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Letter from London, 5-17: Playtime
Danza with Ek; Flatt not; Pina still in Kontakt

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2010 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Playing to an unexpectedly rowdy audience (English audiences are usually so restrained and quiet), Danza Contemporanea de Cuba brought a delicious taste of Cuban vivacity to the stage at Sadler's Wells on March 19. Enjoying its first visit to Sadler's Wells, on the final leg of its European tour, the 21-strong company of dancers presented two Sadler's Wells commissions, Mats Ek's "Casi Casa" and George Cespedes's "Mambo 3XX1."

Ek weaves normal and abnormal domestic events into an intricate tapestry, transforming the stage through a minimal set into private places: a bed-sit, kitchen, parlour, and at times a public street. The dancers enact a series of complex human encounters: an uncomfortable marital relationship, the breezy passion between lovers, a confused male threesome and even a murder. A dreadlocked man lies languidly in a chair before stretching virtuosically, standing up and moon walking yes 'like M.J.' across the stage -- all lithe and fluid limbs. One happening unfolds seamlessly from the last like a well written novel. A man tries to distract his wife away from fussing over the oven, with romantic attentiveness, which she rejects, then accepts. Through their easy swinging partnering they should be happy, but he looks sad and the oven continues to smoke. A shocking but amusing climax occurs when the distracted wife suddenly takes a burnt baby out of the oven then leaves abruptly. Her partner cuddles the scorched infant in a dance of despair.

True to Mats Ek's quirkiness, and Latin American magic realism, surreal things happen, nothing is straightforward. Ek draws on the multiple skills of the members of the company, setting ballet, contemporary and Cuban dance technique around his own signature mixture of second position and inverted parallels. Movement is textured and unpredictably fresh.

There's an illuminating scene in which a group of women, dressed in vibrant colours, dance with their Hoovers, to the sound of bagpipes. Beginning with the toe stepping of a Scottish highland fling, the women erupt into high leg kicks and fast travelling leaps, jubilant cleaners who command their domestic appliances like soldiers and their chargers. In sharp comparison to these glamorous cleaners but no less convincing are three dishevelled looking men dancing out their own love entanglement; one is rejected while the others look lost and disconcerted. Every dancer has his/her own distinctive look, each one absorbing to watch.

Cespedes, a principal dancer with the company and a prolific choreographer, draws heavily on Mambo styles, both in the music and dance for "Mambo 3XX1." The entire cast, dressed in gym kits of white vests and black shorts, performs exercise drills in strict unison, with their faces set in deep concentration. It's a formidable sight -- the discipline required for such precision, mixed with swinging pelvises and low center of gravity. Following this regime the dancers assemble in duos, change into softer more colorful costuming and perform high velocity jazz routines with hip-hop and mambo thrown in. This big dance number which shows off the company's technique is less captivating then the rigorous unison drilling in the opening routine or the idiosyncratic style of Ek but it does convey these Cuban dancers' infectious joy as they celebrate both their physicality and their country's music. Let's hope they visit again soon.

Kate Flatt's 'Soul Play'

Director and choreographer Kate Flatt has worked extensively in theater, opera, musical theater, film and dance, so it is not surprising that the cast for her "Soul Play," performed by Kate Flatt Dance Projects recently at the Robin Howard Dance Theater of the Place, includes an actor and dancer as the main protagonists and a written text by Anna Reynolds. Seen on the cold, wet evening March 30, "Soul Play" explores in a spiritual and metaphorical manner the suicide of a depressed man. The dim lighting, smoke and emotionally brooding soundscore arranged by Al Ashford set a bleak landscape, but nothing is too literal or jarring in the rendition of such delicate subject matter. There is almost an ambiguity as to whether the man, played by Sam Curtis, has survived his suicide committed by jumping in front of a train or has passed into another world. The text and actions could belong to both the mortal and immortal worlds, as the man himself does not seem to know whether he's dead or alive. His departed soul or ghost tries hard to orientate itself, as he talks about being lost in the woods. His shoes are missing and he's forgotten who he is, but then memories return to him, prompted in part by the presence of dancer Joy Costantinides. There are other markers that also jog his memory: the ominous rumbling of trains passing by, light and shadows cast by swaying lightbulbs suspended from above and significant objects, such as coins in his pocket and his identity pass hanging from one of the light bulbs.

