Saturday 20 October 2012

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet – Sadler’s Wells

[overdue and grumpy, or: on reading and expertise]

I begin with links and a series of admissions:

Sanjoy Roy and Luke Jennings have been watching and writing about dance a lot long than me. Years and years longer. Without a doubt, they know more than me about dance. To all intents and purposes, when it comes to “dance” I still function at that basically despicable “I know what I like-” level, which makes me hopping mad when it’s applied to theatre by others.

A second admission goes like this: having absolutely *adored* Sasha Waltz’s Continu, and having heard mostly great things about Hofesh Shechter (I’ve heard one dissenting voice; very informed, but possibly compromised by inter-personal relations), I fairly skipped along to Cedar Lake Ballet’s UK debut at Sadler’s Wells. It’s a mixed programme of three fairly short pieces (all around the half-hour mark, with generous intervals between each, making for a very relaxing evening for this smoker), each made by a different choreographer for/with the company. And I did like the Hofesh Shechter piece, Violet Kid – not *adore*, but certainly *had a lot of time for*. Unexpectedly, however, I absolutely *loathed* Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet. But, loathing it was, if anything, a far more interesting experience (intellectually at least) than *quite liking* Violet Kid. Resultantly, I was a bit preoccupied during the final piece, Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.

I should first have a stab at saying what I think I saw:

Hofesh Shechter’s Violet Kid is a loping, tribal, rangy beast of a thing. Before training as/becoming a choreographer, Shechter trained as a percussionist, and has created/recorded the score of Violet Kid himself. And it’s a kind of percussive concerto. Rising and falling; undulating; speeding up, slowing down, and intricately recorded and treated. There is also a three-piece string section – set in a lit section of the black back wall of the otherwise gauzey, empty space.

The piece [and, boy, should I have written this up sooner – nothing worse than trying to remember choreography precisely a few days on] reminded me again of Continu. It uses the whole company – 16 dancers, male and female – splitting them various into two or three camps or moving them around as a single unit. When split off into groups (not usually along any tangible lines – not about gender, or coloured vests) they inhabit different movement patterns. If you wanted to try to characterise the movement you could do worse than suggest a troupe of orangutans crossed with a street-dance/break-dance party: the most striking movement is a kind of long-armed shuffling gallop across the stage; a terrestrial version of seeking vines from which to swing between trees. At the same time, other dancers jerk robotically.

While there isn’t a strong sense of dramaturgy or story here, there is clearly organisation and thematic elements. If it seems slightly inconclusive, that in itself is no bad thing. It is an enjoyable mood-board of a piece. Perhaps more a calling card than the actual meeting, but a fine display of what Shechter is up to.

So, how, after this promising start and a welcome fag-break (and free fizzy elderflower cordial), did Tuplet put me in such a foul mood? (Well, yes, it is a godawful title, but I didn’t even look at the programme until afterwards). It starts interestingly enough. The black back wall of H.S.’s piece has been replaced with a giant white flat, onto which are projected two square frames of film, one showing various midriffs and the other showing various close-ups of mouths, both in black and white. The mouths are making various rhythmic sucking and hiccoughing noises, a kind of arthuas Bobby McFerrin crossed with a more than usually useful Bruce Nauman.

The piece features six dancers, who come on and stand at the front in six squares of light. They move in time to the odd organic noises. There’s a section in which they dance to recordings of their names being spoken (presumably by them). Thinking back, it seems amusing, clever, nicely made; and the problems I had with it feel almost unfathomably grumpy at this distance from sitting there watching it, but there they were. I could see nothing more than an atmosphere of unbearably smug, self-satisfied self-congratulation, with all the artistry of a Gap advert (which is to say, obviously quite a lot of technical facility, and absolutely zero “soul” or point).

My problem now is: I have absolutely no idea whether this feeling came from the stage or from my imagination. Can a movement be smug? I’d say, yes, it probably can. Were these movements smug? I’m less sure. I’m sure the dancers are sincere, nice people. But then, what even the hell has that got to do with whether this piece was any good? Were their smiles “gratingly ingratiating” or just nice, simple smiles. (And, yes: with every word, I realise I articulate far more than I’m comfortable with, regarding some apparent and previously unconscious set of rules that I seem to have regarding dance.)

Following Continu, I got into a written exchange with leading theatre academic Nicholas Ridout who hadn’t liked the show.

“Dance-wise I found [Continu] pretty objectionably and complacently reproductive of really hateful gender essentialism, as well as offering the most obvious and illustrative relationship between music and dance. Dance-wise also because of its dependence on all sorts of ballet codifications (which are of course bound up with the gender essentialism) which treat the body in ways I find limiting.

“But above all, it was the pervasive tone of the whole enterprise, which, in the context of Berlin museology, is particularly hard to take. The idea that Kunst and Kultur (of a certain modernist high-mindedness) can redeem horror through the consumption of autonomous art. I am thinking here about Adorno’s observations about such work, in Commitment.

