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Rich Pickings on Wayne McGregor’s Atomos

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Photo: Ravi Deepres

The combination of Wayne McGregor’s masterful direction and Ravi Deepres’ fantastic filmwork make Atomos a mustsee show as part of Culture in Quarantine. It kicks off with a dark intro with an amorphous mass of bodies intertwining and forming fascinating (atomic?) shapes. McGregor excels at putting his dancers through identical paces with ripples of movement across the troupe.

Lucy Carter’s lighting is made up of washes of colour from purples and blues to ochre and sienna. The ensemble move in unison with perfect timing but still unpredictably. They frequently echo each other sometimes with the use of not one but three pas de deux.

The soundtrack by A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a combination of classical and electronic and binds the action without overwhelming it. The music is melodious and often melancholic , slow in pace to match the dancers’ serene gestures. Many of the lifts and spins are quite outstanding and the scenes blend into one another seamlessly.

Deepres’ film allows you to see the full stage as well as close-ups of the solos and pas de deux. The strength and athleticism of the ensemble is pushed to the absolute brink by McGregor as well as sustaining a certain tension and suspense as if about to snap. A sepia section of the film uses slow motion very effectively with the dancers closer than elsewhere to the camera.

Often the shapes made seem to hint at a secret code and although this is non-narrative and non-linear work it could be seen to reflect the subject of its title: namely atoms. And the Studio XO costumes emphasise with their simplicity the shape of the body and are largely androgynous. While the film backdrop explores the themes of landscape and closed space as well as absorbing abstraction.

There is also a section where the performers vocalise over the soundtrack but the content of their chant is mysterious. Overall the piece has a fantastic fluidity and agility, warmth and tenderness. It is ultra-expressive without overloading us with having to interpret each movement. McGregor has created something very special with some great individual performances but always to the advantage of the group.

It evokes a vast range of emotions but mainly, as Kundera puts it, ‘the unbearable lightness of being’. The film serves as a panacea for our times, although not deliberately, where the atomic level of our beings has become the chief focus of us all.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 15 April 2020.

See below for the full performance on You Tube.

Rich Pickings on Northern Ballet’s 1984

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The world’s first ballet based on George Orwell’s dystopian 1948 novel benefits from an exacting and masterful direction by Jonathan Watkins and an awesome design to die for. This is a total theatre that is thoroughly engaging and whilst not intended to be contemporary could indicate a not-so-distant tomorrow. The premier dancers – Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia – give fabulous performances that peak in a pas de deux par excellence at the end of Act One. It is a passionate dance sequence that celebrates their love in all its sexual sensuality.

But it leaves two things unanswered: firstly, are they being monitored whilst out on their countryside fling? We as an audience are certainly watching every move, and surveillance is hinted at by their last look behind them as they leave the stage after their fearful forbidden act of love. And secondly, is Julia a form of entrapment to ascertain how far Winston’s inner rebellion will become outward action?

But the obvious way that Winston is duped is through Inner Party member O’Brien (Javier Torres) who he thinks is a member of the subversive Brotherhood, but is later his tormenter and torturer. It is interesting the way O’Brien’s superiority is depicted by a red tie, a mirror of Julia’s red Anti-Sex League sash. Simon Daw’s black and red designs again are contrasted against the autumnal colours of the proles and the pale grey-blues of the Outer Party (and Julia is ostensibly from the latter).

The surveillance of Big Brother is impressively depicted with a huge telescreen in pixelated images of BB, Goldstein (the enemy of the people) and war on a huge scale (though against who it depends upon the latest Newspeak). For the Room 101 scene there are no holds barred with a visual and aural onslaught that vividly captures the agony and terror Winston experiences.

Eventually, of course, he betrays most the thing he loves, gesturing desperately for the ultimate degradation be put upon Julia, after all they had been through. So does O’Brien’s vision of society as the state’s heavy boot stamping on humanity forever persist? Does Winston indeed survive and come to love Big Brother? These and many other questions of the novel are raised by this immaculate and immersive production that will remain redolent with many of us for years to come.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 5 September 2015 at West Yorkshire Playhouse (now Leeds Playhouse) for Culture Vulture. See the video on You Tube as part of Culture in Quarantine.

Rich Pickings on Northern Ballet’s Geisha

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Let’s cut to the chase: if Rich Pickings did give star ratings Northern Ballet’s Geisha would be bursting the seams of five stars! Choreographer and director Kenneth Tindall has created something quite incredible; ineffable even! While this was always the highlight of this dance season the show exceeds all our expectations with its inventiveness and sheer beauty. It benefits greatly from Alexandra Harwood’s sumptuous score which is equally at home with Oriental mysticism as it is with Western romanticism.

