Over the course of 48 hours across three consecutive days in three different venues, Wales Dance Platform 2015 crammed in performances, films and photography from over 40 independent companies and artists. The weekend was hectic, but never less than entertaining, and enabled many performers and creators to get together, perhaps for the first time, and share one another’s ideas and talents. It wasn’t just a weekend of performance – it was a celebration of independent dance and a chance for those who work on the contemporary dance scene to make connections and develop relationships.
The first day was held at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, a suitably attention-grabbing venue which played host both to the launch party in the ffresh bar and numerous performances. First onto the stage with the daunting task of opening the entire event were Hudson and Haf, whose piece Wimmin entertained in the foyer on the Glanfa stage. These two dancer/ choreographers have been working together for around a year and it’s clear they have a creative connection which works. Wimmin was an amusing routine inspired by Blanche Ebbutt’s Don’ts for Wives, a book published in 1913 giving advice to women as to how to behave and best please their men. The book is obviously drenched in misogyny and this is what brings the humour out in Wimmin. Dressed as stereotypical housewives in frilly pinnies, Sarah Hudson and Cêt Haf move in and around the sitting audience, both on stage and off, going about their daily chores, constantly accompanied by the voice of their husband quoting from Ebbutt’s tome. The premise of the source might be misogynist but it essentially promotes mutual respect between man and wife, although if the woman is ever caught yawning during her husband’s last pipe, there’ll be trouble! Wimmin was pumped with effervescent fun, and the performers didn’t only act out the themes with their bodies, but also their faces, which added to the comedy. The piece ends with the duo dancing freely, fingers pushed firmly into their ears to drown out the male commentary, and pulling their fellow “wimmin” up onto stage to dance beside them. Wimmin was a joyous, uplifting and very funny way to launch the weekend.
Roy Campbell-Moore: Beauty and the Grit
Aleksandra Jones’ Dive-Zaron saw three female dancers march on with wheeled suitcases and proceed to explore the warmth and strength women display in difficult times. Aleksandra is Serbian so may have plenty to draw upon from her homeland’s troubled history, and the very feminine choreography certainly interprets her theme well. The choice of music – Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango – perfectly matches the theme too, demonstrating the strength and sexuality women have at their core. The piece throws in some light-hearted physical theatre too, as a suitcase is thrown open to reveal a pile of old books, and from another tips a barrel load of red apples. Delightfully, the dancers place the books end to end on the floor in front of them to form stepping stones, pathways, using knowledge to move forward, and right at the end the wonderful Cêt Haf makes her slow but sure way towards one of the discarded apples. She finally gets there, her pavement of books underfoot, snatches it up, bites into it and waltzes off across the stage floor. A lovely, uplifting and witty way to end the piece.
I have a constant debate with myself as to how much performance art (or theatre) should be in a contemporary dance piece. The two forms go hand in hand – a dance routine can be beautifully augmented by the use of theatre – but how far can it go until it becomes more one thing than the other? There were plenty of pieces over the weekend which got me asking myself about this definition, prompted most of all by Ellis J-Wright’s Under You. Ellis is just starting out and intends to explore the question of what makes us human. This is certainly not a unique question to ask, but Ellis’s execution in this case pulls no punches. Under You is a politically charged piece responding to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights – or otherwise – in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as well as homosexual persecution the world over. The staging of this on the same weekend as London’s Gay Pride event, and the news that same-sex marriage had been legalised across the whole of the United States, made it even more topical and relevant. Being a gay man myself, the themes of the piece perhaps hit harder than for most, but I still found Under You almost too strong. Lack of compromise is obviously part of the issue with persecution, so it’s admirable that Ellis didn’t hold back, but the angry monologue at the end used sledgehammer subtlety, and I think by overstating the point, its impact was lessened somehow. It was like Peter Tatchell shouting in your ear while you’re trying to watch Brokeback Mountain. I’m pretty sure that was Ellis’s intended reaction, but it’s important to remember Under You was a scratch performance. It’s a work in progress and hopefully some of the extremes can be tamed so that the strength of the message isn’t drowned by the untempered passion.
