It is indeed an umbrella. Founded 41 years ago and still unfolding every autumn, the Dance Umbrella festival covers a wide area both of contemporary dance and of London venues. This year I caught only some of the more standard proscenium shows, but festival watchers should note that the season, as usual, encompassed a much broader range of formats and platforms, including “takeovers” of Shoreditch Town Hall (a vogueing ball – very Pose) and Croydon’s newly refurbished Fairfield Halls (a mixed bill of Bharata Natyam, hip hop, parkour and dance-theatre), as well as a scattering of talks, screenings and workshops.
Opening the festival was Gisèle Vienne’s Crowd at Sadler’s Wells (which was also part of the concurrently running France Dance festival), a disorienting meld of fast beats and slow action. As with an open-air rave, from which the piece takes its imagery, it takes a while to get into, but once you’re there it keeps you there for longer than you’d think possible. On an earth-covered stage strewn with debris – cans, bags, rags – a woman enters in cut-off shorts, trainers, a thrown-on top. Her pace is almost painfully slow, as if on a visual track that’s been sequenced at an entirely different rate to its audio track of quickening pulses and metallic harmonics. Gradually, others join her – a shirtless guy, sinewy as Iggy Pop; a woman in boots, jeans and halter top; a motley assortment of people sporting trackies, backpacks and caps – until they pool into a (noticeably all-white) posse of indie youth and grungy types.
Their movement is more like documentary than dance: people drink and bop, they kiss, have altercations, take breaks, they cluster and disperse and wave and watch. Yet the spacey slow-motion turns it into highly stylised choreography: everything is framed and paced, executed so that we see the workings of a simulated fall or punch, even the muscles of the face as they form a grin or a gasp. It’s naturalism, denatured.
At first the wholegroup moves smoothly; later, they’re jolted by the soundtrack into spikes of synchronicity, like a kind of freeze-frame effect; later still, it’s more like stop-motion. The effect is cumulative and trippy, and it’s that persistent disjunction between time and space that lends the piece its uncanny, ecstatic fascination. You stop noticing the people and start noticing the patterns, the performers becoming less a ragtag bunch of individuals than a kind of social body or meta-organism, their bodies serving as neural conduits for ripples of energy that shape the crowd into ever-shifting formations. Now that’s a trip.
Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boleroat the Barbican is a trip of a different kind. Choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes his inspiration from the figure of Toloki, a professional mourner in the novels of writer Zakes Mda. With eight great dancers from his Vuyani Dance Theatre and four outstanding vocalists, this is a journey in the shadow of death – not a death of release or repose, but of violence, grief and pain; fleetingly, of honour or fortitude. Strewn with crosses, the stage feels like an enclosed chamber, set for rituals that bind passion to procedure: flailing arms match strict steps, chests shudder even as the dancers maintain their formations. Maqoma is the eye of this storm, variously sorcerer, soothsayer, avenger and victim, as the scenes suggest marauding dogs, military raids, torture – but sometimes also communion. There’s warmth here as well as fire and lightning.
Rhythm courses through the choreography like pulses and heartbeats, sometimes accented by the palatal snaps of an African click language, and often accompanied by the insistent rhythm of Ravel’s Bolero, played first on a drum and later sung in a rising acapella. Indeed, for all the drama in the dancing, it’s the music that grips most, the four sublime singers transporting us into realms of spirit and empathy.
Georgia Vardarou was selected by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for Dance Umbrella’s Four by Four programme at the Lilian Baylis Studio, whereby four senior choreographers propose a young “choreographer of the future”. It’s a wonderful scheme, but it also shows that an endorsement of great talent does not guarantee a great piece. Vardarou’s solo, Why should it be more desirable for green fire balls to exist than not? is as baffling as its title is cumbersome. It’s consummately staged, with projections of rocks, a house on a Greek coast; golden cloth is crumpled into miniature mountains on a tastefully lit stage. Vardarou is a beautiful, articulate mover, but the piece itself seems to happen largely inside her head, with all this staging, motion and imagery as its delectable but frankly meagre remnants.
Merce Cunningham was once a choreographer of the future; indeed his company’s first UK visit in 1964 elicited a review that declared: “the future bursts in”. Now of course, Cunningham is historic, yet in this centenary year of his birth, festival director Emma Gladstone felt that Cunningham could still speak to past, present and future, and duly named the festival’s closing programme “The Future Bursts In”. Its finale is CCN-Ballet de Lorraine in Cunningham’s 1975 Sounddance. Like many “historic” dance works, this is worth seeing again not only through the lens of history but with a sense of the here and now. For the inimitable Cunningham style, with its motoric choreographic procedures, its divided attention (like watching split screens in three dimensions), its emergent phrases and chance encounters, carries a bracing double vision: we recognise the piece as dated, not of our time, yet that itself also brings a jolt of freshness, a sense of something new, perhaps even radical. We might even say: the past bursts in.
Of course, that blast-from-the-past effect works best if the dancers appear to embody rather than reenact the style, and, at the Linbury Theatre, the Ballet de Lorraine performers don’t quite manage it. Perhaps that’s one reason why the preceding piece, For Four Walls, didn’t quite hit the mark. Set to a 1944 piano score by John Cage (bearing the influence of Erik Satie in its stately chords and bare-faced non-sequiturs), this new work by Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley marshals the massed effects of a large cast, multiplied by mirrors and rendered enigmatic by the solemn presence of pianist Vanessa Wagner, but it feels like a wonderful exercise in style without the heft of substance.
In contrast, Amala Dianor’s programme opener Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity has a real sense of something happening now, and maybe next. It’s a quiet but beautifully crafted trio for three men – Dianor, Pansum Kin and Souleyman Ladji Koné, each imprinted with a sense of place (including France, Senegal, Korea and Burkina Faso) and style (including hip hop, African dance, contemporary and classical) but none making statements about them. Instead, to Anwir Leon’s low-key electronic score, they find unforced ways of being and moving together, whether by forming loose components of a larger whole (a willowy image of trunk and branch is a repeated motif) or fluidly giving and taking space to and from each other.
In environmental terms the future has been already been bursting in for decades. We cannot keep looking at the stage while looking away from this.
If that’s the future bursting in, we’re fine, but Dance Umbrella pointedly and laudably ended its festival on a different note: a talk with environmental activists Extinction Rebellion. Without soapboxing, the talk raised the issue of the ecological impacts of our existence. For whether we see ourselves as individuals, as groups, or as practitioners (artists, producers, programmers, technicians) within the field of dance, in environmental terms the future has been already been bursting in for decades. We cannot keep looking at the stage while looking away from this.