Dance Umbrella is not just an umbrella. True, it does bring together British and international contemporary dance piece under the ‘umbrella’ of its annual festival – but it has also organised tours, co-ordinated regional festivals, run workshops, talks and exhibitions. And no less important, it commissions new work. Artistic director Betsy Gregory, who took over from its founder Val Bourne this year, is clear about the reasons why: “to support the development of artists and bring new work to the public.” But who gets commissioned, and why? “First of all,” says Gregory, “we have to love the artist’s work. Second, it’s about the artist’s need, for example if they’re not finding enough support elsewhere.”
Support work because you love it? Because you believe in it when others might not? Those answers must be a joy to hear for both artists and dance-goers. And they’re not mere rhetoric. Over nearly three decades of history, Dance Umbrella has backed a roster of artists who have gone on to define the landscape of contemporary dance. DV8 Physical Theatre was commissioned in 1987, just one year after the company formed. Siobhan Davies’s first pieces for her own company in 1988 were Umbrella commissions; Shobana Jeyasingh and Charles Linehan have long been supported by Umbrella. None were safe bets; all are top-grade choreographers.
Russell Maliphant is another example, having been presented eight times by Umbrella since 1994, and received four commissions. Now a major name in contemporary dance and an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, he opened this year’s festival in an adventurous collaboration with film-maker Isaac Julien. On paper, Cast No Shadow (co-commissioned with Sadler’s Wells and New York-based Performa) sounds like a brilliant idea, but in practice never gelled – and it was the choreography that suffered most. The first of its three parts was Julien’s Fantôme Afrique (2005), made before Maliphant’s involvement in the project, a luminously beautiful film on split screens, tracing a mysterious journey from a bustling African street market, over hot desert terrain, to a concrete building in a barren landscape. Shaven-headed Vanessa Myrie, who strides across the sands like a statuesque black goddess, also appears in the next film, True North (2004), and briefly on stage. Again there is a split screen, but here the setting is icy arctic tundra, with a vanishingly understated narrative of an African expedition to the pole. But the choreography for the dancers on stage – fluid but featureless sequences of leans and lifts – has a lot more drift than drive.
Only in the new work, Small Boats, do we see the beginnings of a more interesting dialogue. The film, projected onto a translucent frontcloth, once again has an elusive narrative – here of north Africans arriving by boat into Europe – and is awash with delicate but richly suggestive images of submersion and stranding. The choreography is better integrated to the film, for example in a sequence of falls which cuts between live and recorded action – and it’s also better crafted, with accumulations of detail and fluid changes of pace and direction. You sense Maliphant’s accomplished dancers finally expanding into their roles. Yet Small Boats rarely feels like a true partnership. In the final ‘drowning’ sequence, for example, the figures on screen are suspended in the sea, while the dancers on stage hang in a vast net. The image is striking, but the action does little more than echo it.
And that’s the problem: the action is too much in thrall to the image. ‘Art’ film will often linger on visual imagery more than human action – partly, I think, to distance itself from the more narrative, representational style of mainstream film and TV. But in dance, though, we’re used to separating action from representation, without ditching the human presence. Maliphant certainly is – it’s one of his strengths. In fact, it’s one of dance’s strengths, and I wish Cast No Shadow had played to them more.
New Art Club (Tom Roden and Pete Shenton) are relative newcomers, but they’re set to go far. This year’s Umbrella commission, The Visible Men, characteristically involves blokeish banter, some none-too-technical dancing, and comic musings on contemporary dance. It has one simple choreographic device: by getting the audience to open and close their eyes at certain times, they turn spectators into editors. We see Roden striding towards the exit. Cut. Then the exit sign’s moved, and he’s scratching his head in puzzlement. Cut. Now he’s downstage left rather than upstage right – and where did that sign go? The duo also get lightly philosophical, pointing out that the “choreography” is actually happening in our heads. At the end of the piece, the duo recreate a scene that Roden had previously mentioned fleetingly: a man lying on the floor, next to a shopping bag, surrounded by a crowd of people. Now, unexpectedly, there is Roden lying face down, next to a shopping bag, a crowd of people around him, including us, the audience. After all the quizzical comedy, this brilliant shift of register leaves us hushed and slightly spooked, uncanny thoughts reverberating inside our heads.
Michael Clark closed this year’s festival with I Do, another Umbrella co-commission (in partnership with the Barbican). Clark famously rose to stellar heights from his beginnings in the 1980s, burnt out in the 1990s and disappeared from the scene for several years. Throughout the highs and lows, Dance Umbrella was a consistent supporter, and it was instrumental in his comeback [date]. I Do, the final part of Clark’s three-year Stravinsky project, was performed with revivals of Clark’s O (to Apollo) and Mmm… (to The Rite of Spring). It’s inspired programming not just because the Stravinsky works are utterly different, but because they so accurately reflect aspects of Clark’s own persona: the riotous, rebellious energy of Rite, the astringent neoclassicism of Apollo, the channelled primal force of Les Noces.
References to the music abound in I Do. There’s film footage of Stravinksy himself; and the live chorus dominates the stage, lined up on platforms behind the dancers so that the choreography seems almost to shoulder the music. Like O and Mmm…, I Do is branded with Clark’s weirdly compelling physical style: all the control and line of ballet with none of its aerial illusion or well-mannered harmony. The choreography itself sometimes loses the underlying wedding plot (though we sense it’s there), and inevitably it is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer weight of Stravinsky’s monumental score. Overall, I missed Clark’s special blend of high seriousness with low trash – but it was certainly there at the beginning and end. In the opening, Kate Coyne emerges from a huge Russian doll, while at the end, with her ghoulish groom, she reappears in a wedding outfit that looks like a cross between a tacky toilet roll cover and a knitted condom. Curiously, it is moments such as this, when the score (clamorous), imagery (outlandish) and the choreography (austere) are doing different things, that I Do seems most incisive.
If none of these pieces was outstanding, it’s easy for reviewers, focusing on individual works, to lose sight of a bigger picture. But Dance Umbrella does have a bigger picture in mind – and if it bases its commissions on love, it clearly keeps the bigger picture close to its heart. And perhaps that’s the secret of why this relatively small organisation continues to punch well above its weight in terms of fundraising, recognition and achievement.