Fra Tordre. Foto: Antero Hein

Dance Umbrella 2017: roundup review

A selection of works from London’s Dance Umbrella 2017. The critique was first published in Dancing Times in December 2017.

Because Dance Umbrella has no fixed abode (the London-based festival is independent of any particular venue or producing organisation), it has no fixed identity. That may be anathema for marketing bods in our brand-conscious age, but it also offers a degree of freedom. Being essentially nomadic, the festival can go all over the place, both physically and artistically. Its challenge is to make the most of that without losing direction – and one way to meet that challenge is, in principle, simple: be interesting.

Rocío Molina has always been that. First seen at the 2014 festival with Bosque Ardora – a surreal, depth-charged cross between formal flamenco and expressionist dance theatre – she returned to the Barbican Theatre on blistering form with Caído del Cielo (Fallen from Heaven). Entering the stage like a flamenco goddess, her white dress tapering into cloudlike ruffles, Molina gradually sank downwards until she became more animal than angel, slithering across the floor with her bata de cola trailing like a salamander tail. Stripping naked, she underwent a kind of rebirth – liberation, even – as she redressed herself in all manner of apparel. First, to the driving accompaniment of electric guitars, she donned the clinging trousers and embroidered bolero jacket of the bullfighter, to become a strutting rock chica. Elsewhere, she bridled herself into fetishistic straps and munched crisps from a packet fastened to her crotch, dolled herself into a makeshift showgirl, rutted with a broomstick and, most heart-rendingly, heaved herself over the floor in a gunk-covered skirt, like an albatross in an oil slick. A terrific quartet of male musicians gamely matched her transfigurations. Absolutely none of it would have worked if Molina had not, even in her thrashiest moments, maintained the caged presence and rhythmic exactitude that comes from traditional flamenco. In putting on different faces while remaining true to herself, Molina was rather emblematic of Dance Umbrella itself.

Another way the festival has stimulated interest is by reframing the familiar. In last year’s Unknown Pleasures, Ballet de Lorraine simply removed all choreographic credits from their mixed programme, which either kept you guessing who the creators were – or better, made you watch without strings attached. This year it was the turn of Lyon Opera Ballet to put a new spin on a familiar format. Presented at Sadler’s Wells, Trois Grandes Fugues was a fascinating triple bill: three different dances to one piece of music, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

The opening work, a sparse but exquisite new commission from Lucinda Childs, laid a refined tracery of steps over the solid scaffolding of Beethoven’s score – an echo of the filigree geometries of a gazebo set at the back of the stage – so that we simultaneously sensed the heft of the musical structure and the lightness and deftness of Childs’ choreographic touch, refracted through a neoclassical ballet style.

Instead of following the music, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s version, created in 1992, constructed a counterpart to it, deploying fugal principles of motif, counterpoint and transposition to fashion a tautly composed and yet breathlessly exuberant dance for six men and two women, all in dapper black suits. It was quite a ride; fascinating also to see the early seeds of De Keersmaeker’s perennial concerns: the corporeal embodiment of musical elements, spiralling group structures, the intercutting of formal steps with casual walks and runs, and the generative power of combining and recombining simple elements of motion.

Maguy Marin’s all-female quartet, created in 2001, was yet another world apart. Here, the Beethoven came to seem like a dominating force, goading the women into ragged routines that both wore them out and drove them on, despite their constant flails and stumbles. We really felt for them, struggling with and against the imperatives of that implacable score. A turbulent and surprising end to an evening that was not only exciting (hats off to the versatile dancers) but also enlightening, having shown us three utterly different ways that music can work hand in hand with dance: as supporter, as partner, as combatant.

It would have been easy to miss Tordre (“twist”), a one-night only performance at north London’s Arts Depot by French choreographer Rachid Ouramdane and two totally contrasting dancers – US-born Annie Hanauer (best known for her work with Candoco and Emanuel Gat), and Lithuanian Lora Juodkaite. It opened with deadpan slow-walks to fanfares from Funny Girl, and introspective actions that shut out its audience – an unedifying start that led to something far more interesting. Juodkaite began to turn, and she continued turning as if she would never stop, variously evoking an orbiting planet, a gyroscope, a tornado, a dervish, until her turning and spinning became strangely philosophical – a hollow vortex of existence. A hard solo to follow, but Hanauer succeeded in shifting the mood to the opposite pole: the personal, the emotional. Without overly acting out, Hanauer pegged her solo to the phrases and rhythms of Nina Simone’s legendary rendition of “Feelings” (live from Montreux, 1976) – and together, music and dance created both hair-flinging heartbreak and striding resilience. Tordre was indeed a twist, the showbizzy emptiness of its opening broken open to reveal both transcendence and intimacy.

The festival closed with a very mixed evening that seemed to have no identity at all, except that Shoreditch Takeover looked thoroughly at home in the beautiful and very convivial premises of Shoreditch Town Hall. Julie Cunningham’s opening work did something rare in dance – mention the word “lesbian” – but choreographically it was not much more than a sketch, not yet ready for public performance. Hot on her heels came Vanessa Kisuule’s performance poetry. Poetry at a dance festival? Instead of seeming out of place, the effect was refreshing, and in any case showed its subliminal connections with choreography: rhythm, phrasing and force, a sense of staging and audience awareness.

Finally came two entirely unexpected highlights of the festival. Lisbeth Gruwez Dances Bob Dylan was a deliciously disarming suite of minimalist solos to vinyl recordings of early Dylan. It could have been mere bedsit indulgence, but the very personable Lisbeth Gruwez performed with astonishing poise and nuance, riffing on the sensation of the songs more than their lyrics, and deftly, inventively pinning her phrasing to the musical dynamics. It was both commanding and captivating. Charles Linehan’s Shadow Drone Project, meanwhile, was a stunning film edit of overhead shots taken at sunrise or sunset, so that the shadows of dancers, people, animals, trees and buildings loomed immensely larger and longer than their living sources. Though presented as a sideshow to the main evening, this uncannily beautiful, God’s-eye view of our earthly plane merited stillness, silence and our undivided attention. A live duet version on the same theme is due to tour in 2018; catch it before the next Dance Umbrella – whatever that may be.

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