Review: Available Light, Palace Theatre, Manchester

DANCE

AVAILABLE LIGHT

PALACE THEATRE, MANCHESTER

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Available Light
Available Light. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Since it was established in 2005, the Manchester International Festival has claimed its own distinct and valued place in the global arts festival circuit. The programming of Available Light, a dance work of genuinely world historic significance, speaks to the Festival’s burgeoning stature.

First staged, at the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in 1983, the piece brings together three towering figures in American late modernism, namely: choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams and architect Frank Gehry. Starkly minimalist, assiduously abstract, yet delightfully human, it achieves a brilliant symbiosis between the visions of three great artists who had not met before this project, and did not collaborate again after it.

The piece is performed on a truly spectacular stage architecture. A defiant, almost monolithic, post-industrial structure, it comprises a vast platform, which rests upon five pillars made of vertical and diagonal strips of metal. Two long sets of stairs carry the dancers from the performance floor to the platform, making their approach impressively grand, almost like that of a Roman emperor.

The tension between the simplicity of Gehry’s design and its sheer scale is, no doubt, intentional. It is just one of many pleasing paradoxes that run through the work.

Adams’s electronic score plays to an early-1980s sense of modernity, while also harking back to a classical musical heritage (including the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach). As in the work of his fellow American minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, there is an invigorating power in the variations which are flecked through Adams’s repetitions.

In Childs’s choreography, a dozen superb dancers (dressed variously in red, white and black) evoke, by turns, the mechanical dimension in modern life, and (not least in clever and humorous plays upon classical ballet) the defiant unpredictability of human experience. Perfectly synchronised, carefully calibrated movement by one group of dancers is juxtaposed with stasis, or an entirely different motion, on the part of another group. The consequence of this tension between self-discipline and creative freedom is dance of hypnotic beauty.

Ultimately, the enduring importance of this work lies in its reflection of the United States’ contribution to artistic modernism since the Second World War. It could hardly be more redolent of this great tradition were it to be danced in front of the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Until July 8.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on July 7, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/hypnotic-beauty-available-light-palace-theatre-manchester-review/

© Mark Brown

 

 

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Cast, Doncaster

DANCE

 

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

CAST, DONCASTER

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Northern Ballet prides itself on being a pioneer in contemporary narrative ballet. However, in adapting The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne’s controversial 2006 Holocaust novel, which was made into a movie by Mark Herman in 2008) the company has made an enormous misstep.

Boyne’s book famously (or infamously, if one is so inclined) tells the tale of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy of the same age whom Bruno befriends through the wire fence of the extermination camp at a fictionalised Auschwitz. Due to a series of mishaps, Bruno ultimately ends up dying alongside Shmuel in a gas chamber.

Striped Pyjamas #1
A dancing Nazi in The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas. Photo: Norther Ballet

It is hard to disagree with the novel’s detractors, such as New York-based Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who has described it as a “blatant distortion” and a “profanation”. There were, as Blech points out, no nine-year-old children held in Auschwitz (those below working age were murdered on arrival), and, even more importantly, the idea that any Auschwitz prisoner could have conducted a friendship through the perimeter fence of the camp is a ludicrous and indefensible lie.

Of course Boyne, Herman and, for that matter, Northern Ballet choreographer Daniel de Andrade can claim the right to artistic freedom. However, that freedom does not erase the crassness and vulgarity of the story, which are, if anything, magnified by being transposed into dance.

One watches in open-mouthed incomprehension as Andrade offers a series of grotesque parodies. A choreography for the forcing of Jews into the cattle trucks that would carry them to the death camp is nauseatingly cartoonish. In Auschwitz, the Nazis dance in choreographies inspired by goose-steps and stiff-armed salutes, while the prisoners’ movements are limp with hunger.

 

Striped Pyjamas #2
The choreographed suffering of extermination camp prisoners. Photo: Northern Ballet

In the novel, Bruno childishly mishears the phrase “the Führer” as “the Fury”. This gives rise to Andrade’s most striking innovation, a demonic figure who seems like a cross between Darth Vader and the wicked fairy Carabosse. Danced well by Mlindi Kulashe on Friday night, this horseman of the apocalypse is, at once, too mythical and too disconcertingly sensual to be credible in the context of a Holocaust narrative.

