Four to the Fore

BBC Four's Danceworks

This endlessly fascinating series Danceworks from BBC Four, produced by Sadler’s Wells and directed by Andy Dunn, is a welcome peek into the creative process of four disparate companies, developing and touring new pieces. It’s also an intimate window into residencies and the rehearsal spaces that are usually off-limits to audiences. The details are fascinating: a thrilled or bemused audience member’s face; costumes hanging up to dry which resemble shedded skins, flying footwork tapping on dusty floors, the concentration of a choreographer as his, her or their creations burst into vivid life. Each episode is very different, but provides new insight into the passions and hard graft of dancers, creators, venue staff, DJs and artistic directors of the dance companies. 

Firedance: Latin Fever

Working alongside X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing choreographer Nathan Clarke, Venezualan dancer Karen Hauer and her Spanish friend and colleague Gorka Márquez are no strangers to British fans of mainstream dance show Strictly Come Dancing. Indeed, Hauer is the longest-serving female professional dancer on the show, which began on BBC One in 2004. This candid episode reveals the less than glamorous behind the scenes warm-ups before their successful touring show, Firedance, hits the cities on a massive tour, with Gorka stuck on a train with two hours to go before a show and battling flu; studio improvisation, coffee as fuel, anxiety over tripping over props, and the stress induced by the five minute call. Created in collaboration with Clarke, Firedance was made in just two weeks, so the intensity of the work really comes across here.

The appeal of Latin dance is obvious to Hauer, grinning, “It’s sexy. It’s about losing inhibitions . . . Just let go.” “We wanted to bring something new—something of our culture,” adds Marquez, regarding bringing their choreographic fusions to fruition. Hauer and Marquez both seem incredibly driven individuals, who share similar tastes, if not backgrounds. Hauer was a quiet child raised by a single mom in New York, and at nine years old, she won a scholarship to Martha Graham Contemporary Dance School, while Marquez was bullied after he got into dance almost accidentally as a child in a city where football was considered more palatable for boys than contemporary dance. So he did both. Chemistry and a shared sense of humour is evident both on and off stage between the duo, and the sense of bringing expressive storytelling to the stage show. “Less glitter than Strictly,” smiles Marquez, who is more at home with showing off his (admittedly impressive) torso than working with those pesky ribbons. The result emerges like a slick cocktail of contemporary, tap, paso doble and flamenco, with a chaser of pop video flourishes.

Sharon Eyal: A Basic Instinct

Choreographer and co-artistic director of L-E-V, Sharon Eyal has a reputation as something of an enigma, as inscrutable and complex as the work she makes, alongside co-artistic director Gai Behar. So, the duality of L-E-V’s work is made manifest in the locations filmed here- either a plush rehearsal studio space in Tel Aviv, or a brutalist car park in South London, where the company are in residency. As Eyal explains with a wry smile, “I like to go to the extremity. It interests me most . . . . You can suffer, but enjoy it! If I can connect to something, that’s working for me . . . It’s the primitive, and the basic.” And, far from being difficult or opaque, she comes across as warm, witty and fully engaged with everyone she works with. She may dress in sombre Gothic black, with smudged lipstick and kohl around her eyes, but she is a smiling and thoughtful, often laughing presence, as evinced by some of the witty, leftfield turns in the work: someone screaming into a blissful face, hands scrunched into dinosaur shapes, a soloist’s childish tantrum to a lounge cover version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Eyal and Behar are never to be second-guessed in where their pieces will go.

Influences of club culture (she first met Behar in a techno club before forming the company together) are threaded throughout her work, and her sensual routine morphs into an almost Ballardian, wild freestyle rave, bodystockinged dancers nose to nose with the audience in the car park, as DJ Koreless plays fragmented beats.Eyal has always been naturally inquisitive and rebellious, drawn to pushing against the limitations of dance, with the clips of some of her work as a dancer with Martha Graham’s Batsheva company (she worked with them for twenty five years) showing a woman who has never been afraid to express herself and take risks, hurling her body violently around in restrictive corsets, and pushing her frame into contorted forms. So, too, with L-E-V, who bring a fierce, improv energy and collaborative spirit to everything they create.

