The onset of Dance International Glasgow, which occurs every two years in venues across the city, is always a source of huge excitement for me. I’ve relished the opportunity to encounter contemporary dance that is largely from beyond Scotland’s borders. The intervening two years since its last iteration in 2019 have been like no other. As I am walking towards Tramway, where most of the events are taking place, I’m certainly excited, more so than usual. It has been a long time and there’s a spring in my step. Yet there’s also a weight, an apprehension, a general uncertainty about remembering what to do, what to say, and how to be.
Weathervanes, created by Jian Yi
I sit cross-legged, side by side with others, on a large white cushion, slowly being lulled into a gently meditative state. Before me I see five people, naked, standing on plinths cast under haze-strewn, shifting beams of light. They move with an ethereal grace, a dance of limbs, hands and fingers spiralling upwards. Around them stands a garden of crooked branches and earth, over which a rippling soundscape washes into every corner. Steadily, audience members rise up and walk around the garden, interweaving amongst the branches and bodies. I ease back, recline, watch. Weathervanes is the first in-person performance I see since March 2020. Amongst its spaciousness, I move between feeling curious, restless, relaxed, self-conscious, delighted and anxious.
Self-described as a ‘queerbodylove project’, Jian Yi’s Weathervanes is a performance installation. The performers’ ethereal choreography and heightened positions seek to elevate the sensuality of queer/P.O.C bodies, in a bid to establish a space for new possibilities of what being othered might mean. The bodies are literally above the audience, acting as deities, angels or, perhaps as the work’s title suggests, weathervanes that are indicative of new patterns, weather-fronts, ways of being. It’s a richly emotional space to be in, that despite its lack of change, is more often than not an interesting one to look at and be with. When audience members do eventually get up and navigate the space on their own terms, there’s considerable delight to be found from watching each other, as well as watching the installation cycle between the complications of others being present and back to its original state.
That being said, Weathervanes sits awkwardly between being a performance and an installation, seemingly wanting to be a bit of both. This isn’t necessarily a problem, yet confusion results from instances where the rules of engagement are particularly rigid, and others where fluidity is encouraged. For example, on entering the space everyone is instructed to take off their shoes, presumably in order not to muck up the lovely white cushion. This makes a good deal of sense, yet the arguably more important notion that people are free to move around the space has to be awkwardly whispered to various audience members until the idea catches on. Likewise, Weathervanes has no recognisable ending, yet a round of applause is abruptly triggered by (presumably) a member of the show’s team. Weathervanes is a relaxing, affecting and engaging space to be in, yet one that doesn’t seem to have fully engaged itself with the realities of an audience being placed within it.
Everybody With Me, Always, created by Freestylers
The Freestylers are an army like no other. They’re a dance army, dressed in combat gear and armed with charm, care and some pretty good moves. This ensemble of artists, with and without disability, lead the audience through a kaleidoscopic evening of watching, dancing and singing. Their stated aim is to provide ‘a space where people can be seen if they choose to be’. On a dark and cold night in Glasgow they certainly achieve that. Spending two hours in their collective company ushers in a warmth of feeling, bringing with it a sense of community that persists long after the work has finished.
Devised in response to and during the COVID lockdowns, Everybody With Me, Always is born from the members of the company being unable to see each other and doing what many of us did, going on walks. Punctuating the live sections of performance are film clips from these walks, a documentary-cum-travelogue following their respective journeys, both literal, conversational and spiritual. Fragments of their conversations cut together, forming a patchwork familiar to most. Reckonings with the death of loved ones and ensuing grief are interspersed with affection and friendship. These moments of beauty resonate when we come back to the room, offering us little windows of understanding into the deep and longstanding relationships between the ensemble members. While many of these moments reach towards profundity, I remember the laughter first and foremost. There is a hilarious segment involving one of them gamely trying and struggling to scale a small fence, while the others are in hysterical laughter. It feels like a privilege to share in this moment. I’m still smiling about it now, days later. By not taking themselves too seriously, the Freestylers have permitted something much sillier and more joyful to emerge.
Back in the space, the performance moves through a series of clearly defined sections, including a catwalk, a dance surgery, solos, duets and moments where everyone is encouraged to dance. Underneath these activities, the crinkle of tin-foil can be heard as audience members are invited to construct sculptures and leave them on a wire frame archway. At its halfway point, there’s a short break, in which they turn on the music and deliberately sing badly in order to make everyone feel comfortable to join in. Continually, the work is pointing outward towards its audience, considering different ways to include them. As someone not particularly comfortable with audience participation, especially dancing, there’s a nice balance of low-stakes ways in which to participate (e.g. clapping) and the repeated reassurance that it’s alright just to sit something out. Members of the ensemble are always working their way around the room, giving encouragement, leading by enthusiastic example.
The sentiment that “it’s important how the dance feels, not what it looks like” is expressed early on – and the work is continually committed to upholding this idea. This is uplifting, liberating and highly commendable, going somewhat against the grain within the context of a festival of contemporary dance, created to be watched. However, given a good deal of the audience members are dancers themselves, it is difficult to gauge how effective the work is at encouraging those who wouldn’t typically get up and dance to do so. I would imagine the Freestylers have this planned or have already done it, but I’d be curious about the potential impact of this work in contexts beyond typical contemporary dance venues and audiences. I’m a small sample size of one, but by the end of the work, their encouragement had gotten me on my feet.
Salt and Sugar, created by Hemabharathy Palani & FUEL
For those unable to be in the audience for in-person events, this year’s Dance International Glasgow also has an online programme. Hemabharathy Palani’s ‘Salt and Sugar’, an adaptation of a pre-existing live performance, is one of the festival’s many free-to-access films. From what I understand, the film is not yet fully finished. Even bearing that in mind, it’s a striking piece of film-making from director JJ Abraham. Salt and Sugar is beautifully shot, interestingly paced and packs a lot into its exploration of race, gender and dance in contemporary Indian culture.
The film is divided into three chapters, charting Palani’s experiences of growing up in India as a woman with ‘dark skin’. Over footage of Palani dancing in the gaps between towering boulders, her voice carefully picks through memories of being othered and discriminated against, pressured into different paths. The frame we are given for Palani’s dancing keeps shifting, as we glimpse her between the windowless frames of an abandoned tower block, amongst the plants of a balcony garden and trapped within the confines of a white translucent fabric. It’s visually interesting and offers a reflective experience to consider how her dancing is shaped and produced by her environments, histories and identities.
Central to Salt and Sugar is Palani’s relationship to dance. Her more contemporary movement of the film’s closing stages are shown to have emerged from the stricter discipline of Bharatanatyam, the classic Indian dance in which she was trained. Despite the freedom of expression Palani has discovered in contemporary dance – and despite the racial and gender prejudice she has encountered growing up in India – a sense of reverence and gratitude carries across the entire film. It’s a delicate balance that Palani manages to hold, being able to describe, critique and appreciate the cultural currents that have brought her to this point. That such nuance is given space to emerge within the film’s twenty-minute run time, is nothing short of astonishing.
Dance International Glasgow ran from 1st-23rd October. More info here.