Like its literary and cinematic forebears, this ballet is, no doubt, well intentioned. More even than them, however, it is outrageously insensitive and misconceived.

Ends at Cast, Doncaster, Saturday, May 27, then touring until October 21: northernballet.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 29, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/ballet/boy-striped-pyjamas-northern-ballet-outrageously-misconceived/

© Mark Brown

 

 

Review: Pepperland, Royal Court, Liverpool

DANCE

 

PEPPERLAND

ROYAL COURT, LIVERPOOL

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pepperland
Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo: Robbie Jack

It was 50 years ago today (more or less) that The Beatles released their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How better to mark this musical milestone than with a festival, entitled Sgt. Pepper at 50, in which the Fab Four’s home city of Liverpool hosts 13 commemorative cultural events (one for every track on the album)?

Such a festival deserves a grand opening, and they don’t get much grander than Pepperland, the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group. Combining dance by the New York-based company with a musical score by American composer Ethan Iverson, the show is a truly joyous, celebratory work of art.

The opener, a dance to Iverson’s minimal, jazzy arrangement of the album’s title track, sets the tone perfectly. The relaxed, quasi-operatic singing of splendid baritone Clinton Curtis underlines the innovative distinctiveness of the music.

Meanwhile Morris’s extraordinarily talented dancers perform a choreography that combines balletic precision with deliciously unexpected moments of physical discordance and quirky humour. The delightful exuberance of the dance finds the ideal partner in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s gorgeous costumes, gloriously colourful affairs inspired by the psychedelic pastiche army uniforms worn by The Beatles on the classic cover of Sgt. Pepper.

Iverson’s arrangements of songs from the album are interspersed with his own original compositions, which draw upon contemporary classical and baroque influences. The prominent place given to the electrophonic instrument the theremin is surprisingly satisfying, not least during Morris’s touching choreography for Penny Lane.

The general cheerfulness of the work is punctuated by moments of humanistic reflection. This is particularly true of the response to George Harrison’s song Within You Without You, which was famously inspired by eastern spiritual teaching.

The dance begins, appropriately, with a lone performer, floating across the stage, as if in cosmic isolation. Soon, however, he is replaced by a vibrant ensemble, moving singularly and collectively, embodying Harrison’s reflection that humanity is indivisibly “all one”.

Played on a simple set (designer Johan Henckens’s little mountain of shiny foil cleverly illuminated by Nick Kolin), Pepperland is a wonderful platform for the skill, intelligence and athleticism of the Mark Morris Dance Group. It is also a suitably unique and brilliant homage to one of the great rock albums.

At Royal Court, Liverpool until May 27. For details of the festival, visit: sgtpepperat50.com

 

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 26, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/brilliant-homage-sgt-pepper-beatles-pepperland-royal-court/

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Out of This World, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling & Each Other, Tramway, Glasgow

PHYSICAL THEATRE / DANCE REVIEWS

 

Out Of This World,

Seen at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling;

touring UK until June 10

 

Each Other,

Tramway, Glasgow,

Run ended

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Out of This World
Sarah Swire in Out of This World. Photo: Jane Hobson 

The month-long Dance International Glasgow (DIG) festival opened at the Tramway venue last weekend. Its diverse programme includes works by Tim Etchells (of acclaimed English performance company Forced Entertainment), experimental Icelandic choreographer Margret Sara Gudjonsdottir and Scottish Dance Theatre. Once again we find a contemporary dance programme that blurs the old distinctions between art forms.

Out Of This World, the latest show from performance spectacle director Mark Murphy is a case in point. The piece, which will play the DIG festival on May 19 and 20 (in addition to dates in Inverness and Edinburgh), is defined by Murphy’s V-tol company as “genre-defying action packed theatre.”

Murphy (who directed the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014) has created a theatre piece built around the story a young, newly-wed couple, Ellen and Jonathan, who are admitted to hospital with serious injuries following a car crash. The drama, in which we experience the aftermath of the crash from within Ellen’s mind, is slightly reminiscent of Anthony Neilson’s great play The Wonderful World Of Dissocia.

