Monday, October 30, 2017

REVIEW: P.A.R.A.D.E. (Pontio, Bangor)

P.A.R.A.D.E. (I'm not altogether sure what it's an acronym of; I suspect nothing in particular) is the impressive result of a collaboration between National Dance Company Wales, Dawns i Bawb, Rubicon Dance, Wales Millennium Centre, Pontio in Bangor, and artistic director Marc Rees, and forms a key part of Wales's R17 celebrations marking a century since the Russian Revolution.

What has the Russian Revolution got to do with the people of Wales, some people might ask. It's a good question, but the truth is that when the workers were going on strike and overthrowing their bosses in Petrograd, they were being watched and admired by the coal miners of South Wales, who were inspired by the fact the working man could triumph over the might of autocracy. Russia's uprising led to Maerdy in the Rhondda being nicknamed Little Moscow due to its people's socialist sympathies, and for producing the forthright trade unionist Arthur Horner, who helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.

Eiry Thomas as the politician
A century later, the political and social inspiration Wales took from Russia has been turned into cultural and artistic inspiration. Promotional artwork for P.A.R.A.D.E. (oh, how that senseless acronym, with its flood of full stops, bugs me!) is inspired by Vladimir Tatlin's constructivist artistic style, which was used prominently by the Bolsheviks around the time of the revolution, and in fact much of P.A.R.A.D.E.'s overall look is drawn heavily from this rich artistic seam. The show begins outside, in the precincts of Pontio, where the audience gathers around a lectern to greet an unnamed politician, waving red "P" flags handed to them by theatre staff. Her speech extols the virtues of automation, and centres on the past glories of Wales's industrial successes which she believes have been suppressed over the ages but should be reactivated and pushed back into the limelight.

She is surrounded by a piece of "public art" in the constructivist style, and then welcomes the spectacle of an automated woman - a robot - which appears amid billowing smoke atop Pontio's roof and proceeds to walk down the side of the wall to the ground (the magnificent aerial dancer Kate Lawrence is inside the suit). The robot is directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang's 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis, subtly making the link between Soviet constructivism and German Expressionist cinema. The robot is simply stunning, and to see it walk calmly down the side of a building is a spectacle too elegant and unusual to ignore. I saw it in the daytime, but I bet it looked even better in the smoke-swathed evening, especially with the additional use of hand-held fireworks and sparklers. At the heart of constructivism is the requirement that the viewer feel an active part of the work, and the entire political rally and robotic reveal achieves this in spades. The constructivists liked to "make strange", and P.A.R.A.D.E. certainly does this.

Lee Johnston's surreal Stepford Wives
The politician (played by the magnificent Eiry Thomas) is interrupted in her eulogising by a bunch of protestors with placards, performed by the community dance outfit Dawns i Bawb, dressed in beanie hats and overalls. It's great to have some older physical performers in the mix here too, showing that the Russian revolution affected and appealed to people of all ages and generations.

The audience is then ushered indoors to witness the second of P.A.R.A.D.E.'s four "movements", the in-yer-face bizarre Stepford Wives performance. Taking place in and around Pontio's labyrinthine multi-level public spaces, Stepford Wives, choreographed by NDC Wales's Lee Johnston, is a surreal depiction of automation via capitalist trappings. Male dancers dressed in flowing hippy dresses, straw sun hats and stockings wear mirrored masks over their faces as they push shopping trolleys around and act out the physicality of supermarket shopping, grabbing unseen consumables from shelves in a robotic, automated style. It's a short performance on a loop, with no end or beginning. The audience can move around the different set-pieces at will, but the dance never changes. The shoppers continue to shop, hypnotised by routine, trapped in their automatic reactions.

The automaton walks down the side
of the building
Elsewhere, Dawns i Bawb performers recreate the monotony and repetition of a factory production line, moving boxes along and away, along and away, on an endless repeat of productivity to the detriment of individuality. Never mind the Russian Revolution of 1917, these reiterations still go on today, in Asda and Tesco, in Amazon warehouses and in Thornton's chocolate factories. People still do the same things at the same time every day, over and over, and the onslaught of automation can only prevent that so much. Man will always need routine to feel safe, but when that routine becomes damaging to the individual... that's when revolution sparks. It's time for the Amazon warehouse workers of the world to rise up and unite!

Johnston's Stepford Wives segues beautifully from the harsher, more angular events outside, to the odder sights to see inside, taking the audience from constructivism to surrealism very cleverly. For it was the original performance of Parade (in beautiful lower-case, note) in Paris in 1917 which directly gave birth to the phrase surrealism. The original Parade was a ballet, scored by avant-garde composer Erik Satie, written by artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and designed by artist Pablo Picasso, and at the time it was highly controversial, principally because to many, it made very little sense.

Parade in rehearsal
Such is surrealism. Is surrealism supposed to make any sense? The original Parade centred around the vain attempts made by a group of circus performers - clowns, acrobats, fire-eaters etc - to attract an audience to their show, and incorporated themes like music hall, silent film and Cubism (hello, Picasso!). The 1917 Parade featured costumes designed by Picasso made of solid cardboard, and a century later, this is beautifully reflected in Rhiannon Matthews's costumes for P.A.R.A.D.E., made of corrugated cardboard and hazard tape. Some of the costumes are intricate constructions, others are patched together suits of armour.

