Thursday, 26 February 2015

Artificial Things, Stopgap Dance Company, Artsdepot

My one link with this evening's performance was with one of the composers, Andy Higgs, who had invited me along. Andy works in dance as a ballet repetiteur but increasingly as a composer and had been one of three composers who had contributed to this three-scene dance work, Artificial Things. The company, Stopgap dance, is a full-time company that produces work with disabled and non-disabled artists; the asymmetry of physique or physicality on stage is also integrated with the use of wheelchairs.

It's a little difficult to know quite where to start with Artificial Things. I was gripped throughout by a sense of narrative, though in vignettes, rather than a long read. I asked about the origins of the work at the post-performance Q&A. Lucy Bennett, the Artistic Director, indicated that the work was born from scratch but probably based on images: the image of a figure lying beside a part of a wheelchair; the image of another figure noticing and responding to this.

Bennett also mentioned the artist Goran Durovic, a Serbian whose pictures have a figures in community but also in tension. the pastel-like impasto of the artist's canvases probably suggested the integrated set and costume design. It's also the textured swirl of snow which escapes a pier-end slot machine to spill across the stage for the third scene.

If the choreography comes from these early ideas, it's from the tension between individuals. With the exception of the powerful charisma of Dave Toole (from scene two onwards) I found it tricky to discern a particular emotional trend in the other dancers. What was unmistakably in evidence though was the brisk, taught precision of movements both in solo sequences and in twos and threes. The consistency of this was very powerful and culminated in the logical nihilism of Chris Pavia's solo playing itself out.

Here's the logic of the title then. The artifice of people's assumptions about others; the artifice of people assuming a role (explicit in the dressing up of scene 2). I also read the scene as being at a seafront funfair of some kind, with its slot machine, etiolated lighting and indeed the artifical need to 'have fun'. If the tension was reflected in the insistent piano-based score of Chris Benstead's first scene then the processed songs of Jim Pinchen's portmanteau collection in scene two was the smeared world of David Lynch (complete with lip-synching a la Club Silencio/Mulholland Drive).

Andy Higgs' score was perhaps the most interesting to me - I recognised his interest in textures, bitonality (i.e. the fun to be had with music of two gravitational centres overlapping) and his whimsy in following new musical interest as it suggests itself. A magpie's musical taste without the fetters of any one style.

The performance was given in Barnet's Artsdepot, a new venue to me - a proper barn of a space West of Finchley populated by young dancers warming down. The audience was of a demographic not dissimilar to that of performers, where my dry question about the aesthetic origin of the work was countered with a question about where one might buy the remote controlled Henry vacuum cleaner...

Monday, 23 February 2015

Claire Platt's How Did It Come To This, Pheasantry

Last night I went to see Claire Platt performing her fairly new cabaret show at The Pheasantry on the King's Road. How Did It Come To This is a funny, dry, sideways glance at Claire's life and career as a soprano and latterly a voice teacher. My scant experience of cabaret across London is that the nature of such shows are often dictated by the relative proportion of chat and songs. Well, Claire speaks with great confidence and entertaining self-awareness from the very top but it is the profusion of songs and her singing which really do the talking for her. There is no abject approach to using a clear vocal technique in a cabaret situation, no hiding behind adopted styles - or the mic, for that matter, which may be idiomatically appropriate for the gig but wouldn't be necessary for clarity. Unaffected Novello-crisp English is subverted for a patter song about being Northern and Claire is not afraid of slipping into belt where the song needs it. It's a genial evening that deals lightly with the shadow of hindsight that can weigh down similar self-sourced show material. It's also a very clean show - I would have welcomed more of the risqué material that's occasionally slipped in with an allusive sleight of hand.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in investigating cabaret should look for Claire's next date as this is a remarkably polished evening's entertainment. Claire was supported at the piano by Simona Budd.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Opening Gala, Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival

I returned to the annual Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival this year. It's a secret interest of mine. Interest? Narcotic. It's an art form I get, immediately and irresistibly but which I find terribly difficult to understand.

Flamenco appears to incorporate a kind of play acting, a melodramatic expression of the difficulties, pain and joy of life and love in both dance and song. What's compelling is that this expression seems entirely authentic. It's not like watching a character in a role, or the objective remove of a singer presenting an art song. Rather it seems that each performer is offering their own understanding and experience. Added to the raw, belligerent nature of the singing and dancing this can be direct and addictive.

Of course, having a rotation of performers on a stage telling us how difficult or sweet life can be would be unbearably self-indulgent were it not done through a performance tradition that even to the ingenue has a clear style. Indeed the wonderful thing about flamenco is that part of the performers' expression comes from what appears to be challenging their own bodies to execute shapes, manoeuvres or (musical) melisma in the moment.

This is what, for me, immediately links the art of bull-fighting. My experience of a bull fight in a provincial Spanish town is that the pride of the torero in his own bravery is of great importance. His view is fixed on the bull, of course, but never rises to the audience to assess their appreciation or invite acclaim. The torero wears tight trousers, not simply to accentuate his sexuality but rather to show when his legs are locked - that as a bull approaches he has chosen to stand his ground. His body has become object, even to him in this moment.