The ensemble are also outstanding: Minju Kang as Okichi is beauteous and bewitching in the first act, ghostly and full of revenge in her death mask in the second. And her trainee geisha Aika is also coquettish and cute but finds it hard to forgive her friend. Hannah Bateman really dominates the stage as the Geisha Mother; while Daniel de Andrade and Joseph Taylor are simply masterful as the two Americans Townsend Harris and Henry Heusken.

But a massive big-up must go to Christopher Oram for an amazingly attractive yet functional set and costume design to die for. The second act’s ghosts are especially eerie and the geisha outfits are sublime. Alastair’s West’s atmospheric lighting really come into its own in the second act with haunting scenes and picaresque lanterns.

In their 50th anniversary year Northern Ballet once again remind us of why they are known as a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 14 February 2020 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Touring till 16 May, see Northern Ballet website.

Rich Pickings on Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters

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Two stories inform this world premiere of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters: namely the Zong ship massacre in the late 18th century and 100 years later the incarceration of Indian freedom fighters in the Kala Pani prison. But as choreographer and Artistic Director Sharon Watson explains: “Black Waters is not about recreating these two events through contemporary dance, but is an exploration of place, worth and belonging, which can often be conflicting for people of colour.”

Watson works with Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta to create a compelling and immersive piece. Alongside this trio of choreographers is a creative team par excellence. So Dishari Chakraborty composes the soundtrack that ranges from slow elegiac strings and piano to traditional Indian music and more rhythmic industrial sounds. Emma Louise James designs simple but effective costumes that serve to highlight the oppression and indignity acted out by the dancers. While Kieron Johnson’s lighting is at one time a flood of light, then square boxes indicative of cells, or shafts of light that catch the cast in chiaroscuro.

Initially the entire group sit cross legged only using their arms and upper torso. But this is followed by a pas de deux with frantic and frenetic movement. Their response to the music is incredibly intricate and well-observed and there are many trust exercises which sees the interchange of partners and the raising up of an inert dancer (much harder than it appears). When the soundtrack becomes harsher we see the dancers in a whipping motion, then recumbent.

There is some fascinating rope work, not aerial as is more common, but horizontal and indicating slaves in chains. We see them walk in unison and then chaotically tumbling over one another. Finally, we return to the beginning of the cross-legged posture – perhaps a Buddhistic cycle. This is a thrilling and intense piece of dance theatre which is at once accessible as well as secretive and obscure. Phoenix Dance Theatre are in fine form living up to their reputation as risk-taking producers of cutting edge new work.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 13 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. Runs until 15 February.  Tours until 20 June.

Rich Pickings on Encounters @ Yorkshire Dance

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Photo: Amy Buckley

‘The Mountain and Other Tales of She Transformed,’ is part of the Yorkshire Dance Centre’s ‘Encounters’ Program celebrating women in dance. The piece opens with a female dancer already on stage, kneeling in a pink, plastic costume as the audience comes in. Smoke fills the stage, while the sound of insects and birds fill the background.

There is exploration of the self, inwards and externally with hands. As if learning for the first time what the female form is, we learn with her. The dancer, Hannah Buckley,  makes guttural and breathy sounds as she moves around the stage in contorted and contracted positions. She relays a story as she dances. The story is about a woman in the woods. ‘There is an old woman who lives in a wooden place, who everyone knows.’

Buckley starts making animalistic sounds, then human ones. ‘They say she is buried in a well, she is called wolf woman’ because she gathers the bones of wolves. At one point, the dancer lifts her knee and consecutively slams her leg and foot downwards on to the stage. She then starts slapping herself, as if from an external pressure and for some time before unexpectedly stopping.

She is very poised when stood up, but when she goes back to the floor, she uses diverse, exaggerated movements until she replicates the beginning of the piece and self-exploration, of the form of woman. Buckley bases her work around feminism and the space woman is able to control on stage and outside of external influence. This is very different from what women are able to command in day to day life.

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Photo by Gabor Dusa

1.7 by Zsuzsa Rozsavolgyi stems from the work of two researchers included in the writing of Gabor Szendi. It relates to many things but ultimately, here, to birth and abortion. A dancer stands with a gold veil over her head and body until the audience comes in.

At the start, Rozsavolgyi pulls part of the material away from her eyes forming a burka. Indicative of woman having to cover up in other cultures. The piece is theatrical and invites the audience in to view the subversion of women. Rozsavolgyi takes the veil off to reveal nudity. She makes sounds ke, ho, ha, then breathy sounds.

