The 35th iteration of Dance Umbrella is now open. The last seven years’ programming of London’s premier dance festival has been directed by Betsy Gregory who will retire at the conclusion of this year’s event (her successor is to be Emma Gladstone). A small opening party – drinks and fine nibbles courtesy of the Conseil des arts et des lettres in Quebec – both launched the festival and celebrated Betsy’s leadership. The Chairman of the Board, Andrew Hochhauser QC, is also moving on. In a brief duet of opening speeches, they articulated a vivid impression of their rollercoaster ride in piloting Dance Umbrella: the ups invariably represented by the countless pinnacles of artistic genius the festival has brought to the capital; the downs inevitably about money and being on the wrong side of bureaucracy.
In many ways, this performance of Vertiges (Vertigo), the 49th original work to be made by veteran choreographer, Paul-André Fortier (Fortier Danse Création) at this particular venue, is an effective cipher for the Festival as a whole. The Place (and all it contains) is certainly the inspiration and perhaps even the heartbeat of modern dance in London with its tributaries of influence spanning the globe. Fortier – now 65 years-old, but appearing many years’ younger – is the doyen of Montreal’s bustling community of contemporary dance artists (I immediately think of Marie Chouinard, Édouard Lock, Ginette Laurin, Dave St-Pierre, Daniel Léveillé and Frédérick Gravel – who also appears in this year’s Umbrella – to name but a few).
Having performed his al fresco solo 30 x 30 (a dance performed for 30 minutes over 30 days) more than 450 times – including at Dance Umbrella, in 2007 – Fortier has moved onto Vertiges, which is essentially a duet for two men of a certain age (they describe themselves as “old, but huggable”). Fortier is joined onstage throughout by Malcolm Goldstein, a septuagenarian violinist who moves through the work as if Fortier’s shadow, perhaps a spectral vestige within the Vertiges?
Goldstein is not a trained dancer but his early work with John Cage, Steve Paxton and others involved in the Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s has established an intuitive understanding that ordinary movement – just the acts of walking or gesturing, for example – is a pure distillation of dance. Their hour-long structured improvisation of the interactions between movement and sound examine the potential beauty of ordinary actions in a work that might be best described as performance art, rather than dance as we have come to regard it conventionally.
The stage design embraces three plywood screens raised on stanchions and joined together and a rough circle of some 60 portable lamps, connected by electric cable, enclosing a space within which the performance took place. For an added touch of the surreal a handful of overhead projectors sat on the floor in a clump, like the discarded detritus from a long-forgotten seminar. The lamps were controlled by a “dimmer” switch that, turned low, created a dusky, twilight atmosphere in which movement was reflected onto the black flooring as if illuminated onto moonlight ripples in a black lagoon. I particularly liked the crossover imagery between the vibration of the violin strings and the quivering filaments of the lamps. But while John Munro’s lighting design created an effective mood, the sparseness of the bare plywood panels seemed out of place. Only once did they appear to have a purpose, when Fortier briefly plays with the light like an “etch-a-sketch”, drawing bold lines of darkness in the shadows thus created by his hands on the screen.
Fortier moves with the refined grace of a man who has been dancing for half a century but there is also surprising speed, flexibility and athleticism, not least in a long sequence of rapid arm movements as he strives to keep pace with Goldstein’s accelerating sounds. The obvious freedom of improvisation for both performers is clearly built upon a strong foundation of trust between them. In one sequence, they move forward together towards the audience – returning to repeat the walk several times – with Fortier fixing an obdurate stare on the front row (I know because I was its object for one passage) while Goldstein bounces his bow off the violin strings, both also jabbering loudly in some faux-oriental language as if Fortier is a samurai master chastising a servant for forgetting to starch his kimono.
Despite many memorable highlights, the enduring charm and eloquence of the half-light imagery and a clear connection between the two performers I felt frequently as if an interloper in someone else’s conversation, one taking place in a language that I only barely understood. It was fascinating to try and piece it all together but as my powers of concentration waned, I gave up the ghost and this was some while before the end. I was left with an admiration for the fact that these two senior citizens could sustain that level of concentrated performance for far longer than I could assimilate it.