Ballet Black: The Waiting Game

There’s a wonderful close-up in this episode on black and brown pointe shoes worn by Ballet Black’s dancers performing alongside rapper Stormzy at Glastonbury. Cassa Pancho (whose father is from the Caribbean) the artistic director of Ballet Black is musing on how it was the company initially came to be. When she was performing as a child at amateur dance classes, she says with a shake of her head, “Race wasn’t an issue. And when I got to professional (dance) school, there were no teaching staff or students of colour . . . . People thought I was Spanish or Italian, and I would hear a lot of comments about why black people couldn’t do ballet, their bodies were the wrong type, or their hair was too big. And I would go home to my dual heritage family and think, ‘That’s really wrong’.” She sighs in disbelief. So to redress this issue, she formed Ballet Black in 2001. She also runs Junior School for really young kids. This film isn’t just about Pancho, then, but also the strides the company have made, not just in terms of representation of artists of colour, but also in nurturing new talent. It is also a portrait of young South African choreographer Mthuthuzeli November (affectionately nicknamed Mthuthu) the Senior Artist, whose new piece “The Waiting Game,” based on Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting For Godot blends his African dance roots with theatrical narrative, hip-hop, mimesis and vaudeville. The rehearsals are filled with laughter as well as precise movements, as gender is flipped, props are interfered with, and merry anarchy reigns. November is a quietly-spoken, humble young man who likes to play with sound design, as well as fuse genres. He speaks movingly of escaping the poverty and violence of Cape Town through finding freedom in dance. The clips of him as a young boy are extraordinary, his talent arrived fully-formed. And music too, was his salvation. “In almost every piece of music,” he says, “there are always these invisible beats . . . I am interested in how the body can take those invisible beats, make them come out.” A people watcher, he draws out the humanity within his work, rejecting artifice and moving beyond the classical form. His rehearsals are frenetic, complex and graceful, with particular emphasis on philosophy.

“There’s so many stories we can tell,” enthuses November. “There’s so many more black stories we can tell.”

María Pagés: An Ode To Flamenco

If November is just emerging, María Pagés is a true veteran of flamenco, with a career of forty years under her percussive shoes. In this poignant film, lit in glorious golden Spanish sunlight, the outspoken choreographer and dancer is still a force of nature, as wilful and passionate as the genre itself. “There is a lot of ignorance as to what flamenco is, and the only way people can see it is through translations . . . . Creation is a big part of this art,” she says simply. “I breathe flamenco, it is everywhere.” She is the consummate perfectionist, and talks of long days as a dance student spent working at the art form, from ten in the morning to nine p.m., often forgetting to eat because of her strong work ethic. Tracing her journey with footage old but mostly new, Pagés and her husband and co-artistic director/dramaturg El Arbi El Harti are filmed in their office and studio space, putting young dancers from their Compania through their frenzied paces in the development of a new piece, “An Ode To Time.” In her characteristically idiosyncratic style, Pagés had noticed that Hitler’s speeches had a musicality to them, and were ‘pure flamenco.’ So, using feet for the musical side and canes for percussion, with hips and hands for the finer details, Pagés set about creating the piece with these rhythms as a jumping-off point, a political meditation on citizens, power and notions of democracy. What is so wonderful about this particular episode is that Pagés takes the viewer almost on a kind of road trip, as she is followed through Madrid’s side streets, where she performs a fiery solo, and then back to Seville where she was born. The nerves are evident backstage, and Pagés seems less than impressed with how rehearsals have been going, catching herself and adding, “. . . BUT, that often means the SHOW itself will be FINE.” She sees herself still as the perennial outsider, due to Spain’s regional divides, Seville’s conservatism, and her less than traditional approach to making flamenco, with a focus on the shadow side of human nature. Her worries seem wholly unfounded though, and she emerges from the performance with a smile like the sun itself coming out. Muy hecho!

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Michelle Manzanales
With Open Arms