OF OIL AND WATER
Choreographed by Siobhan Davies
Designed by David Buckland
Musicians: Melanie Pappenheim (voice), Rob Townsend (saxophones)
Siobhan (Sue) Davies’s last piece for the theatre, before she embarked on an extraordinary experimental phase, making work for all kinds of spaces.
The starting point for the music was the voice of the 112-year-old Dora Ramotibe, a black South African woman. She is talking about the appalling treatment of black people in South Africa in the early part of the 20th century; but her voice, dry as a bone, has a beautiful lilt. Her speech is almost song.
Sue goes into a (long) rehearsal period with not much more than the seed of an idea. The important thing here is her relationship with the dancers - much more important than the music. The dancers create their own moves in response to provocations and tasks. The moves themselves are essentially improvisational, but are then put through a rigorous process of editing, refinement and synthesis by Sue in consultation with the dancers themselves.
Where does this leave the music? For later. It grows in response to what’s going on in the rehearsal studio. The relationship between the music and the dance in Sue’s work is very slippery, very intangible, they’re like two feisty nurses on a hospital ward. And what kind of music is required here? There’s an astonishing and beautiful purity in the dance, so I’m a dangerous choice of composer, with my love of jazz and world music. It’s interesting challenge to set a lot of these influences aside, a challenge I basically failed to meet. In principle a fluctuating, elastic, supple kind of music is good, though rhythmic sections work surprisingly well, exhilarating! – or do they? Do they trivialise the dance by setting it within a grid?
In Sue’s company, there is no hierarchy. Or rather, there is one element of hierarchy – Sue herself, ultimately responsible. But the dancers are utterly involved, inside the choreography, rather than simply interpreting it. They are at the same time individuals and contributors to the greater whole. In Sue’s company everyone is a star; so no one is a star. I was profoundly impressed by this way of working (and by Second Stride’s), and tried to use it as a model for The Shout.
THE TREE OF LIGHT
Choreographed by Charlie Morrissey
Designed by Block9
with a huge troupe of dancers, a large chorus and a small band
Conducted by Jeremy Avis
A wildly ambitious outdoor piece about trees, involving a thousand amateur dancers, a community choir and a gloriously eccentric band - steel drums, saxophones, alphorn, bass guitar, percussion - in front of a huge industrial tree designed by Block9. (They now deploy this extraordinary construction at festivals.)
Outdoor choreography is tricky. The scale seems wrong. The bodies often seem lost in space. There’s too much visual noise. (Exceptions: Shobana Jeyasingh’s Counterpoint at Somerset House, Protein Dance’s (In)visible Dancing.)
Choreographing for amateur dancers is even more tricky. They tend to look exposed technically and in terms of ensemble. When you listen to a choir you don’t hear the individual voices, so an amateur choir of less-than-wonderful singers can sound wonderful; but when you watch a group of amateur dancers you can see the individual bodies – and you may not want to.
Charlie’s choreography for The Tree of Light was brilliantly conceived as crowd movement – very simple steps, and often not needing to be in perfect synchrony. Our inspiration was the Balinese Kecak (Monkey Chant). A large cadre of men follow the singing and movements of a leader. The singing is rhythmically very tight. The movements, on the other hand, are quite approximate. They come like waves. And they look amazing.
My original idea was that the band should be a wooden orchestra – woodwind, pitched percussion (xylophones, marimbas etc.), unpitched percussion (claves, cajon etc.). I regret not having made this happen. But we did include an alphorn, played by the excellent Frances Jones – lovely.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN
The first, and only, time I have been to Munich, it was for one day only. My friend John and I had written the music for a rather iffy art-vampire film The Wisdom of Crocodiles, starring Jude Law. Ahead of its time. We had finished, or, let’s be honest, not quite finished the music at 5am, taken an exhilarating ride through early morning South London with an up-for-it taxi driver, and narrowly caught the plane at Heathrow. We arrived slightly delirious in Munich, took a taxi to the recording studio, conducted the orchestra while feverishly completing the parts, and flopped down, knackered, at 6pm in the bar. At this point in walked thirty people in Bavarian national dress carrying accordions. Heaven or hell, depending on your feelings about the accordion. It was a Bavarian holiday. They played cheesy Bavarian tunes, but I loved every one of them, a reflection more of my strange state of mind than the quality of the music. Quite an introduction to Bavaria.
This time I’m here for longer, making a piece with the wonderful dancer-choreographers Charlie Morrissey and Andrea Buckley. The commission is odd, niche. As part of a Sergei Prokofiev (or Sergej Prokofjew as he’s spelt around here, splendidly) festival organised by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, we have been asked to make a piece in response to a forgotten ballet from 1924, Trapèze. The choreographer Boris Romanov created it out of an even more forgotten ballet, What Happened to the Ballerina, the Chinamen and the Tumblers, which had had music by the subversive but second-rate composer Vladimir Rebikov. Romanov hoped that superior music would make a superior piece, presumably, and commissioned Prokofiev, who was apparently very pleased to get the commission. Romanov gave Prokofiev a scenario:
1. Ballerina (Theme and variations)
2. Dance of the boors (with the ballerina, 5th variation). It ends with the group (they hug).
3. The tumblers leap out (their intensity frightens the Chinamen). They hug the ballerina.
4. Challenge to a duel (choreographic roll-call). Fight with a fire-cracker. They spin. Explosion.
5. They mourn the dead ballerina.
Wacky stuff. What are the Chinamen doing? They seem to be there only to be frightened. Who fights the duel? Why is it a choreographic roll-call? Artists of this period seem to have been obsessed with the circus. Something, I imagine, to do with the fact that a circus is entertaining but feral, outsider, dangerous. It must have provided a framework for satire and provocation.