There is quasi-surreal dialogue, Lecoq-style physical movement and aerial work on wires, all wrapped up in an extensive series of projected graphics, which shift continuously between representations of the hospital and abstract expressions of Ellen’s thought processes. What there is not is anything one could really refer to as dance.

The combination of the projections with the aerial work is truly impressive at times. Murphy’s script, on the other hand, is decidedly variable, not least in its sentimental conclusion. One need not be especially hard-hearted to find the denouement more than a little emotionally manipulative.

Which is a pity, as the production boasts some strong performances, not least from Sarah Swire, who is compelling and charismatic as Ellen. As so often with such multimedia performance works, V-tol’s piece is stronger on spectacle than narrative.

Each Other
Each Other. Photo: Andy Ross

Narrative is effectively dispensed with in Each Other, a new work by Netherlands-based choreographers Uri Ivgi and Johan Greben, which was presented by Scottish Ballet on the opening night of the DIG festival. A large cast of dancers dressed in ragged costumes descends on a set strewn with shoes.

At first there is a disquieting disconnect between the human figures and the sheer volume of the shoes, which appear like the aftermath of the liberation of a Nazi death camp or of the Cambodian killing fields. However, as the people collect and assemble the footwear one is reminded of the untold numbers of our fellow human beings around the globe (the late, great John Berger wrote of them as the “rag pickers”) who our “economic order” has reduced to scrabbling a living among garbage mounds.

There is particular poignancy in the image of the shoes being built into a partition separating one group of people from another; even though both groups are, to all intents and purposes, identical. It is hardly surprising, given the piece’s quiet, abstract humanism, that the choreography is at its most transfixing in its dynamic ensemble moments.

Yet, whilst the work moves us with its focus on collective suffering and resilience, it also recognises the profound singularity of the human condition. The excellent, beat-driven electronic score and the clamour of the human mass give way, ultimately, to the vulnerability and fortitude of the individual human spirit.

For details of the Dance International Glasgow programme, visit: tramway.org

Tour details for Out Of This World can be found at: outofthisworldtour.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 30, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Casanova, Leeds Grand Theatre & touring

DANCE

CASANOVA

LEEDS GRAND THEATRE

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Casanova#2
Photo: Justin Slee

The name of Giacomo Casanova has, since his death in 1798, been a byword for sexual debauchery. Yet the author of History of My Life, who was born in the Republic of Venice and died in Bohemia some 73 years later, lived a life that was almost as eventful as the tumultuous 18th-century itself.

He was (somewhat implausibly) a trainee priest; although, almost inevitably, he found himself debarred from the priesthood for having sex with nuns. Consorting with liberal clergy and aristocrats, his interest in Enlightenment thinking combined with his sexual libertinism to make him a target of the Inquisition.

There is something almost hubristic in the attempt by Kenneth Tindall and Northern Ballet to condense Casanova’s legendary life into less than two hours of dance. However, as the ecstatic first night audience for this world première attests, Tindall’s ambition is richly rewarded.

Unlike other works by Northern Ballet (such as their excellent adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984), Casanova’s adventures (which are drawn from Ian Kelly’s acclaimed biography) do not give themselves easily to a clearly defined narrative. What we get instead are selected episodes, ranging from a Venetian masquerade to Casanova’s imprisonment by the Inquisition and his cruel humiliation at the hands of his Enlightenment idol Voltaire.

Casanova#3
Photo: Justin Slee

Tindall’s choreography is impressively attuned to the ecstasies and agonies of the protagonist’s remarkable life. His sexuality (which was ambidextrous and, at times, orgiastic) is expressed with both a tremendously bold muscularity and an unerring sense of style.

Casanova is danced, appropriately enough, by his compatriot (and longstanding Northern Ballet performer) Giuliano Contadini. It is a towering performance which is as affecting in its bitter yielding to repression as in its moments of euphoric sensuality.

Contadini’s dancing expresses brilliantly the scale and excitement of Casanova’s life. So, too, do Christopher Oram’s set and costume designs. Often dominated by grand, neo-classical pillars which, courtesy of Alastair West’s exceptional lighting designs, shine in an extraordinary orange-gold, Oram’s sets are both improbably versatile and suitably epic.