Finally for Day 1 was Ransack Dance’s Broken Arrows, choreographed by Sarah Rogers. Although Broken Arrows is a finished work, we saw just a 15-minute section of the longer piece, and within that was dance, live music and singing, and projection. This mash-up of media always helps keep the audience on its toes, and the highlight for me was the nightclub section where the dancers are raving away but the determination of two human beings to find calm amid the chaos wins through. This was the most successful aspect for me, as was Maxwell James’s beautifully soulful singing voice. The gentleness of his refrain of “Hold me…” as he strums his guitar eventually turned to mild frustration as the lyric is repeated over and over, ad infinitum, until it actually became quite annoying. I just wanted to shout “Sing the next bloody line!”. Maybe in the whole piece, he does. Overall, the presentation had a disjointed style, swinging from acoustic to hard house, but such is life – and within our lives we can all still find another human heart, despite the best efforts of technology and commerce to prise us apart.
Sarah Rogers: Broken Arrows
Whoever decided to have Alex Marshall Parsons’ Gary and Pel kick off Day 2 deserves a round of pirouettes. The duo is a tour de force of comedy, using both slapstick and mime, and really warmed the crowds up during their opening performance in Chapter’s foyer. Gary and Pel are two comedy characters played by Alex himself, along with Kim Noble. Gary looks like a reject from The Little Shop of Horrors, while Pel is a vision in bright yellow fright wig straight out of the B-52s. They “drive” into view in their shocking pink cardboard car and proceed to leap about the space with the energy and vigour of a pair of antelopes. Their faces are what elevates this physical piece from mere entertaining to downright brilliant, Alex in particular being blessed with a range of expressions that say every word he does not speak. I love the persona Kim has built up too, like a cross between Elvira, RuPaul and Cindy Lauper.
The crazy antics of these two grotesques – whose obsession with frying pans and 1950s infomercials forms a core of this routine – deserves to be developed and expanded. I can see these guys storming the Royal Variety Show or – God forbid – Britain’s Got Talent, but I’d never want their anarchic roots to be ironed away (would Simon Cowell stick with a dance piece which essentially depicts 1950s domestic bliss through the lens of David Lynch?). Gary and Pel were among the highlights of the entire weekend for me.
Before the live dance presentations got started in earnest there was a schedule of short films to see in the cinema. My favourite two films both had an element of danger to them. Uma O’Neill’s impressive Too Close, Too Personal probably boasts a number of meanings, but for me it was about a mutually abusive marriage and the effect it has on the child. Lisa Spaull and Colin Daimond battle it out beautifully and viscerally, trading blows and insults through some vital dance movements, while the younger Angharad Harrop tries to remove herself from the situation, dreaming of nature and altogether more aspirant things. I may have read the piece a little too literally, but I got a lot of out of it, which is not something all of these films achieved.
Louise Lloyd: Waltz of the Flowers
My very favourite was Wren Ball’s Y Chwarelwr (The Quarrymen), a haunting, disconcerting, sinister film shot on location in the wet, cold, dank Dinorwic Slate Quarry in North Wales. Dressed in a zebra mask and hoodie, Wren populates the landscape in slow-motion, staring threateningly into camera, stalking the audience, staring us out, sometimes running toward us, at other times nonchalantly stretching out, taking indignant ownership of his space. It capitalises beautifully and unsettlingly on the mysterious atmosphere of an abandoned quarry, and Wren’s trademark use of parkour adds to the queasy feeling of the film. Katherine Betteridge’s haunting music is the icing on the cake too. I have no idea why Wren is dressed as a zebra in a slate quarry in December, but for me this was a stand-out film, sparking a reaction in me rarely felt. Another highlight of the weekend.
Gemma Prangle: Dances I Made on My Bathroom Floor
Gemma Prangle’s Dances I Made on My Bathroom Floor trampled along my ever-shifting line between contemporary dance and performance art, but golly, it does it in style! Gemma is a physical theatre performer who likes to work in the immersive medium too so it’s no wonder this piece was both personal and challenging. It is based upon Gemma’s own observation that she was spending far too much time dancing in her bathroom as opposed to on stage, and explores the contradiction of being a performer but feeling afraid to perform. Breaking the fourth wall, Gemma includes the audience in her ramblings, and shares everything with them – and when I mean everything, I mean in the same way Lady Godiva did. Gemma is laid bare in the private company of her bathroom, where she is alone and unobserved, but gets suitably embarrassed and shy when she is aware of an audience, grabbing for a towel. She is open, with nothing to hide, when alone, but guarded when with others. This is pretty much how we all must feel at some stage in our lives, putting on a facade for others, pretending we’re fine when we’re not, summoning the strength to go and do it anyway despite being afraid. Gemma is a brave lady to do what she did in this piece, but she carries it off with such wit and charm. She was one of the stand-out performers of the weekend for me (she popped up later on too), with such well-honed comic timing and a face that can make you laugh, and make you feel.
