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Letter from London, 1-4: Dancing in Place & beyond
Vincent goes on; Vardimon goes back; Xaba & Noel cross over

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2009 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "If We Go On," designed and directed by veteran choreographer Charlotte Vincent, is a multi-layered collaboration which draws on the skills of seven performers. Vincent Dance Theatre, seen on October 17 at the Place, interrogated through music, text and dance the uncertainties in making a show, the invented presumption here being that the company is preparing its last. Vincent was inspired by some of the questions which collaborator Claire MacDonald posed: "How does the show go on? How do I take the step and still be me? Does this get harder as you get older? And is that a different question for women?" Created out of a lengthy research period in which Vincent worked together with theater and dance practitioners in London, Brighton and York, as well as Portugal, "If We Go On," presented at the Place as part of Dance Umbrella, took the shape of an ongoing investigative process, in which the bare mechanics of theater-making were laid bare. An elite group of musicians, actors and dancers probed with wit and honesty the challenges that face a generation of artists who have been round the performance circuit a good few times.

Onto a stage scattered with music stands, microphones, computers, papers and instruments, two women begin a conversation, in preparation for their final show, discussing what they should or should not do. Wendy Houston's text is hilarious, up-front, critical and cynical: every dance convention, technique and style is slammed, as is theatricality, seduction of the audience, minimalism, partner work, costumes and a whole host of other cliched dance components. It sounds like an updated version of Yvonne Rainer's "Aesthetics of Denial," which Rainer wrote in 1965 as a manifesto for the dance of the Judson artists. But unlike Rainer, these women soon realize, after their histrionic denials and rejections of accepted dance practices, that there will be nothing left to put on stage. From here the show begins, they are joined by the others, and pull together as a self-critical yet generously open team.

The result is a very lucid display of deconstructed dance-theater, with pauses, stops and starts, mini-acts of music and dance, funny fragmented phrases and self-reflexive commentary. As the performers each add to the organized chaos on stage through their individual mediums of expression, interrogating their 'raisons d'etre,' the theater becomes more cluttered and messy, a laboratory brimming over with creative ideas and raw energy. An hour disappears and both the company and audience realize that the 'last' show has unfolded before their very own eyes, that we've all survived it and have been thoroughly entertained.

While "If We Go On" condemns dance traditions, there is nothing jaded or cynical about what takes place on stage; the messages conveyed are both liberating and relevant to the 'ageing' choreographer. As one of the narrators confides to us in her deep throaty accent, "Deep inside me something wants to give up but my body urges me on."

Glory yesterdays

In Jasmin Vardimon's "Yesterday," seen at the Place November 20, we see all the conventions that Vincent questions and rejects in her work: cliches, stereotypical male/female relationships, over-blown theatricality and emotion, and athletic tricks. Having said this, I should add that the work is slickly put together and superbly performed, with the dancers attacking the choreography with 100% conviction. There are also some seductive visual images, thanks to Vardimon's vivid and rather wacky imagination. Vardimon's aesthetic takes the form of beefy Eurothrash: the dancers fly at each other persistently and are caught in a variety of intense, grappling holds. Athletic leaps are enacted in a series of vertical take-offs and landings, most performed in unison at considerable speed. This style of physical theater was riveting in the early '90s when it was being pioneered by the likes of Wim Wandekeybus, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and DV8, but is now less so due to over-saturation. However, it did win appreciative gasps from the audience, made up of mainly high school dance students, when I attended.

Vardimon plays with metaphors of disease and mental illness, themes that she has used in her previous work. There are close-ups of the dancers' stomachs and limbs filmed live; one woman draws all over her body, while at the end of the work, a man and a woman reveal their bare chests, onto which are projected X-ray images of the heart. Other topics include vulnerability, neurosis and wild uncontrollable passions, most of which are depicted through violent physical relationships between heterosexual couples, with the woman usually playing the aggressor. Even a seduction scene between a man and woman is tinged with a sadomasochistic edge: the female dancers use a leash to drag their partners around the theater, kicking and tripping them up before hurling them onto the floor and kissing them. Seamless and vibrant portrayals of sensationalist relationships are not enough to keep me interested. I feel I've seen them a thousand times before and they do nothing to develop the work.

Vardimon's curiosity in multi-media is also apparent in "Yesterday," manifest in video projections, both live and pre-recorded, strobe lighting and a white board on which the dancers trace the shapes of their bodies with an ultra-violet light. All of this makes for a stimulating visual feast, but sometimes the impact of each effect is lessened because there are just too many of them. Similarly, the music, mixed by Nik Kennedy, is an eclectic compilation, assembling Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Otis Redding, John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Aphex Twin and Mozart, in powerful tracks which become lost in the soup.

A program note indicates that "Yesterday" recycles glorious moments from the company's repertoire; for me the work stays in the past. There's not enough that's fresh to make it into a piece about today or even tomorrow.

Kettly Noel in Kettly Noel and Nelisiwe Xaba's "Correspondences." Eric Boudet photo courtesy the Place.

Everybody African

South African-born Nelisiwe Xaba and Malian Kettly Noel's dynamic duet "Correspondances," seen October 19 at the Place as part of Dance Umbrella's African Crossroads season, explores a relationship between two women through spoken dialogue, fashion and movement. Both performers exuded charisma and individuality which made them captivating to watch as they gave us a multi-colored portrait of both womanhood and friendship. Noel greets us first onstage, a diva obsessed with her appearance, wearing a mini- skirt and killer heels. While performing segmented ballet steps which exaggerate her long limbs, she chats to us about her likes and dislikes. She envisions her world in black or white, but certainly not gray. As if waiting to indulge her, a row of chic little outfits line the back wall, shoes and accessories scattered about in girly heaven. She's sassy, super confident and not someone whom I would like to run up against.

Soon she's joined by her friend, Xaba, another stunningly gorgeous woman, tall, stylishly dressed, ultra-feminine and self-possessed. Their characters clash, as they pose and strut around stage, at first coming across as competitive and bitchy women, but soon engaging with each other in a way that convinces me that they are closer than sisters. Contorting their bodies into the most unlikely positions, performing a bottom duet in which every action is initiated by bumping against each other's bottoms, they spar and frolic, like two unselfconscious tom-boys. Holding each other in passionate embraces or watching and copying each other, chatting, scolding and laughing, theirs is the deepest of friendships, which isn't afraid to delve into the highly sensual or earthy.

These two dignified yet feisty women seem to embody the many positive attributes of being a mature female, and while there is much child-like banter in their performance there is also sophistication and integrity. Xaba, in a confidential tone, tells the audience all the things she is, in French, and paints an illuminating and honest character sketch of herself, to which most women could relate and admire. What is refreshing about this monologue is that while she acknowledges her imperfections, there is no hint of self-loathing, rather a puckish sense of pride.

In their interactions, innocence is juxtaposed with a cheeky investigative sexuality. One section, in which where Xaba, lying under a table, asks Noel bossily to demonstrate ballet steps on top of the table, is touching, school-girly and much in contrast with the finishing scene in which both revel in an erotic orgy of fluids. Standing on a table they drink milk from the teats of two balloons, hanging from the ceiling like swollen udders. The liquid oozes steadily from the punctured vessels, drenching the two women and the stage. Soon they jump off the table and slip and slide in the puddle of milk in pure, utter abandonment.

Too many women performers who deal with identity issues apologize in some way or another, either by playing themselves down, or revealing fears and neuroses. It is therefore affirming to see two women who do neither but take abject pleasure in both themselves and each other.

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