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Dance Umbrella Birthday Gala

by Lyndsey Winship

September 28, 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London

In 1978 the first Dance Umbrella festival played to around 5000 people. 25 years later, audiences top 40,000 and the festival is possibly the biggest date in the dance calendar.  A quarter of a century on, many of the faces in the festival remain the same. Behind the scenes, artistic director Val Bourne still holds the reins, and when Richard Alston came on stage to open the second half he reminds us that he danced in the very first performance of the first festival.

It’s a piece by Alston that opens the show tonight. ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, danced by the Scottish Ballet, is a reliably lyrical slice of choreography with an unusually abstract soundtrack. All the Alston trademarks are there (some things just don’t go out of style) and the female dancers are especially beautiful, with Diana Loosmore – a former member of Alston’s company – leading the way.

The evening is a real celebration, a combination of specially commissioned solos and previous festival highlights, showcasing some of the choreographers who have made their debuts at DU and gone on to become major players in the contemporary dance scene. We are treated to solos from three mighty dance makers, once edgy new artists, now edgy older artists – Trisha Brown, Bill T Jones and Mark Morris. Jones and Morris in particular have real presence and the kind of command that only comes with experience. (Brown is slightly hindered by the fact that she performs ‘If You Couldn’t See Me’ – a ten minute solo with her back to the audience.)

Jones is in great shape, with muscles fit for a strip show (he keeps his clothes on though). He doesn’t need to move from his spot, just makes pointed exclamations with his splendid isolations. ‘Ionization’ (set to Varese’s work of the same name) is a meditation in the spotlight, the dancer shifting his electrons with precision and attitude. He manages to be both abstract and soulful at the same time.

Mark Morris has an equally solid torso but you’d be hard pressed to find a six pack. The man is a complete contradiction. Remarkably rounded but incredibly light on his feet, he turns up in a skirt and what looks to me like a Japanese costume but then begins a kind of stylised flamenco, accompanied by live guitar and percussion. He goes from statuesque to sprightly in a second, from serious to tongue-in-cheek in a blink. Morris is simply a natural dancer. He moves with such ease and imagination that you can tell it’s just part of him. You could watch him doing the housework and it would probably be just as enchanting. It’s always interesting to see choreographers dance their own work, to see where their language comes from. After all, this was the first body they ever choreographed for, their raw material.

There are three works tonight that bear the stamp of Wayne McGregor. One choreographed by him, another danced by his company Random Dance and the third a solo (created for tonight’s gala) which he dances himself. As soon as his gangly figure walks onstage, McGregor’s distinctive dance language immediately makes sense. Tall and skinny with a shaved head, he’s all limbs and slightly alien-looking. Fitting and fretting about the stage, he’s like a miswired, mechanical stick insect. Although other dancers recreate his steps effectively, this is clearly the master copy.

It’s a style that Shobana Jayasingh, normally known for her Indian/contemporary fusion, has used to great effect in her work for Random Dance. The company has just finished a run at The Place, and performs ‘Polar Sequence 1’ tonight. Jayasingh has worked closely with the dancers to create something in Random’s jerky, kinetic style. It’s a surprise to anyone expecting her usual idiom, but a pleasant one.

The other work by McGregor is his piece for English National Ballet’s star couple Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. ‘2 Human’ is a kind of extreme pas de deux, highly charged and full of flashy technique, tricky lifts and edgy moves. All eyes are on Oaks, dressed like and exotic bird going through its punk phase, she’s almost another species. Flighty, feisty and very strong – there’s nothing soft about this ballerina. I saw this piece when the ENB were on tour an the dancers seemed more relaxed this time, no doubt enjoying the occasion, and their rapturous reception.

Just to make sure that everyone enjoys the party, there’s plenty of humour on stage. Nine girls passing balls to each other in time with the music, a drunken pussycat on pointe and some seriously macho men in their underpants courtesy of Matthew Bourne.

The gala is a great opener for the 25th festival; everything’s a highlight. You have to wonder which bright young sparks from this year’s festival will be dancing here in another 25 years time. Or will Mark Morris still be skipping around the stage in a skirt? Let’s hope so.

 

Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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