It so happened that I saw a lot of outdoor, site-specific, community-based performances over the summer, much of which emphasised the feel-good and the celebratory. Sending the audience home happy, and presenting the community in a positive way is an understandable goal. Yet Hofesh Shechter’s East Wall at the Tower of London, billed as a celebration of the history and diversity of the place and its people, made no such concessions. Instead, it was demanding, provocative, often ambivalent, sometimes shocking – and it was brilliant.
Directed by Shechter, the project paired four choreographers – Joseph Toonga, Duwane Taylor, Becky Namgauds and James Finnemore – with two local youth groups apiece, threading their creations together with work by Shechter’s own youth company into an exhilarating outdoor gig, backed by a live band and a local gospel choir.
To start, a brass band of ceremonial guardsmen in full livery marched across the space, leaving a lone civilian lying helpless, as if trampled. The ambivalence – tourist attraction compounded with militarist pomp and cruel consequence – was typical of the sections that followed. We saw a society fracture into factions; a classroom revolution replicating the follow-my-leader hierarchies of the marching band; a hive of courtly activity fronted by a woman who might equally be imperious queen or reluctant figurehead; and a wave of bodies toppling and then immersing a line of upright figures, like individuals swept away in a human tide. An extended sequence by the superlative Shechter II youth company spliced aristocratic mannerisms and clownish capers with simulations of shocking violence (necks broken, guts skewered, brains blasted), all nonchalantly nailed to the beat. Tapping the contradictory, many-storied spirit of London itself, East Wall combined community with conflict, vitality with brutality, and civilisation with its discontents – an amazing achievement.
The weave of stories, languages and voices is a hallmark of the work of Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and certainly showed in a revival of Play (2010) at the Southbank arts centre. Though billed as a duet between contemporary dancer Cherkaoui and classical Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, it was in fact more of an ensemble piece for the dancers and a band of musicians whose globally diverse styles knit enchantingly together.
That sense of contrast and encounter ran throughout the work. Cherkaoui shadowed Shivalingappa’s darting shapes and rhythmic precision, like a fuzzy echo of her formal exactitude. Then she became the follower, trailing his tumbleweed rolls and tangled limbs. We saw them play a game of chess, with hands deftly manoeuvring for position. The dancers donned Asian puppet masks to act out a little family drama, and Cherkaoui became a kind of puppet-master himself, stringing along Shivalingappa’s plaintive gestures. The scenes also included a lovely clapping game, a saccharine Disney song, and a piano being played by more and more hands. In fact hands seemed key to this decidedly patchwork piece: dextrous, playful, both communicative and manipulative, and imparting to everything a human touch.
Back in 2016, Cherkaoui was one of the choreographers commissioned by superstar ballerina Natalia Osipova for her faltering foray into contemporary dance performance and programming. This year, she returned to Sadler’s Wells for a surer-footed but somewhat staid excursion, with a series of short duets and solos in her misnamed Pure Dance programme. Much the best pieces were the two where she stayed closest to her home ground, and paired up with American Ballet Theatre’s noble David Hallberg: the lovely, lyrical pas de deux from Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste, to Sibelius, a brilliantly taut duet combining recklessness with restraint.
Less successful were Yuka Oishi’s Ave Maria – a breath-filled, moon-eyed solo, to Schubert – and Roy Assaf’s Six Years Later, which tracked Osipova and Jason Kittelberger through the ups, downs and roundabouts of a past affair, accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata (for the romance) and Marmalade’s 1969 pop hit Reflections of My Life (for the remembrance); Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy they were not.
Substantially better was Kim Brandstrup’s In Absentia – Hallberg’s brooding presence casting ominous shadows in a room uncertainly lit by a screen; but it remained just the sketch of a work. Iván Pérez’s Flutter had Osipova and the superb contemporary dancer Jonathan Goddard skittering forwards and back in tremulous runs, and if it too felt more like the start of something than a finished piece, it held much promise.
In dance-going, sometimes a wild card trumps all else. In Dark Field Analysis by Swedish/Dutch choreographer Jefta van Dinther, two men (Juan Pablo Cámara and Roger Sala Reyner), each wearing a microphone and nothing else, took us on a trippy descent into a corpuscular world of amoebic twitches and primordial crawls – drenched by black shadows, fitfully illuminated by neon, and embedded in a matrix of ambient electronica and guttural vocalisations. We emerged blinking into the London night, wondering where we had been. Unexpected, bewildering and weirdly brilliant.