Writing about the Female Choreographers’ Collective performance in October whetted my curiosity as to what might be discernible differences between the work of female and male choreographers; I approached other performances viewed recently with my antennae thus attuned…

To the Old Fire Station on 20th October to see Cecilia MacFarlane’s reflection on the tragic accidental death of her son “I’ll leave you to yourself then…”.  A small, pugnacious figure with cropped white hair, Cecilia began encased in a fragile egg of white mesh with blood red ribbons, painfully hatching, her face contorted as she slowly emerged.  Backed by projections of the sea and bounded by small sculptural islands of wiry figures and smooth grey pebbles, her extended solo moved between extremes of emotion in clearly defined episodes.  At some times she conveyed a creature mortally wounded with grief, at others a person of huge inner strength gathering together the positive, breathing deeply.  Her breadth of movement, strong yet silent feet, her gaze direct and warm, embracing her audience in personal and immediate communication, made for a poignant and uplifting shared experience.

On 24th November I caught one of two short performances at Pegasus by fledgling company Anamorphic.  I had seen Emma Webb’s solo Dead Man Dancing, in which a woman awaits the homecoming of her man, at the Moving with the Times platform during Dancin’ Oxford in the spring.  Now stripped of its original clutter of household detritus, a hanging strip of canvas and a lightbulb flashing on and off with a soundtrack of mewing gulls conjured up cramped seaside accommodation; Webb indicating and naming the imaginary furnishings of her room – eyes wide with doubt, expressive hands nervously drumming.   Breaking free of her confinement to dance in a vibrant green mackintosh she is reunited with a hollow simulacrum; a man’s suit hanging and swaying, sand trickling from its sleeves, into which she burrows to be close.  The piece ended rather abruptly, making me wonder whether 15 minutes is a problematic length for a solo, being both too long and too short; it allows space to set up a resonant situation but without giving time enough to fully develop and resolve it.

The Owl Service seemed also to suffer this same structural problem.  I was captivated by Georgina Dean’s evocation of an owl, chicly swathed in a grey wraparound dress and perched up a stepladder in a moonlit wood, with quizzical gaze and abruptly comical shifts.  Once she had descended suspiciously to the ground her dance included refreshing and unusual glimpses of balletic vocabulary.  Later her bare arms and shoulders became the page for projected factual text about owls in an inventive gestural sequence.  But the piece could not quite move beyond a succession of interesting sketches on the nature of owlishness to make a more coherent statement.

What these women’s solos (for they were very much women, not girls) had in common seemed to be a directness and intimacy of relationship with the audience, a concern with expression through gestural communication, eyes open to reveal vulnerabilities.  Perhaps inevitable, given the modest, even minimal resources and small venues all are working with, and the theatre training of both Webb and Dean.  Their solos seemed to inhabit and evoke a recognisable world of believable people, to make us aware of personal detail and natural surroundings, managing with indicated props and found objects to bring a sense of specific reality.

Jessica Lang also made use of objects in her work Lyric Pieces for Birmingham Royal Ballet set to a selection of disarmingly tender piano pieces by Grieg, which I saw at Sadler’s Wells on 24th October.  A successful and established choreographer in the USA, this is Lang’s first piece for a UK company and a first opportunity for most British audiences to see her work.  Her objects were concertinas of black card which could be coiled, unrolled like a carpet or opened like a fan.  Formed into curving walled spaces from which dancers appeared or disappeared, or against which they plastered themselves in bas relief – or rolled into stepping stones on which they trod gingerly – Lang used these elegant and fluid calligraphic forms to define different environments for joyous or melancholy dances, and they contributed to an inventive flow of spatial design suggesting landscapes or emotional journeys.  Hard not to be seduced as many were by this combination of beautiful music and attractive balletic phrases, in a clean cut post Balanchine idiom, if with more winsome charm.  Despite its striking scenic elements, a conventional structure (the suite of dances responding to music and with no very apparent connecting narrative thread) and its discreet frocks and shirts in shades of beige and stone, kept this piece in the rarified characterless environment of the plotless ballet – no obsessive untidily clad women or gobbling bird life here to disturb one.

Such abstraction has been the default setting in the work by male ballet choreographers I have seen over this period, both from San Francisco Ballet in September and in the triple bill of works from the Royal Ballet’s chosen choreographers seen on 7th November.  Liam Scarlett, newly endorsed by the establishment through his appointment as Royal Ballet Artist in Residence, left a calling card with Viscera, recently made for Miami City Ballet, which involved energetic and incessant dancing by girls in vestigial maroon leotards and boys in the currently trendy and ubiquitous shorts and bare legs, to suitably muscular music by Lowell Liebermann.  Accomplished but unmemorable; I wondered what this work was intended to convey beyond showing off the physiques and gymnastic skills of the dancers in a work-out.  Christopher Wheeldon’s Fools’ Paradise demonstrated a more sophisticated compositional hand; but for me its pastel dreaminess veered towards the portentous and cloying, too self-conscious in its beautiful cleverness to be moving.

The one scenic element of this visually ascetic evening was the LED display of walking figures in McGregor’s Infra; below them couples grappled, and female dancers were manipulated and contorted by men.  Despite the efforts of remarkable dancers, as a female viewer I grow weary of such objectification of the body and the gender relationships and attitudes it betrays; and the young woman who accompanied me to this programme was unmoved and impatient.  Beyond a modish surface all three of these works seemed disconnected from the tactile reality of human emotion or experience, their busy dancing rendered vacuous in its solipsistic, almost pornographic obsession with an exaggerated physicality.  How different to the challengingly direct depiction of relationships between men and women in Hans van Manen’s Grosse Fuge from 1971 which had added a welcome acidity when programmed alongside Lyric Pieces and Bintley’s relentlessly cute Take Five.  Here was a choreographer with something clear to say; rigorously paring down to a stylised simplicity in which every movement, grouping or design element contributed to conveying a particular vision, a worthy companion to Beethoven’s monumental music.  BRB’s men gave a good account of themselves, but their partners seemed uncomfortable and awkward, their tense bodies incapable of sensual flow, unable to counterbalance powerful masculinity with the equally potent and enigmatic female authority that van Manen’s work presupposes.  Perhaps their difficulty in conveying a sense of female power is hardly surprising in the current ballet culture.

Susie Crow

12th December 2012

For another piece and a list of links to other writings on this topic:

https://oxforddancewriters.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/we-face-forward-the-female-choreographers-collective-platform-susie-crow-reviews/

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