Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wales Dance Platform Day 2 (Chapter, Cardiff)

Gary and Pel

Whoever decided to have Alex Marshall Parsons' Gary and Pel kick off Day 2 of Wales Dance Platform deserves a round of pirouettes. The duo is a tour de force of comedy, using both slapstick and mime, and really warmed the crowds up during their opening performance in Chapter's foyer.

Gary and Pel are two comedy characters played by Alex himself, along with Kim Noble. Gary looks like a reject from The Little Shop of Horrors, while Pel is a vision in bright yellow fright wig straight out of the B-52s. They "drive" into view in their shocking pink cardboard car and proceed to leap about the space with the energy and vigour of a pair of antelopes. Their faces are what elevates this physical piece from mere entertaining to downright brilliant, Alex in particular being blessed with a range of expressions that say every word he does not speak. I love the persona Kim has built up too, like a cross between Elvira, RuPaul and Cindy Lauper.

The crazy antics of these two grotesques - whose obsession with frying pans and 1950s infomercials forms a core of this routine - deserves to be developed and expanded. I can see these guys storming the Royal Variety Show or - God forbid - Britain's Got Talent, but I'd never want their anarchic roots to be ironed away (would Simon Cowell stick with a dance piece which essentially depicts 1950s domestic bliss through the lens of David Lynch?). Gary and Pel were among the highlights of the entire weekend for me.

Before the live dance presentations got started in earnest there was a schedule of six short films to see in the cinema. The difference between watching a live dance piece and watching dance through the medium of film or photography is that the art is no longer just the dance, it's also the way it's being presented through the agency of the director or photographer. So it's important to take into consideration not just what you're seeing the dancers do, but also the lens through which it's been viewed. For instance, Jane Castree's It's a Gender Affair would get a different response from a live audience than it does as a filmed presentation. Castree choreographs and performs, alongside Hal Smith, but all of this is then set in the highly evocative location of a fairground in Devon, and directed by Charlotte Eatock. Automatically, there's more than just the choreographer at work here. The theme of It's a Gender Affair is to take gender norms and turn them upside down, asking how equality can be truly achieved when we are essentially all so different. We see Castree dressing as a male fairground employee, complete with bowler hat and boots, while Smith dons skirt and heels, and the fairground location adds a richness to the piece. It's a good use of the location, and the two dancers manage to connect with the viewer through the lens, especially Smith, whose vacantly grinning face counteracts the grim, unsmiling facade of Castree's masculine character. Do women generally smile and laugh more than men? I've never thought to notice, but when you think about it...

Simon Whitehead's Studies for Maynard left me somewhat nonplussed. Simon is a movement artist from rural West Wales, and the rugged beauty of that location is to the fore in this film. He claims the movements in the film resemble ephemeral line drawings, some of which have emerged from the systematic movement of a table (the eponymous Maynard). It's the kind of language which runs through contemporary dance like a bad smell, and I do wish artists would try and communicate their work in plainer English. It's the only way to shrug of the pretension and be more accessible. Moving a table around may be art to some, but I fail to see why it resembles a line drawing. The silent out-of-focus close-ups of Whitehead laying his forehead on the table just left me wondering if perhaps he'd been spending too long alone in rural West Wales.

Another film that left me cold was Lara Ward's Laura's 'mals. I'm the kind of guy who likes to see dance in his dance films (I'm kooky like that), but the only choreography (if you can call it that) in this film was that of Laura Moy playing with her miniature toy animals. They live in matchboxes and she takes them out with her and plays with them, moving them between her fingers and, at one point, popping them in her mouth. This is a form of choreography which baffled me, although the underlying humour in the film was sweet. I would have preferred to see a documentary film about Laura and her love of her 'mals, rather than a dance film masquerading as such.

As with It's a Gender Affair, Chloe Loftus' Taking Flight made fantastic use of location to accentuate the theme. This time it was the abandoned, dilapidated Custom House owned by Skyview Estates in Cardiff. The piece explores the importance of failure, and how, almost like photographs, we develop from negatives. It's the age old adage that we should learn from the bad things, grow stronger as a result of setbacks and take as much positive out of negative as we can to move on. This is beautifully made physical when Chloe unexpectedly tumbles headlong down a flight of stairs, then simply gets back up and carries on walking with confidence. She fell, it hurt, but she got up and carried on carrying on. She may fall again, but she'll always get up, stronger and more determined. Perhaps one day the same will happen for the Custom House, which has surely seen better days but which may rise again if its owner ever manages to start that next chapter.

