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Dance Magic

26 September 2011

Donald Hutera offers a sneak preview of Dance Umbrella 2011

Stimulating experiences have never been in short supply during Dance Umbrella’s 33-year history, but this autumn the annual London-based international dance festival seems determined to surpass itself. The work on offer runs the gamut from interactive performances to revivals of bona fide classics, along with presentations by artists new to UK audiences who have plenty of fresh, funny surprises up their sleeves. 
 
The American choreographer Merce Cunningham was no stranger to Britain. In fact, in creative terms, this innovative genius might well have regarded London as a second home. Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90, signalling – with his pre-arranged consent – the disbanding of his eponymous company at the end of 2011. As a prelude to the Company’s last-ever London performances at the Barbican (5-8 Oct) that same venue is co-presenting Merce Circus at Stratford Circus, the headquarters of East London Dance. This unique event also kicks off Dance Umbrella 2011.
 
Audiences of all ages will be flowing throughout the building watching films and live performances (including Cunningham’s rarely-seen but masterfully sporty 1976 dance Squaregame, plus an electronic music ‘cabaret’), listening to talks and taking part in workshops. Chief among the treats arranged for Family Afternoon (1 Oct) are workshops where families can create their own dance ‘events’ utilising chance elements, such as the rolling of dice, that Cunningham and his partner John Cage both used as a creative tool. There’s also an opportunity to learn and perform a short but snappy work from 1963 called Field Dances. Comfortable clothing is recommended, and those who are hungry to be up on their feet having fun are especially welcome.
 
The same applies to Dance Marathon (The Pit, Barbican 13 - 16 Oct). Devised by the Canadian interdisciplinary theatre collective bluemouth inc., this ingenious production was inspired by Depression-era America’s crazy-cruel fad for dance competitions in a cash-strapped social climate. How relevant does that sound? Bluetooth’s performance is long (close to four hours) but incredibly immersive. Audience members rub shoulders and share steps with the cast, with everyone compelled to dance non-stop to the music of a live band. The characters involved include a top-hatted MC and a roller-skating referee, plus judges out on the dance floor who will help guide even the wariest punters into learning some fancy footwork. Bluetooth puts a new spin on participatory theatre with this exhilarating and unusual show, at the climax of which anyone – even you – could be crowned champion.
 
Other festival performances promise to provide equal amounts of pleasure in wonderfully diverse ways.
 
Caterina Sagna is an Italian-born dance-maker with a highly developed sense of humour. For proof look no further than Basso Ostinato (at The Place: Robin Howard Dance Theatre, 14 – 15 Oct). The second part of the title is a musical term derived from the Italian word for ‘stubborn.’ Presumably that’s one of many character traits on display in a performance in which three men stationed round a table share copious amounts of booze and fags while reminiscing about their ballet-dancing pasts. Some of their stories are rudely hilarious, while the currents of antagonism and anxiety underlying their behaviour are given full vent via vigorous movement. What Sagna is playing with here, in typically audacious style, is the intertwined relationship of language and motion and the discrepancy (or not) between what people say and actually do.
 
Over at the tiny but gem-like Gate Theatre in Notting Hill you can catch Logobi 05 (24 - 28 Oct). Devised by the German theatre director Monika Gintersdorfer and visual artist Knut Klassen, the show is a cross-cultural encounter between the American-born contemporary dancer Richard Siegal (who was also formerly a member of the world-beating Ballet Frankfurt) and Franck Edmond Yao, an expert in the cheeky, nimble and musically-derived movement style called logobi and many other street dance styles practiced in his native Ivory Coast. Their semi-improvised interactions are said to be both enlightening and hugely diverting.
 
Last but not least, Dance Umbrella continues its commitment to presenting dance in unexpected locations with a one-off staging of Watteau Duets (14 Oct), presented as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s autumn exhibition Post-Modernism: Style and Subversion. This scintillating work was created in 1985 by Karole Armitage, then the reigning ‘punk ballerina’ of post-modern dance. Armitage herself originally danced in it, utilising both pointe shoes and high heels to jab, swivel and stamp the piece across. Dance Umbrella will also present her signature “punk” piece, Drastic-Classicism at Queen Elizabeth Hall in a double bill with an excerpt from her latest work, Three Theories (11 & 12 Oct).
 
Even more unusual is Square Dances, the latest collaboration between Dance Umbrella and Rosemary Lee. This ambitious new project will involve up to 200 professional and non-professional dancers of all ages. The participants, hand-picked by Lee via an open application process, will be split into four distinct groups: men, women, dance students and children). During two consecutive days in October (8 and 9) they’ll materialise, rain or shine, in different public squares in the Bloomsbury area of central London. Each group will offer a repeated series of short, low-key but quietly spellbinding performances for anyone lucky enough to catch them in action. And, to top it off, the entire event is as free as the trees and the breeze. 
 
 
Donald writes regularly for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.
 

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