Prokofiev went away and wrote the music, carefully following the scenario, for the odd but frisky combination of oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass. At the same time, in parallel, he was constructing a concert piece, the Quintet in G minor, from the same material. Cynicism, or practicality? When Romanov wanted changes, Prokofiev indignantly refused, or carried them out with extreme ill-grace. To a request for a cut in the first movement, he wrote to Romanov: ‘‘Make yourself at home with my innards,’ said a patient to his surgeon, when he was lying on the operating table. I feel like saying the same thing about your blood-thirsty intention.’ After seeing a rehearsal, he wrote furiously: ‘The more I think of the way you staged the overture, the clearer it becomes to me that it is not right….In the summer, you explained your plan to me in great detail. I composed the music strictly sticking to it, but now you have completely changed the whole scene.’ Reluctantly he wrote two extra movements, in a different, less chromatic style. He left them out of the Quintet but included them in a later Divertimento. Not a man to waste an idea. He didn’t attend any of the performances. The ballet, like its predecessor, failed, but the concert piece, delightful, playful, virtuosic, has been a success.
Our piece is about attempting to create something with not enough information, like constructing an Ikea flatpack which has lost its instructions. There is scarcely any documentation about Trapéze, just the scenario and the few notes between Romanov and Prokofiev. Of course we have the score of the concert piece, but I’ve decided to go back to Prokofiev’s very first sketches and to try to make something that begins almost as a skeletal version of his piece but develops in a completely different way. The music, for the same group of instruments, starts extremely tentatively, with lots of awkward silences, as if the musicians were hobbled by the inadequacy of the material. It slowly becomes more confident, but at any stage has a tendency to fall apart. Very like an Ikea flatpack. Charlie and Andrea will follow the same path, attempting to create choreography out of fragments. Our piece is like a prequel to Trapèze.
MAY CONTAIN FOOD
Choreographed by Luca Silvestrini
Designed by Yann Seabra
The performers are four dancers and four singers. The dancers dance and sing, and the singers sing and dance. The audience sits at large round tables, watches, listens and eats.
A dance piece about food? Is that really a good idea? Well, what we’re interested in here are the social and political implications of food. Where does our food come from? Why do we have such a fractious and neurotic relationship with it? How is it used as a weapon in family life?
The first, the act of eating itself. What is the level of our awareness of the food we eat? In a sequence which is at the same time deeply serious and deeply ludicrous, one of the dancers, Carl, invites each member of the audience to pick up a cherry tomato, inspect it, listen to it, kiss it, compare it to his/her eyeball, and finally eat it, being mindful of the explosion of taste on biting it, and being careful to chew it at least twenty times (not so easy to do). The first time I took part in this exercise I started by giggling knowingly and ended by being astonished at the complexity of the experience of eating a mediocre cherry tomato.
The second, the dangerous intimacy of feeding someone else, sometimes tender, sometimes violent. The parent feeding the baby – a beautiful connection, but always with the possibility of becoming a battleground – the baby is reluctant, the parent becomes frustrated, the baby learns to wield the glorious power of refusal. Later in life, the lover feeding the lover, and the erotic possibilities of that. And much later, in contrast, the carer feeding the old person, a degrading return to childhood. Who is in charge? The person who feeds, or the person who is fed? The hunger strike is the last refuge of the powerless, being force-fed the greatest possible humiliation. At the climax of our piece is a chaotic scene in which all these scenarios are happening simultaneously.
The third, the sacramental aspect of food: the beautiful ritual of eating together, and the curious customs associated with it. (Luca spent a period of his life as a silver service waiter, with all its splendid, fatuous formality.) As well as the grace, we stage a funeral for a red pepper – the piece is predictably preoccupied with vegetarianism – we visit a family table over fifty years, and we look at a restaurant in the process of immaculate service, and later, in chaos.
In May Contain Food there is no band. Every sound we hear – speech, singing, whispering, shouting, laughter, animal sounds (including, I’m proud to say, a cow chorale) – comes from the performers. This is a realisation of a long-held ambition of mine to make a dance piece with no band. And seems to make perfect sense in the context of a piece about another bodily function – eating.
Let us thank our mother
For cooking the food we see at our table,
For pan-frying the meat, and boiling the veg,
And preparing a creamy potato gratin.
It is right that we give her thanks and praise.
Let us thank our father
For taking the Citroen Picasso down to Aldi
And buying the weekly shop.
It is right that we give him thanks and praise.
Let us open our hearts in thanks
To the staff of all the major supermarket chains
For it is they who sold us the bounty we see at our table
At a variety of discount prices.
It is right that we give them thanks and praise.
Let us give thanks to the articulated lorry driver,
He or she (but probably he),
Who drove our food down the M1, the M4,
And sometimes the A303.
It is right that we give him (or her) thanks and praise.
Let us thank the farmer
Who tilled the earth with calloused hands
(Or the appropriate machines)
To provide us with Nature’s bounty.
It is right that we give him (or her) thanks and praise.
Let us give thanks for the EU subsidies….
Nature! Don’t forget Nature!
Oh yes, let us give thanks to the plants, the seeds and the compost,
To the soil, the air and the ozone layer,
That precious membrane that protects our planet
From harmful levels of solar radiation.
Let us give thanks to the Sun, to the Solar System, and to the Milky Way.
Let us give thanks to matter, and anti-matter, and the Higgs Boson,
And give special thanks to the Big Bang……