Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wales Dance Platform Day 1 (Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff)

Christopher Owen

Over the course of 48 hours across three consecutive days in three different venues, Wales Dance Platform 2015 crammed in performances, films and photography from over 40 independent companies and artists. The weekend was hectic, but never less than entertaining, and enabled many performers and creators to get together, perhaps for the first time, and share one another's ideas and talents. It wasn't just a weekend of performance - it was a celebration of independent dance and a chance for those who work on the contemporary dance scene to make connections and develop relationships.

The first day was held at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, a suitably attention-grabbing venue which played host both to the launch party in the Ffresh bar and numerous performances. First onto the stage with the daunting task of opening the entire event were Hudson and Haf, whose piece Wimmin entertained in the foyer on the Glanfa stage. These two dancer/ choreographers have been
working together for around a year and it's clear they have a creative connection which works.
Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Wimmin was an amusing routine inspired by Blanche Ebbutt's Don'ts for Wives, a book published in 1913 giving advice to women as to how to behave and best please their men. The book is obviously drenched in misogyny and this is what brings the humour out in Wimmin. Dressed as stereotypical housewives in frilly pinnies, Sarah Hudson and Cêt Haf move in and around the sitting audience, both on stage and off, going about their daily chores, constantly accompanied by the voice of their husband quoting from Ebbutt's tome. The premise of the source might be misogynist but it essentially promotes mutual respect between man and wife, although if the woman is ever caught yawning during her husband's last pipe, there'll be trouble!

Wimmin was pumped with effervescent fun, and the performers didn't only act out the themes with their bodies, but also their faces, which added to the comedy. The piece ends with the duo dancing freely, fingers pushed firmly into their ears to drown out the male commentary, and pulling their fellow "wimmin" up onto stage to dance beside them. I'm always wary of the style of immersive performance where the audience becomes part of proceedings (I'm essentially there to be entertained, not to entertain) but as the female onlookers around me got plucked from the audience, never had I been so pleased to be a man! Wimmin was a joyous, uplifting and very funny way to launch the weekend.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
After the official launch speech in Ffresh led by BBC Radio Wales's arts correspondent Nicola Heywood-Thomas, it was time to decamp to Rehearsal Room 3 (whatever happened to 1 and 2?) for the Platform's first pot pourri of dances. First up was North Walian Christopher Owen's The Creative Act, inspired by the 1957 lecture of the same name by French aesthete Marcel Duchamp. It's always good to know the inspiration behind an artist's creation while witnessing it, and this intensely personal, intimate piece from Christopher certainly took Duchamp's point to heart. Essentially, an artist's work only gains posterity if the audience deems it worthy. Performance is a relationship between the artist and the onlooker, and cannot achieve status or success until the viewer has the last word. Christopher's work laid himself bare, through dance, the spoken word and a piano. Asked why he went to dance school, he replies that it was not merely to become a dancer, but because he didn't want to be "an ordinary person". He adds: "Three years at dance school is better than getting a job."

That's as may be, but this heartfelt piece about what it's like to be a dancer just starting out has probably been covered by every other dancer just starting out, taken from their unique perspective. It's almost like a rite of passage that an emerging artist should process this self-analysis, and it's obviously rooted in self-doubt. I wasn't altogether sure what the randomly projected words on the screen meant in relation to the rest of the piece (Crewe? Gin? These things might mean something to Christopher, but still left the audience removed). Christopher is a promising dancer, and has some interesting ideas, and these can only tighten up and expand as his experience grows. One note though: ditch the little bell. Intended or not, it screams "pretentious".

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Idrissa Camara's N'tokee - The Way You See Me was an explosion of African dance and live music all the way from Ballet Nimba's home of Guinea. Camara explains that N'tokee is an exploration of new ways of working and presenting African dance, and while I didn't quite receive that message, I certainly had a whale of a time watching it. I mean, it's African music: we all know what to expect from that and it is only through continued exposure that Western audiences will be able to make the distinction between good and bad, nuanced and populist, traditional and modern. The performers were energetic, confrontational in parts - African rhythm is inherently intimidating - but I preferred the solo sections to the ensemble dancing. Each dancer had a short time to show off some signature moves, and it was easier to process these talents individually than as a whole. The live accompaniment was stirring; N'tokee was African dance in summary. I'm not sure how contemporary it was but it certainly put a smile on everybody's face, which at the end of the day is the battle almost won.

Before I went in to the performance space I'd been asked to take a strip of paper with a sentence or two printed on it, choose a word or phrase, underline it and hand it back. This would form part of one of the performances: Here Body by Neus Gil Cortes. As a former dancer for National Dance Company Wales and Hofesh Schechter, Neus is keen to break out as a solo choreographer, and is keen to integrate her audience with the performance. Luckily this did not involve being pulled up onto stage, but saw fellow dancer/ choreographer Jem Treays read out the underlined passages from the audience's slips of paper, and Neus interpret in response (it gives you a surge of mini pride when you hear your bit read out!). It made for a spontaneous work which will never be the same twice, with the theme of death and decay and the idea that we embrace the urge to live (and dance) precisely because we know it cannot last. Does foreknowledge of our mortality make us enjoy life even more? A fascinating philosophical basis for the piece, I'm just not sure that came through for me. Neither am I sure what connection the printed sentences had to the dance apart from acting as fuel, but I loved the fact Here Body will forever change, never stay the same - rather like our own bodies.

