It sounds like a sterling idea for a community artwork: a collaboration between East London Dance, Hofesh Shechter Company, Historic Royal Palaces and Lift, who paired four choreographers with youth groups to create an open-air performance at the Tower of London celebrating the history and diversity of the East End and its people.
Four years in the making and directed by Shechter, East Wall turned out to be much more than that, something far more convincing: an expression of human complexity that combined community with conflict, vitality with violence, civilisation with its discontents. At the start, the Gold Vocal Collective sang a surreal, harmonised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Then an entire brass band of guardsmen in full livery rounded the corner and marched across the stage. Was this already a dance performance? It was costumed entertainment, it was a blend of sound and motion, and it was – as the band marched off, leaving a solitary civilian on the floor, as if trampled – a ceremonial display and an embodiment of militarism. Early on, our sense of place and perspective was becoming complicated.
A sign of their age or a sign of the times? Probably both.
Such ambivalences permeated the hour-long event. Performed with Big Deal Dance and Just Us Collective, Joseph Toonga’s opening section – untitled, like all the numbers in the evening – used a torqued, warped hip-hop style to fracture a group into factions who seemed to occupy different space-time fields. Duwane Taylor, with One Youth Dance and University of East London Dance Collective, staged a kind of classroom revolution spearheaded by formidably fierce krumper Jonadette Carpio. Though exhilarated by the uprising and the energy, you couldn’t help but notice an echo of the marching band in those follow-my-leader lines: different beat, same hierarchy. Or that the dynamics of krump, oscillating between outburst and suppression, seemed to pervade the youth dance groups throughout. A sign of their age or a sign of the times? Probably both.
There were subtler but no less deep ambiguities in James Finnemore’s section with Incognito and Shift dance companies, featuring a kind of queen bee in a hive of courtly activity. Finnemore’s finely crafted group-work showed the surrounding dancers guiding her steps, parting before her, stabilising her leans. Arrayed in front of her, hands held open, they could be passive drones awaiting her bidding – or was she the reluctant figurehead for an expectant crowd?
The sarcasm was as biting as the brutality was relentless.
Becky Namgauds directed another subtle scene with Cando2, Elevate and One Youth dance companies. In it, there was a slow tide of rolling bodies topping and then immersing a line of upright figures, with one central couple struggling turbulently together before being carried apart by the human wave. It was a marked contrast to the subsequent section, by the superlative Shechter II youth company, which layered courtly mannerisms, clownish capers and shocking enactments of violence – throats slit, guts skewered, brains blasted, bodies electrocuted – while nailing them to rattling rhythms and a driving pulse. The sarcasm was as biting as the brutality was relentless.
All the dancers and musicians – brass band included – came together for the finale, not as some harmonious whole but as a bracing cacophony of sound and action. Postcard-perfect in the evening sunshine, the Tower of London became the perfect backdrop: proud monument, enduring attraction, site of time-honoured tradition, brutal violence and political machination, and the gateway to London’s multiplicitous, storied East End. Embrace those contradictions.