There has been much discussion concerning the marked lack of opportunities for female choreographers. Tamsin Fitzgerald, Artistic Director of 2Faced Dance Company, has rolled up her sleeves and set to work over the last two years to do something practical about it. The result is Outlands, a triple bill which has been touring the UK this autumn.
In 2015 Fitzgerald founded The BENCH, a training and mentoring organisation for female choreographers, which has offshoots both in the UK and India, at the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bangalore. This production is part of the UK-India Year of Culture 2017. It’s a disparate programme, with one UK based work very different in approach to the two pieces from Indian choreographers, but they all have an undercurrent of bubbling anger and resentment.
The programme opens with Ronita Mookerji‘s WHO? The stage and the action is dominated by a large box, inside and on which the two performers grapple with each other and their own issues. The soundtrack is a mix of industrial noises over which, from time to time, float ethereal Indian vocals.
Mookerji developed this initially as a solo and then added a second performer which does bring in more contrast and possibilities. The work opens with a woman and a man (Mookerji and Prashant More) inside the cramped space of the box, tussling. He escapes but she stays inside: consistently we see the male enjoying more freedom, running around the stage, or leaping and spinning on the box itself. Mookerji always appears more constrained. Her movement has a manic, spidery quality with a strange squatting run. Sometimes it seems she is trying to meditate and gets her legs into the lotus position, but it’s as if her arms disobey her and flail about with a frenzied energy. The movement for the man is smoother and more flowing.
Unsurprisingly both end up in the box at the end, still trapped by life’s constraints and still bickering. Mookerji is a focussed and compelling performer. The piece works well in an intimate setting, but in any larger venue the box itself would limit the audience’s sight lines to what it contains.
The UK is represented by Emma-Jayne Park’s It’s Not Over Yet. This is a very personal solo piece, based on her experience being diagnosed with cancer two years ago. It’s as much theatre as dance. She remains seated for almost all of it, clad in a long hospital gown, sometimes repeating fragments of text over and over again “How are you?”, “I’m alright, I’m alright”. Her movement is mainly in the arms. At one point it seemed she might be offering out her arm for a drip to be inserted. She steadily plucks at her hair as great lengths of it fall out about her feet. From beneath the gown she deposits what looks like a bucket load of pills onto the floor, and picks up a handful and chomps them. It’s a fairly bleak in-your-face portrayal of chemotherapy. At the close she dons shoes and a dress, and contemplates a pink balloon with “Survivor” emblazoned on it. But the conclusion does not convince us she’s “better” or feel at all upbeat.
There isn’t a shred of self-pity, the overall tone is raw and angry, and she looks the audience defiantly in the eye. It is difficult to critique a work which is obviously so rooted in traumatic personal experience without sounding unsympathetic to the sufferer. I hope she recovers and goes on to make other works that harnesses her energies.
The final work was Yashti, a solo choreographed and performed by Hema Bharathy, from The BENCH India. This is more obviously Indian in some of its influences, though both she and Mookerji have a background in classical Indian dance forms as well as contemporary. It featured the most intriguing and atmospheric soundtrack of the evening, a collage incorporating snatches of percussion, classical Indian music, poetry (lyrical references to lilies and lotus flowers) and the vocal rhythms of Indian dance, which all matched well with the movement.
The choreographer’s note tells us that the work reflects on the many facets of being a woman in Indian society and it does register as a series of different moods and sketched frustrations. It opens with the performer posing on the floor with a bowl balanced on her head. She removes it as if glad to get rid of the weight and will later tip the beads it contains over her head and onto the floor.
There are moments of abandon as she leaps across the stage, contrasted with much more deliberate sections. She carefully plants each foot with the movement slowly and fully articulated through the length of the foot and the sinewy toes with each disciplined shift of balance. Then later her costume billows out as she takes off in big swirling jumps. There’s a good deal of floor based activity, as if weighed down by experience, and flashes of anger and strong feelings. Finally, the chanted rhythms return in voiceover. She responds to these, following their instruction, but they go faster and faster until she struggles to keep up any more. Yashti was the most absorbing work of the evening, and would repay further viewing to unpick the many moods and occasionally opaque references within it. Bharathy’s committed and poised performance makes a strong case for her work.
The Outlands tour continues in the UK with further dates in Salford, Swindon and Hereford. Tamsin Fitzgerald and The BENCH are currently selecting more female choreographers for another programme to be created next year. Certainly, this programme offered three very different voices the chance to be heard more widely.