Nick goes on to use as an example “...the firing squad sequence” in Continu: “Each crumpling body is so dancerly, the image so strong and clear, the setting so abstract, the political specifics so utterly absent, the executioner and his final victim so equal. The squalid political viciousness of any event it might be thought to represent or allude to is utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of it all and our recognition of that beauty (and in that recognition our belief that knowing such beauty when we see it makes us unlikely to participate in a firing squad).”
(quoted with permission)

Which got me thinking. On one level, about how I’d really not applied anything like that level of rigour to my thinking about the Waltz, but, more productively, about the relation of intent and result, and the position of the critic to both.

Nick and I did however agree that we had in the past both let the ethical questions of work that we’d otherwise been enjoying pass us by, as had happened to me in the case of Continu (if you sign up for Nick’s persuasive analysis), or perhaps in Three Kindoms (re: the enormous discussion of that piece’s gender politics).

Now, on one level, I’m pretty sure nothing Tuplet does even begins to merit the levelling of such critical big guns. It’s a bit of fluff. It seems to seek to do nothing more than entertain and be virtuosic,  and unless you believe that it is the job of the critic to hold every such piece to account and demand that it take the world a bit more seriously (which I don’t think I do believe), then it seems unsporting to have a go at it for that.

But, more to the point, this lack of seriousness wasn’t the problem I was experiencing. I wasn’t feeling its gender (or racial) depictions (if indeed there were any) as especially problematic (though I’m sure one could have found fault. One can always find fault if one wants). And it wasn’t making beauty out of suffering. I just found it preening and self-satisfied. Which are such subjective views that they hardly seem worth mentioning. Except that they were more or less my entire experience of the thing: something I really could not get past/get over.

And yet, just as I’ve been troubled when other critics have described work I’ve loved as “self-indulgent” and thought it the most ridiculous, crass observation, here I find myself coming close to making it myself. It was a combination of factors: the cute, pleased-with-itself, too neat choreography-and-concept combined with a certain attitude of meretricious approval-seeking on the part of the dancers. It was one of those occasions when you kind of found yourself wishing that the performers didn’t seem so keen to be liked. But then maybe the choreography was about that precise desperation, and I just wasn’t reading it in the right way.

Anyway, dissatisfied, distracted and preoccupied was how I came to the third piece – Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine. This is perhaps a half-way house between the occasional beauty and continual opacity of the Shechter and the transparent entertainment of Tuplet. Here the dancers perform the piece dressed as commuters while the lighting and sound suggest a world of metro stations and trains. Variously we might be in that famous photo of Grand Central Station, or watching commuters engaged in post-apocalyptic gang warfare in some dystopian U-bahn tunnels. There seems to be a strong suggestion at a couple of points of someone throwing themselves in front of a tube – perhaps one possible interpretation of the title.

Which finally brings us to the interesting question of what expertise actually means in the MSM. I violently disagreed with Luke Jennings’s (grudgingly I admit understandable) position on Dave St Pierre’s Un Peu de Tendresse..., so I knew he and I plausibly had different ideas about what might constitute “good”. On the other hand, he certainly has knowledge and the expertise needed to articulate his views in a way that I’d be the first to admit I haven’t, necessarily. But I was keen to read his review and see how he wrote about this piece I’d hated.

However, the entirety of Jennings’s review of Cedar Lake – so far as I can make out – is this tweet:

“@cedarlake at @Sadlers_Wells. Fine, fearless dancers & choreography with blood in its veins.”

Which I dare say even a novice like me could have asserted, if it had been what I thought.

More frustratingly, Jennings doesn’t seem to have managed to get any expansion of this thought in the the relevant issue of the Observer, so I don’t get to learn more about what struck him about the dancers as especially “fearless”, or why the choreography had “blood in its veins” rather than, say – in the case of Tuplet – “a smug grin plastered over its stupid face”, for example. Similarly, while Sanjoy Roy has got a tiny bit more space to expand his thoughts – and describes/evokes the piece well – the tyranny of the star-rating and the tiny word count means that that’s all he’s got room to do.

I’m aware this is meant to be a “review” of some dance (and I hope you’ve at least got a sense of what happened and what I thought), but really is is a slightly desperate plea for someone somewhere at some newspaper to stop throttling reviews with ridiculous word counts, and for the public to stop asserting that all they want is a star-rating and a consumer guide (if there actually is a meaningfully sizeable public who do assert this). It is all very well Roy and Jennings being experts, but if they don’t actual have space to flex that expertise, all we get is a series of impressions that someone who knows next to nothing about dance (i.e. me) could have made, backed up only with the theory of their expertise but not the practice of it.

Post script: The best review of the evening by far turns out to be by Maria Lu at Exeunt. She describes precisely and with expertise the show I also saw. Granted she thought Tuplet was good, but she explains it in a way that allows me to see that everything I saw was present within it, and that Lu and I just have really different tastes.

Thank God for Exeunt.

[Yes, that genuinely is a post-script. I didn’t read the Lu review until I’d finished all the above. Nor am I saying it because I write for them occasionally.  Read the pieces yourself.  Make up your own mind.]

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