Jonathan Burrows, Matteo Fargion & Hugo Glendinning
London, Lillian Baylis Studio
25 January 2017
Every Monday last year, a short gestural portrait of a dancer or performer was put up on the website 52portraits.co.uk. In a bare studio space, with just a table as a prop, each participating artist had been asked by the choreographer Jonathan Burrows to come up with a piece inspired by “the ghosts in the body”. The length was suggested at about a minute, although some opted to use more time. Recorded by the video-maker Hugo Glendinning, the artist worked in silence, then suggested a piece of music, and the composer Matteo Fargion used that suggestion to create a soundtrack for the work, with lyrics (sung by Fargion and/or his daughter, Francesca) drawn verbatim from a questionnaire put to the artist by Burrows.
You can see them all still, on the site – the range of participants is impressive, from big names such as William Forsythe, Robert Cohan and Deborah Hay, through to newer talents such as Kloe Dean, Igor & Moreno and Daniel Linehan. However, for the hardcore, Sadler’s Wells offered a night with all 52 portraits screened together – an endeavour lasting about two hours.
The brief, and the minor key delivery of the lyrics by Fargion père et fille, mean there’s a melancholic air to these pieces en masse, as the performers reflect, remember and describe how it feels to dance. The Royal Ballet star Zenaida Yanowsky sits with Marlene Dietrich-like poise, flexing her arms in Swan Queen ripples, as the lyrics linger on her upcoming retirement. Siobhan Davies considers how she has come to like “tiny little movements”. Jonzi D, mug of tea balanced precariously, carves across the table with middle finger extended as his lyrics explain why he turned down an MBE.
Dean, her fellow hip hop artist Botis Seva and Crystal Pite are among those who channel an energy that seems trapped by the constrictions of the piece and pulsing to break free. Alessandra Seutin is gloriously imperious as she lets her arms fly, backed by a Fela Kuti beat. Andros Zins-Browne manages to successfully incorporate Michael Jackson moves and a camel impression. Karl Jay-Lewin goes punk and tries to dismantle the set.
Some of the portraits are slightly more, um, challenging. “Stefan thinks that architecture is like dancing, and every architectural intelligence can be translated into dance,” intones Francesca, as Stefan Jovanovitch raises his head from the table and stares balefully at us in full make-up. (This could be a joke, I’m not entirely sure.)
The portraits are probably not a way into dance for someone who wasn’t already interested – and it’s probably better to watch them in small doses. However, they do remind us of something rather lovely – how each artist, with just one body and one table, can create such strikingly different individual stories for us; and how the tiniest, most mundane gesture can be imbued with such unexpected force.