I open this review with an unashamed confession, since I’m a passionate advocate of both the man and the place associated with this world premiere. The Laban Theatre is an outstanding resource for contemporary dance; situated in the award-winning Laban Centre in Deptford, it provides a large auditorium with a generous stage. After-dark visits to Laban are always enlivened by a brief walk along the path rolling between the green, landscaped “hills” of the entrance yard. The subtle lighting within this “Toyland” topography invariably conjures a little slice of magic.
Thanks to the vision of Brian Brady, the Head of Programming, and a fruitful hook-up with neighbouring Greenwich Dance, it is also becoming an important producing house. Their Compass Commissions is a flagship artist development programme that makes full use of the superb facilities in this state-of-the-art dance house. In 2016/17 Compass has enabled three new commissions, including this world premiere of Botis Seva’s Woman of Sun.
Seva first caught my attention as a solo performer, during the 2013 edition of Resolution! I recall the all-pervading sense of theatre in his Place in Between. When he moved, agonisingly slowly, shoulders almost dislocating with impressive muscular control, Seva covered barely any space and kept his face unseen by the audience until the end. It was a courageous performance that mixed piety and power; minimalism and mightiness. I marked him out as one to watch.
He started out as a performer with Tony Adigun’s Avant Garde Youth, aged 16. Adigun is another director/choreographer that I greatly admire, especially for blazing a trail in expanding hip hop into contemporary dance theatre and doing it at an impressive scale. Adigun’s full-length Fagin’s Twist, which premiered this autumn and has recently been touring the UK, is a tour de force. It seems that Seva has moved in a similar direction and, in 2010, he branched out to form Far From The Norm, a dance collective with a core group of six dancers.
Earlier this year, I caught InNoForm, his eclectic mixed programme of contemporary dance and physical theatre and witnessed the emergence of a choreographic style blossoming into an innovative language. Having run the company for six years – including a period being mentored by Hofesh Shechter – Seva is now just 25. Earlier this month, he was announced as one of 20 artists selected from 563 applicants across Europe, for the 2017 Aerowaves Festival, to be held in Denmark, next April. This achievement marks ten years since Seva first entered the world of dance.
Woman of Sun is Seva’s first full-length production and it represents an extraordinary journey of self-fulfilment both for the director (and his company) and in terms of the work’s own narrative, which concerns the mastery of self-awareness and discipline, through a series of inter-leaved vignettes.
It began with a strong group dance sequence for five performers, each emerging and disappearing in brief swathes of light, before embarking on those tight harmonies that typify quality hip hop group dancing. It was probably a fanciful image but the drab, formless uniforms and a darkened stage gave the appearance of close-harmony drill amongst prisoners in an exercise yard; the slickness of the movement quality accentuated by Anthony Hateley’s impressive lighting.
Other layers took the audience on various adventures in search of enlightenment. There was the acquisition of discipline in martial arts, viewed through the lens between master and pupil. It’s a well trodden path; from David Carradine’s journey through the Wild West in Kung Fu, armed with the discipline of his Shaolin training from the blind master, Po; through to the filmography of the late Bruce Lee, whose voice we heard. It is a milieu that has been tapped into more recently, for the purposes of hip hop based dance theatre, by Blue Boy Entertainment in The Five and The Prophecy of Prana. For me, despite the slick interaction of “fighting” skills and dance demonstrated by the androgynous martial arts master, Victoria Shulungu, it was a sequence that ran for too long, both in terms of purpose and entertainment.
The introduction of Seva as a kind of West African shaman, a travelling man of religion, super tall, dressed in tattered, colourful robes and bearing a staff, accompanied by a somewhat unruly disciple (Jordan Douglas), brought the journey into a focus that seemed paradoxically to be both sharper, yet also shrouded in mystery. The first act ended after “the disciple” had been slapped by the guru (to rather incongruous laughter from some sections of the audience), followed by a long sequence of pouring bottles of water over performers (each leaving and returning to the sanctuary of an upturned box) with Douglas slithering, twirling and sliding – with impressive balancing skills – through the puddles on the stage.
The style and tempo of Act 2 was much changed, perhaps, I felt, to indicate the breadth of states needed in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Another bout of tightly controlled group harmony prefaced a final sequence that had Shechter’s influence stamped all over; as five performers mimed “drumming” to the beats of a thumping tribal rhythm . It started brilliantly as the five motioned to beat the boxes with large sticks but – at the last second – failing to follow through with the action, their batons clashing together, instead. But, after this initial surprise, the seduction of the relentless rhythm took over and they beat the upturned boxes with relentless passion. It was like an interpretation of Stomp or Shechter’s Political Mother and a pity that such an innovative journey ended on a derivative last lap.
Rumours about the prolific use of talcum powder had ricocheted around Laban’s social space in the minutes before the performance began. Yet, there was not so much as a puff of the stuff to be seen. Either it was a very clever wind-up to keep the audience on its toes (full marks if this were so) or the potential mess of several kilos of talc was jettisoned in favour of the aforementioned water “fight”. One assumes that water presented less of a technical challenge to clean away between the acts. Whatever the reason for exiling the white stuff, there was a flavour of this being a work that was rushed to get on stage for the premiere – all too often, the case – and Woman of Sun could benefit from further editing. Tightening up and losing ten minutes would likely turn a good work into being excellent.
These quibbles aside, the appealing soundscape by Torben Lars Sylvest was diversely relevant to each layer of self-discovery; Seva’s free-flowing direction was generally absorbing and his choreography continues to provide strong personal elements of innovation. It is rare to find young choreographers developing a distinctive movement language and Seva is certainly one of the most original emerging talents in UK – if not European – choreography.