My preparations for attending the 39th annual Dance Umbrella festival were, admittedly, a little haphazard. After a quick browse through a programme as mouth-watering as the Hawksmoor menu (sorry, vegetarians!) and a rapid-fire exchange of exclamation points with my editor, I decided to dip into the festival by way of two cultural trips to France, and one sensually-illuminating night in Spain. With this being a London festival, held in the confines of five zones, my trip took me to a sharp new development on the Thames, a globally-renowned arts centre seven Tube stops away from my flat and, with a somewhat jolting predictability, a specialist dance venue just around the corner from my office. My passport remained dormant, but my time in this world of international dance was stamped with new experiences, new art forms and new destinations.
While I did not set out looking for themes, I found my experience of the festival to be driven by one remarkably singular thread: the strength and power of female dancers and performance-makers. In Satchie Noro and Silvsin Ohl’s Origami, aerialist Noro gave us the truest image of a body refusing to be held back, as she performed a duet with a mobile shipping container. The following day, Rocío Molina presented Fallen from Heaven (Caída del Cielo), a dynamic work that both embraced and challenged the traditional practice of Flamenco, through a performance defined by a spellbinding aura of raw, fragile power and laboured mastery. On my final trip under the Umbrella, three female choreographers – Lucinda Child, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin – offered three very different takes on Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fugue, Op 133. From the same piece of music, we were presented with interpretative narratives driven by, in turn, by classicalist grace, coquettish aggression and spiralling anguish.
In a talk held to mark the start of the festival, Justine Simons, OBE, Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries, discussed the impact of contemporary dance on people, communities and countries. With Brexit looming heavily on the horizon, Simmons called on us to “assert London’s openness”, claiming that “diversity is our greatest asset”. It was hard not to recall these comments upon watching Origami, the work that opened Dance Umbrella, when the shipping container-based performance made a stop outside of the visibly gentrifying Battersea Power Station, right up against the historic symbol of international trade that is the Thames. Even before Noro made an appearance, the sense of drama was keenly apparent: both a postcode and a country caught in a moment of dislocation, of transit. House lights had been replaced with floodlights, and as these dimmed Noro gracefully punctuated this poetic framing of space as she explored the limitations of her unique set.
Pulled by discreet cables, the shipping container, like a broken puzzle, opened like a mouth to gasp in the river air. Noro surmounted the shifting blocks of metal with a nimble, responsive agility. At times, her angular positioning provided symbolic camouflage against the moveable set, her expression marked by both wonder and fear as the scenery encroached on her own space; at other points, hanging languidly from one knee, or softly wedging herself in sharp corners, she was like a child finding comfort in a safe nook. With alchemic finesse, Noro converts steel into craft paper that, as her titled promises, is poised to be folded. Physics is no longer a science: at times, our lone performer looks set to pull shards of the container into her own configuration or, with a hammer, reconfigure or destroy her space.
Dance Umbrella is an event defined as much by its opportunities to question, as much as its opportunities to absorb. The programme is peppered with lectures and casual performances, alongside post-show audience-centred dialogues. In these sessions, Emma Gladstone, the festival’s Artistic Director & Chief Executive, is joined by BSL interpreter Jeni Draper to moderate the conversation, beginning by welcoming one-word responses to the event, before opening the floor for more in-depth questions and reflections. “I think one of the things art can do is intensify life,” mused Gladstone at the post-show discussion accompanying Molina’s Fallen from Heaven. For the average British observer, Flamenco has perhaps become more readily associated with tourists and tapas than cutting-edge art. Meanwhile, Olivier-nominated performer Molina brings a new emotional spectrum that makes the traditional form her own, with a dexterous, textured and devastating performance.
