Featuring The Elixir Ensemble, Company of Elders and others
KnowBody II: The Road Awaits Us, Catalogue (First Edition), Axe, Here, Songs of Childhood, Forest Revisited
London, Sadler’s Wells
23 June 2017
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Sadler’s Wells first Elixir Festival celebrating the older artist was held in 2014. It returns now with a series of programmes headlined by KnowBody II bill on the main stage. This offered a generous six pieces of work, some commissioned for the occasion. Five works featured former professional dancers (many with very impressive careers) spanning a wide age range, and one from Sadler’s Company of Elders over 60s performance group for those without professional dance experience.
Mats Ek’s Axe was the standout item showing just how much impact years of stage experience can supply, but one of the new commissions, for the father and daughter Dominique Mercy and Thusnelda Mercy of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, seemed something of a missed opportunity. The evening ended on a decidedly upbeat note with a version of Robert Cohan’s Forest (Forest Revisited), combining the forces of the veterans of the Elixir Ensemble with students currently studying contemporary dance, a touching passing on of knowledge and experience from generation to generation.
The programme opened with The Road Awaits Us, a new commission by Big Dance Theater’s Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar. This was performed by a specially assembled group, The Elixir Ensemble including Christopher Bannerman, Brian Bertscher, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, Betsy Gregory, Paul Lazar, Diana Payne Myers, Namron, and Kenneth Tharp. It was more of a theatre piece than dance, loosely based on The Bald Soprano by the absurdist playwright Ionesco.
It is certainly bizarre to see the former head of Dance Umbrella and the former chief executive of The Place donning silly hats and rolling about the stage to a deadpan narration of a tedious suburban dinner party. It has its funny moments though possibly not quite enough of them. Diana Payne Myers has the best of it as a gleefully daffy and mischievous housemaid. It ends on a sombre note. The audience joins in reading the words The Road Awaits Us, but it’s clear that the road is a bleak one, downwards towards extinction.
The next item, William Forsythe’s Catalogue (First Edition) was much more of a pure dance piece. Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman were both former Forsythe Company dancers, and it was made specifically for them last year. Although we associate Forsythe with high voltage energy and extreme physicality, the limited movement range used here still manages to encapsulate key elements of his style.
It is performed in silence. The dancers are both casually dressed in jeans and T shirts, standing side by side. They begin with simple gestures of the hands, not in sync with each other but more like a conversation. One will try something and it will be picked up and repeated or twisted and varied. Initially they don’t look at each other much. There’s a sense that they already know each other so well that they don’t need to. As the work progresses they increasingly steal glances at each other and become more engaged. Christopher Roman seems on the verge of giggles a number of times. They move from the spot and flex and stretch and twine around each other without touching. There were moments when they might have been elegant long legged birds in some courting ritual.
It’s a very intricate piece, and must be extraordinarily testing to perform. However, at a running time of 18 minutes it feels a bit long for the nature of the material. No one could fault the concentration, empathy and commitment of the dancers. Both this piece and the next were skilfully tailored to their performers by choreographers who know them deeply and clearly showed the art and poise of the older artist.
Mats Ek’s Axe could be the beginning to a new Scandi Noir TV series. There is a man, an axe, a huge pile of wood that he starts to chop with repressed intensity and a visibly distressed wife. It doesn’t look like it will end well. There’s so much bottled up feeling conveyed by such simple means. Ana Laguna dances around her husband (Yvan Auzely) at the woodblock, anxious and imploring. She picks up a piece of wood and cradles it as if it might have been a child. She is an extraordinarily compelling performer. At the close she picks up the axe and follows her husband offstage, with a troubling expression on her face. It’s a real gem and the most successfully realised work of the evening. It’s just 15 minutes long but there seems to be the whole history of a relationship in there.
After the interval, Company of Elders, presented another new commission, Here by Shobana Jeyasingh. The individuals in the company have never danced professionally, and they don’t have the foundation of technique that the professionals on the programme have. But they do look winningly like they are having an absolutely terrific time on stage and the nineteen people register strongly as individuals. Something about this company always leaves me feeling cheerful, and it was good to have a positive vibe to contrast with some of the darker items on the bill.
Pascal Merighi created a new piece, for father and daughter Dominique Mercy and Thusnelda Mercy. All of them have been with the Pina Bausch company, and work was very much in that mould, which included a quirky and eclectic soundtrack. Songs of childhood sounded very promising. Almost all of the time, in dance, when you have one man and one woman on stage, the context assumed is of a romantic relationship. Portrayals of fathers and daughters is strikingly rare, but here we have a real life example. What new insight would Merighi use the opportunity to show us?
The answer seemed to be disappointingly little. The quirky and charismatic father walked to and fro at the back of the stage, hands in pockets. There was much tossing of hair by the daughter, in a manner very recognisable from the woks of Pina Bausch. But there was not so much interaction between the two of them. Only towards the end did we get a glimpse of more tender feelings in a brief duet where she perched on his outstretched leg just as a toddler might.
The final work of the programme celebrated Robert Cohan, founder Director of The Place and London Contemporary Dance Theatre. The work was a revised version of Forest, renamed Forest Revisited, reimagined by Martin Welton for five former London Contemporary Dance Theatre dancers and for five young dancers who had passed through the National Youth Dance Company and are now in full time dance training. It opened with all the cast lined up as if for class with a voiceover from Cohan instructing them how to breathe. Screens at the back of the stage showed some early film of the original production alongside current rehearsals. This was less distracting than it sounds, and the screens faded away after a while. The NYDC alumni were very impressive.
In this revised version, sometimes the dancers on stage at any moment are drawn exclusively from the veterans (Christopher Bannerman, Anne Donnelly, Linda Gibbs, Paul Liburd and Kenneth Tharp), sometimes exclusively from the students and sometimes a mixture of the two. It was the mix that appeared most affecting. The older dancers don’t jump alongside their younger counterparts but the eye is still drawn to their presence, the carriage of the arms and the weighted quality of the movement. Your response to the work may be framed by your memories of some of the performers in their earlier careers. For me It was a real pleasure to see Paul Liburd performing again.
The audience for this programme included a wide range of ages and seemed to include a number of dance students. Maybe they were interested to see the NYDC alumni, you hope that they were also interested in seeing the older dancers as well and how the mature artist has something special to offer.