The Grange Festival, at The Grange
A review by Mark Aspen, 26 June 2019
Human Interactions, Expressed With Flair
Dance@TheGrange – Company Wayne McGregor and Ballet Black
Our humanity is the one thing which we all share. This was the sentiment of the brief curtain speech by Michael Chance, the Artistic Director of The Grange Festival on the opening night of Dance@TheGrange, reflecting the enthusiasm of the audience for the inspired harmonisation of dance into the Grange’s opera season for a second year. His words, “We all love dance; we all love to sing; we all are human”, encapsulated the ethos of his collaboration with the renowned choreographer, Wayne McGregor.
The common themes that emerge from the five dance pieces are twofold: how we interact with other human beings; and how we interact within ourselves, our bodies with our minds and our minds with our spirit. We could interchange the word interact with the word react, as the two themes interconnect.
The programme comprises five dance pieces, three by Company Wayne McGregor and two by Ballet Black. One piece by each company had its premiere on the opening night. Wayne McGregor is the doyen of the modern dance world, having successfully managed to fuse a spectrum of dance styles, the classical ballet of The Royal Ballet, the innovation of Sadler’s Wells and the cutting edge contemporary dance of The Place, having been choreographer in residence with all three companies.
Outlier, the first work of the programme, is by Company Wayne McGregor, a remounting of McGregor’s own neo-classical ballet, initially produced for the New York City Ballet, as part of its 2010 Architecture of Dance series. Although McGregor describes this as a minimalist work, in many ways it is anything but. It is a high-tempo piece that is complex both visually and musically, being set to Thomas Adès’ labyrinthine Op 24 violin concerto Concentric Paths. Its three movements are entitled Rings, Paths and Rounds, which contextualises it within the architecture theme. The architectural inspiration is Bauhaus, and here is where the minimalism is apparent in the clean cut lines of Bauhaus reflected in the precise placings and movements of the dancers. The abstract presentation hints nevertheless at the human interaction within and its reaction to the built environment. Rings is a boldly sinuous section, where the interactions are between pairs dissolving from duets into investigative groupings. It is set at first against scarlet Ferri promo 1ring of light, an understated but effective design by Lucy Carter, who opens Rounds by bold placing the whole company in silhouette. This short passage includes some remarkable interpretations of flute set against a pizzicato violin, which is danced with staccato steps, humanity confined. These two movements parenthesise the longer middle movement, Paths, which features the guest artist, Alessandra Ferri, prima ballerina assoluta at La Scala Ballet and a former Principal of The Royal Ballet. This is a more lyrical and introspective movement with the intensity of the solo violin set against the caprice of the other instruments, giving ample opportunity show Ferri’s virtuosity, much en pointe, supported by the fugitive background of the corps. (It is difficult to find an image of Alessandra Ferri not en pointe.)
Washa, the first of the works with its premiere at The Grange, is a gorgeously vivid contrast. Produced by Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black it is especially commissioned for the Grange Festival from the talented emerging choreographer, Mthuthuzeli November. Contemplating the origin of music, November asks in this piece “Exactly why do we dance to music?” and he answers his own question with this very affirming celebration of the human body and spirit interacting thorough music. Washa translates from Xhosa as “burn from the inside” and November is fascinated by the clicks and trills used in that language. The opening of the dance is inspired by the rhythms created by San Bushmen singing around the fire. Fire forms an all-encompassing image in this integrated ensemble piece from the full sextet of the company’s dancers. Opening with the sounds generated by a dancer kindling a fire from a fire-stick and driven by Peter Johnson’s percussive score, the image of fire is impressively pervasive, highlighted by the free-flowing fire-red flaming skirts of the dancers. The piece is a triumphant fusion of classical and modern dance into the millennia-old African culture, which realises November’s aim to cause the inner fire of the dancers to suffuse through their audience.
The emotionally penetrating duet, Clay, by the acclaimed Australian choreographer Alice Topp, is presented by Company Wayne McGregor as the second of the world premieres. Human beings can mould and shape each other like clay, but separation, grief and pain can intensify mutual feelings. Clay studies the sensitivities underlying the interactions between a couple where one is suffering under the burden of pain. How much can the burden be shared to the other, the clay stretched before it shears? The subtle lighting of erstwhile dancer Geneviève Giron provides a claustrophobic atmosphere. The ostinato score, Whirling Winds, by the Italian laureate composer, Ludovico Einaudi is the perfect vehicle for the two artists, Rebecca Basset-Graham and Izzac Carroll. The opening is lyrical and the dancing shows mutual sympathy, but as the music takes on an urgency and sense of aggravation, tensions become apparent. Carroll and Basset-Graham’s expressive dancing portrays the compassion and the tribulations of the relationship, its actions shift from gentle and sensitive to troubled and grudging. The pair cut some dramatic figures, difficult dynamic lifts are executed effortlessly, and the increasing weight of the piece is thoroughly acted out. As Clay is said to be a sketch for a larger dance-piece, we should be looking out with impatience to see the final work.
