive. While it doesn't really add much more to the captivating film, Maliphant's calm, cool and fluid choreography is compatible with the meditative aura of Julien's work.

The most convincing collaborative work in this program is "Small Boats," because the dancers and their movement is seamlessly woven into the film content, eliminating any hierarchy between film and dance. The film which opens the piece consists of one long shot in which the camera slowly pans over endless broken hulks of boats tragically piled up on land. This scene then fades to reveal the dancers on stage performing sculptural partnered duets, as if they are the transcended souls of the discarded boats. Passing from live medium to recorded, captured on film, the group of dancers continue on their spiritual journey, appearing in a variety of mystifying locations: sand dunes, a sumptuous palace and the ocean. Although they are allusive, their physicality is always grounded.

Michael Clark's "Stravinsky Project," comprised of three sections set to some hefty Stravinsky scores, shows how much Clark has grown up as a choreographer. A considerable body of work, the choreography is much more serious and developed than the anarchic posturing of earlier work, the Stravinsky music a far cry from the thrash punk rock bands. However, an evening out watching the Michael Clark Company has lost some of its electricity.

When I watched the program on November 8 at the Barbican Theatre, it was the third section, "I Do," set to "Les Noces," which I enjoyed the most as it shows Clark's reincarnation at its best: the surreal costuming and stage design, the cheeky sense of irony, the homage to ballet and Cunningham technique, and his love of riveting, exhilarating music. An impressive rendition of "Les Noces" by the New London Chamber Choir and soloists is combined with a charismatic performance by the dancers. The bride-to-be emerges from an enormous Russian peasant doll positioned downstage. The striking, statuesque Kate Coyne performs Clark's tilted balletic vocabulary regally and inhabits the stage as if it were her palace. The other dancers flit around her in the pre-nuptial preparations and interpret Stravinsky's distinctive score with confidence and flair. Every component holds its own and in a fabulous finale, Coyne reappears as the surrendering bride teetering underneath an absurdly huge white woollen costume.

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