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Letter from London, 11-3: Old is New Again
Time-Stoppers from Burrows, Cunningham, and Guedes at Dance Umbrella

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- What's refreshing about the work of Jonathan Burrows is that it never looks dated. "The Stop Quartet" was made in 1996, but when I saw it October 22 at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House, its intricate movement and absurdly comic sensibility made it look timeless. Shown as part of Dance Umbrella, which brings many old choreographic gems back to the stage, "The Stop Quartet" starts with a quirky duet between Burrows and Henry Montes, who chase each other round the stage in a series of funny walks. With flailing arms and jittery feet they wiggle around the space -- carved up by criss-crosses created by Michael Hulls's lighting design -- like two characters from a Jacques Tati film, taking cues from each other which abruptly stop and start their activity. Their different physiques add to the hilarity: Montes is tall and gangly, Burrows small and compact. Nonetheless they are symbiotically in tune with one another and relate like old friends. They are not trying to be amusing, but sometimes I think they too are going to crack up laughing.

When the two men are joined by the regal Ragnhild Olsen, the tone becomes even more sociable. She changes the dynamics, as they all perform similar themes in the feet but add actions for the arms that involve stretching upwards and suddenly clasping the arms above the head. Alongside the fun they seem to be having, the complex patterns, exhausting repetitive stepping, and cues demand deep concentration. Music by Kevin Volans and Matteo Fargion, long-time collaborators with Burrows, mirrors the mathematical process of the choreography, but also adds fluidity. As the trio hobbles across the stage, taking long strides with crossed legs and intermittently adding some flapping gestures, they finally pick up the fourth performer, Andros Zins-Browne, who resolves the quartet. Another highly individualistic dancer, Zins-Browne adds his own fast and sharp energy but doesn't detract from the endearing and effective team work. Sometimes dancers who perform minimalistic choreography look cold and detached. Not so Burrows and guests, who engage warmly with each other but, more importantly, with the audience, inviting the spectators into their game rather than shutting them out.

One of Dance Umbrella's opening performances, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company program I caught October 1 at the Barbican included "Crises" (1960), "Xover" (2007), and the high-tech "Biped" (1999). "Crises" was wonderfully hectic, with the honky-tonk piano thumping out music by Conlon Nancarrow. The dancers, in vivid red, orange and yellow unitards, play about in duets, binding themselves together with elastic bands attached to ankles and waists. A female dancer walks on gazing out at the audience, a rare occurrence in a Cunningham work, where the performer's focus is usually introverted or centered on other dancers. The performers are calm and unflustered, immaculate technicians ploughing steadily through the discordant strains of the piano, which sounds all wrong. "Crises" shows Cunningham's idiosyncrasies off at their best and for me embodies the spirit of experimentation of the '60s: an element of surprise, the pronounced co-existence of both movement and sound, the insect-like quality of the dancers as they extend impossibly long limbs while executing upper body tilts and unexpected gestures. For those youngsters in the audience new to the world of Cunningham, this is a great introduction.

"Xover" looks new and squeaky clean. The late Robert Rauschenberg's all-white unitards, as worn by the dancers set against his decor, a collage of images from a construction site which depicts a bridge, road signs and a bicycle in bright pillar-box reds and whites are an uplifting visual feast. The live presence of a voice in John Cage's score, "Aria," performed by Joan La Barbara, paired with "Fontana Mix" adds another layer of immediacy and freshness. Positioned far downstage left, La Barbara is a dominating presence who cackles, splutters, screeches and whispers, much to the hilarity of school groups in the audience. There is some luscious partner work here too, in which poses are held for a good length of time, so that their sculptural effect is really emphasized, and the slower dynamics in the choreography in general allow a closer scrutiny of the dancers as individuals rather than as the impersonal shapes and colors of a collage. While this indulgence in the movement is enjoyable, the novelty of the live voice wears thin and I begin to find it annoying and finally superfluous, even though La Barbara's palette of utterings is impressive.

A solo by Portuguese dance artist Tiago Guedes, seen at the Place October 15, takes on another flavor of artists working in the '60s: that of using everyday objects and their assemblage as the core of the performance. In "Various Materials" Guedes first sketches out the simple choreographic journey he will make when he is in possession of his materials, using straightforward pedestrian actions, executed with a neutral, relaxed body. Just when all this is becoming tediously boring, he exits, re-enters, and works his magic. Using 'found' objects such as masking tape on the floor and a pile of newspapers, he constructs an imaginative landscape that would rivet the most unfocussed child: a giant spider's web appears out of the floor tape; the newspapers become an elaborate carpet which, when suspended, creates a canvas on which he burns holes and sprays paint to depict an idyllic country scene. Stuffing yards of blue bin (garbage) bags through a hole in the newspaper produces a river which suddenly cascades down onto the floor. Guedes presents us with a world of endless ideas and possibilities which he crafts with an artisan's rigor, precision and functionality, thus appealing to both the dreamer and the practically-minded. Like a magician he pulls out materials from places you'd least expect. As he envelops himself in the ocean of blue plastic bags which he has produced from under the floor, he merges his own body with his art. We've seen this highly physicalized art-making before, in the repertoire of the Judson Church choreographers and their successors, and on the kids' art channel on television, but it's still fun.

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