Zosia Jo & Mounir Saeed: Sou Tafahom
Sou Tafahom (Misunderstandings) choreographed by Mounir Saeed and Zosia Jo was another piece about human failings and insecurities. It perfectly embodies the way that people misunderstand one another in conversation, purposefully or not. We ignore what the other is saying while taking too long thinking about what we’re going to say next. We miss their point, and the disconnection has a domino effect on the next line, and the next. Our attempts to reconnect sometimes work, sometimes fail, and this is all fed into the inspired choreography. Saeed has a beautiful physicality and talent for expression which Jo really feeds off and the two of them work so well together. I’d like to see more from these two.
Mike Williams is an emerging independent artist who, by his own admission, is exploring his choreographic voice for the first time. He says in publicity that he is influenced by music, the aesthetics of the human body and connecting with audiences. I’m pretty sure every dancer in the world is influenced by these things too (it would be puzzling for them not to be) but Mike has channeled that into a startling, intensely challenging piece which takes place over 15 minutes in almost complete silence. Strictly speaking it’s not silence, it’s actually John Cage’s infamous composition 4.33, which instructs musicians not to play their instruments and for the soundtrack to merely be the sounds of the environment in which the audience is experiencing the performance. That’s puzzling in itself, but what Mike does is first of all play the sound of him dancing, complete with those familiar floor squeaks underfoot, while he himself crouches silently on stage in waiting. The audience hears the sound of what is to come, but when the dance comes, it is performed in silence, to Cage’s 4.33. It’s a difficult piece, but very clever, challenging the viewer to watch the dance unaccompanied and to face up to their own discomfort in watching nothing very much happen for just that little bit too long!
Another highlight of the weekend for me was Louise Lloyd’s Waltz of the Flower Sellers, an energetic comedy piece directly inspired by the music – Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker. Four flower sellers compete to trade their wares to Tchaikovsky’s score, but performed in a variety of musical styles – first of all the traditional classical rendition, followed by hard rock guitar, French farce, circus, jazz, even a version reminiscent of The Godfather theme. The facial expression and physical vying between the girls, in tandem with the ever-zanier musical accompaniment, makes this a very funny, endearing and easily interpreted piece which could please any age. Like Gary and Pel, it would go down well in variety showcases.
Day 2 ended with what could be my favourite work of the entire Platform. If there was a theme for Wales Dance Platform, it was one of emerging talent, of facilitating and enabling young independent artists to show what they’re made of, what they can do and demonstrate their potential. But in Caroline Lamb’s The Long Winter, we had a beautiful, delicate evocation of the ageing process, the fragility of life as we hurtle without escape toward the inevitable. Caroline has been dancing and choreographing for decades and her wealth of experience showed in spades. The five mature performers simply owned that stage the minute they set foot on it. The gravitas they carried in their movement, in their faces, should, I hope, have given the younger performers watching something to aspire to. These performers couldn’t do back-flips or body-popping or form the shapes their younger colleagues could – but they could once, and their pasts add so much to what they offer in the present. The Long Winter was a very arty piece, full of sinister costumes and ethereal choral music (from the sadly uncredited Trio Mediaeval), and I found the combination of the dancers’ experience, the choreographer’s conviction, the set and costume design, and the music incredibly moving. Bandages were used to both dress the set, and the performers, representing the ongoing efforts to fix and mend as we move through life, ageing, until it’s just not possible any longer. Janet Fieldsend and Dylan Davies roll off separately into the darkness at the end of the piece, demonstrating that we often meet Death alone, despite spending our lifetimes with others. At the end, as in the beginning, we are alone.
