Army of Me by Joanna Young
Wonders of the Universe by Karol Cysewski
Borough Theatre, Abergavenny, 18th September
Witness – Portraits of Women Who Dance by Jo Fong
Sherman Cymru, 26th September and touring
Serendipity brought me the chance to see and hear dancers performing and talking about their work in two different contexts in the space of one week. At Abergavenny’s Borough Theatre Joanna Young presented a new piece created with and for performer Kirsty Arnold. Kirsty was one of the dancers in Recreating PenGwyn so was already immersed in Joanna Young’s choreographic language, and the familiarity which they had shared over a longer period of time clearly enabled them to work together more deeply. Army of Me is ‘a portrait of many selves, presented as distorted echoes in a world made of small pieces’. It was made using the visual stimulus of the enigmatic paintings of artist Amy Cutler, who often portrays groups of women in a fairytale world. The performer moves through her own world, but she is more than herself; her brilliantly-projected shadows move with her like Daddy, Mummy and Baby Bear and we hear her footsteps from times before as well as now, sometimes crunching over gravel, or perhaps it was snow in the woods. What is reality? What matters most? What endures? These were some of the questions the piece made me ponder.
A discussion after the performance hosted by Sally Carlson of Monmouthshire dance development organisation Dance Blast (where Joanna Young is Associate Artist) threw light on the gestation process for the piece. Jo and Kirsty used Amy Cutler’s paintings as a starting point for improvision and automatic writing. Filipe Sousa’s soundscape included extracts of recordings made by Brychan Tudor of Kirsty dancing. The result is a rich layering. Kirsty said that Jo had choreographed the pathway of her personal journey. Obviously her journey continues and hence the work will change. Jo said that she would like to recreate the work every year for the rest of Kirsty’s life. Who knows?! Recreating PenGywn was the development of a work originally made for solo performance, so it will be fascinating to see the development of Army of Me in any later iterations, for one performer or several.
Karol Cysewski’s Wonders of the Universe is an interpretation of Brian Cox’s documentary of the same name. Using wonderfully varied choreographic language and a lot of humour, it shows stars being born, prehistoric creatures emerging from the sea and a kaleidoscope of facial expressions from the three performers. I saw some gestural links with Kirsty Arnold’s work, but this piece is very different, more aligned to the terrain of stand-up comedy. Indeed, the performers said that the reactions of any given audience affect their performance.
Jo Fong is Associate Artist with Coreo Cymru, creative dance producer for Wales. Her latest work, a documentary/installation film entitled Witness – Portraits of Women Who Dance, is currently touring. One by one, dancers Ino Riga, Eeva-Maria Mutka and Annabeth Berkley are seen on three screens simultaneously, dancing and talking about their dance practice. The triptych format enables us as audience to literally see what each dancer is talking about in a wider context. As in Army of Me, I was sometimes looking at Kirsty Arnold, other times at her shadows, so the way Jo Fong has choreographed and directed this piece gave the opportunity for viewers to see it in their own way, for each of us to be a collaborator, (almost) as if in a live performance.
Jo Fong says of this work that she is concerned with honesty in performance, and the unforgiving eye of the camera would surely allow for no concealment. So the three not only speak of how they feel about their dance, their bodies, their being on view, but also cement this through the way they move on film. After all three have been seen separately, we see them dancing side by side, one to a screen, with the music of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. They do not dance to music, as you might conventionally expect. Indeed, as Ino Riga says with a wry smile ‘It’s not like we put the music on and dance.’ Instead, I think, the music provides a shining frame for the movement, something beautiful in itself which sets off that which is seen at the same time.
While the three dancers have radically different backgrounds and ranges of experience there were interesting parallels between what they each had to say, and also with what Joanna Young and Kirsty Arnold said about their development of Army of Me. All start the process from where they are as people, as women. None of them want to be labelled or limited. All are concerned to leave space – space to be, space for development. Finnish dancer Eeva-Maria Mutka trained in Japanese Butoh Dance – literally, earth dance – with Tetsuro Fukuhara’s company. She has taken this into connection with the earth of her native country, and talks about connecting to a flow. Fluidity is, for all these dancers, far more than the grace of their movement. It is something that comes from within, from a sense of where they are in their lives and their emotions.
Not that everything is comfortable. Annabeth Berkley speaks frankly in Witness of her uncertainties and insecurities, of constantly questioning whether she is good enough. This too is part of honesty imparting power to dance. As I came out of the theatre after the showing of Witness another member of the audience was writing the word ‘mesmerising’ in Jo Fong’s comments book. There was certainly something fascinating and compelling about the intimacy of this film.
One common element of these three dance pieces is the strong technical support of John Collingsworth, a freelance artist working with performers across Wales. His lighting in Army of Me is particularly stunning, and his technical work for all three a crucial part of their ability to connect clearly with the audience.