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Letter from London, 11-20: Out of the past, out of Africa
Okach shifts the center; Clark stands still

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2009 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Michael Clark's "Come, been and gone," created for this year's Dance Umbrella and seen November 4, was one huge nostalgia trip for Clark's past work. Drawing on the music of the rock/pop triumvirate Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, the sound was the driving force and the dominating presence of the work, with choreography and costume paling into insignificance. Visuals were created by long-term collaborators Charles Atlas (lighting) and Stevie Smith (costumes). From a choreographer who shocked, teased and rebelled, there were some 'souvenirs' of an illustrious past of drugs, sex and sub-cultural fashion tastes: the impressive, statuesque Kate Coyne wearing a unitard decorated with syringes and dancing a slow solo to the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," the male dancers sporting sexually provocative silver leggings which barely covered the genital area and the glittering, fetishistic masked body-suit worn by Coyne for the section to Reed's "Venus In Furs." Also present were some bamboozling costume references, ) such as the half-veils worn by several dancers; apparently just for the sake of being beguiling.

The famous Clark signature movement, an extraordinary walk in which the pelvis, thrust forward, leads the body, appeared briefly in one section of choreography set to Iggy Pop's vibey "Mass Production." Throughout were manifestations of his distorted version of ballet and Cunningham vocabulary which I found so riveting in the early '90s. But the raw, rebellious energy, the overt references to sex and debauchery juxtaposed with draw-dropping displays of technical expertise are gone, and costumes which turned me on and off have been replaced by glamorous yet unremarkable contemporary dance wear. And there was an emptiness to the choreography, a sense of longing for the past and a fatigue with the present. Even Clark's token appearances in the show verged on the pathetic. He walked on stage several times wearing unappealing sports clothes and enacted minimalistic balances and postures, often doing something weird with an object such as a toilet seat or microphone, and looked, to be brutally honest, like a spare part.

With Clark, at the end of decade, it is hard to watch the work without longing for what it was before, and missing what his own once seductive presence and charismatic naughtiness brought to the stage. Much of the choreography looked ploddy, even though his team of dancers is composed of strong technicians. Performers exited and entered in slow two-dimensional penchés or walks, and technical exercises that looked like they had been lifted straight out of Cunningham or ballet class and set to the music conveyed very little.

The main appeal to "Come, been and gone" was the music. I found myself concentrating on the thrilling lyrics and beats of, for example, Bowie's "Aladdin Sane." During the piece set to Bowie's "Heroes" the highlight for me and others I spoke with was a film displaying the young Bowie singing in resplendent androgynous beauty. The rock star's aura was so spellbinding that the dancers, although alluring in black, glam-rock body-suits, didn't get a look in. The final choreography, performed to Bowie's "The Jean Genie," was far more pithy and spirited. Both renewed strength in performance and commitment in the dancing finally matched the power of this song.

The revival of "Swamp," created originally for Rambert Dance Company by Clark in 1986, looked visually sharp, with indigo costumes shot through with sparkling turquoise stripes for the company and Atlas's design, which consisted of a vertical column of light panning rhythmically across the back cyclorama. However, the dancers began shakily -- to the pulsating sounds of Bruce Gilbert and Wire -- and their lack of confidence undermined the choreography, even though they improved towards the end.

While I admire Clark's determination to carry on making work, and while "Come, been and gone" allowed me to revel in my own musical nostalgia trip, I question whether he has anything meaningful to say any more.


Out of Africa

In minimalistic contrast to Clark's production at the Barbican, Opiyo Okach's site-specific work "Shift·centre - Series 10" explored notions of a cross-cultural space, carving up, exploring and opening out the Robin Howard Theatre at the Place on October 23. With seating stacked up at the far end of the theater, the audience was invited to join the performers in inhabiting the rest of the bare space. Designer Jean-Christophe Lanquetin marked out different zones for the dancers by using a low maintenance set of gym benches positioned on the floor, transparent plastic curtains, and lighting to frame the territories. The dancers moved everywhere but periodically occupied the highlighted zones, long corridors or tight squares where they performed improvised material in solos and groups. According to the program note, Okach intentionally chose dancers from different cultural and artistic origins to help him in his choreographic enquiry. Using their range of corporeal, physical, visual and aural viewpoints avoided interpreting movement and its relation to space from one cultural perspective.

Every time Okach, a Kenyan choreographer who works both in France and Kenya, presents "Shift·centre"  he invites dancers from the host country to join with members of his own company, so the process and product is always fluid. The group interacts and relates with the ease of a family. Each performer's identity and physicality mediates the space, as do those of the audience, and as they pick up on each other's personalities, complex choreographic dialogues are initiated. No hierarchy exists between viewer and performer and this feels liberating. Rubbing shoulders with the dancers makes for a fresh, intense and intimate experience, of being placed inside the work, rather than outside of it.  Recorded music and sounds occasionally float through the air but the aural presence erupts in the middle of the piece in the physical form of an older African woman, Anastasia Akumu, garbed in African dress and singing in Swahili. Akumu is a uniting force, the matriarch of the group, travelling around the performers, building a unique relationship with each one.

Written text appears fleetingly towards the end, projected on the wall and floor, by African writers unknown to me. Even if there is some cultural terrain that is hard to cross in terms of understanding, i.e language and reference points, participating in this event, which was more like a workshop than a performance, helped me to see how one could collapse the boundaries inherent in so much western theater dance: those of race, class, gender, and between spectator and performer.

'Shift·centre' is included in Dance Umbrella's "African Crossroads" series, which focuses on experimental work by new choreographers based in or from Africa. What is useful about seeing such work is that we are jolted out of our limited understanding of African choreography as being folksy and traditional. Okach is very far from that.

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