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Human Variations - The Choreographic Showcase

Published on Friday 1 July, 2011

If you weren’t there, you should have been. The Choreographic Showcase was a mesmeric delight.  Dancers from Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance Theatre came together to choreograph eleven pieces of brand spanking new dance. The fledgling choreographers were each given the same mission statement – simply, create a piece of dance. Dance. No sets, no costumes and precious few props. The focus was pulled firmly on movement and each piece having a discrete kinetic language of its own. What was most amazing to everyone was the fluency with which this was pulled off.

The opening piece, Flutter by Sebastian Loe, was lean. There wasn’t a judder, flutter or freeze that was wasted in the extraordinary display of bodies in saccade – every dancer seemed to be in a private duet of conscious and unconscious movement. As with every piece on display, the music was meticulously selected and the use of 16 bit – Moth, here, used the jagged deconstructed electronic to demand a re-thinking of movement and fluidity.

I should pause at this point and say that I am a tourist in the land of movement. I actively avoid kinetics of any sort. I shake the little pneumatic valve on my chair if I want to nod. I’m stiff the following day if I play darts. As such, I did not find it easy to imagine what can be said through movement alone. But I haven’t stopped thinking about some of these pieces since I saw then. This is perhaps indicative of a surplus of free time. But it is at least partly to do with the enticing and durable ideas at the heart of these pieces. There was, I felt, a real desire from a lot of the choreographers on display to go after weighty and thought-provoking subjects. Not only that, put to pull them off with that frightening post-traumatic fluency.

Graham Kotowitz’s piece, Incandescence, took the conceptual apparatus around the physical state of incandescence as its starting point. In broad strokes Graham wanted to chart the process from cold to heat. What Graham wanted to connect with is the thrilling transformative potential of matter, energy bursting and dissipating into equilibrium only to erupt again, the oscillation between dead cold and dire heat - contact, conflict, rebuttal and reconnection. All this busyness ultimately ends in the eponymous state of incandescence. A state of furious serenity, coruscatingly hot but white and pure. A still-point past the viscidities of movement and stasis. 

But Graham’s wasn’t the only piece with big ideas in its guts. Kenneth Tindall’s piece, Project #1, seemed to sway with a heavy angst and want. The music was beautifully selected. A scratched-down dirge with Dinah Washington’s crackling voice asking – sometimes rhetorically, sometimes it sounds like she’s demanding to know – “What good am I? Heaven only knows”. As the existential plea went up, three dancers (Tobias Batley, Victoria Sibson and Ben Mitchell) folded in and out of each other with a palpable desperation on the stage. There was, I felt, a genuine seeking in each of the performances and a real feeling for the loose and inhabitable message of the song. Sometimes the dancers formed a singular unit, moved as one – like a sort of exquisite Decepticon – at other’s they pulled and reneged, grasped and fell away from … nothing. There was no set and no props, they were dancers alone in the gray cavern of the stage. The pared-down aesthetic of the project chimed perfectly with this bleak but human vision.

Kenny told me that bedrock for his piece, the chief concern, was movement itself. He selected his three dancers because of physical qualities he talks about like a doting anatomist. Toby’s “looseness”, Ben’s “feet” and Vicki’s “pliable ribcage” were component parts of his piece, but he wants something that makes each dancer individual. Something deeper than toes, ribs or looseness. He talks about getting the “DNA imprint” of each dancer. He’s not, I don’t think, wanting to cover his bases pending criminal investigation. He’s talking about a feeling that the idea of DNA gives articulation to – the fact that we are all simultaneously identical and radically different. As I watch the dancers entwine, grapple, embrace and reject each other – with their respective feet, ribs and looseness straining at the sinews – I felt that this nebulous sense of identity saturated the entire work.

If Project #1, Flutter and Incandescence held weighty ideas in their sapling hands, so did Ryu Suzuki’s piece, Good Call. A Phoenix dancer, Ryu chose to choreograph Northern Ballet dancers and result was extraordinary. The angsty plea of “what am I good for?” equally occupied, in sense if not in tone, Ryu’s riotous and moving piece.

Despite being helmsman of a powerhouse of inventive dance, I’m a bit of a dance noob. I wasn’t aware that movement could be witty. I had thought wit was purely the province of linguistic canapés, wordy conceits and John Donne. Not so, it seems. Good Call was genuinely sharp, well-observed and illuminating in its irreverence. It sashayed from a laconic, Beckett-like slapstick concerning the folly of man into quite soulful and harrowing tableaus which never lost their levity, but instead exposed the vacuum at the heart of the joke. Great performances from Ben Mitchell, Guiliano Contadini and Thomas Aragones as preening men full of empty pomp and, it seems, half-understood longing. Lashings of the bitter-sweet pathos from this piece that whipped through it’s ten minutes like it wasn’t there. Much like the tender butt of Good Call’s chief joke – human life.