My favourite two films both had an element of danger to them. Uma O'Neill's impressive Too Close, Too Personal probably boasts a number of meanings, but for me it was about a mutually abusive marriage and the effect it has on the child. Lisa Spaull and Colin Daimond battle it out beautifully and viscerally, trading blows and insults through some vital dance movements, while the younger Angharad Harrop tries to remove herself from the situation, dreaming of nature and altogether more aspirant things. I may have read the piece a little too literally, but I got a lot of out of it, which is not something all of these films achieved.

My very favourite was Wren Ball's Y Chwarelwr (The Quarrymen), a haunting, disconcerting, sinister film shot on location in the wet, cold, dank Dinorwic Slate Quarry in North Wales. Dressed in a zebra mask and hoodie, Wren populates the landscape in slow-motion, staring threateningly into camera, stalking the audience, staring us out, sometimes running toward us, at other times nonchalantly stretching out, taking indignant ownership of his space. It capitalises beautifully and unsettlingly on the mysterious atmosphere of an abandoned quarry, and Wren's trademark use of parkour adds to the queasy feeling of the film. Katherine Betteridge's haunting music is the icing on the cake too. I have no idea why Wren is dressed as a zebra in a slate quarry in December, but for me this was a stand-out film, sparking a reaction in me rarely felt. Another highlight of the weekend.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Back to the live dance... Gemma Prangle's Dances I Made on My Bathroom Floor trampled along my ever-shifting line between contemporary dance and performance art, but golly, it does it in style! Gemma is a physical theatre performer who likes to work in the immersive medium too so it's no wonder this piece was both personal and challenging. It is based upon Gemma's own observation that she was spending far too much time dancing in her bathroom as opposed to on stage, and explores the contradiction of being a performer but feeling afraid to perform. Breaking the fourth wall, Gemma includes the audience in her ramblings, and shares everything with them - and when I mean everything, I mean in the same way Lady Godiva did. Gemma is laid bare in the private company of her bathroom, where she is alone and unobserved, but gets suitably embarrassed and shy when she is aware of an audience, grabbing for a towel. She is open, with nothing to hide, when alone, but guarded when with others. This is pretty much how we all must feel at some stage in our lives, putting on a facade for others, pretending we're fine when we're not, summoning the strength to go and do it anyway despite being afraid. Gemma is a brave lady to do what she did in this piece, but she carries it off with such wit and charm. She was one of the stand-out performers of the weekend for me (she pops up later on too), with such well-honed comic timing and a face that can make you laugh, and make you feel.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Sou Tafahom (Misunderstandings) choreographed by Mounir Saeed and Zosia Jo was another piece about human failings and insecurities. It perfectly embodies the way that people misunderstand one another in conversation, purposefully or not. We ignore what the other is saying while taking too long thinking about what we're going to say next. We miss their point, and the disconnection has a domino effect on the next line, and the next. Our attempts to reconnect sometimes work, sometimes fail, and this is all fed into the inspired choreography. Saeed has a beautiful physicality and talent for expression which Jo really feeds off and the two of them work so well together. I'd like to see more from these two.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Mike Williams is an emerging independent artist who, by his own admission, is exploring his choreographic voice for the first time. He says in publicity that he is influenced by music, the aesthetics of the human body and connecting with audiences. I'm pretty sure every dancer in the world is influenced by these things too (it would be puzzling for them not to be) but Mike has channeled that into a startling, intensely challenging piece which takes place over 15 minutes in almost complete silence. Strictly speaking it's not silence, it's actually John Cage's infamous composition 4.33, which instructs musicians not to play their instruments and for the soundtrack to merely be the sounds of the environment in which the audience is experiencing the performance. That's puzzling in itself, but what Mike does is first of all play the sound of him dancing, complete with those familiar floor squeaks underfoot, while he himself crouches silently on stage in waiting. The audience hears the sound of what is to come, but when the dance comes, it is performed in silence, to Cage's 4.33. It's a difficult piece, but very clever, challenging the viewer to watch the dance unaccompanied and to face up to their own discomfort in watching nothing very much happen for just that little bit too long!