Kerry Muzzey’s score also has a touch of the epic about it. Positively cinematic, its unapologetic drama and pathos remind us that the great narrative scores of Hollywood are rooted in European orchestral traditions.

Entirely worthy of its first night standing ovation, Casanova is an impressive and exhilarating evening’s ballet.

 Touring until May 13. northernballet.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 12, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/casanova-leeds-grand-theatre-world-premiere-review-impressive/

© Mark Brown

Review: Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here, touring

DANCE

 

Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here

Seen at Tron, Glasgow;

touring until November 19

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

lady-m-company-chordelia
Photo: Susan Hay

I have long thought that the words and deeds of Lady Macbeth, rather than the witches’ prophecy, are central to the events of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”. In their new dance-theatre piece Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here, Glasgow-based groups Company Chordelia and Solar Bear seem to share that sense of the female protagonist’s special position in the play.

Director Kally Lloyd Jones explores the character through choreographies for three male dancers. In doing so, she goes further than a theatre director might in casting a male actor as Lady M.

The three dancers are, for the most part, three-in-one (an Unholy Trinity, if you will). They do not represent an attempt by Lady M to merely transform herself into an image of unfeeling, violent machismo. Rather, their masculinity allows them to approach the moral ambiguities of her stated desire to be “unsexed” from a series of fascinating angles.

Lady M has, famously, been a mother and lost the child (“I have given suck, and know. How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me”). Here, the dancers nurse little bundles that appear to be babies. Their rocking motion becomes a motif, repetitive and frenzied, akin, in the queen’s moments of greatest mental distress, to her constant cleaning of her hands.

We hear Lady M’s loaded assertion that, when he dared kill the king, Macbeth was, “so much more the man”; a powerful reminder of the role of her sexuality in inciting the regicide.

The visual aesthetic of the piece – dark, simple with the dancers emerging from three little alcoves in which they have been preparing at dressing tables – is exquisite. The music, by the likes of Ravel, Verdi and Mozart is beautifully attuned to the piece’s journey into one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters.

For tour dates, visit: chordelia.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 6, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: Richard Alston Dance Company (Autumn 2016), Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

DANCE REVIEW

 

Richard Alston Dance Company

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

At Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 3

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

alston-an-italian-in-madrid
Vidya Patel and Liam Riddick in An Italian in Madrid. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

This autumn tour by the Richard Alston Dance Company can only enhance the group’s reputation for contemporary dance that is simultaneously stylish, virtuosic and diverse. It is comprised of seven short pieces, four of which were presented at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

An Italian In Madrid is testament to an admirable gentility in Alston’s work. A narrative choreography about the lives of the Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti and his student, the Portuguese princess Maria Barbara, it seems more like the stuff of classical ballet than of contemporary dance.

Given the pressure on choreographers to be “cutting edge” and “controversial”, there is something almost daring in Alston’s choice of such refined subject matter. The keyboard sonatas the Italian composer wrote for his royal pupil (which are played live by the splendid pianist Jason Ridgway) are undeniably Baroque, yet also infused with the unmistakeable passion of the Andalusian music Scarlatti encountered in Spain.

As we witness the princess’s romantic encounters with her betrothed, the Spanish prince Fernando, the music proves particularly well-suited to Alston’s graceful duets and charming solos.

The company’s programme in Glasgow (on November 3) will be somewhat different from that presented in Edinburgh. However, there are two pieces from the Festival Theatre performance, namely Alston’s Mazur and Stronghold, by the company’s associate choreographer Martin Lawrance, that will also be seen on Clydeside.

Mazur, which takes as its subject Chopin’s anguished exile from Poland, is built around expressive solos and pas de deux which reflect the solidarity of the composer and a fellow refugee.

Stronghold is a stripped back, minimalist work for five female and five male dancers. Danced to Julia Wolfe’s music (for eight double basses) of the same name, it is as invigorating in its creative use of light and shadow as it is in its energetic, well-ordered choreography.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 2, 2016

© Mark Brown