Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts
Dancing Nation: Episode One
New Adventures – Matthew Bourne’s Spitfire – an advertisement divertissement
Candoco Dance Company – Face In by Yasmeen Godder
Breakin’ Convention, curated by Jonzi D – Window Shopping
Humanhood – Júlia Robert and Rudi Cole’s Orbis (excerpt)
English National Ballet – Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow
London, Sadler’s Wells
Premiered on 28 Jan 2021
Available to watch on BBC iPlayer and via Sadler’s Wells’ website
During the long, dark, miserable nights of the current lockdown, with theatres closed, Sadler’s Wells (SW) Dancing Nation reminds us that dance is still alive and kicking. A digital festival of eclectic dance and choreographer interviews, accessible via BBC iPlayer or on SW’s website, Dancing Nation brings audiences three different programmes and features 15 pre-recorded pieces. The event organised by BBC Arts and Sadler’s Wells has something for everyone, whatever your taste in dance, but is also clearly designed to attract new audiences. Each work looks slick, glossy and short enough to be watchable even after a tiring day on zoom.
Broadcaster and journalist Brenda Emmanus who introduces each work and interviews a selection of choreographers emphasises that, despite Dancing Nation’s polished BBC veneer, the process of producing it, bringing dancers together to rehearse under strict COVID-19 rules, and keeping everyone safe, presented enormous challenges. Emmanus also asks some interesting questions about how dancers and choreographers have survived over lockdown, how they’ve managed to stay fit and motivated and what the festival might mean for the future in terms of developing new audiences. It’s good to hear from director/choreographers such as Candoco’s Charlotte Darbyshire, Breakin’ Convention’s Jonzi D or English National Ballet’s Stina Quagebeur, all of whom touch on what it has felt like over the last year. Preparing for Dancing Nation has at least given some dance artists the means and incentive to keep working, and all three agree that lockdown has been a good time for reflection and working differently.
Talking to Emmanus, SW’s director Alastair Spalding is quick to point out that the digital festival showcases the breadth of work that usually appears on stage at the theatre featuring both emerging choreographers and established ones from across the UK. Episode One of Dancing Nation certainly reflects that broad scope of SW’s programming with a variety of work by new and familiar artists, in a range of dance genres. A contemporary ballet duet by English National Ballet’s Stina Quagebeur follows independent dancers Rudi Cole and Julie Robert’s duet Orbis; Matthew Bourne’s reconstruction of his classic but relatively unseen advertisement/divertissement Spitfire (1988) for members of New Adventures precedes Candoco Dance company’s unconventional Face In by American Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder.
Window Shopping curated by Jonzi D and Breakin’ Convention works best for me as each group of dancers alludes to the architecture of Sadler’s Wells. They bring the empty building back to life inhabiting its various public spaces (the foyer, front window, stairs and mezzanine) with a mixture of hip hop’s popping and whacking, flamenco and ballet – not only reminding me of what diversity in dance feels like but also the experience of going to a theatre. The camera films the first duo, Jonadette Carpia and Brook Milliner, in the window from the street outside. As they undulate in fluid motion punctuated by the sudden snapping of limbs and juddering reverberations, they become the most thrilling window display I have seen in a long time. The camera then averts the gaze to three dancers in the foyer, Faye Stoeser, Hannah Kohlm and Michael Oladele who whack and strut like shapeshifting cat-walk models. Their voguing arms furiously sculpt the air above heads while feats of spinning expose the skill of Oladele particularly. Ascending the staircase, Naomi Luz and Madalena Mannin delight with their articulate display of contemporary flamenco. Vibrant and joyful they animate the forlornly empty mezzanine before signalling to the final surprise – Mukeni Nel emerging from a large box. Nel’s performs a virtuosic ballet solo with understated efficiency, composed and quietly playful. We’re left with a final close-up of his finely tattooed face – a reminder that this is no conventional ballet dancer.
Episode One is balanced in terms of mood and atmosphere juxtaposing lighter extracts with darker ones. On the humorous side, the comedic Spitfire and the raunchy, uninhibited Face In bring smiles and discomfort. Neatly packaged, symmetrical and full of theatrical innuendo, the male dancers in Spitfire model dated white underwear with narcissistic pride. A far cry from the languidly cool male models of today, these guys are all about sculpted posturing and athletic moves. While providing some much-needed light relief, the divertissement/advertisement presents the qualities that made Bourne famous – theatrical glamour, characterisation, fancy displays of technique and a non-confrontational queer aesthetic.
Candoco’s Face In contains none of these qualities. The carefully edited excerpt from a longer piece made in 2016 feels refreshingly distorted and irreverent both in its chaotic structure and the meanings it constructs. Three dancers shunt along the floor gripping articles of clothing by their teeth, Joel Brown shouts the lyrics of the urban indie score from his wheelchair while Anna Seymour arrogantly strides downstage oblivious of everyone else. They represent a dysfunctional crowd of individuals, a cacophony of bodies moving manically in discordant harmony, as they throw their bodies into impossible shapes and high energy phrases. There are moments of calm and unity, but the final image of Michaella Dantas balancing a crutch on her face and screaming is a fitting ending to a bumpy ride. Face In both seduces in the company’s strong performances of challenging material and alienates in its disorientating subject matter.
Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow is a heart-wrenching reflection on depression – and how two people negotiate it. ENB’s Victor Prigent’s desperate endeavours to connect with Emily Suzuki and coax her back from the brink are choreographed with nuance and sensitivity. She keeps escaping from the reassuring contact he offers, her focus always elsewhere, pulling her caved in body towards a void. Quagebeur describes the agony of the situation negotiated by the dancers through the articulation of fragile balances and Giovanni Sollima’s delicate score for cello and piano. It’s a sobering yet touching piece that resonates with anyone struggling during lockdown’s joyless months. Humanhood’s Orbis, an immersive spiritual exploration of the relationship between the moon, planet earth and human beings, puts the suffering on planet earth in humbling perspective. Birmingham based artists Júlia Robert and Rudi Cole perform in the round as if simulating the many orbits of the moon. Set up in the main foyer of the SW, they spin and swirl with fierce intensity, forming layers of concentric movement resisting the imagined magnetic pull of the moon. Enveloped by Iain Armstrong’s atmospheric 360-degree surround sound score and resembling wizards in black tie-dyed cloaks, they enact their actions with ritualistic commitment. While the camera doesn’t quite capture the intensity of what it must feel like to experience Orbis live, the questions it raises about time, space and the human condition offer some spiritual solace. Could all this be enough to convert non-dance people watching at home? Will they be enticed to venture out when theatres reopen? Alastair Spalding and Dancing Nation’s choreographers certainly hope so.