There is the sound of water dripping. Someone is humming, ka, kee, ha. There is a relation to the creation of life. Woman said to be ten layers deep. The attention is on the dancer’s very long hair for some time. She throws her head about and the hair follows.

R and B and rap is played in the background at the same time as visually seeing women on a screen. Rozsavolgyi then uses humour by introducing pictures of pubic hairstyles that is supposed to identify what type of woman one is. The piece then goes on to a beauty contest and it is related to the comment, ‘A real woman does everything right.’ The piece shows how hard it is to be a woman.

Women are not even on a level playing ground with men. The piece works with video and costume to show how women are seen and received. She calls the vaginal opening the gateway. The gateway is where babies come from alive or dead. She then goes in to great depth about abortion. In the end we/women make the final choice about what we do with the life within us.

Reviewed by Jane Austwick on 8 March 2019 at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds

 

Rich Pickings on Northern Ballet’s The Nutcracker

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Photo: Emma Kauldhar

David Nixon OBE has had a passion for The Nutcracker for over forty years: initially as a child dancer; then adult roles and choreographer. His depth of feeling for the piece comes across in the latest revival, with new costumes to go with the setting of Regency England. Another new element is a new solo for the Spaniard, played with keen athleticism by Kevin Poeung.

Rachael Gillespie is delightful and charming as Clara who receives the nutcracker for Christmas and dreams it comes alive. And just how colourful and spectacular these dreams turn out to be is a credit to the company.

But it is the magician Uncle Drosselmeyer, very suited to the part by Milindi Kulashe, who is the real svengali of the show. Indeed the nutcracker doll itself comes to life and goes to war against the Mouse King (a mischievous Joseph Taylor) and there are immense fun and frolics.

Minju Kang has the dream role of the Sugar Plum Fairy that is fabulously entertaining for both child and adult audience alike. And Act II’s garden of delights is simply sumptuous making the most of both Nixon’s wonderful designs and Charles Cusick Smith’s fantastic set.

In a familiar ruse we are under the impression that it has all been a dream, but then is not Christmas a time when dreams come true!? Northern Ballet really pull out all the stops to make this an enchanting and festive treat for young and old.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Grand Theatre on 4 December 2018

Rich Pickings on Ballet Black

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Ballet Black are touring a double-bill of story ballets with Shakespearean themes: namely infidelity, jealousy, unrequited love and general romantic confusion. Now in their 17th year having been founded in 2001 by director Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black are made up of dancers from black and Asian descent.

The Suit with Cathy Marston as both director and choreographer is inspired by a short story by South African author Can Themba and was adapted previously by Peter Brook. It is based in Sophiatown in the early 1950s, a suburb of Johannesburg.

The show benefits from Mthuthuzeli November’s South African knowledge of social dances which we see in his pas de deux with Matilda, his illicit lover. And then in subsequent sequences from the town’s inhabitants who serve as a five-strong chorus.

Philemon (José Alves) after his usual morning routine forgets his briefcase. He then returns to find his his wife in flagrante and is furious with jealousy but intent on making her to be filled with regret and remorse.

Indeed, Matilda (played with passion by Cira Robinson) is full of shame, guilt and despair that she has ruined their happy marriage. The suit left by Philemon’s rival is then set to become a character in itself, an honoured guest that is both bizarre and surreal.

The Kronos Quartet soundtrack with a wide range of music including Charles Ives and Jon Hassell adds depth and tension to the piece. While Jane Heather’s costumes and set are based on life in the shanty town in its heyday. The tragic, if melodramatic, ending is almost inevitable, but nevertheless shocking.

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The revival of A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed and choreographed by Arthur Pita, sees three couples in tutus interrupted in all their balletic beauty by Isabela Coracy’s plucky Puck, a Boy Scout on a mission.

Marie Astrid Mence’s Hermia falls for Sakaya Ichikawa’s Helena after her beloved snorts some fairy dust as if it were the finest cocaine. Similarly Robinson’s Titania finds herself attracted to November’s Bottom.

The ensemble really pull out all the stops in this sideways glance at the Bard’s tragi-comedy that reveals Ballet Black as capable of both contemporary dance and classical ballet. Sweetly seductive stuff!

