SystemsLAB mixed bill curated by Freddie Opoku-Addaie
Theo Inart: The Fragility of Man
Becky Namgauds: Exhibit F
Ffion Campbell-Davies and tyroneisaacstuart: Beyond Words
Jonzi D: Aeroplane Man
Deptford, Laban Theatre
13 March 2020
On the cusp of Lockdown, I caught what must have been one of the last live theatrical dance performances, a mixed programme of contemporary work, curated by Freddie Opoku-Addaie under the auspices of his SystemsLAB brand, which had previously been seen in Dance Umbrella; here, reprised at Laban.
Working alone and with Frauke Requardt (who could ever forget the popcorn machine of their Fidelity Project), Opoku-Addaie has created memorable work replete with playfulness and challenge and now he has turned those talents into establishing a platform for others to market similar wares. On this evidence, he certainly has an entrepreneurial eye for how to compile a mixed bill with purpose and flow.
The most austere of the quartet came in The Fragility of Man, Theo Inart’s raw exposition of one man’s battle with frustration and loneliness. He entered from a door at the side of the stage with the house lights up as if the audience is already under inquisition. This opening episode mostly consisted of uncomfortable stillness but it presented a false paradigm of frozen unease since from thereafter, Inart was a torrent of unpredictable movement, whether crawling rapidly, sending chairs tumbling over, stripping away his clothing or donning a batman mask (a reminder of a happier childhood, perhaps?). These erratic explosions of movement are punctuated by brief oases of poignant reflection and stillness.
The overwhelming aura is one of fragile mental health in one man’s solo rage against the imprisonment of self-isolation. As we then unknowingly stood on the cusp of that universal precipice, one now looks back at Inart’s profound prescience in this thoughtful and courageous work.
A similar courage was found in Becky Namgauds’ Exhibit F, another challenging solo of raw power. Namgauds emerged slowly and silently from the darkness, only initially visible as a mass of golden curls. After fully two minutes her form began to take shape behind long hair shielding her naked torso; a further couple of minutes elapsed before any sound was heard in an a cappella woman’s voice singing in a North African style. The hair gave way to the chiselled musculature of Naumgauds’ back, suggesting a rolling landscape of dunes and valleys. Her movement became more frenetic, rolling sideways and back, standing with the weak uncertainty of a new-born gazelle. She provided the illusion of some primeval creature and, in many ways, the form and process of her work reminded me of Hanna Wroblewski’s similarly uninhibited and visceral My heart became this Monster, which also debuted during The Place’s Resolution festival.
The interval was followed by a duet, entitled Beyond Words, performed by Ffion Campbell-Davies and tyroneisaacstuart, which began with the former straddling her partner’s right shoulder, his back towards the audience. A saxophone began and as the two-headed “beast” turned, it transpired that Stuart was holding (and playing) the sax as well as carrying Campbell-Davies. The roles are reversed and the woman became the porter of her burly partner as this intricate conversation between their bodies continued. This connectivity with trust and respect moved from music into movement and onto spoken text. In contrast to the earlier works, these performers added layers of clothing from pre-arranged piles as they discussed issues of inequality. Although this was an absorbing work it ended without the satisfaction of completeness.
That the best was left to last is no insult to the preceding works since Opoku-Addaie’s compilation concluded with Jonzi D’s masterpiece, Aeroplane Man, originally created in the 1990s as a work for several dancers and musicians and here remounted as a solo for its creator. It is that rare commodity, a work that manages to be hilarious but nonetheless packs a mighty punch about identity and injustice.
The Aeroplane Man is always at the end of a telephone, a travel agent for Jonzi D’s quest to find his spiritual homeland, having realised that being a cockney, born in Bow, was not who he is. Aeroplane Man flies him first to the home of his forebears, Grenada, and then onto Jamaica, Brooklyn and Africa and in each place he is made to realise that he remains a stranger, taking each opportunity to mimic the local accent as he is mocked and humiliated for naively trying to fit in. Each journey also takes in the local dance form, from calypso to hip-hop (as a performer of a certain age, Jonzi D can still perform some mean breaking power moves).
Although it was created more than two decades ago, Aeroplane Man seems fresh and still very much alive for 2020, a credit to the timeless composition of an excellent work but an indictment on the fact that these feelings of displacement are just as relevant today as when the work was first conceived. In his inimitable way, Jonzi D remains a fearless and funny voice in addressing these issues of alienation.
It is many more than twenty years since I went a month without seeing live dance but if I had to choose a work with which to enter this hiatus, Aeroplane Man would have been a damned good option!