The surreal cardboard costumes of
Parade, 2017-style
The 2017 Parade is set in a factory where overall-clad workers move around an endless supply of cardboard boxes, as if they're in the aforementioned Amazon distribution warehouse. The performers - led by NDC Wales dancers - move with a typically automated choreography (reimagined from Leonide Massine's original by NDC's artistic director Caroline Finn), but gradually they become more integrated with their "tools", falling into and crawling out of boxes, and getting very wrapped up in yards of hazard tape. I've never seen someone dance with sticky tape before; it's surreal and strange and magnificently appropriate for Parade. I don't think there's any deeper meaning to the actual ballet, then or now: it's more of a performance than a narrative dance, one of those things you sit and watch and are both bemused and thrilled by.

There's also a return appearance for Eiry Thomas's fist-pumping orator, who is most amusing when tipping a sly wink to a certain modern-day politician who recently had a coughing fit during her keynote conference speech. P.A.R.A.D.E.'s own artistic director Marc Rees gives wonderfully slapstick support as the politician's bumbling adjutant, but it's a great shame the BBC National Orchestra of Wales couldn't make it to North Wales to perform live (as they did at the Wales Millennium Centre). As is too often the case, North Wales draws the short straw and the music is a recorded soundtrack of BBC NOW instead, slightly marring the live experience.

Marcos Morau's Tundra
Following a 25-minute break (which rather spoils the momentum of the experience as a whole, although the resetting of the stage is unavoidable), the audience returns to their seats for a brand new piece from NDC Wales, choreographed by Spaniard Marcos Morau. Called Tundra, it's simply one of the best pieces of choreography I have ever seen, taking the theme of automation and repetition to its ultimate conclusion, depicting man as machine, devoid of any sense of self.

Starting with just one eerily spinning performer, trapped in a block of harsh light, Tundra quickly becomes an ensemble piece which defines the meaning of ensemble. The eight dancers are dressed in Angharad Matthews's floor-length skirts, giving the impression of them being pepperpots on casters as they glide around the stage, their feet utterly obscured. It reminded me of the story that TV writer Terry Nation was inspired to create the Daleks after seeing a performance by the Georgian State Dancers on TV, in which they wore full-length skirts and appeared to float around the stage. Watching Morau's choreographed gliding Russian dolls is akin to seeing Daleks perform a silent ballet (but without the mass extermination). The whole routine is hypnotic to watch.

There then follows a protracted performance of the eight dancers moving in unison and sympathy with one another, eight moving as one, like an ocean wave. There is no individualism in the dance, each dancer is merely a part of the larger whole. Without one, they would all fail, and if one fails, the whole collapses. Morau portrays the collectivism the Russian revolution engendered in his choreography, and it's simply awe-inspiring.

The fluid Tundra
The level of concentration and rehearsal which must have gone into perfecting this routine shows just how good a company of dancers NDC is, and how inspiring to the dancers Morau must have been. They are perfect in their execution, like a human centipede or a train of myriad carriages, all following each other's actions to create a flowing, organic whole. The section where they march in unison, stamping their stockinged feet to evoke the feel of a rousing military rally, tingles the spine.

There's an inspired moment where one dancer (Ed Myhill) breaks free of the collective whole, as if tempted to experiment with his individuality, but within seconds he is back with the pack, afraid to make that permanent break.

Tundra (and P.A.R.A.D.E. as a whole) is a result of a confluence of talents all working with the same influences but doing different things with them. Marc Rees and Branwen Davies present a live, interactive experience which links Wales to the events in Russia 100 years ago by comparing and contrasting destinies, as well as adopting the visual freshness that emerged in Russia at that time. Lee Johnston's Stepford Wives is a stylish intermission connecting the Russians' constructivism with the French surrealist movement, which then re-emerges in the restaging of the original Parade with echoes of both Russia and France in the mix (but, interestingly, not Wales). NDC's final fresh presentation, which feels slightly attached to, rather than part of, the overall P.A.R.A.D.E. experience, is a magnificent way to end, and stands as its own piece regardless of what's gone before. It's also lit beautifully by the genius Joe Fletcher.

It would be so easy for a promenade piece like this to feel bitty, disjointed and uneven, but the stylistic and thematic links that connect all the different parts are clear and intelligently thought through. Although Tundra doesn't feel a part of the greater whole (ironically), the ebb and flow of the whole experience makes it a highly memorable show, putting the viewer at the heart of the art. Just what the constructivists of Petrograd would've wanted.
  • You can see the Parade ballet section of P.A.R.A.D.E. on BBC Four on Sunday, November 5th, 2017.

The stats
Writer: Branwen Davies
Director: Marc Rees
Performers: Marc Rees, Kate Lawrence, Eiry Thomas, Phil Babot, members of Dawns i Bawb.
Stepford Wives
Choreographer: Lee Johnston
Composer: Jack White
Performers: Robert Bridger, Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Ed Myhill, Mathew Prichard, Evan Schwarz
Choreography: Leonide Massine, reimagined by Caroline Finn
Music: Satie performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Martin Yates.
Performers: Robert Bridger, Angela Boix Duran, Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Camille Giraudeau, Ed Myhill, Mathew Prichard, Evan Schwarz, Elena Thomas, Marine Tournet, members of Dawns i Bawb.
Choreographer: Marcos Morau
Performers: Robert Bridger, Angela Boix Duran, Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Camille Giraudeau, Ed Myhill, Mathew Prichard, Evan Schwarz, Elena Thomas
Performed at Pontio, Bangor, on October 28th-29th, 2017. Performance reviewed: October 29th, 2017

P.A.R.A.D.E. on NDC Wales website (retrieved Oct 30 2017)

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