Aleksandra Jones' Dive-Zaron saw three female dancers march on with wheeled suitcases and proceed to explore the warmth and strength women display in difficult times. Aleksandra is Serbian so may have plenty to draw upon from her homeland's troubled history, and the very feminine choreography certainly interprets her theme well. The choice of music - Astor Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango - perfectly matches the theme too, demonstrating the strength and sexuality women have at their core. The piece throws in some light-hearted physical theatre too, as a suitcase is thrown open to reveal a pile of old books, and from another tips a barrel load of red apples. Delightfully, the dancers place the books end to end on the floor in front of them to form stepping stones, pathways, using knowledge to move forward, and right at the end the wonderful Cêt Haf makes her slow but sure way towards one of the discarded apples. She finally gets there, her pavement of books underfoot, snatches it up, bites into it and waltzes off across the stage floor. A lovely, uplifting and witty way to end the piece.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
I have a constant debate with myself as to how much performance art (or theatre) should be in a contemporary dance piece. The two forms go hand in hand - a dance routine can be beautifully augmented by the use of theatre - but how far can it go until it becomes more one thing than the other? There were plenty of pieces over the weekend which got me asking myself about this definition, prompted most of all by Ellis J-Wright's Under You. Ellis is just starting out and intends to explore the question of what makes us human. This is certainly not a unique question to ask, but Ellis's execution in this case pulls no punches. Under You is a politically charged piece responding to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights - or otherwise - in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as well as homosexual persecution the world over. The staging of this on the same weekend as London's Gay Pride event, and the news that same-sex marriage had been legalised across the whole of the United States, made it even more topical and relevant. Being a gay man myself, the themes of the piece perhaps hit harder than for most, but I still found Under You almost too strong. Lack of compromise is obviously part of the issue with persecution, so it's admirable that Ellis didn't hold back, but the angry monologue at the end used sledgehammer subtlety, and I think by overstating the point, its impact was lessened somehow. It was like Peter Tatchell shouting in your ear while you're trying to watch Brokeback Mountain. I'm pretty sure that was Ellis's intended reaction, but it's important to remember Under You was a scratch performance. It's a work in progress and hopefully some of the extremes can be tamed so that the strength of the message isn't drowned by the untempered passion. I've no idea how many apples Eifion ap Cadno got through during the piece, or how many painful seconds Ellis himself spent with his head underwater, but one thing was clear to me - the walkie-talkie exchange didn't work; I couldn't understand a word of what was being said. Loved the beer can metaphor though!

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Finally for Day 1 was Ransack Dance's Broken Arrows, choreographed by Sarah Rogers. Although Broken Arrows is a finished work, we saw just a 15-minute section of the longer piece, and within that was dance, live music and singing, and projection. This mash-up of media always helps keep the audience on its toes, and the highlight for me was the nightclub section where the dancers are raving away but the determination of two human beings to find calm amid the chaos wins through. This was the most successful aspect for me, as was Maxwell James's beautifully soulful singing voice. The gentleness of his refrain of "Hold me..." as he strums his guitar eventually turned to mild frustration as the lyric is repeated over and over, ad infinitum, until it actually became quite annoying. I just wanted to shout "Sing the next bloody line!". Maybe in the whole piece, he does. Overall, the presentation had a disjointed style, swinging from acoustic to hard house, but such is life - and within our lives we can all still find another human heart, despite the best efforts of technology and commerce to prise us apart.

And so Wales Dance Platform Day 1 was over. The variety of work on offer ranged from the intimate and personal (The Creative Act, Here Body) to the message-driven (Under You, Broken Arrows, Dive-Zaron) and also included out-and-out entertainment (N'tokee, Wimmin). And that's what a dance platform should be - mixed, varied, some better than others, but always staged by brave performers who are doing what they believe in and doing it in front of an audience, the thought of which probably terrifies them! But I tell you what: I couldn't do anything like what these performers do, and for that, they get nothing but respect from me.

Click here for a review of Day 2 of Wales Dance Platform 2015
Click here for a review of Day 3 of Wales Dance Platform 2015

The stats
Choreographers: Sarah Hudson, Cêt Haf
Music: Dat's Love sung by Lesley Garrett (based upon Habanera in Bizet's Carmen); Women is Losers sung by Janis Joplin
Performers: Sarah Hudson and Cêt Haf (Hudson and Haf) with Andrew Moreton (voice)
The Creative Act
Choreographer: Christopher Owen
Music: Führe mich by Rammstein; Vespers, Op. 37: Bless the Lord, O My Soul by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer: Christopher Owen
N'tokee - The Way You See Me
Choreographer: Idrissa Camara
Music: Sidiki Dembele, Mamadou Keita, Mohamad Camara
Performers: Idrissa Camara, Oumar Almamy Camara, Kenzi Ireland, Aida Diop (Ballet Nimba)
Here Body
Choreographer: Neus Gil Cortes
Music: On Sundays When I Wake Up by Hallock Hill; Uke Atrocity of Beauty Jam by Brixia and Morgan Reid; Darling Deer by Brixia and Morgan Reid
Performers: Neus Gil Cortes, with Jem treays (spoken text)
Choreographer: Aleksandra Jones
Music: Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla
Performers: Sarah Hudson, Cêt Haf, Aleksandra Jones (The Republic of the Imagination)
Under You
Choreographer: Ellis J-Wright
Music: Original score mixing text and soundbites from documentaries
Performers: Ellis J-Wright, Eifion ap Cadno
Broken Arrows
Choreographer: Sarah Rogers
Music: Benjamin Vaughan, Maxwell James
Performers: Jennifer Johanssen, Luke Ganz, Maxwell James, Sarah Rogers, Gemma Prangle (Ransack Dance)
Performed at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, June 26th, 2015, as part of Wales Dance Platform 2015.

Wales Dance Platform 2015 website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Hudson and Haf on Twitter (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Christopher Owen on Twitter (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Ballet Nimba website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Neus Gil Cortes website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
The Republic of the Imagination website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Aleksandra Jones website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Ellis J-Wright website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Under You trailer (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Ransack Dance website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)

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