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Picking up on the theme of a silent score, Jem Treays' Harbingers took place on the forecourt outside Chapter. With no music or sound, the performers move around a set of props such as wooden pallets and bottles of water, apparently inspired by Theodore Gericault's 1819 oil painting The Raft of the Medusa. This image is not present in the brochure, sadly, so is probably lost on most people watching. When Gericault chose the wreck of the frigate Meduse as the subject of his first major work, he consciously selected a well-known incident fresh in the minds of the public which would attract their interest. The truth is that Gericault's painting isn't exactly well known today, so the inspiration is lost on the audience for this dance. It is a slow, thoughtful piece conjuring elements of the painting as well as the wider themes of being wrecked at sea. The silence was punctuated by the sound of children shouting and taxi drivers dropping passengers off, but for me this not so much enhanced the performance, as simply muddied it further.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
The thing that struck me straight away about Eleanor Brown's Tell Me a Story was the presence and use of books. They form the centre of the piece, and using them as stepping stones to form pathways across the stage was straight out of Aleksandra Jones's Dive-Zaron (from Day 1). Intentional or not, the similarity marred the originality of this second piece for me. There was plenty of potential, however: the dancers scooping up books, cradling as many as they could hold, before dropping them in a disrespectful pile on the floor and starting again. Every now and then they would read out the first line of the book ("It was a dark and stormy night" etc) but quickly snap it shut again and move on to the next, indicative of our ever-shortening attention spans, always wanting the next story, and the next. Whether those stories are folk tales told round the camp fire in medieval times, the eagerly anticipated episodes of Dickens's serialised tales in Victorian times, or our X-Factor mindsets constantly calling for the next "journey" among the singers' private lives, Tell Me a Story wonderfully recreates what it's like to have a story told to you, or the desire to hear it.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
The traditional Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam was next up from India Dance Wales' Vibha Selvaratnam. Nayika tells the tale of a woman in love, and how different women respond to the emotion. Although I felt the piece went on a little too long, I loved the expression Vibha brought to the stage. Her chaste flirtation, her use of mime when choosing which item of jewellery to wear, her determined aggression when slamming the door on her man, and then bolting it firmly after him. Indian dance is such an expressive, colourful and honest form and I really enjoyed the refreshing change in style.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Another highlight of the weekend for me was Louise Lloyd's Waltz of the Flower Sellers, an energetic comedy piece directly inspired by the music - Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker. Four flower sellers compete to trade their wares to Tchaikovsky's score, but performed in a variety of musical styles - first of all the traditional classical rendition, followed by hard rock guitar, French farce, circus, jazz, even a version reminiscent of The Godfather theme. The facial expression and physical vying between the girls, in tandem with the ever-zanier musical accompaniment, makes this a very funny, endearing and easily interpreted piece which could please any age. Like Gary and Pel, it would go down well in variety showcases.

Zosia Jo's Herstory demonstrated great conviction but lacked originality. It claimed to give a voice to women's stories, the most powerful of which was that of a woman in an abusive relationship. But while the story was performed with professionalism and passion, and utter conviction, the story itself was (sadly) not unique or original enough to warrant the publicity's claim. There were other stories in there too, with some well considered text and dialogue, but I was left with the feeling that more could be made of it, that women's stories can be so much more than oppression or inequality. This was a finished work, which I think is a shame because it promises more than it delivers. I don't want that to sound too damning, because Zosia is a talented performer capable of great stuff, but I simply felt there is better than this to come from her.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Sarah Vaughan-Jones' Time Lapse had a clear theme at its heart, but I'm not so sure the execution helped it. It tackled the topic of time, the passage and perception of it, and incorporated live music from South American pianist German Bello (and very good stuff it was too) along with choreography and digital projection. The fact the digital projection largely obscured the physical performance for some time was a real shame, as it focused the audience more on the family snapshots being projected in front of her. On a surface level these photos could be understood, but ultimately meant most to Sarah Vaughan-Jones, not us. A digital clock framed the entire piece, counting down, and sometimes up, either very slowly or very quickly. I got the theme, but not the point, sadly.

Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore
Day 2 ended with what could be my favourite work of the entire Platform. If there was a theme for Wales Dance Platform, it was one of emerging talent, of facilitating and enabling young independent artists to show what they're made of, what they can do and demonstrate their potential. But in Caroline Lamb's The Long Winter, we had a beautiful, delicate evocation of the ageing process, the fragility of life as we hurtle without escape toward the inevitable. Caroline has been dancing and choreographing for decades and her wealth of experience showed in spades. The five mature performers simply owned that stage the minute they set foot on it. The gravitas they carried in their movement, in their faces, should, I hope, have given the younger performers watching something to aspire to. These performers couldn't do back-flips or body-popping or form the shapes their younger colleagues could - but they could once, and their pasts add so much to what they offer in the present. The Long Winter was a very arty piece, full of sinister costumes and ethereal choral music (from the sadly uncredited Trio Mediaeval), and I found the combination of the dancers' experience, the choreographer's conviction, the set and costume design, and the music incredibly moving. Bandages were used to both dress the set, and the performers, representing the ongoing efforts to fix and mend as we move through life, ageing, until it's just not possible any longer. Janet Fieldsend and Dylan Davies roll off separately into the darkness at the end of the piece, demonstrating that we often meet Death alone, despite spending our lifetimes with others. At the end, as in the beginning, we are alone.