The third and final day of Wales Dance Platform was a hectic affair, the scheduling of which was knocked out of kilter right from the off with some time-consuming set-pieces in the first session. However, it was sadly too easy to forget the exhibitions on display, both by Roy Campbell-Moore. The first was The Beauty and the Grit, which showed just how well Roy can capture the intimacy of the performer without intruding on their art. As a former dancer himself he knows when it’s working and when it’s not, and presents what he calls unsentimental images of dance, exposing both the wonder and the torment – the beauty and the grit.
The second display was images captured of Sandra Harnisch-Lacey’s dance Spin, which used multiple levels to show off the freedom and elasticity of the human form. These energetic images were presented in blown-up form around the foyer, and could so easily have been missed by the hurried visitor. They capture the dancers’ movement in perfect frozen form; it’s almost like you can touch their movement.
Coreo Cymru had its own stage as part of the overall weekend, in collaboration with Theatr Iolo and funded by the Arts Council of Wales. First up was Sage Bachtler Cushman and Hugo Oliveira’s Arvores do deserto (Desert Trees), an impressive spectacle of polystyrene snow and a wintry landscape. The entire piece hung on Oliveira’s skill at juggling snowballs. Whether it was nerves or the quick set-up, I don’t know, but there was much more dropping than there was juggling. This was a shame because the presentation was impressive. If only the execution had kept up with the imagination. The removal of thousands of tiny polystyrene snowflakes from a studio theatre floor is no easy task, and the rigorous clearing away of the snowy set between presentations took too long, although it did raise quite a round of applause when completed (perhaps louder than that for the show itself?).
The second piece was Into the Water from Up and Over It, a charming, witty fusion of traditional dance and performance art. Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding were clearly having a whale of a time, the big smiles on their faces showing their love of their craft and the joy in performing it. The energy and level of integration between them was breath-taking. It’s so rare to see quite this much symbiosis between performers. Mixing a bit of river dance with country dancing and morris dancing, as well as some beautiful music from Tunng, Into the water was a charming, engaging and warm piece of theatre from two people obviously proud to be doing what they do. I’d love to see more of this.
I first spotted Jodelle Douglas and Sharifa Tonkmor on the BBC’s Young Dancer of the Year contest earlier this year and they impressed then with their precision hiphop and body-popping and locking moves. Here they collaborated with Kate Morris on Disjointed for Jukebox Collective, choreographed by Liara Barussi. It tells the tale of a couple of toy shop dolls, one clockwork, the other a string puppet, who are brought to life by a masked inventor reminiscent of Daft Punk. I loved the youthful enthusiasm and well-observed choreography here – Douglas and Tonkmor are real, fresh talents with much to offer, in both movement and expression, and the fantastical quality of this piece really brought these talents to the fore. It was like watching that clockwork ballerina bit in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but with Michael Jackson instead of Dick Van Dyke. The dolls’ escape to freedom at the end was heartwarming, but I’m not sure there was a need for the avalanche of white balloons. It just meant there was more stuff to clear up, delaying the schedule further.
Something else which pushed the dance art form in a different direction was TaikaBox’s A Study in Telesymbiosis. Dancer Lucy May Constantini was live on stage in Newport while choreographer Tanja Råman was live on stage in Oulu, Finland, and we saw Tanja projected onto the back wall, while those in Finland saw Lucy projected onto theirs. Still with me? In essence, this was a live link-up using Facetime to perform a collaborative international dance piece, but without the damaging carbon footprint. It was a huge success for technology, but I fear the virtual achievement may have overshadowed the dance content. Perhaps the point of the piece was to achieve the live international connection, to see two dancers in different countries connect and react to one another when they weren’t really together at all. Well, that it did, but perhaps next time Tanja calls up from Finland there should be some kind of concept behind the ambition too?
One of the stand-out performers of the weekend for me was Gemma Prangle, whose comedic physicality combines with real dance talent to make a very special, and promising, live theatre performer. She works side by side with choreographer Tamsin Griffiths in The Ship of Fools, based upon a collaboration between Tamsin’s father John and herself. The publicity reads like one of those pretentious contemporary dance descriptions which can put you off because you just don’t know what it’s trying to say (“the piece addresses the world as it was and is today, looking at follies and all things that oppress us”). That’s as may be, but what transpired on the stage was nothing short of bonkers. Tamsin dresses in wig and leotard and sports the most enormous false breasts this side of Dolly Parton, while Gemma dresses as a man with drawn-on, Dali-esque facial hair and a hat jammed on her head. Gemma does not speak, so her mime skills come to the fore, which is good to see, but the content of the piece left me, well… a little puzzled. Or rather, very puzzled. Like some kind of Rag Week farce, the performance lurched from puerile to inspired, from infantile to intriguing. If nothing else, it was utterly unique, impossible to categorise. I just dread to think what it’s like inside Tamsin’s head!
