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Flash Review 2, 9-30: Place, Show, Win
Audience goes for macho, but Linder's "Foie Gras" gets Place Prize

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Competitions in contemporary dance are rare in the UK, which is why the Place Prize, held every two years since 2004, is a significant event. The brain child of Place Theatre director John Ashford, the Place Prize is a choreographic competition open to all UK-based dance artists and sponsored by Bloomberg. Ashford came up with the idea after judging frequent dance competitions abroad, thinking it would be great for both the profile of contemporary dance here and for uncovering new artists. He wooed Bloomberg, and the ensuing relationship resulted in the company offering substantial money for new dance. How it works is as follows: Dance artists submit three-minute videos which have to convey their choreographic ideas. Of those submitted, 20 artists are commissioned by Ashford to create new dance works which will be performed at the Place. (This year's group was selected, from among nearly 200 candidates, by Ashford, Place associate director Eddie Nixon, and Dublin Dance Festival artistic director Laurie Uprichard.) Each gets 5,000 pounds and studio time to make a 15-minute piece. They are then judged by a carefully selected panel (from multi-disciplinary arts backgrounds) as well as the audience, with five finalists selected for a two-week run at the Place, at the end of which an overall winner is awarded 25,000 pounds, no strings attached. Additionally, after each performance the audience votes electronically for its favorite choreographer, who wins 1000 pounds.

The Place Prize has become the biggest choreographic competition in Europe, and however cynical you are about competitions it does spread awareness of dance and attracts many dance artists in all stages of their careers, from the most established to those who have had little or no previous exposure.

I caught the first night of this year's finals September 17 at the Place and discovered five works which embody a mixture of integrity, frivolity and abundant physicality. The first finalist was veteran Aletta Collins, one of the most senior and choreographically experienced of the competitors. Aletta Collins 'does' wit and her solo for another seasoned dancer, Rachel Krische, entitled "Lap Dancer," was an amusing portrayal of an interactive relationship between a business woman and her lap top. Krische, androgynously be-suited, gazes at her computer, which is positioned on a small table center stage. She reacts to the continuous babble of the machine, as her junk mail comes seeping out, read by a flat, seductive electronic woman's voice, part of Street Furniture's sound score. The voice informs the dancer about free offers, holidays, sex aides, and competitions. Krische gestures and writhes, trying to keep on top of the information, but becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the relentless detritus. Half way through she seems to lose the boundaries between what constitutes the computer and her body, recklessly dancing on top of the desk, underneath it and around it as if she herself was literally oozing out of the lap top's portals. She pauses only to flex her muscles each time she is told how much battery power there remains, but the phrases become more fragmented and chaotic. This is a private dance between woman and dancer but it is also a battle. Finally exhausted, Krische curls up under the table, switching off her electronic partner. While "Lap Dancer" is funny, it also carries a chilling comment on how easy it is to become subsumed by desktop technology.

"Foie Gras," by Adam Linder, the youngest entrant in the finals, exposes some whacky ideas by way of some exciting movement. Performed by Linder and Lorena Randi, it loosely explores themes of bondage and sexual exploitation with a dark, humorous edge. An obvious symbol of female repression, a pole, used for pole dancing, dominates the stage but is only employed lightly by the dancers. Trussed up in hideous tight-fitting beige suits, the performers enact a series of encounters, using a sophisticated dance vocabulary mixed with gestures taken from cat-walk modelling, pole-dancing, and pedestrian movements. The connection between Linder and Randi is ambiguous; sometimes they share a frenzied intimacy, but at other times they appear as separate entities, each living out their own victimhood. Another surprise comes with what is pulled out of two small lunch boxes placed strategically on either side of the pole: metal mouth harnesses, which when donned obediently by the dancers pull their upper lips above their teeth in a disturbing grimace. Are they victims of fashion, the sex industry or society? Linder keeps us guessing.

Performing his own solo "Gertrud," Simon Ellis touchingly remembers the Viennese dancer, choreographer and teacher Gertrud Bodenwieser (1890-1959). Ellis pieces together a collage of movement, spoken thoughts, music and visual images which sketch out the extraordinary character of this pioneer of Expressionist dance. A first-person voice-over with comments spoken in English and German, meant to simulate Bodenwieser, creates the impression that the dead woman is present in the theater watching what Ellis is doing. It includes reminiscences of a particularly vibrant time in dance history, reflections on Bodenwieser's own performances and regrets about the world today. This narrator reflects sadly on the "vanity of the solo" and the loneliness of modern society while Ellis moves softly but with purpose, responsive to the voice but not a slave to it. "I am tired of cynicism" the voices repeats wearily several times. Ellis's final dance completes this tribute which immortalizes Bodenwieser admirably but without sentimentality.

The intensity of the duet for two women in Anna Williams's "Clearing" is gripping. There is something cold and detached about the presence of each dancer as they co-exist on stage, but also mutually supportive when they engage in close contact work. Watching and waiting before each action, they seem to be working out some complex issue and the music by Philip Jeck and Radiohead is broodingly atmospheric. This is an uninterrupted expose of dance-making, with little to detract from the choreographic ideas which develop both individually on the bodies of each performer and symbiotically in duet. There's a quietness and efficiency in how they interpret the material, and while their focus is on each other rather than the audience, they have us hooked.

The final all-male trio couldn't be more different from Williams's duet. Bursting with testosterone, the semi-naked torsos reveal six packs and rippling muscles in Dam Van Huynh's "Collision." Like Greek athletes, the dancers (including Van Huynh himself) -- all members of Phoenix Dance Theatre -- slap their thighs and clench their fists in male-bonding unison. The beefy, large dancing becomes more subtle when the men pair off into duos and perform sparring matches. As they wrestle with each other in the semi-dark to the dramatic music by Lee J Malcolm I conclude that "Collision" probably has the instant appeal that an audience wants. I'm right. It's not my choice, but when the audience votes at the end, Van Huynh's macho display is the favorite. He takes away 1,000 pounds -- and, not incidentally, raises the question: Does a contemporary dance audience want instant gratification, food for thought or wit? For the final winner, the judges chose Linder and "Foie Gras." The Place Prize caters to all.

Disclosure: Last year I edited Resolution! Review, an online review magazine, published by the Place, which covers its season of new choreography, "Resolutions!," presented in January and February. For more information on this seasonal publication, please go to www.theplace.org.uk and search under "Resolutions!"

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