Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts – Dancing Nation: Episode Two – London

Akram Khan and Natalia Osipova in <I>Mud of Sorrow: Touch</I>.<br />© still from Sadler's Wells & BBC Arts <I>Dancing Nation</I>. (Click image for larger version)
Akram Khan and Natalia Osipova in Mud of Sorrow: Touch.
© still from Sadler’s Wells & BBC Arts Dancing Nation. (Click image for larger version)

Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts
Dancing Nation: Episode Two
Humanhood – Júlia Robert and Rudi Cole’s SPHERA
Far From the Norm – Botis Seva’s BLKDOG (excerpt)
Birmingham Royal Ballet – Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky (excerpt)
Oona Doherty’s Hope Hunt and the Journey into Lazarus (excerpt)
Boy Blue in Blak Whyte Gray (excerpt)
Akram Khan with Natalia Osipova in Mud of Sorrow: Touch
★★✰✰✰ overal (★★★★★ for Khan & Osipova)
London, Sadler’s Wells
Premiered on 28 Jan 2021
Available to watch on BBC iPlayer and via Sadler’s Wells’ website

Dancing Nation tries not to frighten potential viewers unused to watching dance by having a presenter, Brenda Emmanus (in the gushing Anita Rani role for Royal Ballet streaming) reassuring audiences at home that each offering is amazing. The brief guides she provides to what we are about to see prove mystifying since extracts from complete works make little sense out of context. Would baffled viewers bother to find out more from the internet or just scroll through Dancing Nation until something catches their attention?

The second episode (of three) starts with a companion piece, Sphera, to Orbis, which featured earlier in the first hour (review). Both are by a Birmingham-based duo, Rudi Cole and Júlia Robert, who formed a group called Humanhood in 2016. The two of them perform on a circular carpet in the empty entrance foyer of Sadler’s Wells theatre: a dark covering for Orbis, white for Sphera, representing the two sides of the moon. According to Ms Emmanus’s introduction to Sphera, the dancers are bodies changing and morphing under the influence of the moon. Dressed in white martial arts outfits, they swirl and tumble around the sphere, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes bearing each other’s weight. A swooning soundtrack accompanies them, its volume waxing and waning.

Publicity image for Humanhood in SPHERA.© Humanhood. (Click image for larger version)
Publicity image for Humanhood in SPHERA.
© Humanhood. (Click image for larger version)

At one point, Cole appears to be a shaman, mesmerising Robert as she sits cross-legged, head bowed. Then they jump up and down in unison, speeding into a jogging phase before subsiding into kneeling positions, arms curved around each other. If I’d been watching them in Sadler’s Wells foyer, I’d have moved off well before the 15 minutes were up. Though both performers are skilled movers, drawing on different forms of dance and martial arts, their gyrations are so repetitive and inward-looking that they pall. During the filming, passers-by didn’t pause to watch through the theatre’s glass walls, probably assuming the activities inside had nothing to do with their lives.

An extract from BLKDOG, Botis Seva’s work for his company, Far From The Norm, is more arresting. It was filmed during lockdown for Dancing Nation on the main stage of Sadler’s Wells, which had commissioned the complete work in 2018 (an Olivier Award winner in 2019). Viewers are told that BLKDOG (Black Dog) depicts the inner battle of an aging artist trying to regain his youth, finding ways to cope and searching for acceptance. None of that is evident in the opening section, in which six anonymous figures crouch, collapse, strive to rise, stumble and fall. Padded hoods all but cover their faces, turning them into vole-like creatures when they skitter, bent over double, in nervous flurries. Seated, they resemble the small clay figurines with holes for eyes that made up Antony Gormley’s 1991 installation, Field.

Thanks to Tom Visser’s lighting and a sinister soundscape by Torben Lars Sylvest, the not-yet-humans are intriguing. They twitch and gibber as if trying to remember how to dance, fight and run. Or maybe they’re playing cruel children’s games. One figure is caught in a spotlight as the others point mockingly at him. He reels back as though he’s been shot by a firing squad. To find out what happens next, you’ll want to see the full-length piece – whenever that becomes possible.

Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky for Birmingham Royal Ballet.© still from Sadler's Wells & BBC Arts Dancing Nation. (Click image for larger version)
Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky for Birmingham Royal Ballet.
© still from Sadler’s Wells & BBC Arts Dancing Nation. (Click image for larger version)

The next extract, from Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky for Birmingham Royal Ballet, was recorded during one of its few live performances in October 2020 to a socially-distanced audience. There’s a brief view of the string septet in the pit playing John Adams’s Shaker Loops during the central duet and ensemble finale. The extract doesn’t show the visually striking panelled skirts the dancers wore in an earlier section, distancing them from each other as the fabric flared into organic shapes. In the pas de deux, Yu Kuriharu appears to float in Tom Rogers’s arms against a lapis lazuli coloured backdrop. They are joined by other couples who circle around them, forming a vortex pattern seen from above. Rogers is then isolated in their midst, losing his partner until a bevy of young women bring her back to reprise their duet. The music and the lighting fade out as she moves apart from him. It seems an ambivalent ending, though Tuckett has called his ballet ‘regenerative’.