Constantinides arrives scuttling across the stage purposefully, wizened and bent, wrapped up like an Polish Babushka. The interplay between them creates the focus for the piece, the joining/healing of one soul to another. Her silence and lyrical, playful dancing compliment his gauche questions and physical awkwardness. Like an old hobo she arranges her possessions around her and takes a number of symbolic articles from her suitcase: acorns, a candle, photographs, a rug... Constantinides doesn't seem like a spiritual guide at first because of her aggressive, petulant actions, jumping on his back or throwing acorns at him, but that's what she becomes, helping him remember his past and then let go of it. Is she like a good therapist who leads you back into your painful past, forces you to confront it, then enables you to find your own way back again or just some spiritual being who comes to carry your burdens'

While fragile and petite, Constantinides holds the power over Curtis through her silence and persistence. Her energy is unrelentless as she forces him to recount stories about his daughter, or helps him plant the symbolic acorn seed. She teaches him to dance a bit. Finally draping material over a wire to resemble the entrance of a tent, she creates a threshold, across which he must pass, in in order to move on. The performers portray a touching yet unsentimental relationship, partly through the poetic flavour of the choreography and the unfrilly text. Short yet efficient at 50 minutes, "Soul Play" gently and gradually burrows its way into one's psyche, and offers another side to the taboos and fears around suicide.

Not your average senior dance

Faced with the formidable crowd of seniors seated demurely around three sides of the stage at London's Barbican centre, like participants at a tea dance, I feel humbled. They are the stars of "Kontakthof," originally directed and choreographed by the late Pina Bausch, and premiered in 1978 by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. In 2000 Bausch decided to re-make Kontakthof using amateur performers over the age of 65, all of them ordinary people from Wuppertal, and on April 1, I watch a similar group, rigorously trained by rehearsal directors Josephine Ann Endicott and Benedicte Billiet. For three hours, 14 women and 13 men laugh, cry, shout, sing, cavort, flirt, fight and dance, in a marathon of sentiments surrounding the need to make contact. They explore desire, rejection and affection, breaking conventions about how western society expects elderly people to behave. They make us both optimistic and uncomfortable in their presentation and confrontation of the ageing body. Like demanding children they attract attention tirelessly through slap-stick violence and surreal humour.

"Kontakthof" is riveting from beginning to end because of Bausch's theatrical mastery, her brilliance in mobilising large groups on stage, and in drawing out individual idiosyncrasies. Although the movement is mainly pedestrian, it nevertheless demands a certain level of fitness and stamina but the cast run, fall and lift each other without a flicker of fatigue. Rather than looking tired or insecure, their advanced years bring a gravitas to their performance, a dignity even when they are presenting embarrassing acts such as a woman begging money from the audience so she can operate an electric rocking horse and sit astride it like on a sex toy, or the man who repeatedly misses his chair and falls on the ground. They also possess a curious vulnerability and rawness as nothing they do is too stylised or polished. After all these are real senior citizens, recruited from the local community, innocent to the tricks of professional actors and dancers.

While initially I notice the mature, non-dance sculpted bodies, their thick wastes and wrinkles, after seeing these people of advanced years walk with confidence and poise and with perfect posture, addressing their audience with strong voices and focusing their knowing gaze on us, I begin to envy their maturity and their worldliness. The glamorous costumes by Rolf Borzik are flattering and help this transformation from the mundane to the seductive. Evening wear, suits for the men and endless frocks for the women (which they change in and out of like models in a fashion show), look like they have been tailored to each individual body. I entirely agree with the comment by an audience member: 'I wish I look like that when I'm 65.'

I find myself mourning again for Bausch when I see some of the absurd scenarios which take place in the work: the woman suddenly falling off a chair and wincing in pain on the floor while a couple engage in a romantic dance, a man chasing a woman brandishing a dead mouse while the others watch in silence, the circus act in which they all appear wearing hideous clown masks, or the film about the breeding habits of ducks. The two single women sneering at the married couple and bitching about their looks, the Busby Berkeley procession and the grand confessional in which each person talks about their first 'love' -- it's all here. She presents us with continuous cycles of troubling and delightful images, which are utterly beguiling. We are swept along with her on a journey into the human psyche and the machinations of theatre from which it is very hard to return.

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