Gala events are more usually associated with opera-house soirées than with contemporary dance festivals, but this was Dance Umbrella’s silver jubilee season, and deserved a fanfare. The opening Birthday Gala at Sadler’s Wells (29 September 2003) was, thankfully, long on short dances and short on long speeches – Deborah Bull’s introductions and Richard Alston’s tribute were brief but warm, and I only regretted that Val Bourne’s characteristically self-effacing speech was not in fact longer.
thankfully, long on short dances and short on long speeches
Glitzy showpieces are staple gala fare, but Umbrella’s was a happier mix of styles and moods, with only William Tuckett’s cheesey What’s New, Pussycat? for Zenaida Yanowsky feeling out of place for being, well, too much of a gala showpiece. Tuckett’s piece was played for laughs, but was outclassed by Matthew Bourne’s gala closer, a reworked version of the 1988 Spitfire, featuring six male models strutting and flexing in their dismaying underwear, to well-known strains of Minkus and Glazunov. An altogether different sense of humour emerged from another reworked piece, Charles Moulton’s delightful Nine Person Precision Ball Passing, from 1980. The concept is simplicity itself: nine women sit in three tiers and pass tennis balls to each other, in strict time to a walkalong little electronic score. The result is quietly and unexpectedly comic, chucklesome rather than laugh-out-loud.
Siobhan Davies’s She Bit Her Tongue (an extract from last year’s Plants and Ghosts) also gained laughs for the acerbic wit of Caryl Churchill’s ingeniously looped text, which is echoed by the two dancers, one interpreting it in sign language, the other as a cyclic sequence of movement. Prior to this we saw another Davies excerpt, ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals, made for Second Stride in 1982. It has a much simpler, more sculptural style than the more recent piece, and was beautifully, solemnly danced by Laurent Cavanna. Like Davies, Richard Alston has a long association with Umbrella, and his 1985 Dangerous Liaisons opened the evening, danced by the new-look Scottish Ballet under the directorship of Ashley Page. It is a demanding work for both dancers and audience, coldly but brilliantly cerebral, with two trios meshing and separating in brittle patterns to a bubbling, squeaking electronic score.
Shobana Jeyasingh’s extract from her recent Polar Sequences 1 for Random Dance Company showed some of her stylistic affinities with both Alston and with Random’s director, Wayne McGregor. McGregor himself choreographed a characteristically insectoid solo for himself, and contributed 2 Human, a duet for Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur. She is spiky, he wriggly. The extremes of their off-centre tilts and the hard attack of their splayed limbs wowed the audience.
the biggest treat were the much less flashy solos of three venerable veterans
But for me the biggest treat were the much less flashy solos of three venerable veterans. Throughout Trisha Brown’s enchanting If You Couldn’t See Me, the limber 66-year-old kept her back to the audience, so that each ragdoll excursion upstage seemed like a private foray into her past. Bill T. Jones (50) also placed strict limits on his solo, staying within the borders of a tight spotlight. He lets Edgar Varèse’s score tap out an irregular percussive pattern of tiny ripples and twitches through his muscleman body, extending even to his flickering, serpentine tongue. Music, too, provides the framework for Mark Morris’s Serenade, to short guitar pieces by Lou Harrison. Morris, 46 and somewhat flabby, has a captivating presence, at once lyrical and puckish, his figure morphing from pastoral shepherd to oriental samurai to Spanish sevillanas dancer. All three of these soloists were early Umbrella visitors, and over the years they have matured wonderfully. Much like Dance Umbrella itself.