Reckonings at Sadler’s Wells
Dance editor Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou reflects on the brave and bold new choreography from Alesandra Seutin, Botis Seva and Julie Cunningham in Sadler’s Wells’ triple bill, Reckonings.
‘I believe that everyone has the power to live in the movement, express themselves boldly, without fear of going wrong…’ says dancer and choreographer Alesandra Seutin when introducing her company, Vocab Dance. Over a recording of dancers rhythmically swaying and undulating, Seutin asserts: ‘I stand in my truth, I am powerful, connected…rooted.’ This claim for dance, for its freeing empowering expressivity, easily extends to her new piece, ‘Boy Breaking Glass’, which was commissioned to mark Sadler’s Wells’ twentieth anniversary. In this work, we certainly see Seutin’s dancers living ‘in’ and through movement, as they fulsomely glide and groove across the stage, emboldened with each and every step. But her words are also true of the other two works included in the celebratory triple bill, aptly entitled Reckonings. If Julie Cunningham’s opener ‘m/y’ demonstrates a fearless commitment to finding a new, inclusive and fluid language of dance, then Botis Seva’s equally innovative ‘BLKDOG’ captures something of the connectivity and kinetic realness that Seutin esteems. These three works, ‘rooted’ (to use Seutin’s phrase) in literary texts and ongoing lived experiences, were powerful to behold and expressed infinitely more than the books they departed from.
In some respects, the artistic and literary inspiration behind Julie Cunningham’s piece is still patently present. Departing from The Lesbian Body (1973), a daringly experimental novel by French radical feminist Monique Wittig, Cunningham subtly and masterfully brings to life descriptions, voices and images from the text, only to make them their own. Wittig wanted to untether the female voice and body from patriarchal structures, especially those found in linguistic codification. She wanted the ‘he’ in ‘she’ to be cancelled out; she wanted to free the feminine from the masculine in French writing, so as to cut out gendered expectations altogether. This is most noticeable in her anarchic splicing of pronouns, which punctuate the novel: the first-person pronoun ‘Je’ becomes ‘J/e’, whilst the possessive pronoun ‘ma’ or ‘mon’, becomes ‘m/a’ and ‘m/on’. For Wittig, it was only in writing, citing and reciting one’s own female body in this way that could ‘affirm its reality’. Thus Cunningham has kept Wittig’s challenge to language by titling their piece ‘m/y’. In doing so, they (that is, Cunningham, who in a spirit akin to Wittig’s prefers plural pronouns) focus on female physicality and focalise the piece through the female gaze.
And this splicing of pronouns doesn’t end with Cunningham’s choice of title. Duets from the visibly all-female dance corps emerge and then merge again. Dancers pair-up, then peel off the body of their counterpart. Bodies are at once one – ‘my’ – and dualistically another’s – ‘m/y’ – when present on stage. A kind of myopic mitosis is at play when one dancer’s limbs, feet, hands and fingers at once mirror, then move away from her partner’s. Wittig’s language is now excitingly brought to life, unsettling and resettling the physical fabric from which it sprung.
Such subtle pairings of bodies – the physicalized re-pairing of words – reflect Cunningham’s own dance history. A vocabulary at once distinct from and inflected with the technique of Merce Cunningham (whose company they were once part of), Julie Cunningham’s choreography is intensely still, meticulously shifting, softly sharp and august in its simplicity. ‘m/y’ is silently subversive; it presents a new form of motional grammar that is both exact and amorphous. Absorbing to watch, the duets eventually come together in a fleet-like formation, where six individual dancers release as one. All this takes place under an Anais Nin-like moon and some blue, Louise Bourgeois-esque soft sculptural hangings from above. Perhaps this scenery looks back to the location of Wittig’s novel, the Sapphic space of a Greek island. Or, maybe Cunningham is citing another kind of female and / or queer physicality: that found in French feminist art, as well as literature.
Botis Seva’s ‘BLKDOG’ – one of the most energetically brilliant and brilliantly energetic pieces of the night – similarly has its own physical language. Inspired by Sally Brampton’s memoir, Shoot the Damn Dog (1998), ‘BLKDOG’ explores the isolation and devastation of depression, and its links to disaffected and disenfranchised young people. Beyond this, the title – which, like Brampton’s book, riffs off Churchill’s famous phrase for his own mental ill-health, the ‘black dog’ – looks to the specific experience of anxiety, doubt and depression faced by young black men and women growing-up in a systemically racist world. In ‘BLKDOG’, Seva’s profound ‘physical language’ speaks in three tongues: it explores the pain of depression, it exposes the connections between racism, mental health and socio-political oppression, and it debunks the myths surrounding young people who experience all three.
Seva’s physicalized language comes to Sadler’s Wells after years of training, not least a mentorship under Hofesh Shechter. But it was also conceived after past experiences of racial abuse. As a teen, Seva and his sister encountered racism in school. Instead of responding with his fists, he fought back with dance. It was this ‘physical language’ that afforded him a means with which to process abuse and counteract it. Through dance, Seva transformed trauma and frustration into creative and choreographic excellence. And it is this that stirs the thumping and passionate heart of ‘BLKDOG’. It is the extreme creativity of young people, especially those on the margins of society, that ‘BLKDOG’ so potently spells out to the audience.