Kate Lawrence: Gwymon
Kate Lawrence’s Vertical Dance was delayed from the morning because of incessant rain, but by the afternoon the sun had his hat on and we all decamped outside to witness a real spectacle. Kate and Despina Goula combined the art of dance with that of rock climbing to create an astonishing display of horizontal, diagonal and vertical choreography, hanging from ropes down the side of the building. The synchronous movement shown by these two performers was among the tightest I’d seen all weekend, and this is two women dangling from the end of ropes down the side of a building! Gwymon was a representation of a female connection to the sea, inspired by Eluned Morgan’s diaries of her voyage to Patagonia in the 19th century. Beautiful and elegant.
The final trio of dances for the Wales Dance Platform weekend began with Deborah Hay’s I Think Not?, performed by Anushiye Yarnell. The audience sits in the round and Anushiye edges on, looking for all the world like a circus clown who’s dressed in the dark. Over the course of the following 15 minutes – and believe me, 15 minutes can feel so much longer at times like this – Anushiye slides, stumbles, rolls, frog-marches and pirouettes around the stage, whispering under her breath, occasionally letting out a stifled whistle or hum. In silence. It’s a challenging work which made some of the onlookers chuckle because sometimes it looked for all the world like a six-year-old girl playing dress-up in her bedroom. When I looked to the publicity to try and make sense of it all I was faced with a barrage of pretension which did nothing to ease my confusion: “My work unfolds a dimension synergising fantasy and reality, reconstructing fragments from the realm of everyday life into existential, functional daydreaming, questioning love and civilisation”. Oh really? Now put that into English.
A few of the performances over the weekend took the art of dance and the dancer as their theme (Christopher Owen’s The Creative Act and Gemma Prangle’s Dances I Made on My Bathroom Floor), and that was the case with Angharad Matthews’ amusing The Audition. It does what it says on the tin, and provides an honest insight into what it’s like for a dancer (or a musician or actor) to go through that gruelling, torturous process of auditioning. The internalised thought processes of the auditioning dancers as they choose which outfit to wear and which routine to perform provide both light and weight and really make you feel for the fragile souls who lay themselves bare every time they go for a job. Plus, the piece featured what must be the youngest audition ever, as one dancer was heavily pregnant! It was lovely to watch each dancer’s individual interpretation of the dance, their unique little routines acted out to the same monologue of self-conscious inner thoughts and insecurities. And at the end, the table is turned on the audience, as we have been the mirror to their performance all along.
Finally, Gwyn Emberton brought the entire Platform weekend to a close with his Of the Earth, from Where I Came. The choreographic experience Gwyn brings to the table is palpable, as this is an accomplished, nuanced and utterly beguiling piece in which the solo performer becomes an animalistic creature, sprouting from the earth, then wheeling and cavorting through the freedom of life upon the earth, and finally returning to the earth from whence it came as death takes hold. Dancer Albert Garcia is phenomenal here, lithe and agile, embodying nature and contorting in ways I didn’t think were possible (but then, I sit at a laptop and moan for a living; Albert simply flies!). It was a fantastic way to being the Platform to a close, giving the young and inexperienced dancers something to both marvel at and aspire to.
Across its three days Wales Dance Platform 2015 gave us intimate pieces, grandiose spectacles, and everything in between, from dancing on the side of buildings to surreal set pieces. But one thing was constant and that was the conviction of everybody involved, from the performers to the choreographers, the set dressers and costume designers, the lighting and sound technicians, the musicians and photographers. Everybody was there to have fun and be entertained, and the scale and scope of talent on offer was hugely gratifying. I’m so glad everybody got their time in the spotlight, and I hope the ambition on display grows bigger, stronger and never stops shining.
A version of this article with all acts reviewed, can be found at http://stevestratfordreviews.blogspot.co.uk/