This year marks 25 years of Dance Umbrella, a festival that has grown from small beginnings to become a landmark event on the world stage. Directed since its inception by the incomparable Val Bourne, Umbrella celebrates its Silver Jubilee with an exceptional season that, like a well-made novel, has a clear beginning, middle and end – and not a few twists and flashbacks along the way.
The festival opens with a bang, a special Gala on 28 September at Sadler’s Wells Theatre featuring some of the artists who have appeared in and been associated with Umbrella over the years. Guests include Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Wayne McGregor, Rambert Dance Company, and Agnes Oakes and Thomas Edur; more guests are still to be confirmed. Siobhan Davies Dance Company will perform She Bit Her Tongue, a flavoursome morsel from last year’s Plants and Ghosts set to a biting little text by Caryl Churchill, and Matthew Bourne will also restage Spitfire from 1988, a playfully comic skit for four men and their dismaying underwear. The evening promises to be an uplifting, celebratory experience; and if you’re feeling that way too, you can splash out £100 for the full birthday bash (champagne reception, post-show party).
Of course it would not be possible to present all the artists who have contributed to Dance Umbrella in one season, let alone in one evening. But for fans eager for as much of their birthday cake as they can also eat, Bourne has also organised another special event in the middle of the season, the Silver Celebration (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 22-23 October) which will feature some of Umbrella’s treasured associates (‘we were thinking of calling it The Family Silver,’ laughs Bourne). Sarah Rudner, who appeared as one of four American soloists in the very first Umbrella in 1978, will present another solo for the Silver Celebration, Heartbeat from 1983. Richard Alston also appeared in the first Umbrella, and his company will provide the Silver Celebration finale, while Siobhan Davies, who performed with Alston in the second Umbrella in 1980, will show a solo interlude from her forthcoming work Birdsong, danced by Henry Montes. Also appearing in 1980 was New Yorker David Gordon; he and his long-time partner and fellow avant-gardista Valda Setterfield will show an extract from Private Lives of Dancers (2002). And to open the event there will be the UK premiere of a film of Akram Khan, who first came to critical attention in the 1996 ‘off-Umbrella’ Percussive Feet season at London’s Cochrane Theatre.
Gala excerpts and showpieces may be the icing on the cake of this year’s festival, but the filling is just as tasty. First up is Michael Clark, whose wayward genius – as dancer, choreographer and person – always engenders keen anticipation. Hot on his heels comes Trisha Brown, presenting a triple bill including a welcome reprise of the wonderful Set and Reset, a work of silken dalliance that was first shown in the UK in 1983, and again in 1987. As Laurie Anderson intones laconically on the score: ‘Long time no see.’
Fellow American Stephen Petronio – a former Brown dancer, once Clark’s collaborator, lover and blood-brother, and also using a Laurie Anderson score for one of his pieces – is another Umbrella regular who will return for this season. Indeed it would be fascinating to trace some of the links and lineage amongst Umbrella’s ‘family silver’. New Yorker John Jasperse, for example, whose company will appear at The Place, once worked with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas. De Keersmaeker herself caused a stir when she first appeared in Umbrella ’82; she’s returning with two intimate works, a duet and a solo, in both of which she will herself be performing. Her occasional collaborator and dramaturg Jan Ritsema has worked with Jonathan Burrows, who will present a new piece for Umbrella in collaboration with composer Matteo Fargion (who’s also worked with Siobhan Davies).
The many other performances at this year’s Umbrella include the last UK appearance of the Frankfurt Ballet under the direction of William Forsythe, a welcome return by Laurie Booth for a site-specific event at the Greenwich Dance Agency, plus Russell Maliphant, Charles Linehan, Josef Nadj, and the inimitable Saburo Teshigawara. Umbrella will also be presenting short tours by South African Vincent Mantsoe and Israeli company Inbal Pinto. And once again, Umbrella teams up with Sadler’s Wells and the Jerwood Foundation for the Jerwood Proms, offering standing-room tickets for just £5 for Michael Clark, Trisha Brown and Saburo Teshigawara.
But there are other events than dance performance. Matthew Hawkins will rove around the festival to present five pre-show readings of his dancer’s diary; if it’s anything like his choreography, expect gentle wit and offbeat whimsy, laced with a shot of wonderment. The Theatre Museum hosts an exhibition of photographs by Chris HArris who captured many Umbrella highlights through the 1980s, and The Place will run it’s annual Dance on Screen showcase. The Royal Festival Hall hosts another visual event, accumulating historic documentary Umbrella footage in a special installation that grows throughout October. Punters, meanwhile, can send their own views on the whole shebang to the Feedback Forum, with the lure of ‘special prizes’ for the best postings.
And by way of a finale? Appropriately enough, it’s a double birthday celebration with Merce Cunningham, definitely part of the Umbrella family, who marks fifty groundbreaking years of his company this year. He’ll be presenting Anniversary Events, a spliced and diced feast of works old and new adapted for the Tate Modern gallery, set within a special installation by artist Olafur Eliasson. Dance Umbrella is part of our living, growing dance history, and this autumn’s season is one way of saying, in the words of Mark Morris: ‘Long live Val Bourne! Hail Dance Umbrella!’ If you’re not there, where are you?