Featuring several phenomenally gifted dancers from his own company, Far From the Norm, ‘BLKDOG’ represents the hopes, as much as the fears, felt by young people. Seva’s dancers show that it is creativity itself, especially the creativity of dance, that offers a way forward for those who are battling depression, doubt and disenfranchisement. ‘BLKDOG’ opens to a bleak and near-suffocating stage space, with a lowered ceiling and muffled, hooded figures curled up on the floor. These are the youth of today, so often villainized and misunderstood by the media, vulnerable but inert, shrouded in the dark smog of their disillusion. But one by one they awake, shuddering and jerking on the floor, until all six figures are crawling along, like mechanical spiders. And if this description sounds surreal or rather Kafka-esque, that’s because these dancers navigate space and time in a mesmerizingly metamorphic mode. Crouched low, but still upright, wrapped in greyish fleeces, hoodies, track-suits and trooper hats, all six dancers move, insect-like but perfectly synchronised. Gradually breaking from their cluster, the dancers strike out with a kind of controlled and channelled aggression, appearing as lone figures, then one amongst a gang. And it is this boundless energy bounded into krump, hip hop and contemporary movement, that conveys the incredible creativity of the characters they portray. Such energy couldn’t fail to surge through the audience, with several members calling out with enthusiasm (and an electric standing ovation at the end).
A kind of orchestrated chaos, an arranged deliberate freneticism, defines the opening and middle of the piece. Figures group together and get high off one another, their pent-up energy ricocheting from body to body. Yet towards the end, the piece takes a sombre turn. Standing together, the dancers form tableaux of familiar scenes. One figure lies prostrate, perhaps shot, with mourners gathered around. Another figure grieves excessively over a corpse-like form. But these are no clichéd portraits of domestic or urban tragedy. Rather, Seva animates such scenes to maximum effect. A single dancer (Victoria Shulungu) steps out, locking and interlocking her arms, shoulders and legs, magically coming to life. She resembles the mourners, she resembles the dead, she resembles bystanders, she resembles the attacker, but she is alive and separate. Like us, she is outside and within the scene. Closing with this notion, composer Torben Lars Sylvest’s brooding, heavy and sinister score gives way to a voice reassuring us that ‘he’s ok’, ‘she’s ok’, ‘you’re ok’. Even in the grip of depression, in the gloom of loneliness and the shock of loss, hope survives, hope is uttered, hope lives on. This is dance that ‘stands in truth’; dance that is ‘powerful, connected and rooted’, as Seutin would say, in the issues and feelings of our times. Visceral, breathtakingly moving and movingly impressive, ‘BLKDOG’ ushers in a whole new necessary genre and era of dance.
Alesandra Seutin’s ‘Boy Breaking Glass’, is equally important and urgent in its message for change. Seutin’s piece takes its inspiration primarily from the twentieth-century American poet Gwendolyn Brooks and her 1987 poem of the same title. Delving deep into literature and music, Seutin’s work cannot be anchored in one poetic vision alone. Formed and informed by different literary works (by the likes of Ralph Ellison), critical voices (such as Reni Eddo-Lodge), musical elements (from the African diaspora) and dance styles (Senegalese and Southern African to name a few), ‘Boy Breaking Glass’ is a veritable fusion and celebration of African, African American and Black British culture. Such strands are worth noting in length, since they set the tone and spirit of the piece. They also prepare the stage for what Seutin admirably sets out to reclaim as a ‘utopic space for brown bodies’. And she, along with her dancers and musicians, succeeds beautifully in doing this. But, more than the words of Ellison and Lodge, it is Brooks’ poem that shapes the action, and it is the titular boy that is embodied both by the dancers and the lead vocalist, Randolph Matthews.
It is Matthews and the chorale-like dancers around him that articulate the boy’s reported cry of ‘“I shall create! If not a note, a hole. / If not an overture, a desecration.”’ Matthews’ voice is exquisite and smooth and haunting enough to recreate that ‘hole’, or rather the boy’s rebelling and rallying call to be noticed, counted and heard. But juxtaposed with Seutin’s stunning dancers, who ripple and release exquisitely refined and, at times, achingly raw, emotion, Matthews’ voice scales new heights of pleasure and pain. Together, the weaving bodies and wakening voice tell a story rooted in past and present woes, but one that continually cherishes and aspires to new-found joys.
Traversing the edge of the stage, Matthews begins in a blue shirt and yellow pants, his semi-nakedness a sign of difference, vulnerability and exposure. Often he sings out to the audience downstage, with the dancers gathered behind. At other times he moves amongst the dancers, mingling body and voice with performers like Nandi Bhebhe. In the centre of the piece, a human chain is formed, one where bodies connect and collectively hold each other, lifting up their experiences with care and pride. Matthews becomes enmeshed in this chain. Here, in the compassionating embrace and touch of the corps, Brooks’ boy finds healing, inclusion, acknowledgement. It is a powerful, deeply moving and transformative sight to behold.
High exuberance and lyricism, as well as embodied memories of pain, characterise Seutin’s piece. Her expert use of Senegalese and southern African movement expresses the richness and sheer joy of being alive. Opening the upper frame, a wealth of choreographic and emotional possibility is on show. Her dancers flex, bend, and lift up their shoulders and arms, expansive and sending waves of pure colour, warmth and life across the stage and auditorium. Seutin’s dancers and musicians certainly capture what it means to ‘stand’ in their ‘truth’: together, these performers – an all-black group of artists – break ceilings, walls and windows like Brooks’ boy breaking glass. There on the Sadler’s Wells stage, Seutin’s dancers, much like Cunningham’s and Seva’s, ‘stand powerful, connected and rooted’, with ‘no fear of going wrong’, glowingly and wonderfully alive ‘in the movement’.
Reckonings was performed at Sadler’s Wells from 11-13 October 2018. For more information on any of the choreographers, click the links above or their names here: Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva and Alesandra Seutin.