The power of The Long Winter stayed with me long after I'd left the building. That, for me, is a haunting legacy to leave your audience.

Click here for a review of Day 1 of Wales Dance Platform 2015
Click here for a review of Day 3 of Wales Dance Platform 2015

The stats
Gary and Pel
Choreographer: Alex Marshall Parsons
Music: Kevin MacLeod
Performers: Alex Marshall Parsons, Kim Noble
Studies for Maynard
Choreographer: Simon Whitehead
Sound: Barnaby Oliver
Performer: Simon Whitehead
Film-maker: Tanya Sayed
Laura's 'mals
Choreographer: Lara Ward
Sound: Sion Orgon
Performer: Laura Moy
It's a Gender Affair
Choreographer: Jane Castree
Music: Aaron James
Performers: Hal Smith, Jane Castree
Film-maker: Charlotte Eatock
Taking Flight
Choreographer: Chloe Loftus
Music: Cotton Wolf
Performer: Chloe Loftus
Film-maker: Joby Newson
Y Chwarelwr
Choreographer: Wren Ball
Music: Katherine Betteridge
Performer: Wren Ball
Film-makers: Osian Williams, Matthew Harris, Wren Ball
Too Close, Too Personal
Choreographer: Uma O'Neill
Music: Rob Spaull
Performers: Angharad Harrop, Lisa Spaull, Colin Daimond
Film-maker: Uma O'Neill (plus body cameras)
Dances I Made on My Bathroom Floor
Choreographer: Gemma Prangle
Performer: Gemma Prangle
Sou Tafahom (Misunderstandings)
Choreographers: Mounir Saeed, Zosia Jo
Music: Night Sessions parts 1 and 2 by Riverside
Performers: Mounir Saeed, Zosia Jo
Choreographer: Mike Williams
Performer: Mike Williams
Choreographer: Jem Treays
Performers: Maria Fonseca, Andrea Hackl, Jamie Morgans, Christopher Radford (Cascade Dance Theatre)
Choreographer: Vibha Selvaratnam
Music: India Dance Wales
Performer: Vibha Selvaratnam (India Dance Wales)
Tell Me a Story
Choreographer: Eleanor Brown
Music: A Song for the Shipwrecked by Silence at Sea
Performers: Kim Noble, Louise Lloyd, Cêt Haf, Sarah Hudson, Eleanor Brown
Waltz of the Flower Sellers
Choreographer: Louise Lloyd
Music: Waltz of the Flowers by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (from The Nutcracker)
Performers: Shakeera Ahmun, Sarah Lee Pryke, Krystal Dawn Campbell, Louise Lloyd
Time Lapse
Choreographer: Sarah Vaughan-Jones
Music: German Bello
Performers: Sarah Vaughan-Jones, Vicci Viles (SVJ Dance)
Choreographer: Zosia Jo
Music: Tom Sinnett, Dave Crowe
Performer: Zosia Jo
The Long Winter
Choreographer: Caroline Lamb
Music: Trio Mediaeval
Performers: Janet Fieldsend, Caroline Bunce, June Campbell Davies, Dylan Davies, Shirley Stansfield (Striking Attitudes)
Performed at Chapter, Cardiff, on June 27th 2015, as part of Wales Dance Platform 2015.

Wales Dance Platform 2015 website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Wales Dance Platform 2015 on Chapter website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Gary and Pel website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Simon Whitehead website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Lara Ward website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Jane Castree website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Chloe Loftus website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Wren Ball website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Gemma Prangle website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Zosia Jo website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Mike Williams at Dancers Pro (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Jem Treays/ Run Ragged Productions (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Cascade Dance Theatre (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
India Dance Wales website(retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Eleanor Brown Dance on Facebook (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
SVJ Dance website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)
Striking Attitudes website (retrieved Jun 30 2015)

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