So it is in the flamenco dance where the rigid shape stamped at the end of furious footwork filigree shows that this defiance is the principal statement of expression. It does not release but contains the attitude that what goes before embellishes.

At Tuesday night's show, it was no surprise then that two of the solo performers fell forward a little at the end of their routines. Having come right to the front of the stage for their final flourish, the potential energy of their work spilled out in front of them (not unlike the conclusion of a Maori haka, perhaps). It's this distinction between the energy and intent of the dancing and the individual performing it that I'm trying to get at. The dancing and singing is offered with personal modesty by the performer.

We saw what must be a fairly traditional flamenco showcase. In addition, we heard something new - a genuine melodrama, with an older male member of the troupe speaking a story over a guitar. An ensemble of women dancing in traditional trained skirts was a notable highlight. For me the set ended with its most compelling performer, Karime Amaya (pictured above) who, in her performance, captured everything I've tried to write about.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Synths, Stimmung & Serendipity

I saw Andy Bell of Erasure in a shop in Limehouse earlier today. No more than 5 mins later I passed conductor & choral arranger Gregory Rose coming out if the DLR. Two significant musicians of the 1980s, yes.

More than that though: I read up a little about Erasure on the train & learnt that they have recently run a 'synth gurning' competition, which involves making synth-like sounds vocally.

This is, of course, the technical territory of Gregory Rose, famous for his Stimmung recording with Singcircle on Hyperion.

Rose is also known for his association with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer of experimental electronic music of the 1960s & 70s (this is the reason I know Gregory Rose from my work on Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht for Birmingham Opera, for which he was a chorus master). Stockhausen is arguably one of the fathers of electronic-synth music whch Erasure made so popular almost exactly 30 years ago. How interesting to encounter these associated pioneers of musical sound on a grey afternoon in E14.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Cross-discipline work in performing arts

Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Voices in Irina Brown's staging of ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges. Photo: Philharmonia

As singers we can find ourselves providing music for dancers. Many of us have recorded music as the soundtrack to the action of a film or even performed live during a play. However, short of the movement or dancing incorporated into an operatic production, the disciplines are often segregated.

This week I have been working (as part of an ensemble of singers, above) with a choreographer to work basic movement into a semi-staged operatic performance. The experience has been a good and artistically fruitful. However, I was interested to note my initial reluctance to embrace this part of the rehearsal process. There was a rather more fundamental rubicon than simply not wanting to pose or act out a role. After all, I am like many of my colleagues in having had a fair bit of operatic experience, an art form which is predicated on performers integrating dance, movement singing and acting.

Five minutes of head-scratching later (not a stage direction - I was thinking) and it occurred to me that the difference is the musician's reliance on the score, or the printed music. This is especially the case for the session musicians that make up the majority of London choral singers, where ability to process music from the standing start of reading off a printed sheet is valuable. So there's the issue of a prop, a distancing prosthetic (equivalent to the pseud-classical-singer microphone, but that may be another blogpost).

Moreover, there's the issue of being bound by the score. Not only are classical session singers used to interpreting sheet music quickly but we do it very accurately too, often to a fault, arguing over dynamics, the length of a rest for a breath and achieving a grumpy consensus over just how open foreign vowels should be. So in a rehearsal situation where the choreographer doesn't want to give a cut-and-dried answer to the question 'do we walk in time to the music?' there's spawning ground for mistrust, as if the individual giving direction doesn't understand how this performer works. Worse, it seems so second-nature to the singer that apparently equivocal answers suggest that an alternative-discipline director might not know what they're talking about.

In this week's rehearsal situation it quickly became apparent that the choreographer had a clear idea of what they wanted. It just didn't pertain principally to the score in front of us but rather to impulses in the narrative of the drama and the swell & texture of the music.

This may seem rather obvious. After all, the sheet music is simply the initial guide that will be rehearsed and shaped into the autonomous, nebulous artform that music is. Yet it's difficult under the (severe) constraints of time. It helps to have immediate reassurance that the person in charge understands the needs of the performer that they're rehearsing - in our case gaining the necessary familiarity and mastery of the notes on the page so that we can move on to reproducing the music without the copy.

Yet that understanding must cut both ways and that's the reason I'm spilling a thought here. An increasingly valuable facet of performing arts professionalism is exposure to the working methods of other performing disciplines.

I took part in a workshop for a new lyric-drama about two years ago and got very frustrated by the apparent lack of focus in an actor-led session. it was only later in the process that I recognised the establishing of character and impetus was structurally fundamental and that the score was a moveable feast. Even the conductor was required to suspend his indications in order to engage with the tourettish demands of ensemble character.

Similarly, for all the structural rigour of rhythm, dancing places high value on shapes and the fluidity of movement, a fact which occupies the working sense of the choreographer. At least this is what my limited but attentive observation of such a working practice identifies. This observation can be a useful discipline in itself to make the best use of time as well as to maintain professional trust between artists. I'd also argue that it's increasingly important where the 'triple threat' professionalism of music theatre is increasingly admired - and where opera is having to re-model itself anyway as the properly integrated artform it claims to be to survive the scrutiny of the modern audience.