Reviewed on 16 November 2018 by Rich ‘Phoenix’ Jevons at Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds

See Ballet Black website for tour details

Rich Pickings on Wee’s Hardly Ever

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In a concept developed by choreographer Francesco Scavetta Wee’s Hardly Ever combines quirky humour with out-there surrealism. The four performers spout out text that is then represented using the very physicality of their bodies. But despite being on the verges of physical theatre the cast really do convince us that they can actually dance too.
The set is minimal proving that sometimes less is more: The only fixed part of the set is the sofa which comes replete with a video screen used late on in the piece both to show a classic film and the result of an earthquake. Then there is a little tent that serves as a tent on Everest and shelter during a thunderstorm.
The sound design includes an electric bass that is used to create atmosphere and retro vinyl cuts that matches the 70s costumes too. The textual references range from geology to geography, relationships to relativism, memory to mime. The movement is so spontaneous you really do not know what will happen next and despite having a structure to work with there is also a great deal of improvisation.
I found the performance quite transfixing due to its being in a constant state of flux and using a multiplicity of methods to get over its message. The performers range from being incredibly intimate to absolute alienation. The show benefits from the inventive use of music and the lighting also adds to its immersive nature.
The NSCD audience really lapped up both the hilarity and more serious elements. Like the song about trust ridicules those in a position of power but also looks at our own everyday lies (whether white or black). So this is the imperative function of Hardly Ever: the blurring of fact and fiction, movement and physicality to subvert and confuse, and finally the beauty of slapstick that makes this piece so endearing. A masterpiece reminiscent of Jacques Tati meets Tommy Cooper!

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 27 September at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds

Rich Pickings on Northern Ballet’s Mixed Programme 2018

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Northern Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence Kenneth Tindall makes a most welcome return to the Company following the simply brilliant ballet of last year’s racy and sensual Casanova. His The Shape of Sound is set to Vivaldi’s classic The Four Seasons in a reworking by Max Richter. This seminal dance piece takes its inspiration from the four seasons and their effects on mankind.
The work has moments of exquisite pleasure but contrariwise is at times movingly melancholy. Whilst using the strict methods of classical ballet it also takes a sideways nod to the styles of contemporary dance. It benefits from fantastic set and costume design by Kimie Nakano and sumptuous lighting design by Alastair West and Kenneth Tindall.
Morgann Runacre-Temple presents her first work for Northern Ballet with The Kingdom of Back, based upon the story of Mozart’s older sister Nannerl and the way she was eclipsed by his stardom. In this excellent production she uses her body to depict symbols and signs to accompany original music by Keith Moon. The score includes a cappella renditions of Mozart’s most famous compositions and excerpts of David Bowie’s Life on Mars. This fascinating work is inspired by letters from the Mozart family and displays both passion and power.
An emerging choreographer from within Northern Ballet’s Company of dancers, First Soloist Mlindi Kulashe makes his choreographic debut with Mamela… Meaning ‘listen’ in his native language Xhosa. Kulshe explains that the work focuses on the themes of ‘frustration and imprisonment’. Jack Edmonds’ strings perfectly match the haunting movement of the dancers in a piece that belies Kulashe’s youthful years.
Once more Northern Ballet have proved themselves as a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown and putting the city onto the world map for innovative dance.

See the Northern Ballet website for more info and tour dates.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre.

Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

Motionhouse: Charge @ Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds

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Motionhouse’s Charge is a dance-circus piece that combines dance, acrobatics and digital projections. It is inspired by the role of electricity in the human body and in particular the work of Professor Frances Ashcroft (Oxford University), author of ‘Spark of Life’. So Charge is a fusion of art and science that forms the third in Motionhouse’s trilogy after the success of Scattered and Broken and commemorates their 30th anniversary too.
The six performers display frenetic energy and are very much under the influence of Cirque du Soleil, though this is more of a sideways nod than simple imitation. So this is also a very physical theatre with leaps and falls that frequently defy gravity, for example, the formation of a four-strong human tower.
Despite their rapidity the scene changes are seamless and great use is made of the back projection. It is a radically eclectic narrative and includes awesome aerial acrobatics and numerous trust exercises par excellence. At one point we see a digital beating heart, at another the dancers dressed as sperm fertilising an ovum.
Simon Dorman’s set is spectacular but still functional, while Natasha Chivers’ lighting is evocative and often exquisite. The digital imagery by Logela Multimedia really makes the show something special while Tim Dickinson and Sophy Smith’s dynamic pulsating score drives the action whilst also allowing periods of hypnotic trance. Finally, the biggest credit has to go to Motionhouse’s Artistic Director Kevin Finnan OBE’s masterful direction and giving a unity to the many chaotic elements. Breathtaking and exhilerating to the nth degree!

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds and touring see https://www.motionhouse.co.uk/production/charge/

Watch this space for the forthcoming Richard Chappell show at the same venue on 6 June.