The versatility of Alice Topp’s choreography is exhibited in the style of Company Wayne McGregor’s Little Atlas, where it owes much to classical ballet. It premiered in 2016 at the Sydney Opera House, but transfers well to the Grange stage, where Jon Buswell’s adapted lighting plot enhances the sense of confinement crucial to the piece. This too is set to a score by Ludovico Einaudi, taken from two of his works, Fly and Pieces. Little Atlas is a piece of considerable crystalline beauty that explores the nature of memory. A solo dancer, Camille Bracher, is discovered held within a cone of brilliant light, the confines of her past experiences, her memories. She is joined by two male dancers, Jacob O’Connell and Jordan James Bridge, positive and negative reminiscences of her past. There are some beautifully executed classical movements, the ballerina held en attitude Balanchine. As forgetfulness intervenes, the top lit cone becomes more stable. Finally we are left with the solo dancer again, in a close top spotlight, a moment of sublime pathos.
The final work in the programme, The Suit, firmly picks up the theme of human interaction. It is a longer piece, with a sharply defined narrative. The plot is based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba about a married couple Matilda and Philemon, who live in a suburb of Johannesburg. The story moves from light-hearted observations of day-to-day life to a dark and tragic denouement, and requires a difficult emotional journey from the principals. American dancer Cira Robinson and Brazilian born José Alves, both Senior Artists with Ballet Black, are well up to this task and their characterisations are impeccable. The Suit won two Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards last year for Ballet Black, and choreographer Cathy Marston’s revival at The Grange remains fresh and energetic. The adage, less is more, works wonders in Jane Heather’s inspired set and David Plater’s lighting which give a sense of place as scenes move convincingly from bedroom to bathroom, to the road and bus-stop outside, to a park and on to a dance hall. All is done with two simple frames, albeit greatly augmented by the company ensemble who mime everything else from an alarm clock to a bathroom tap. Ballet-Black-The-Suit-Mthuthuzeli-NovemberAlves, as Philemon, extracts much humour from the husband’s daily routine, taking scrupulous care of his ablutions. Then into the streets where he has a cheery hello for everyone, helps little-ol’-ladies across the road, and generally excels as a good egg. But things are about to change for Philemon. Back home Matilda has shown in her lover, Simon, and her morning is about to hot-up. Their amorous encounter rapidly develops in intensity. Robinson’s sensual dancing is matched by the erotically charged interpretation of Mthuthuzeli November, now as a dancer, as they come to “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”. Unfortunately, Philemon has forgotten his briefcase, and discovers his wife in flagrante delicto. Alves’s depiction of Philemon’s revulsion is palpable. In true farce style, Simon disappears déshabillé, though the window, but not in Brian Rix style, since he leaves his trousers, and the rest of his clothes, behind. The score is written by Phillip Feeney, as arrangements of eight diverse composers’ music, and this works well to delineate the changing emotional circumstances of the protagonists. You see, Simon’s abandoned suit becomes a symbol, of shame for Matilda and of humiliation for the cuckolded Philemon. The vacant suit, cleverly becoming one of the ensemble on its coat-hanger, is constantly with the couple. It sits with them at dinner and goes with them on a walk to the park. Philemon’s personality has changed and he now only wants to humiliate his wife. He even forces her to come to a dance with their friends and makes her dance publicly with the suit. All the company, and the suit, dance a beautifully choreographed paso-doble, , but clearly its binary rhythm (and its title) is a sardonic musical pun. There is a point in the dance where it seems that Philemon is going to forgive her, a great moment of dramatic tension and you could almost feel the audience willing it to happen, but he cannot bring himself to do so. This is a moment he will regret for ever. Supported by a versatile ensemble, the expressive acting conveyed by skilfully interpretive dancing by the three principals, made this a memorable piece of story-telling.
A wide range of human interactions, bodies, minds and spirits, is packaged in the 2019 Dance@TheGrange programme, and is presented with the flair that we have come to expect of The Grange Festival, a successful pairing of opera and dance: what a wonderful way to express our humanity.