In a 90-minute marathon of a show, Molina whisks through an assortment of different characters. To begin, she appears in a traje de flamenca, white frills cascading behind her like a bubbling, aquatic extension of her form. Later, dressed as a torero on a BDSM bend, she snaps her braces and spurts crisps from the Walkers packet affixed to her crotch. The red, phallic opening is both humorous and charged – the act of reaching into her packet and seeking the salty relief denied her by her male musicians becomes a deviant and private act. Later still, she shakes out her hair, her clicked heels and rhythmically slapped thighs aggressively holding their own against the noisy, testosterone-fuelled live music. At another point, our artist moves heavily across the stage, her polythene skirts trailing a burnt red paint. Before her movement weres free and throw-away, and before she bounced back up. Now she leaves a stain – a feminine reminder, perhaps, of birth, virginity, menstruation or violence.
At points, like an animal trying to make sense of its body, Molina crawls with jutted arms. She sways subtly and sinks into her skirt, slow, measured and melting. As the performer tests out arms and legs that threaten to work independently, Molina seeks out the limits of her form – both creative and bodily. She appears buoyed by the weight of a dress that masks the laboured contortions of her limbs, then released in the black underwear that grants her neater, freer expression. There’s no doubt that this is a strong momentum-gathering performance – one punctuated by rage, independence, resilience and passion – but Molina loosens the strings of her own power to deliver a work that is ambiguous and challenging. Just as Noro proves to be an escape artist over her physical surroundings, Molina, too, escapes definition.
Sadler’s Wells may well be one of the more conventional dance venues of the programme, but it was all very new to the man engaged to be my father in law, who joined me at Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues with a view to tick live ballet off his list of life experiences. For me, the joy of the evening lay in seeing, in such close proximity, three so very different choreographers bringing their distinct vocabulary to the art form. What could so easily have become restraints – the same piece of music, the same core tradition, the practical limitations on staging – became springboards. For my guest, the joy of the evening lay in how it formed such a varied introduction to this new form – as bucket lists go, it was the cultural equivalent of skydiving through the Northern Lights and into a pool of dolphins.
We began with Lucinda Childs’ classicist response to Beethoven – an exercise in malleability and grace. On reflection, it’s hard to believe that this is the most recent of the night’s three pieces, so timeless and palatable is its tapestry of minutely varied pas de deux. In cotton wool whites, off-whites and pale greys, the palette is thoroughly muted. The dancers whisper their retreats or stay to observe, faultlessly well-postured even in their stasis, bringing to mind some Pastoral academy – a place of learning untainted by individuality. The mood, indeed, is studious. Female performers glide from male partner to male partner, the absent eye contact rendering the exchange entirely clinical. At the end of this segment, as Op 133 gets a little more turbulent, the choreography struggles. Dancers become more angular, but the foundations of their mood swing are weak, and the performance struggles to stay true to its more heavenly style through the more suspense-laden bars.
Maguy Marin’s version, delivered at the very end of the evening, is worth a mention for how it portrays the power of unity in rioting against the anguished, lonely journeys into madness and death. That said, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s take, which seems to have taken a detour through Wall Street on its way from Lyon, is the ballet I have been hungering for. It’s a lot more worldly and humour-driven than the other two and, suits aside, an awful lot looser. Here, Keersmaeker has dismissed abstract notions in exchange for collapsable actors, who punch their way across the stage with an entitled, busy aggression. Unlike Childs, Keersmaeker seems to bite into, rather than power through, the more pensive moments of the score. The moody pauses are used as a time to roll up sleeves, or for pack mentality to brew amongst six male and two female performers.
Dominating Keersmaeker’s piece, Noëllie Conjeaud is, by far, the standout dancer of the whole evening. Breaking from the hustle of her fellow performers, Conjeaud sets herself away from the crowd with an assertive, knowing grace. She’s the first to take off her jacket, and first to untuck her shirt. So vivid is her apparent influence, the more artfully languid performers seem to imitate her before she has made her move. Commanding and charming, she’s dressed for business and trades in personality – but more than anything, as she darts across the stage with a boundless athleticism, Conjeaud exemplifies that beautiful thing that powers Dance Umbrella: a genuine appreciation of traditional forms taken in new directions, and an irrepressible sense of enjoyment in dance itself.
Dance Umbrella is on until 28 October 2017 at various venues. Click here for more details.