Keiko Amemori’s piece had a similar levity. Propelled by a piece of music by John Zorn – full of a kind of Ronette’s-style kinky-cool -  this piece was about fun and experiment. Keiko explained that she wanted to find movement everywhere. To look for physical language in unexpected places, even in the anodyne actions of picking up a glass of water or saying hello, for example. New grammars and dictions of movement were cultivated in the studio and these were exaggerated to extraordinary effect. I very much enjoyed one particular move when the three dancers assembled into a kind of grotesque rotisserie. Rotating like a gargoyle steeple chase to the clean, heavy strings of the music.

If, as I see it, there appeared to be a recurrent concern with the human and the human body, Victoria Sibson picked that arena of human pursuit in which, perhaps, the human body is pushed to the greatest extreme. Where it as endless attempt to transcend the human, to push human boundaries, all in order to simultaneously celebrate that old culprit – the human being. This was considered, well-blocked choreography which could hold its place in the embarrassment of riches that is the cultural Olympiad.

One in 285,000 was an act of heroism after Azzura Ardovani, the choreographer-performer, was nearly deocculated and the fair-sighted Michela Paolacci had to step into the fray. Like Good Call, this piece fused Phoenix and Northern talent pots and was a suitably thick gumbo of movement and idea. I still don’t know what the title refers to and, in the absence of that understanding, I’ll say it probably has something to do with ‘the human’ and the human body.

Whilst it was never the case that any of the pieces lacked maturity – even the more playful were headily considered at their core – Daniel De Andrade’s Untainted Parallel had the pre-occupation with the possibility of loss, the troubling contingency of the human condition, there being some divisive force in our relationships with ourselves and others. De Andrade calls this “a mirror of strong but unreachable possibilities of what might have been”. It was mournful, delicate and, for a piece interested in the frail contingencies of memories, oddly unforgettable.

Chun-Yen Chia’s Three Colours was also in a retrospective mood. Interesting perhaps, the two pieces by slightly older choreographers deal with memory and the reconciliation of a life lived, rather than the idea of ‘the human life’ per se. Divided into the tricolour, Chun-Yen’s piece re-imagined the journey from naïve youth (red) into the solitary passage into adulthood  (white) and the unbridled joy that comes with human companionship and devotion (blue). Chun-Yen’s vision in three movements was realised through the speculum of his love for his wife and was an intensely personal and tender piece to witness.

Henry, Hannah Bateman’s piece, felt a Northern Ballet ballet. Her eyes lit up when she talked to me about the Tudors, she says that she remembers how vividly this period came alive for her at school. It is a rare quality to feel, lucidly, the force of historical narratives. It is something that Northern Ballet has built a reputation on – one cannot realise a ballet like Cleopatra without finding the still-beating heart beneath the skein of myth. The piece finds new ways to tell its story and realise Hannah’s vivid vision. Henry opens with the tearing up of the marriage contract with Anne Boylen. Anne wears a pink ribbon in her hair and Jane Seymour a blue ribbon, symbolising the sex of the offspring they bore him.

Dreda Blow’s piece was sass and style. Not being a particularly sassy or stylish sort of fish myself, this pleased me immensely. Michela Paolacci seemed, in every sense, to let her hair down and there was a looseness and freshness to every inch of this crisp, colourful piece. All conducted with effortless enthusiasm to the gravelly ease of another piece of excellently selected music, Savane by Ali Farka Touré.

It seems, from my brief foray into movement, that the choreographer’s job is to select their materials precisely. When they go into that studio they are like a chemist placing reactive elements together. They will destabilise, break-down, re-connect, release energy and create entropy in their wake. This has all certainly happened. But for the arch-choreographer himself, David Nixon, something even more remarkable has occurred in his own compound of reactive elements. New elements have been discovered lurking in the old. He has seen, peeping-out (or incandescing), choreographers lurking in the mitochondria of his dancers. As he intimated in his opening address, for David Nixon the old alchemical dream has come true and now knows he has an admixture more volatile and potentially brilliant than even he had imagined.

The views expressed in blogs are those of the author and not necessarily of Northern Ballet.