Certainly, the extract is a poignant reminder of the pleasure of watching a corps of dancers moving together in surges of energy impelled by music. I saw BRB’s Lazuli Sky at Sadler’s Wells for its London premiere and was impressed by the company’s commitment to Tuckett’s new work and to the new artistic director, Carlos Acosta. All too soon, live performances were called off yet again.

Oona Doherty's Hope Hunt and the Journey into Lazarus.© still from Sadler's Wells & BBC Arts Dancing Nation. (Click image for larger version)
Oona Doherty’s Hope Hunt and the Journey into Lazarus.
© still from Sadler’s Wells & BBC Arts Dancing Nation. (Click image for larger version)

Oona Doherty’s Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus follows next as a confrontational contrast to lyrical ballet. The 10-minute extract is the prologue to a 20-minute piece in two halves that accounts for the title. Doherty has performed the solo herself in the guise of a tough Northern Irish working-class lad. In the recently shot film for Dancing Nation, the role is taken by her look-alike, Sati Veyrunes, recorded in St Anne’s Square, Belfast. The once-busy plaza is empty as Veyrunes is unloaded from the boot of a car driven by Rory Moore, masked. He stands, neutral, as she/he roams drunkenly, looking for a fight. Without nonplussed onlookers to react against, Veyrunes stumbles about belligerently, retching, flailing and falling. Thanks to subtitles on the screen, it’s possible to get a sense of the vehement voice-over poems that accompany his/her silent ravings.

Doherty’s intention is to disconcert audiences with a display of toxic masculinity via a female performer. The repellent youth, a despised stereotype, will eventually appear transformed into a Caravaggio angel in the second half of the show, when the performer, now dressed in white, dances to baroque music.

For the brief extract to arouse compassion instead of disgust, Veyrunes is shown calling urgently for driver Rory to come back when he abandons her/him. Lurching, she removes her puffer jacket, T-shirt and trousers and lies, vulnerable and alone, in the rain-drenched square. While we register the bleak conclusion, Ms Emmanus recites brightly ‘A performance of raw energy, fury and swagger’. Please don’t tell us how to react or we’ll throw things at the screen.

She informs us that the next extract, from Boy Blue Entertainment’s Blak Whyte Gray, is ‘an exploration of identity, oppression and transcendence’: it sounds much like Doherty’s aim in Hope Hunt. The Whyte sequence must refer to oppression, since the three performers, Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy and Dickson Mbi, are contained within a square of light. They wear white outfits with straps that indicate institutional restraints. Bars of shadow are projected against them as, bewildered, they jerk and twitch, lock and pop, to electronic music by Mikey J. When the music jams and repeats, they open their mouths in silent screams as though being electrocuted. Distressing, it’s an extract that really needs a context.

The final performance, Mud of Sorrow: Touch, filmed during lockdown, is the 5 star highlight of this Episode. Akram Khan and Natalia Osipova combine in a new version of Sacred Monsters, created in 2008 by Khan for himself and Sylvie Guillem. Much has changed since then. This version starts with a poem that asks: ‘Who will write the history of touch? Do you remember? What if your skin has forgotten? What happens to skin that goes untouched?’ The speaker is Nina Harries, who plays her double bass for the duet that follows. I suspect this newly revised version is about transcendence and regeneration – the restoration to life of a Lazarus figure, Osipova, by the agency of a creator, Khan.

Osipova appear to be lifeless until Khan touches her arm, bringing her pulse alive. He cradles her, drawing her hand to embrace his head. He pulls her upright and catches her as she falls. Their hands share a magnetism, palms longing to hold each other. He assists her to wrap her legs around his waist, making them into a single, multi-armed being. Not a monster but a deity, like the Hindu god Shiva with four arms, who dances the eternal dance of creation and destruction. The double bass merges with the voice of Raheel Husain, singing a Corsican lament for the death of Jesus. Khan and Osipova console each other, she supported on his back or lying down, enabling him to rest on her upturned feet.

When she moves away from him, seeming to reject his proximity, he takes her hands again to resume their dance, now as equals. She spins independently around him on tiptoe. They link together, adopting the holds of ballroom dancers before she slips away from his arms. He continues to circle, retaining the same stance until he realises she is no longer there. Perhaps she has taken on an existence of her own, restored by his touch: perhaps she was only a memory of a lost loved one. As the poem wonders: ‘Who will believe that a touch could change life?”

Beautifully filmed on Sadler’s Wells stage, the cameras reveal an extraordinary tenderness between two exceptional performers who had never danced together before. Khan’s choreography is not so much the combination of his kathak technique and Osipova’s classical ballet training as the forging of a shared movement language. Mud of Sorrow: Touch must be kept in our archives as a lament for a terrible period of loss and a testament to creative resilience.

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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