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By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001, 2018 Josephine Leask
NEW YORK — A solo, duet and group piece made up the varied Movement Research Improvisation Festival program Friday at University Settlement, packed by an enthusiastic crowd composed mostly of dancers. (Those who appreciate improvised performance the most tend to be dancers who have improvised themselves.) The highlight was the Portuguese artist Vera Mantero. A quirky performer, Mantero presented a theatrical improvisation based on Edouard Manet’s famous 1863 nude painting “Olympia.” Rather than drawing on movement itself, Mantero’s improvisation took on a more tangible focus, that of text and ‘the work of art.’ Wobbling across the stage perched on a pair of stilettos with a luscious red rose in her auburn hair and wearing nothing else, Mantero reads extracts from Jean Dubuffet’s manifesto on art while ‘becoming’ Olympia herself. Dragging a couch behind her into the performance space, with eyes glued to her book in studious concentration, she recites haltingly, as if discovering the text. Already the juxtaposition of a naked woman reading male text challenges the supremacy of the male artist over his passive female object.
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Aki Tsujita in Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point.” Foteini Christofilopoulou photograph courtesy the Barbican.
LONDON — The muffled, thudding beat of Tim Hecker’s ambient sound score reverberates through our bodies — it’s like the noise you might hear waiting outside a cool nightclub. The dazzling bank of lights rotates towards the audience, blinding us before diminishing and plunging both stage and auditorium into darkness. Smoke fills the stage and laser lights shine down on it from above to create giant cones of mist. This is the hypnotically dramatic opening to Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point,” seen at the Barbican on May 26. A male dancer emerges from the claustrophobic gloom upstage and walks meditatively into one of the cones, fluidly progressing through a series of sculptural poses, working within the confines of the translucent edges. He leaves as two women emerge and take up position in the other two cones. In slow motion they sink to the ground then rise up again, turning, then repeat these motions, their mouths gaping open like gargoyles from an ancient civilization. Their physical language mixes Butoh, contemporary and Eastern ritualistic dance. It’s strong and grounded.
British choreographer and visual artist Johnston works with perception-altering visual and aural effects in “Zero Point,” which takes its name from Quantum Physics’s notion of ‘trapped’ space. Video projections, motion sensing digital technology, and trancey music transform the stage into another galaxy while lighting effects unzip the darkened stage into geometric sections for the dancers to perform in. Even time seems to be momentarily suspended.
“Zero Point” is a work that has been inspired by Johnston’s residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi, Japan. His cast of nine Japanese dancers who collectively draw from a range of disciplines including ballet, contemporary, Butoh, and Qigong are alumni of Tokyo’s New National Ballet, Sankai Juku, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and the Forsythe Company. The mixture of styles is performed with a contemplative quality and presence that is inspired by Buddhism and sacred Japanese ceremonial spaces. Movement flows in repeated cycles, with frozen poses pausing the tempo and the performers embodying a theatrical neutrality and modesty. Energy is contained and protracted through their bodies. There’s a welcome stillness and an aura of calm about them but also a lack of humanity. Sitting in the auditorium, I feel distanced from the performers and yearn for a fuller immersive experience.
Loose narratives of re-birth are played out through duets between Yatsutake Shimaji and ballerina Hana Sakai. He carries her onstage then makes her come to life, his hands hovering over her body, commanding her actions as if she’s his puppet. She ascends from the floor and extends to her full height on pointe, before gliding towards him as if under his spell. In their partnering Sakai and Shimaji create imaginative tableaux, but the use of balletic lines, while visually striking in the fractured light, lacks the earthy connection that is seen in the shapes of the contemporary and Butoh dancers. The demanding, ambitious Western associations of ballet jar awkwardly with the selfless Eastern spiritualism of the work as a whole. This balletic duet is also annoyingly patriarchal and while the other women move as equals to the men, with their freer expressions, Sakai does not, restrained by both her partner and her discipline.
While “Zero Point” is a reflective and inventive work which can easily seduce, choreographic ideas feel somewhat undercooked.
A scene from Javier De Frutos’s new “The Most Incredible Thing,” with an original score by the Pet Shop Boys. Gavin Evans photo courtesy Sadler’s Wells.
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2011, 2017 Josephine Leask
LONDON — “The Most Incredible Thing,” seen in its premiere earlier this Spring at Sadler’s Wells, was a big event in the city’s dance calendar, attracting more anticipatory press coverage than any other dance happening since the local screening of “The Black Swan.” Pop stars, an infamous choreographer, a fairy-tale, phenomenal dancers and extravagant designs were some of its winning ingredients. Set to an evening-length score by the pop duo the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, who were inspired to make a work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same name, “The Most Incredible Thing” centers on nothing less than the power of art to stand up to human destruction.
