Performances at this year’s Dance Umbrella by Josef Nadj, Déjà Donné and Inbal Pinto produced some sharply contrasting reactions. In Nadj’s case I found myself on his side, but not quite convinced. His Le Temps du Repli is a funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) duet for Nadj and Cécile Thiéblemont, accompanied live on stage by the oddball percussion of Vladimir Tarasov. Dressed in Dickensian outfits with little ragdoll models of themselves strapped to their backs, like alter ego homunculi, the twosome act cross Chaplinesque mugging with Brothers Quay-style puppet animation. They try to outwit each other in an offbeat game of chess, or chalk up a drawing of their home on a blackboard, like a faintly sinister version of the house that Jack built. It’s wacky, and unsettlingly weird, yoking everyday coupledom to musty folklore.
part Creature from the Black Lagoon, part Esther Williams
Wacky too was Inbal Pinto’s Boobies at the Barbican, which also drew on film and folklore. The eight performers go for grotesque, all hunchback posturing and hammy tiptoeing. They’re costumed with bizarre tufted wigs and distempered harlequin suits. One plays a kind of merman-out-of-water, part Creature from the Black Lagoon, part Esther Williams, his hands flapping fin-like as he gulps mouthfuls of air. Another plays a bandy-legged bloke whose cavernous pot-belly eventually reveals a lightbulb. Like the costumes, the set is striking, a large circular hole in the back wall becoming alternately a low-hanging moon, a fishbowl, and a plug-hole exit. But though visually powerful, the choreography was as repetitive as its motives were unfathomable, and Boobies left me as bewildered by its intentions as I was by its rapturous reception.
in time-honoured physical theatre tradition, it all ends in tears, and nudity
Another piece that divided audiences was In Bella Copia by the Czech group Déjà Donné. It starts promisingly enough, the six performers donning costumes from an outsize clothesrack and singing a captivatingly cacophonous rendition of ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’. Then the compere announces ‘welcome to the world of never-ending happiness’, and doom sets in. Happiness, it seems, includes indulging in over-reaching sexual fantasy, for which two protagonists get their unpleasant and none too imaginative comeuppance: rape for her, homosexual humiliation for him. The performers try on outfits as if slipping on different personae, but the bottom line is their exposed selves. It’s a risky game these youngsters play, and – in time-honoured physical theatre tradition – it all ends in tears, and nudity.
In contrast to these histrionics, Charles Linehan goes by a less-is-more approach, which can cut much deeper when it works – as it did in the wonderful miniature Grand Junction, a duet in which the dancers Andreja Rauch and Greig Cooke trip and twist around their own limbs, at odds not only with each other, but with themselves. They are almost indifferent to each other until the final section, as their repeated pushes, tugs and falls come to symbolise the small evasions, demands and obstructions of two people who find that the closer they become, the harder it gets. There’s nothing grand about this junction, but Linehan evokes a forceful emotional undertow with a rare economy of means. Disintegration Loops his latest work, is in some ways an elaboration of Grand Junction, but despite some thoughtful composition and excellent dancing (especially in a duet by Ben Ash and Rahel Vonmoos), it never quite attains the same intensity.
Intensity is something particularly hard to sustain in a solo show, but both Vincent Mantsoe and Laurie Booth managed just that. In Bupiro-Mukiti (Dance of Life) South African choreographer-performer Mantsoe is mesmerising. Moulding weighty African-influenced movements into his own highly idiosyncratic style, he stalks like a cat, or hovers intently before unleashing his contained power into detailed, densely articulated flurries of movement. This year’s Ndaa (Greetings) uses a similar dynamic of stop-start motion, but its energies are less focused, and it’s a pity that the arresting stage design – a rope fence, picket poles – isn’t more integral to the choreography. In contrast, Booth’s set at the Greenwich Dance Agency constructs a potent environment for Ice/Dreams/Fire. Blocks of ice swathed in red cloth hang at the front of the stage and drip into a bundle of buckets – a sound that’s electronically amplified into an arrhythmic accompaniment; later, clouds of mist hang in the air like vapour from an unseen waterfall. Booth takes his theme from a prehistoric tattooed body that had been found preserved in ice. He emerges from the shadows like an ancient spirit, part yeti, part eskimo, his tunic embroidered with cave-like designs, holding a stick like a hunter’s spear. His physical command of the stage is complete: controlled slides and rolls morph seamlessly into sudden flips and somersaults. Yet for all Booth’s powerfully individual presence, this piece was strangely remote. I thawed but didn’t melt.
An experienced performer with a long and important history in British dance, Booth is part of Dance Umbrella’s ‘family silver’. In this anniversary year, Umbrella mounted its own celebration of choreographers near to its heart. While its opening Gala event focused on bigger names and flashier, easy-to-like showpieces, the Silver Celebration gathered together a lineup of more challenging work, with only Richard Alston’s closing excerpt from Roughcut fitting the bill for upbeat gala fare. During the last years of Alston’s directorship at Rambert, Roughcut regularly featured as a crowd-pleasing programme finale – until it seemed to be trying too hard to please. Since mounting the piece on his own company, Alston has toned it down, and the result is both more casual and more classy than the Rambert version – though no less crowd-pleasing.
Classy too were Siobhan Davies’s two solos from her forthcoming work Bird Song, danced by Henry Montes and Deborah Saxon. Both were delicate, detailed and quietly compelling, Saxon with a rangy, loping style and Montes particularly fine at suggesting the nervous connection between outer movement and inner impulse, his body alive with a tracery of tremors. Akram Khan’s style also suggests, more sharply, quicksilver nervous impulses, and the makers of the film projection shown on the evening had clearly tapped into this, using rapid cuts, edits and splices. The effect seemed wholly appropriate for a time, but in after a while you wanted less intervention, with the quickfire chops and changes left more to the dancers than to the film.
a lovely and loving reflection on the daily domesticity of coupledom that lies behind the more glam seductions of the stage, as sweet as it was bittersweet
Sara Rudner, one of Twyla Tharp’s brightest early stars and a soloist in Umbrella’s early years, had her pulse wired up to a soundbox for Heartbeat, a spare, intense work that never quite attained its promise. The soudtrack worked well, building up layers from sparse pulse to breathy recitation to wordless jazzy vocalisations, but the dance itself plateaued early. Perhaps that was the point. Still, a low-key delivery can work wonders, as shown by veteran husband-and-wife avant-gardistas David Gordon and Valda Setterfield. Their excerpt from Private Lives of Dancers was a lovely and loving reflection on the daily domesticity of coupledom that lies behind the more glam seductions of the stage, as sweet as it was bittersweet. It made me think of the behind-the-scenes lives not only of dancers, but also of Dance Umbrella, of the unseen everyday acts and situations that must be dealt with and lived through for the show to go on.