Take me dancing

Philipa Rothfield in London

Hovering between sea and land, the Royal Naval College was the site of many a seafaring adventure, including the launch of the British assault on the Spanish Armada. Henry VIII was born here, as were his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. What better place, then, to launch a 3-part performance epic, serially staged along the banks of the Thames River. Take Me to the River began with a piece by Rosemary Lee, an established choreographer known for her site specific work with people of all ages.

Lee chose to place her work, The Banquet Dances, in The Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College. Three hideously long dinner tables flanked a meticulously (over)painted hall; cherubs, angels, semi-nude women, kings and queens. If we were to believe the tromp-l’oeil imagery of the painter, Thornhill, we would be agog at the “splendid illusion of a ceiling opening on heaven.” As it was, the audience preferred instead to watch progressive waves of movement, executed by a large cast of angels and mortals. Led by 2 elderly women, the children spoke of time and space, indices of our mortal coil. Young dancers lapped the limits of the room, whilst the many others seated themselves at the tables, examining anatomy charts, bodies and maps. This work had moments of otherworldly beauty punctuated by the thunder of big and little feet. The untrained but nevertheless very focused cast did not always replicate the rarefied aesthetics which produced the surrounds for this performance.

Next, the entire audience was transported by boat to Canary Wharf, a Monopoly town circa Thatcher’s England, recently bombed by the IRA. This was the choice of Wendy Houstoun (ex-DV8) for her work, Fêted. Upon arrival, the passengers were ushered through a suitably deserted landscape—very Jeffrey Smart—into a tiny, manicured park. Houstoun played some famous nobody, flanked by bodyguards, giving speeches over the microphone whilst her official staff tussled and rolled over each other on the lawn. As time went by, the woman’s facade shifted from posh to dishevelled until, in her bra and nickers, she pleaded with her retreating audience, muttering platitudes about love and life. Fêted had elements of parody and social satire mixed in with energetic dancing which nevertheless maintained a naturalistic façade. A slightly slight piece, Fêted was about the right level for its sterile surrounds. As in DV8’s work, Houstoun allows her dancing to emerge from the everyday.

Finally, we were shipped to London, to an open-air stage at the Royal Festival Hall for Noel Wallace’s piece, Inside Out. This was a very sad and serious dance about migration, racism and institutionalised cruelty. A giant suitcase dwarfs the stage. A woman is constrained by her hospital bed. She thrashes about but none of the staff understands her. Flashback to a young woman, suitcase in hand, recently arrived from perhaps Jamaica—full of hope. Her past betrays her, her present is unbearable, her only future is with the angels. Although the movement was interesting, the unrelenting hopelessness of the piece was difficult to hold emotionally. The end of the work, involving all the dancers in a group movement, was not structurally integrated. This is a young artist’s work and, as the years go by, Wallace will create better and more powerful pieces. He is willing to grapple with painful, political themes which are clearly pertinent for the dance scene as well as its greater social context.

What I did miss in all these pieces was a sustained presentation of really interesting movement. Happily, I managed to see Siobhan Davies’ 13 Different Keys. In terms of kinaesthetic imagination and finesse, this piece bore no comparison to Take Me to the River. Publicised as a meld of classical and contemporary dance (involving a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Davies’ own company), 13 Different Keys was a site specific work made for a huge gallery space in Brick Lane, East London. The stage consisted of an elevated cross, whose meeting point along one line was smooth, along the other, broken. The dancers utilised that break in their movement, jumping, hopping and bridging its abyss. They also worked the edge of the stage, hugging its corners, slinking onto the floor, transgressing its raised surface.

Five dancers, each distinctively adept, performed duets, solos, trios and double duets. Their movements were obviously designed in collaboration for there wasn’t a sense that the one choreographer was imposing moves on other bodies. The performers themselves were really strong dancers, including Deborah Bull (Royal Ballet) and Gill Clarke who performed a beautiful duet. The movements were surprising, involving changes of direction, level, shifts of weight and velocity, although there were the satisfactions of repeated sections throughout the piece. The dancers stayed onstage, resting at times, dancing to silence, not dancing to the music, which was a medley of Marais’ early music performed live. 13 Different Keys was meant to be a promenade piece but sadly the audience refused to budge on its ringside purchase.

On a different note, I managed to see Canadian Ronnie Burkett’s marionette play, Tinka’s New Dress. This piece was motivated by political concerns regarding the emergence of the new right, and is dedicated to the courage and tragedy of Czech puppeteers living under Nazism. Burkett felt that 50 years ago he could have been one of these unfortunates, a fear I have always harboured as an Australian Jew. But then, we don’t have to think back 50 years to find a place where we could be summarily put to death.

Burkett’s puppets lead a double life. By day, their antics amuse the young. By night, they don a more political garb. These larger (or smaller) than life icons vehiculate the most bitter of critical perspectives whilst tossing off a litany of bottom jokes and sexual references. The more repressive the regime, the more the need to fudge these 2 functions and purport a singular intent. Because of its historical juxtaposition of contemporary fundamentalism, as it exists within liberal democracy (the new right), and Nazi totalitarianism (the old right), Tinka’s New Dress slides between a commentary on the politics of consensus on the one hand, and of repression on the other; some of its concerns speak to the production of consensus—how to resist the ‘manufacture of consent’ within Western democracy—and some speak to the perils of living under overt totalitarianism.

The radicalism of Burkett’s work is in his performative style as manifested in the characters of his play within a play: Franz and Schnitzel and his inimitable “Madame.” Burkett spent a year improvising a 2-hour show in preparation for this part of the work; the result, a truly hysterical banter between these 3 characters, composed of local political references, sexual innuendo, stand-up comedy and improvisation. Burkett’s manipulations are always visible. Here, the boundaries between comedy and politics, criticism and satire, script and improvisation, and wood and flesh are rendered fluid. This in the end was Burkett’s radical gesture, one which unravelled to reveal a human embodiment of hope, 2 hours straight. The audience clapped so long Burkett told everyone to go home. And so we did.

Take Me to the River: Rosemary Lee, The Banquet Dances, Wendy Houston, Fêted, Noel Wallace, Inside Out, Greenwich, Canary Wharf and The South Bank, London, July 10 – 18; Thirteen Different Keys, Deborah Bull, Gill Clarke, Siobhan Davies, The Atlantis Building, Brick Lane, London, July 15 – 19; Tinka’s New Dress, Ronnie Burkett, The Pit, Barbican Centre, London, June 23 – July 10

RealTime issue #33 Oct-Nov 1999 pg. 6

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1999
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