Tennant and Lowe’s composition is based on their distinctive electronic dance music, here performed by a full orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Direction and choreography is by Javier de Frutos, an inspired choice by ‘The Boys’ and a marriage made it heaven — at least so it appeared from the strength of the collaboration. De Frutos has made a welcome comeback to Sadler’s Wells after having been reviled by some dance critics and spectators for his controversial piece “Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez,” performed as part of “In the Spirit of Diaghilev” at Sadler’s Wells in October 2009. That work, a response to the inventive and flamboyant scenarios and designs of Jean Cocteau, depicted a fictional pope who raped and molested alter boys and raped a pregnant nun. While it was not the first De Frutos work to feature sex and violence, it was so intentionally over the top that while some spectators and critics took offense, others raved about it. However, de Frutos received death threats and a lot of negative press, the final rejection coming from the BBC, which cancelled plans to broadcast de Frutos’s work during Christmas on a program with three other choreographers.
To receive the rest of the article, first published on June 2, 2011, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before February 14, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008, 2016 Josephine Leask
(First published on December 4, 2008. Rosemary Butcher died of cancer on July 14 in London where, on December 17, Independent Dance is organizing a “Remembering Butcher” day.)
LONDON — Rosemary Butcher has been a quiet but significant presence in the British dance community for more than 25 years. An independent choreographer who has always been riveted by architecture and the visual arts, Butcher has chosen to work on the margins rather than at the center of dance, mainly situating her work in galleries or other buildings not specifically designed for dance. While she has detached herself from the mainstream, her work has always been included in both large and small dance and arts festivals, nationally and internationally. This year’s Dance Umbrella presented her recent creation “Episodes of Flight,” which I saw November 5 at the Riverside Studios in West London.
Conceived for one dancer — Elena Giannotti — “Episodes of Flight” is based on Butcher’s recent research trip to New York, in which she retraced the time she had spent there from 1969 to 1972, immersed in the Judson Church movement and its many off-shoots. On her return visit, she searched for the people and places that had influenced her own development and reflected on how the Judson legacy had been carried on in the work of many other choreographers over the last 40 years.
In the program notes, Butcher talks about how memory maps, prompted by places, sounds, and conversations with acquaintances in New York guided her back to her past; “Episodes of Flight” is a reflection on how she felt after her journey. A bare, intimate room at Riverside Studios, the performance space is long and thin, bordered by the audience, with two screens marking the extremities of the stage, on which are projected a moving collage of abstract diagrams and grids. The installation created by both the screens themselves and the diagrams projected onto them, by architects Matthew Butcher (the choreographer’s son) and Melissa Appleton frames and limits the performance space as well as illuminating the geometry of the city. It also responds to Giannotti’s movement, like a form of dance notation.
Cathy Lane’s soundscore mixes fleeting sounds recorded from the urban jungle — police car sirens, snippets of conversations, children’s voices, and traffic noise — with synthesized material. What is so powerful is how the soundscape travels up and down the studio and creates a three-dimensional environment which is both evocative and immediate. It reminds me of sitting in some quiet little square in the Lower East Side, just off a busy huge high street, immersed in the city but distanced from it as well.
I mention the aural and visual components before the choreographic because each are just as important in the realization of “Episodes of Flight.” Giannotti has worked intensively with Butcher over the years and has a deep understanding of how Butcher likes to represent movement, economically and with a neutral body. Here the material is uncompromisingly minimal and highly contemplative. Pedestrian movements are employed by Giannotti as she rigorously travels round her confined performance space: standing, lying on the floor, sitting or crouching. Prolonged periods of stillness are followed by fast scurrying dynamics as she shunts herself awkwardly backwards semi-reclined, supporting her weight on her forearms, or lying down, dragging her body over the length of the stage. Through the effort of enacting some of the more punishing actions, Gianotti’s visual countenance, which is otherwise calm, neutral and expressionless, stirs just a little in the wake of exhaustion. Because we the audience are sitting close to her we can detect that the absence of emotion in the choreography is replaced by an introverted intensity which lasts for the 45-minute donation of her solo. She is so absorbed in her own journey, physical, aural and visual, that any extraneous factor is denied in her performance. Thus the essence of Judson minimalism is recalled.
For some at the performance I attended, “Episodes of Flight” was just 45 minutes too long. There was some fidgeting and whispering, and a couple walked out, but mostly the audience seemed captivated. To be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Judson and the city in which it took place definitely helps one make a connection with Butcher’s work. But so do choreography, sound and installation which portray how memories are triggered and convey the indefatigable energy of New York.